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Inside the Magical Circle

January 31, 2011

Like a dream

Escondido; in Spanish the word means ‘hidden’ … but it’s also the name of a small town of approximately 150,000 people just north of San Diego on Interstate 15. And, since 2003, Escondido has been the home of hidden royalty: Queen Califia, the black Amazon queen who is the namesake of our great state, resides triumphantly within her enchanted circle there. Ensconced within the 12-acres that make up Escondido’s Kit Carson Park, Califia came to be, sprung from the mind of French artist Nikki de Saint Phalle. Based on a popular 16th-century romantic novel — in which Califia ruled over an island rich in gold — Saint Phalle’s sculptural offering to the state she adopted as her home in the last years of her life, is equally rich in mythic references and material diversity. To visit Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is to leave the drab and every-day, and to experience a sparkling dream in true 3-D.

Serpent sentries

Walking through Kit Carson park to reach the Magical Circle cannot prepare you for the wonder that awaits. Past a muddy duck pond, on a dirt path, then up an uneven path made of broken concrete, one finally faces the entrance to the Circle: a mosaic maze of black, white and mirrored tiles … guarded by gigantic open-mouthed serpents with staring eyes and scales of colored mirror! I’d seen pictures of Califia’s realm and still I was amazed. I could hear children squealing and running inside the undulating walls and I understood their excitement — this place is magical; alive with color and a dizzying array of textures, it’s a dream and it’s interactive!


Finally able to make my way through the maze (not because it’s hard to negotiate, but because of my need to see  and touch everything) I emerge into the circle’s center courtyard … and into the presence of a series of large totems … Among the most striking, an eagle, references both Mexican and Native American legends that extol the bird’s prowess … made of textured, mirrored mosaic, with wings outstretched, it’s a truly fantastic vision shining in the morning’s sun.

Protective, monstrous

The eight totems that ring the Queen herself, are by turns scary, funny; protective, menacing; friendly, monstrous; maternal, threatening; sacred, profane; geometric, organic; they are comprised of an astonishing number of materials and achieved magnificently. I was astounded by the physical presence of these talismanic creatures looming above me. Whether from the front or the back, they are unforgettable and completely representative of Saint Phalle’s best work.

Her highness

In the Circle’s center, the Queen stands triumphantly atop the back of a monumental eagle, her glass armor gleaming. She hold’s a small bird aloft in one hand, seemingly about to set it into flight. The eagle, at 13-feet tall, stands on four  thick pillar-like legs, the space between them forming a temple space. (An egg-shaped fountain rested within the temple previously, but was missing. Click here to see a picture of it.) The temple’s roof is tiled in rich, royal blue mosaic, shining with celestial insets. Being in the temple, and looking out at the surrounding totems, is a singular experience.


An interactive dream is one you can touch, and the Queen’s Magical Circle just begs for human contact … employing everything from Mexican river rocks, to glass marbles, to mirrors, to polished stones, and the terra-cotta handprints of the artist and her team, this is not a hands-off installation with a security guard glaring in the corner. Paul noticed that some of the mosaic tiles seemed to be damaged — maybe intentionally — and I wasn’t surprised. Such is the peril of opening up a dream to the public …

Farewell, Califia

All too soon, it was time to leave Califia’s realm … time to return to the world of muddy duck ponds, freeways and  wondering where our next barista encounter might take place. We, and other visitors to the Circle, said we wished we could move here, live here, during our visit … we were so enchanted by Saint Phalle’s Magic. Now, outside the Circle again …. moving away from her dream … it’s good to know Califia’s safe here, hidden and guarded by her giant, friendly serpents, until we can return.

For more information, and directions, to Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, click here.

For more information on Nikki de Saint Phalle, and her amazing art and life, click here.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2011 3:25 am

    Wowee, and to think this is in Escondido ! Back in the olden days I worked at the (now defunct) Nurseryland on W. Crest St , and the coolest thing in town was the homemade cheese danish at the bakery on the main drag. This is fantastic ! Hope I can add it to my road trip agenda.

    • reubix1 permalink*
      February 1, 2011 4:20 am

      True hidden treasure, you have to go!

  2. February 1, 2011 3:58 am

    holy moly!! that place is psychedelic!!! it’s like gaudi’s ghost wandered into south cal. how cool to learn about the origin of the name california. i had no idea! i can’t wait to read the links about the artist–and go there! what a treasure you unearthed!

    • reubix1 permalink*
      February 1, 2011 4:29 am

      It’s Gaudi meets outsider-environment, meets pagan temple, meets kaleidoscope, meets playground, meets happiest place on earth … I’ve always loved Saint Phalle’s work and to have this so near is a gift.

  3. mattisalomaki permalink
    February 6, 2011 4:21 pm

    Escondido here we come…well..will have to wait until our next road trip to the area. Those are as tactile as you can get. Keep on finding these awesome places Rancho! Matti

    • reubix1 permalink*
      February 6, 2011 4:45 pm

      Hidden treasures are out there just waiting to be discovered …

  4. AlgaRythums permalink
    October 5, 2011 8:54 pm

    Would really love to visit this place. Love the temple area under the eagle, with the celestial insets. I could be there for hours touching everything. Just like a kid. Too fun!!

    • reubix1 permalink*
      October 5, 2011 9:03 pm

      It does give you a child-like sense of wonder, all the different surfaces and the fanciful forms … you should go!


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