Chumash Indians and their Painted Cave

Painting inside Chumash Cave

Seeking the Chumash Story

Learning the history of the land and past and present of the people has always been an important part of all our trips. While in Santa Barbara, we wanted to learn more about the Native American nation of Chumash. That tribe used to inhabit the central and southern coasts of California from Morro Bay in the north to Malibu in the south. Today, this land is part of the counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Los Angeles. The Historical Museum of Santa Barbara could have been a great resource for us, but it was closed due to the pandemic.

Santa Barbara Historical Museum
Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

So, we decided to visit the Old Mission that was specifically established in 1786 to Christianize the Chumash. It was there that the native people used to live, study, pray, work, and die. While exploring the mission, we walked along the paths of the church cemetery admiring the elegant and elaborate mausoleums of important citizens of the town. The indigenous people of the land were buried there as well, but were soon forgotten. It is worth mentioning that some of them were the stonemasons who built the Mission and the artists who painted the church walls.

Old Spanish Mission, Santa Barbara
Old Spanish Mission, Santa Barbara.
Interior of the Old Spanish Mission Church in Santa barbara, California
Interior of the Old Spanish Mission Church.
The Old Spanish Mission cemetery.
The Old Spanish Mission cemetery. 

Finding the grave of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

In the corner, near the bell tower, we found one grave that attracted our attention. The plaque said that Juana Maria was buried there in 1853. Here she was: The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island made famous by Scott O’Dell’s popular novel Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960). San Nicolas Island is one of the eight offshore islands near Ventura called the Channel Islands.

Juana Maria’s grave
Juana Maria’s grave in the corner of the Old Spanish Mission courtyard. 

When the native people of that island were forced to move from the island to the mainland, an orphan girl was inadvertently left behind. She survived alone for many years until she was “discovered” in 1853 and brought to the Santa Barbara Mission. The young woman was baptized as Juana Maria but died after only a few weeks there, probably from a disease her body had no immunity against.

Enigmatic cave rock art

However, unmarked graves are not the only reminders of the Chumash people once plentiful in this land. They left behind their enigmatic cave rock art. We drove 25 miles from Santa Barbara via a narrow, winding, and vertigo-inducing road to visit one of those caves in Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park. After reaching the State Park sign, we left the car and followed a steep path to a small cave with the entrance barred by a heavy iron grillwork.

The entrance to the Chumash Painted Cave Historic State Park.
The entrance to the Chumash Painted Cave Historic State Park.

We had to stand in front of the grillwork for a while letting our eyes adjust to the dark cave, then peered inside and saw the amazingly bright paintings. Anthropologists believe that the paintings date to the pre-contact period (before the Europeans showed up), somewhere in the 1600s. Some sources also state that the paintings potentially could be as old as thousands of years. So, knowing that, we were astonished to find the colors so bright and vivid.

Painting on the wall of the Chumash Painted Cave
Looking inside the cave through the grillwork of the closed gate.

The bright colors of the mysterious spiritual images

The bright black, white, red, and yellow paints used by the unknown ancient artists were made of charcoal or manganese (black), crumbled sedimentary rock (white), hematite (red), and limonite (yellow).

Painting inside Chumash cave.
Group of paintings on the left.

Alex and I are not complete novices when it comes to the prehistoric/pre-contact shamanistic cultures. For example, we have studied, photographed, published, and lectured on the prehistoric rock art in the Cederberg Mountains in South Africa. But the images inside the Chumash cave did not look like anything we saw before. These images seemed to be involved in some mysterious dance, overlapping each other. Were these paintings multiple, overlapping layers done by different artists at different times? Or were we looking at an intentional mystical configuration? Some of the shapes were circular, some anthropomorphic.

The meaning of images is not known for sure

Strangely, some of these images reminded me of a Maltese cross, others, of a Rota Fortunae (a medieval symbol of the capricious nature of fate). But of course, they were nothing of the sort. Possibly, the paintings could be connected to the Chumash understanding of astrology or cosmology. Or they could have been created to link those in the world of the living with the world of their ancestors, the realm of the spirits. Sadly, the truth is that nothing is known for sure, and the images’ meaning is lost even to the descendants of the Chumash people.

Art should increase the “energy of spirit”

Driving back along the twisting and curving road again, I sat in the back of our rental car.  I could not force myself to look right at the vertical granite wall of the mountain, or to look left down the abyss far below. So, I closed my eyes and thought of what Kenneth Clark, a prominent art historian, said: “Art…should do something more than give a pleasure. It should increase our energy of spirit.” The paintings in that cave were the Chumash’s spiritual practice. And they have become our mystery – to ponder upon and to meditate. In our culture that is worldly and cerebral, we need to see the art that defies our intellectual understanding but offers instead a gateway to new spiritual insights.

