The swallows are due back in San Juan Capistrano this week, officially arriving on the day of the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19.
Traditionally, some of the birds end their annual flight from Argentina by making mud nests in the ruins of the old mission church. But this year the swallows may discover a new nesting site.
It's the replacement for the mission's Great Stone Church that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812. The imposing new edifice is of 18th-Century California style and marked by a bell tower more than 100 feet tall.
Dedication of the 800-seat church will be later this year, but its doors already are open for parish services. You're welcome to enter the church to view its decorated interior; guided tours may be begun later.
Across the street you'll see another eye-catching building, the city's new library and cultural center designed in Post-Modernism style. Free half-hour tours are offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
This week most visitors to San Juan Capistrano will be coming to join in the fun of the annual Fiesta de las Golondrinas (Festival of the Swallows). It's been one of the area's major celebrations since 1935.
The focal point is the swallows' return on Wednesday morning, heralded by ringing of the mission bells when the first birds arrive. At 9 a.m. the king and queen of Swallows' Day will be crowned in the new church and lead a procession to the mission grounds for musical entertainment.
Another highlight is the fiesta parade, set for Saturday at 11 a.m. and billed as the largest non-motorized parade in the nation. Equestrian groups, marching units and floats are featured in the two-hour show along Camino Capistrano and El Camino Real.
In conjunction with Fiesta Week, San Juan Capistrano's first Heritage Festival is expanding events to half the month. Today, for instance, children 6 to 12 parade their pets in El Camino Park beginning at 1 p.m. Trophies will be awarded for the cutest, the ugliest and most unusual pet.
Due this week are cowboy hat and hairiest man contests, as well as a Hoosegow Day when the sheriff roams town with a portable jail cell for anyone not in Western attire. On Saturday from 8 a.m. until the parade begins, $3 pancake breakfasts will be served at the Women's Club, 31441 El Horno St.
Also on Saturday at 3 p.m. a professional rodeo gets under way near Camino Capistrano and Junipero Serra. Calf roping, bull riding, steer wrestling and barrel racing are among the events. Tickets are $7, $3 for ages 3 to 12. The following day, next Sunday, the rodeo begins at 2 p.m.
Also on March 23 a polo match will begin at Buchheim Field at 1 p.m. Tickets: (714) 240-7828.
On Sundays during the Heritage Festival and throughout the year, members of the historical society lead walking tours of San Juan Capistrano, Orange County's oldest town.
Included are visits to the 1790s Montanez Adobe and to a home of the Victorian Era that's now the O'Neill Museum of local memorabilia. Tours start at 1 p.m. at El Peon Plaza across from the mission; adults $1, children 50 cents.
In honor of the Heritage Festival, San Juan Capistrano's ninth annual 10K run is set for March 29 at 8 a.m. Previous races have drawn as many as 1,200 runners. Information: (714) 493-5911. A community picnic is scheduled in Cook Park at 11 a.m. the same day, with an appearance of the Easter Bunny.
For more information about the Heritage Festival, which celebrates San Juan Capistrano's 25th anniversary as an incorporated city, call (714) 240-7828. A free 48-page program details each event. The grand finale is a black-tie Silver Anniversary Ball on April 5.
Whether or not you plan a visit during the festival or for Swallows' Day, be certain to tour Mission San Juan Capistrano. Now called the "Jewel of the Missions," it was founded in 1776 by Father Junipero Serra.
The entrance to the mission compound is at Ortega Highway and Camino Capistrano. Get there from Los Angeles by driving south on the Santa Ana Freeway (Interstate 5) to the Ortega Highway exit and going three blocks west. Park on the street.
Visitors are welcome daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. A self-guiding tour map is included with admission (adults, $2; children younger than 12, 50 cents).
You'll see plenty of white pigeons and may see a swallow or two. Look for mud nests and small, dark swiftly flying birds with square tails (not the split-tail swallows depicted on Capistrano souvenirs).
Plan to spend an hour or more roaming the mission grounds to get an idea of what life was like for the priests, soldiers and Juaneno Indians who lived there two centuries ago. You'll see their living quarters, kitchens and work rooms.
Especially interesting is the narrow Serra Chapel with some original decorations by the Indians. Also view the ruins of the Great Stone Church. Art historians found designs and paint samples on its remaining walls to use as guides for decorations in the new church.
You'll see those striking ornamental paintings by visiting the new church behind the mission (walk or drive north along Camino Capistrano). The side door by the church parking lot usually is open daily from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. except Wednesdays.
Hungry visitors should try the gourmet dinner house called L'Hirondelle French Cuisine across from the new church. Sunday brunch also is served. South along Camino Capistrano is Sarducci's Cafe, popular for all meals as well as Sunday brunch. Another choice is The Depot in the renovated 1894 railway station.
Round trip from Los Angeles to join the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano is 120 miles.