It’s a beautiful, crisp morning in the town of Sonoma. Sunlight reflects off color-saturated autumn foliage and whitewashed adobe buildings. From the park in Sonoma Plaza, a pleasant walk leads you past Sonoma State Historic Park, charming boutiques, enticing eateries and beautifully restored Victorian homes. A perfect day for an extended “paseo” in the heart of wine country.
Highway 121 delivers you into the Sonoma Valley. Lined with thousands of acres of vineyards and well-known wineries, the land expands to share its wealth. Signs of fall abound, from the earth tones of sere native grasses to the vibrant golds, rusts, and purples of grape leaves. Fog clings to the sensual contours of rolling hills, with new blades of grass sprouting among the amber curves. Expansive fields, thick groves of oak and eucalyptus, and soaring birds preview a day in the country.
Sonoma’s heritage dates back to California’s mission system and its fight for independence from Mexico. Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma was established in 1823. Soon after, General Vallejo, in charge of San Francisco’s Presidio, came north to Sonoma to establish a garrison and make his home. In June of 1846, today’s peaceful Sonoma Plaza was the site of the Bear Flag Revolt when settlers raised the flag of the new Bear Republic. Independence was short lived, California joined the United States one month later, but the bear flag remains and Sonoma is its birthplace.
At eight acres, the once barren plaza of the 1800s, the largest of its kind in California, is an oasis of green. The site of early fiestas and parades now meets the needs of Sonoma’s residents and visitors. Light filters through towering trees onto dense lawns, a lovely rose garden and stone fountain, a small duck pond, and comfortable benches. Well-spaced picnic tables beckon for an al fresco meal. Home to the original City Hall and the Old Library, now housing the visitor center, it’s easy to see why this plaza is Sonoma’s focal point.
You can easily plan a full day visiting historical attractions and enjoying their tours, browsing first class shops and sampling Sonoma’s treats, all within easy walking distance. Arriving early will even ensure you an all-day free parking spot in the public lot.
Sonoma State Historic Park consists of six historical attractions, five around the northeast corner of the Plaza: the Mission, the Barracks, the Blue Wing Inn, the Toscano Hotel, and La Casa Grande. The sixth, General Vallejo’s home, a short half mile drive or walk, might best be saved for the end of your visit. Additional historic landmarks, identified by plaques, surround the Plaza and today house thriving businesses.
Mission San Francisco Solano marked the end of the 300-year mission trail, being the last mission established and the most northern. The long adobe wing, the oldest building in Sonoma, serves as a museum and a gallery for 61 watercolors by Chris Jorgensen. In 1903 he traveled along El Camino Real documenting, in lovely detail, all of California’s surviving missions. In the Chapel, mission style décor, with its bold colors and primitive designs, is stark and arresting. Outside, in the courtyard, view the construction of the three-foot thick adobe walls and the bundles of reeds tied down with leather straps to form the roof.
In 1834 soldiers traveled north to Sonoma to serve as buffers to Russian expansion from Fort Ross and to prepare the way for settlers. Inside the Sonoma Barracks, an attractive two-story adobe building, you can read a soldier’s dormitory and see the list of what every soldier was expected to provide for his tour of duty, which included six horses and a mule. Enjoy a historical video at the indoor theater, and then wander through the Barracks Books and Gift Shop amid its Bear Flag memorabilia. Upstairs, let the view from the wide balcony overlooking the courtyard take you back to the enticing smells of fresh bread baking in the brick forno and meat roasting on the iron grill.
Next door at the Toscano Hotel, one dollar once bought workingmen room and board. On weekend afternoons, docents from the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation, resplendent in period dress, give tours of the artfully refurbished hotel. Their stories bring to life the wood paneled bar, its tables complete with cards and chips for a game of poker and a shot of whiskey, and the cheerful kitchen where 39 cents purchased a home cooked dinner.
Continue your paseo to take advantage of the wide variety and quality of goods offered around the plaza: clothing, jewelry, ceramics, blown glass, home furnishings, art galleries and wine shops. Old style architecture, secret shop-filled courtyards and alleys and appealing landscaping make shopping a pleasure. At Baksheesh, handcrafted gifts from developing counties are offered in fair trade agreement with the artisans. Weavings from Guatemala, a Himalayan bead calendar and glass earrings from Chile are among the many reasonably priced treasures found there. At The Sign of the Bear you’ll find everything you could want for cooking and dining, including the modern day version of a wicker picnic basket. Picnic Time Columbus Backpack comes fully equipped with all the amenities needed for a “formal” picnic, including wine glasses and vineyard motif plates and napkins.
Use your Picnic Backpack and Sonoma’s bounty for a plaza picnic. The Basque Boulangerie Cafe is always busy; making a selection is so difficult. Pick up a Basque Round or a Long Sour and don’t forget something for desert—brownies or a Gateau Basque. There are 24 gourmet options at the Sonoma Sausage Grill and Retail Shop and it won’t be any easier to choose between Hawaiian Portuguese, Chicken Spinach-Feta or a Sonoma Dog. Sonoma’s Cheese Factory, on the plaza, and Vella Cheese Factory, two blocks from the plaza, are famous for their Jack Cheeses. The Cheese Factory carries 10 varieties of Classic Jack from spicy Habanero to mellow Vidalia onion as well as a full deli of cured meats, antipasto and salads. At Vella Cheese, the Bear Flag brand of Dry Jack has been a quality product for over 70 years. The handsome old stone building, erected in 1904, and the friendly staff are worth the short walk.
It would be a shame to visit Sonoma without expanding your paseo beyond the plaza. Within a one-block perimeter you’ll discover handsome Victorians, painted in sparkling white and contrasting hues, set on large lots lovingly landscaped with shade-giving trees, lush green lawns and beds of colorful flowers. Each one unique, carefully restored and adding to Sonoma’s heritage and charm.
Save time on your way out of town for a visit to Lachryma Montis, General Vallejo’s home for 35 years. A narrow lane, lined with towering oaks and cottonwoods, leads you to the Gothic style American Victorian house, attractively painted in yellow and green. Stroll among the well tended gardens, the outbuildings, pavilions and fountains, and the vine-covered arbor leading to the pool for which the estate was named. The half-timbered brick Chalet, built as a warehouse for wine and fruit, now serves as the park’s interpretive center and museum. Inside the house, furnished with many of Vallejo’s personal effects, imagine the general in his library of more than 12,000 books, rewriting his La Historia de California. The mansion, the name of which translates to “Tear of the Mountian,” is a bucolic tribute to an important figure in Sonoma’s past.
At the end of the day the autumn sun descends through the sky while the angle of its light accentuates the richness of the colors around you. A fitting partner to the richness of experiences gleaned from a day spent revisiting the past and celebrating the present in historic Sonoma.