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Wine tasting at Santa Ynez Valley wineries

Irene Shaland drinking wine.

Why travel the wine tasting path when in Santa Barbara?

No visit to California is complete without a wine tasting tour. Everyone knows that the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California are synonymous with internationally famous great wine. But we were sure that the Santa Barbara environs were emerging as a renowned wine region as well. Why?

Because, California used to be a Spanish territory with the Mission system as a foundation of the institutional power. Well, we thought that the pious monks in Santa Barbara could not imagine life without wine. They were Spaniards after all, weren’t they? So, this was the historical root of our decision to explore the local wine making!

Choosing Santa Barbara Adventure Company

I chose Santa Barbara Adventure Company as an organizer of our wine tasting tour. We wanted our experience to be an adventure. And so, we were looking for a journey of discovery: the history, the landscapes, the wineries, and of course the orchestration of wine tasting. It turned out that we made the best choice! I spoke with Will Adams, the Company’s Marketing Manager; Ken McAlpine, their Nature Specialist and Guide for the Channel Island National Park; Kimberly; and other staff members. Then, I knew I chose the best professionals!

Everyone I communicated with was very sensitive to our needs, wants, and objectives as travel writers and photographers. In other words, the Adventure Company was ready to organize and assist with everything we wanted to see during our short time in that “American Riviera.” From photographing the foxes of Santa Cruz Island to understanding the wines of Santa Ynez Valley, our hosts accommodated us completely.

Learning from our guide about Santa Ynez wine country

The organization of our day-long wine-tasting tour was perfectly planned and executed. Our guide par-excellence Kyle picked us up in a small minivan for eight passengers. Everyone was required to wear a face mask. We learned from Kyle that most of Santa Ynez’s wineries were established in the 1970s. In 1983, Santa Ynez Valley was recognized as the AVA or American Viticultural Area (wine-growing region).

Kyle also talked about the uniqueness of the Santa Ynez Valley and its excellent climate for wine-producing. The Valley is oriented from east to west. The Santa Ynez Mountains are north of the valley, and the San Rafael Mountains are in the south. Similar to the valley’s orientation, the Santa Ynez River runs east to west to pour its water into the Pacific Ocean. The Ocean creates a cool fog that moves into the valley every night. That fog plays an important role in growing perfect grapes.

One of the brochures mentioned that 65 different varieties of grapes grow on 16,000 acres of vineyards. From these grapes, the winemakers produce Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir, which are already popular both nationally and internationally. In addition, the wineries produce Bordeaux, Rose, and even German, Spanish, and Italian-style wines. All in all, over 120 Santa Ynez Valley wineries produce over a million cases a year. “Can we visit all 120 wineries today?” someone in the van joked. Anyway, we all knew we were up for a wonderful learning and tasting adventure.

Kyle took us to three wineries. All were small, family-owned boutique operations. All three wineries focused on sustainability and preservation of natural resources. Each had a continuously growing, dedicated following of wine connoisseurs. These customers, called the club members, are not just wine aficionados, but aficionados of a specific winery they belong to!

The Roblar – our first winery

The first of these elite boutique wineries we visited was called the Roblar (“oak” in Spanish). In a beautiful garden setting, each couple was led to a separate table six feet away from another. We enjoyed four different wines, two white and two red. Among the whites, our favorite was the 2020 Cuvee Blanc, very dry and full of flavors. It seemed to smell of citrus, peach, and flowers but tasted like a green apple with honeydew melon. But the overall winner for Alex and me was their Pinot Noir!

Roblar winery
Entering the Roblar Winery.
Tour guide at Roblar Winery
Kyle, our guide par-excellence, explains the winemaking process.
Visitors inspecting grapes
The wine tasting group examines the grapes.

The actor and the wine: Fess Parker and his Winery and Vineyard

Our next stop was the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard. All cinephiles will immediately recognize the name of the famous actor Fess Parker. In the 1950s and 1960s, he created the characters of heroically brave frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Fess Parker is still venerated by multi-generational “oldies” aficionados.

We learned from Kyle that in the 1970s, Parker left the movie industry and went first into the real estate business and then, in the 1980s, into wine-making. The famous actor passed away in 2010, but his immediate family still owns and operates the wineries. We were going to visit Parker’s 714-acre ranch where over forty years ago he decided to grow the highest quality grapes and produce the best wines in the country! 

Visiting the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard

The ranch turned out to be a gorgeous park. Each couple or family had a table separate from the other guests and placed in the luxury of elegant comfy alcoves furnished with colorful loveseats. In addition to four types of wine, two whites, two reds, we had a glass of wonderful sparkling Rose called Empathy. I thought this was the best Rose I ever tasted.

