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HindustanTimes Fri,26 Dec 2014

The Wondrous Castle Atop the Hill

Ashwini Bhatnagar  California, October 18, 2011
First Published: 13:16 IST(18/10/2011) | Last Updated: 13:16 IST(18/10/2011)
Hold your breath. This "little something" is mighty huge and hyper luxurious. It was built by the owner of the biggest newspaper and magazine empire in the world for the super rich, the super powerful and the super glamourous. They included him and his friends. 

And the 'something' that William Hearst built on the Enchanted Hill was indeed enchanted if you think of the warm Californian days and the sweetly scented cool nights playing host to the likes of Howard Hughes, Winston Churchill, Calvin Coolidge, George B Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant and Charles Lindberg, to name just a few of the regulars at the property.

Adding to the appeal and mystique of the Hearst Castle is the fact that the hugely acclaimed 1941 movie Citizen Kane was based on the owner's life. William indeed lived life king- sized and the Hearst Castle near San Simeon, mid way between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the Pacific coast highway, is a living testimony to it.

It's an experience best taken as a tour, and as you drive into the reception area at the bottom of the hill you are little prepared for the lustful sensation that awaits you at the end of the winding road over a craggy hill cresting the Californian shoreline below. The waiting area for the conducted tour reminds you that the castle is a family heirloom of the newspaper and magazine publishing giant, the Hearsts, and, like all heirlooms, it is priceless.

As the comfortable coaches start to glide up the avenue, the story of the unusual castle begins to unfold. It was in the year 1865 that George Hearst, after having discovered a 'mountain' of silver ore, purchased 40,000 acres of Mexican Ranchos. His son, William, expanded the territory and, by 1911, the ranch covered a massive 2.50 lakh acres. The site was originally christened Camp Hill and was used by the family during their camping trips. However, William wished for something more comfortable and permanent than the makeshift tents. He famously wrote to Julia Morgan, a San Francisco architect, in 1919: "Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something"

The history drones on as you stand at the entrance of the Castle. "Hearst and Morgan's collaboration was destined to become one of the world's greatest showplaces. As they were planning and constructing his dream home, Hearst renamed the rocky perch from which it rose "La Cuesta Encantada" - The Enchanted Hill. By 1947, Hearst and Morgan had created an estate of 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways."

You gawk at the sheer magnitude of the estate as the guide takes you around a gentle bend. The magnificent main house is called Casa Grande and its imposing towers were inspired by a Spanish cathedral. In fact, despite the richness of the façade and the opulence of its setting, the Casa Grande has the feel of an austere cathedral. The contradiction of lavish visual ornamentation with the attending artifacts and the austere cathedral- sort of feel leaves you a bit bewildered.

Talking of artifacts, it is rarely that one comes across works of art each worth millions of dollars so casually strewn around. From period furniture to linen, from rugs to blue tile paintings from the Mughal era and from tableware to tapestry everything in the Grande is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The best pieces from all corners of the globe have been sourced and put up like showpieces littering an ordinary home. Each piece has history behind it as well as the stamp of a truly brilliant artist or a craftsman. The beauty dazzles you, but in a somber way.

However, the three guest houses in Mediterranean Revival style are shamelessly opulent. Each of them seem right out of the gilded sets of an over-the-top movie showcasing the best of European kingly lifestyles. The guide proudly quotes the world-renowned architectural historian, Lord John Julius Norwich, "Hearst Castle is a palace in every sense of the word."

The real Hearst extravagance is in the two pools that William built. They provide you with the Oh-my-God (OMG) moments of your life. The one lying below the Casa Grande is called the Neptune Pool. It was build between 1924-1936. In fact, three swimming pools were built on this site, each successively larger. Initial plans for the site called for a "Temple Garden" with an ornamental pool and temple structure. The final version of the pool as it stands at the Castle today is 104 feet long, 58 feet wide and 95 feet wide at alcove. Its depth varies from 3.5 feet to 10 feet. The marvelous aspects of the Neptune Pool are the oil burning heating system, the light-veined Vermont marble decorating the pools and colonnades, which gives it a neat rich look, and four 17-century Italian bas-reliefs on the sides of the colonnades which tingle you with their sensuousness. Standing besides it under a salubrious West coast sun, you can almost imagine Joan Crawford splash around in her bright red bikini or a Greta Garbo coaxing Clark Gable to dive into the deep end.

The covered Roman Pool is perhaps more glamorous. The tiled indoor pool is decorated with eight statues of Roman gods, goddesses and heroes. It is styled after an ancient Roman bath and the mosaic tiled patterns were inspired by mosaics found in the 5th Century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy. They are also representative of traditional marine monster themes found in ancient Roman baths. The Roman Pool complex was designed to contain an exercise room, sweat baths, a handball court and dressing rooms.

According to the tour guide, "the Roman Pool is decorated from ceiling to floor with 1″ square mosaic tiles. These glass tiles, called smalti, are either colored (mainly blue or orange) or are clear with fused gold inside. The intense colors and shimmering gold of the tiles combine to create a breathtaking effect. The designs created by the tiles were developed by muralist Camille Solon. The inspiration for some of these designs came from the 5th Century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.

William Hearst was affected by the beauty of the mosaics in the mausoleum and incorporated similar styles into his Roman Pool. The walls of the mausoleum are marble but the vaulted arches are composed of blue and gold smalti. The roofs and dome are covered with mosaics of night blue, powdered with stars."

The effect of the smalti is high density lushness which takes your breath away. The sheer opulence of the aqua setting and its imperial elegance is magical and yet another OMG moment of the tour. Count the OMG moments as you are driven down the hill and you will be astonished at the low price you paid for your day out on the Enchanted Hill.

Location
Hearst Castle is located on California Highway 1, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It is approximately 230 miles from each end on the Central Coast of California in the hills at San Simeon. Driving time from each end is about 5 hours.

From Los Angeles
Take U.S. Highway 101 north to San Luis Obispo, then California Highway 1 north about 39 miles. (approximately 4.5 hours).

From San Francisco
Take U.S. 101 south to California Highway 46, then west on 46 to California Highway 1 and north about 13 miles (250 miles total, approximately 5 hours)

Evening tour
You can explore Hearst Castle through the eyes of one of its many famous guests with an Evening Tour. Held most Fridays and Saturdays until the end of the year, you will enjoy viewing the gardens and pools at sunset and catch a glimpse of Mr. Hearst's other guests, including politicians and movie stars, as they mingle inside the Castle and around the grounds.

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