If a Francophile appreciates all things French, then someone who loves Spain and all things Spanish must be a Spancophile. I must admit that if there is such a thing as a Spancophile, then I might qualify. In 1984, I studied for a semester in the southern Spanish province of Andalusia, and became forever entranced by the history, culture, people, and laid-back vibe of Spain.
To me, Spain is the California of Europe, and no other place in California feels more Spanish than San Diego. From its early history and place names to its popular architectural styles and Mediterranean climate, visiting San Diego is like going back to Spain. Here in San Diego, we may not need to speak Spanish or eat dinner at 10 o’clock at night, but it is an ideal place to appreciate the influence of Spain in California’s early history.
When he dropped the anchor of his Spanish galleon behind Ballast Point in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to pay a visit to California. Sixty years later, the Basque merchant Sebastian Vizcaino returned to Ballast Point and christened the area San Diego. To pay tribute to the historic landing spot of Ballast Point, we visited the Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma. From the Visitor’s Center we could see the small finger of land extending into San Diego Bay, and tried to imagine Cabrillo and his men stretching their weary sea legs on the rocky ground.
After Cabrillo first landed here, Spain waited another 227 years to finally establish a settlement in San Diego. On a hilltop in 1769, Gaspar de Portola of Catalonia founded a Presidio, and Father Junipero Serra from the island of Mallorca established the first of 21 Franciscan missions in California. From Old Town San Diego, we hiked up the hill to Presidio Park and the original mission site, which is now the Junipero Serra Museum. As we passed historical markers and foundational remains, it dawned on us that we were tramping on the birthplace of California.
Even though he never set foot in San Diego, another Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa from the province of Extremadura was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean, and is the namesake of the city’s Balboa Park. Designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style, Balboa Park is the part of San Diego most reminiscent of Spain.
On our regular walks through the park’s arcades, patios, and courtyards, we admired the characteristic ornate stucco building exteriors and their ornamental iron work and terracotta roof tiles. Crossing the park’s Cabrillo Bridge reminded me of passing over the Tagus River into the imperial city of Toledo, Spain. Inside the California Quadrangle, I could swear we were standing beside the Giralda Tower of Sevilla or the Cathedral of Cordoba.
Probably our favorite place in the park is the Alcazar Garden, which was inspired by the formal gardens of a 13th century Spanish castle fortress. As if we were taking it easy in Andalusia, we lazed beside manicured hedges, colorful flower beds, and Moorish-styled fountains decorated with painted azulejo tiles. Here, it is not difficult to imagine ourselves relaxing on the verdant grounds of the famous Alhambra of Granada.
As we travel throughout San Diego, we frequently forget that we are not in southern Spain. Even in the touristy Gaslamp District, we discovered a Spanish restaurant named “Café Sevilla”. Decorated in Spanish flags and bullfight posters, we went in and shared a pan of seafood paella, a variety of tapas, and a bottle of Spanish wine. For all we know, we could have been dining in Barrio Triana or somewhere along Calle Sierpes in Sevilla itself.
To the staccato beat of Spanish music, we left Café Sevilla, and returned to the streets of the most Spanish city in California. Because of the pervasive and profound Spanish influence here, it seems like our trip to the birthplace of California has been like a journey back to Old World Spain. Francophiles may have France, but we Spancophiles have all things Spain, as well as Spanish San Diego.