Riesling is normally not one of our preferred wines, but the one we tried at the Fess Parker was very dry, not sweet, and we liked it a lot. Alex especially enjoyed their Chardonnay with its delightful taste of lemon, nectarine, almonds, and even white pepper! My favorite was their Pinot Noir, which I thought was rich and velvety, reminding me of cherries and strawberries.

Building at Fess Parker Winery
Entering the Fess Parker Winery.
Irene Shaland holds a glass of wine
Enjoying the Fess Parker wine.

The Brander Vineyard – an international story

The third and last winery on our tour was the Brander Vineyard owned by Fred Brander and his family. Upon arrival, I noticed three flags on the roof of the large stone mansion: Swedish, American, and Argentinean. As we found out, the flags told the family story through three generations.

The grandfather of the current owner Fred emigrated from Sweden to Argentina. Fred’s father Eric was born in Argentina, married a girl from the United States, and brought her to Argentina to start a family there. Finally, the family now consisting of Fred, his wife, and children came to the U.S. In 1962, they settled in Santa Barbara, California.

When the Branders founded their winery in 1975, they became one of the pioneers in the wine-making industry in Santa Barbara county. Then, the family decided to focus on what they called the “classically styled” or “Bordeaux-influenced” wines, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Brander Winery building
Entrance to the Brander Vineyard: Three Flags Tell the Family Story.
Irene Shaland drinks wine
In vino veritas!
Guide Kyle points at the map of Santa Ynez Valley
Kyle explains to the author the Santa Ynez Valley wine-growing  geography.
Brander's vineyard
The Brander’s vineyard.

Biodynamic farming principles

Our host at the winery explained to us that the family is proud of their utilization of biodynamic farming principles. We learned that the term bio dynamics means creating a self-sustaining environment while respecting the natural aspects of the land. That involves planting drought-tolerant shrubs and trees native to the area and attracting insects (such as ladybugs) beneficial to the vineyard.

The wines we tasted were very impressive. The 2018 Cuvee Natalie was a proprietary blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Gris. I usually do not like Merlot, but there it was wonderful: light in color and with an aroma of blackberries.

Gratitude to organizers

Thank you, Kyle and the Santa Barbara Adventure Company for the wonderful adventure! Just like in wine making, you created a perfect blend of storytelling and scenery, history, and wine-tasting!

Read Part 1 of three-article series titled What to do in Santa Barbara California

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Things to Do in Santa Barbara California

Santa Barbara, California

“Whenever you are in Santa Barbara and whoever you are with, you will be thinking one thing over and over again: Life is good!”

I do not recall who said or wrote the phrase above or how I came across it, but it stuck in my mind. When our travel plans to foreign countries had to be canceled one after another during the pandemic, that same sentence kept reappearing in my thoughts. And so it happened that we went “domestic” in our travel plans, and in May of 2021, we arrived in Santa Barbara, California.

Monochromatic gate Santa Barbara
Monochromatic Gate to California Riviera.

This pleasant little town is snuggled comfortably between the imposing Santa Ynez Mountains and the glittering Pacific Ocean. Santa Barbara is simultaneously artsy, chic, and casual, and is widely known as the “American Riviera.” And indeed, that coastal town’s red-tiled roofs, white stucco buildings, its omnipresent Spanish colonial heritage—all channel the Mediterranean atmosphere and European-like civility that immediately took us, in our imagination, across the Atlantic. Haven’t we decided to go “domestic” or what?

Walking, hiking, or bicycling along the East Beach boardwalk

We stayed at the Hilton Beachfront Resort located on one of the best California beaches, the East Beach. And there we discovered that just walking or bicycling along that beach made us feel, if not exactly Santa Barbara’s natives, but almost an integral part of their community. That boardwalk stretches for miles along the coast. And, just like we saw in Copacabana in Rio, the beach is treated by the locals as their living room, exercise studio, soccer field, in other words, a natural extension of their homes and a fundamental part of their lifestyles. People practice yoga and martial arts, roller-blade and skateboard, drive a strange hybrid of a bike and cabana, and eat and drink wine with their friends. In short, they live in their home away from home, the East Beach. A large number of homeless people seemed disturbing at first, but they too looked perfectly at ease laying on the beach’s grass or sand.

East Beach Santa Barbara
One of the best beaches in California: East Beach in Santa Barbara.
East Beach Art Fair
Art Fair on the East Beach.

Enjoying State Street

We loved to stroll down the city’s main street. Called State Street, it seemed to be designed down to the smallest details—from exotic potted plants to thorny and flowery ornamental vines covering walls and facades. Twinkling lights surround fun bars and fantastic places to eat, enticing boutiques and attention-grabbing art galleries.  Even at the time of pandemic restrictions, this grand dame of Santa Barbara streets, buzzing with people and activities, looked elegant and charming.

