Tuscany in California: Villa Montalvo Arts Center Saratoga
California is a true melting pot. The places are just as diverse as the populations. You can find Native American pueblos, Mexican villages, Little Italy, Little Saigon, China Towns, Korea Towns, and Japan Towns. There are estates like those you'd find in ancient Egypt, Edo-period Japan, 19th century Denmark, and in this case, Neo-Renaissance Tuscany.
On our August staycation in the San Francisco Bay Area, we hopped over to Montalvo Arts Center, also known as Villa Montalvo, in the town of Saratoga at the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. A short distance away from San Francisco, we found ourselves suddenly transported to Tuscany!
Villa Montalvo was constructed in 1912 by Californian statesman James D. Phelan. He served as the Mayor of San Francisco and as the Senator of California. The villa estate was named after the 15th century Castilian author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, who coined the name "California" in one of his books. De Montalvo's "California" was an island inhabited by Amazonian female warriors led by the Queen Calafia, and they rode trained griffins to battles!
That's the origin of the name "California"! Interesting, isn't it?
We didn't see Amazons or griffins, but we did see another famed character from fantasy stories...
Since Villa Montalvo was bequeathed "to to be used as far as possible for the development of art, literature, music, and architecture by promising students" by Senator Phelan, today it serves as a venue for concerts, theater performances, and has a residency program for artists. On the estate, you'll find many sculptures and art works by contemporary artists.
It's a great place to visit with young kids, as there are wide open lawns where kids can frolic around...
...and ride into a splendid Italianate garden on a marble Sphinx!
We entered through the handsome gates with pretty ironworks...
...to an alley flanked by tall Mediterranean cypress trees.
We walked along the path dotted with thousands of little white roses, and basked in that gentle late summer morning sun.
We were not the only ones enjoying our time in the garden.
Adam and Eve were there, too. This sculpture was brought back from Italy by Senator Phelan himself, and it's been here in the garden for about 100 years.
Nestled in a quiet corner behind the belvedere is the Cactus Garden. It's a calm and meditative space filled with exotic palms, cacti, agaves, and succulents.
If you get tired from rescuing toddlers from getting too close to the cacti, you can sit down on the eucalyptus benches for some rest.
Wait a second, they're actually works of art that are supposed to dry up, crack, and return to dust? Let's not think too hard about this, some rest is all we need.
Forget for a second that you're in Northern California. The neoclassical structures around will make you believe that you're somewhere in an imaginary ancient Rome, where order and peace prevailed. Perhaps that was just what Senator needed at the time when the world was going through WWI.
Our visit ended in the Spanish Courtyard behind the mansion. We waltzed down the warm red brick steps into the sunken garden.
Spanish Courtyard is surrounded by Greek Ionic columns with Roman arches, French window doors, and has an Italian marble fountain in the center. I guess that blend of everything makes it perfectly Californian.
The main focal point of the courtyard is the fountain wall on one side. And guess what we find on the wall?
Water comes out from the mouth of the griffin, and it's guarded by Calafia's female warriors. The inscription above says:
Know Ordoñez De Montalvo’s fame
Did he not see in fantasy
Our California grow
Out of old Spain
Conferred her name
Foretold her gold?
A paradise for eager eyes
His dream came true for me and you
It's up to you to interpret this poem.
As for me, whether in California or Tuscany, I'd be happy to find an actual Fountain of Youth where I can drink to my heart's desire, so that I can keep traveling with my very active kids.
15400 Montalvo Rd, Saratoga, California, United States