Friday, January 1, 2016

I must have been in "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"

Last year, my family and I went on a road trip along Highway 1, the scenic route, to visit Hearst Castle in California's Central Coast. However, we weren't able to reach the castle last year. And so we tried again this year... and we succeeded this time.

I'd say that this was my first-hand experience at seeing what the life of the upper class back in the early 20th century really was like. It's as if I've been brought to the location of the 80's television show, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" but with Robin Leach hiding somewhere. I say this because the gardens leading towards the castle is a sight in itself and the castle is as grand as the tourist guidebooks said it is.

Back in the day, the Hearst Castle was where people wanted to go to see and to be seen. If the Great Gatsby were real, he'd be William Randolph Hearst. His art collection is not limited to an art gallery in one of the rooms. The whole castle is one giant art museum! He had an indoor swimming pool with gold plating all over and designed as his take on Roman baths! Then there's an outdoor swimming pool called the Neptune Pool. It's lined with beautiful tiles and is surrounded by buildings that remind me of the Parthenon... which I have never seen in real life yet. These buildings, grand as they are, must be where the shower stalls are. Yeah, they must be shower rooms there... Nevertheless, this was one feature that made me go "Wow!" even when the pool didn't have water in it. After all, California is in drought mode so even this castle (which is now a California Historical Landmark) is doing its share to save up on water.

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Peppered in the garden and near the pool area are statues of ancient Roman (or Greek) characters. They must represent the cast of characters in Roman and/or Greek mythology. And I'm basing that assumption on the presence of the Roman bath-esque indoor pool and the Neptune pool. Plus because there's a statue of two characters with their backs against each other. This statue reminded me of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings. It was apt for me to be in Hearst Castle at this time of the year, I thought, since 2015 was closing while 2016 was to start in a few days. Then there were the sarcophagi, also apparently of Roman origin. I've never been fascinated by coffins, which is why I don't understand why Hearst collected these... unless he initially intended to use them as flower pots (just because he's such a rich guy who didn't know what to do with the excess money).

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But then, I realised that this Hearst fellow wasn't strictly following the Roman/Greek theme because as I walked in the gardens, I kept seeing randomly positioned Chinese porcelain pots that were currently being used as flower pots. There also was an Egyptian statue, which must be the oldest I've seen so far (it's supposedly from the dynasty of Tutankhamun... at least a millennium before Jesus!). The statue is of two sekhmets (warrior goddesses). They're originally protectors of pharaohs. But at Hearst Castle, I think that it's possible that these sekhmets are watching over Hearst's vast collection of animals roaming in the property. Inside the castle, I was further convinced that Hearst wasn't a strict ancient art collector because he adorned the walls of the living room with 500-year old Flemish tapestry... which are not exactly new but are definitely not as old as the Egyptian statues. 

As we meandered through the Hearst Castle's interiors, I couldn't help but noticing that despite the grandiose art collection, the place is stuffy. The rooms are quite too dark for my taste and it doesn't feel warm... maybe because I am not one of those people who would never have been invited to visit Mr Hearst during the height of his media empire. I'm too low-key or too poor to be invited, I think.

However, despite the efforts to give the impression that Hearst was learned in the old ways of ancient Europe (my opinion only, of course), I found that Hearst's home didn't have the old-world, battle-weary feel that exudes out of every pore of the Château de Chillon or of the Nottingham Castle. The Hearst indoor art collection was too eclectic and didn't have the ancient European feel that I had when I was in Switzerland and in England. Well, for one, the Hearst Castle is less than a hundred years old while Château de Chillon has been on that spot on Lac Leman since the 1100s, I think; Nottingham Castle has overlooked the city since the 1700s. For another, Hearst Castle was designed to be a showcase of his art collection while the two European castles I've been to were designed to protect their cities from invaders. The art collection in the European castles had a more authentic or organic feel... as if the castle accumulated the pieces throughout the centuries; Hearst Castle felt more like a hodgepodge of souvenirs from William's travels.

Nonetheless, the Hearst Castle is a fascinating place to visit. It's just unfortunate that I had a taste of two more ancient castles and it's difficult to not compare it to the American castle.