E. Cabrillo Blvd
Enjoying the Mediterranean Vibe of E. Cabrillo Boulevard.
State Street, Santa Barbara
Walking along the State Street.
Granada Theatre, Santa Barbara
Historic Granada Theater on the State Street.
La Arcada, State Street, Santa Barbara, CA
La Arcada on the State Street: Shopping and dining in a quaint, art-lined square built in 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival style.

The Architecture

We fell in love with Santa Barbara’s historic architecture. To us, it seemed both Mediterranean and Spanish: its deep-red colors contrasted with the white walls and polished wood textures. Santa Barbara’s iconic architecture and its visual identity were largely derived from the rebuilding and reconstructions following the devastating earthquake of 1925 when the entire town was reborn in Spanish Revival style. The spirit of Spain is felt everywhere, pervasive and persuasive.

The Old Mission Santa Barbara founded in 1786 (the current exterior from the 1920s) is called “the Queen of California Missions.” The amazing Santa Barbara Courthouse (1929) is known as “the most beautiful government building in the United States.” Both places seem to us belonging to Spain rather than to the twenty-first century the United States. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 safety rules, visitors were not allowed inside the working courthouse. So we could not see the elaborate murals and ornate chandeliers and were not able to climb up the El Mirador, the famous clock tower for the panoramic view of Santa Barbara and environs.  Oh well… But we did go to its sunken garden and spent some enjoyable time there.

Santa Barbara City Hall
Santa Barbara Historic City Hall, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2005 for its architecture.
Santa Barbara Historic District
In the Old Spanish District of Santa Barbara.
Irene Shaland in Spanish Courtyard
The Author inside a typical Spanish Style Courtyard in Historic Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara Courthouse
Historic Santa Barbara Courthouse.
Sunken Garden in Santa Barbara Courthouse
Sunken Garden of the Santa Barbara Courthouse.
Santa Barbara Old Spanish Mission.
Old Spanish Mission, Santa Barbara.

The Art Museum Santa Barbara Opens! Hooray!

Well, only two rooms were open on our last day in town to showcase the highlights of the Museum’s impressive collections. But that was enough for us to feel that “normalcy”– identified by us as packed theaters and crowded museums – that normal state of things is just around the corner.  Our optimism was rewarded by two surprises: an amazing Marc Chagall “Jeune fille en marche” or “Young Girl Running” from 1927 and a beautiful “Portrait of Nadya” from 1890 by Ilja Repin who is largely unknown outside Russia.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Painting by Marc Chagall titled Young Girl Running,
Marc Chagall. “Jeune fille en marche” or “Young Girl Running,” 1927. Museum of Art, Santa Barbara.
“Portrait of Nadya" by Ilja Repin.
Ilja Repin. “Portrait of Nadya,”1890. Museum of Art, Santa Barbara.

Not being impressed by the Funk Zone

We heard and read a lot about the city’s widely popular area called the Funk Zone. This former industrial district is located between the ocean and Highway 101. You will find it right next to the Amtrak station. The Funk Zone is a complex of wine tasting rooms, cafes, art galleries, and funky street art. But for some reason, our hearts belong to State Street!

The Foodie Capital of California

Mexican food
Who is able to stay away from Mexican food when in California? At Flor De Maiz on Cabrillo Boulevard we most possibly ate the best Mexican food ever!

I do not think that Alex and I are fully qualified as typical “Food and Wine” travelers. We are too art and history-centered and too agenda-driven to be completely and professionally immersed in the food-n-wine scene. But we always see food and wine produced by the region and served at its restaurants as an integral element of the local history and culture.

  And so it happened that in our four-and-a-half days and five nights in Santa Barbara we were doing our best to eat and drink in as many places as it was humanly possible to appreciate the freshness and carefully-crafted quality of what we were served. Among all the fine dining places that we greatly enjoyed, our favorite place was …a seafood shack at the very end of the historic Stearns Wharf. We ate twice there, and we never do that during short trips when we usually strive to try as many establishments as possible!

Historic Stearns Wharf.
Historic Stearns Wharf.

This famous wharf is located at the southern end of State Street. Built in 1872, it is the oldest continuously operated wharf on the West Coast. But most people come to this long rough wooden pier not for its history but the great views and the great food. Our favorite establishment was the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.

Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.
Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.
Irene Shaland eating oysters
Enjoying the fresh oysters at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.

This company was born as a seafood takeout counter. For over forty years, it has been owned and operated by the same family. Today, the company is located on its original spot at the very end of the wharf. The first time we ate there, we had to shoo away the aggressive seagulls who wanted to steal our dinner. We had terrific lobster bisque, amazing cioppino, aromatic garlic-baked clams, and the rock crab, my personal favorite! And we came back once again—for more of the same!

Irene Shaland with a glass of vine
Life is good!

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