Tag Archives: Tucson

San Xavier del Bac Mission – Tucson, Arizona

White Dove of the Desert


Renovated and unveiled San Xavier del Bac Mission glistens in the Sonora Desert, south of Tucson. For the first time in years no scaffolding obscured the front or west tower of the famed, "White Dove of the Desert."

On our previous visits the mission was undergoing major work to preserve the historic gem. I got very excited when I learned that a portion of the work was complete and the scaffolding removed. Plans were for work on the east tower to start in mid-March, restoration projected to take three years. We would have a chance to see the entire front facade unblemished by construction.

A nearly cloudless sky was all the enticement we needed to head to the mission in the late afternoon. Activity around the popular destination was winding up for the day. No buses waiting for camera-toting passengers idled in the parking lot. Only a couple of Tohono O’odham families were still packing up from their food booths. There would be no fry bread or Indian tacos for us this visit.

san-xavier-del-bac-doors-nBuilt from 1783 – 1797, the church frequently is proclaimed to be the finest example of mission architecture in the United States. Records reveal little about the architect and artisans responsible for the original construction. Influences of Moorish, Byzantine and Late Mexican Renaissance architecture blend to create the strikingly unique edifice. We can only surmise why the east tower was never completed.

The Tohono O’odham people lived in the settlement of Bac ("place were the water appears") long before Father Kino, the Jesuit missionary and explorer, arrived in 1692. By the time the present church was built the Franciscans were in charge of the mission. Still today San Xavier del Bac serves the Tohono O’odham as a parish church within the Diocese of Tucson. Services are open to all and the church is open every day of the year.

san-xavier-del-bac-west-tower1The building has a long history of respectful care followed by neglect and restoration. For three decades in the 1800s priests were sent home to Spain. Parishioners safeguarded church furnishings in their homes but the building fell into disuse.

The latest restoration began with the interior in 1992, a six-year project. Once the elaborate detail of the ornate interior was completed work begun on the exterior to stabilize the walls and domes. Viewing the newly completed west tower we see the successful use of a mud plaster "recipe" used by the Tohono O’odham peoples. When baked in the Arizona sun, the coating gives a bright white finish and resists the affects of the harsh desert climate.

A museum details history of the mission and preservation work. I’m fascinated with the video showing the intricate skills required by conservators. The knowledge, patience and attention to detail are to be admired.

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As we take photos we can’t help but compare the two towers; eroded plaster, gaping holes and faded paint of the east tower increases appreciation of the flawless renovated west tower. We can imagine how magnificent it will be when all is complete.

san-xavier-del-bac-interior1We sometimes hear the gasps of wonder as visitors step into the church for the first time. Every surface seems to resonate with color: altars, statuary, arches, retablos, frescoes, carvings. Some have called this the "Sistine Chapel of North America." It’s quite a compilation of baroque and folk art. Whether one says a prayer and lights a candle or sits quietly observing the features this is a time to pause and contemplate.

Our visit ends as the setting sun brushes the walls with flecks of gold.

When You Go: San Xavier del Bac Mission is approximately 12 miles south of Tucson, exit 92 from I-19. The church is open daily 8am-5pm, museum open 8am-4:30pm. A gift shop is open 8am-5pm every day except Easter Sunday and Christmas. Admission is free, donations gratefully accepted. Please remember this is a place of worship, be respectful.




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San Xavier del Bac Mission
San Xavier del Bac Mission

University of Arizona – Tucson, Arizona

Travel Destination – Campus Bound

I’ve long been an advocate of university and college campuses as rich resources for travelers. Some of the best art, historic and earth science collections are held by higher education institutes. The University of Arizona in Tucson perfectly illustrates my hypothesis.

University of Arizona Campus Highlights

  • arizona-t-shirt-logoUA Visitor Center– Campus information center, weekly guided tours, ticket sales for UApresents, parking. Open Monday – Friday 9am-5pm.
  • Arizona State Museum – Oldest and largest anthropology museum in the Southwest, Smithsonian Institution affiliate, world’s largest collection of Southwest Indian pottery, permanent and temporary exhibits, gift shop. The Paths of Life permanent exhibition showcases the origins, history and culture of American Indians of the Southwest with artifacts, historic items, artwork, videos and dioramas. Open Monday – Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday noon-5pm. Closed state and national holidays. Suggested donation $3.
  • Center for Creative Photography – Museum, research center and photo archives, rotating exhibits. Established by Ansel Adams and UA, holds more archives and individual works by 20-th century North American photographers than in any other museum in the US. Gallery Store offers a large selection of photography related titles. Open Monday – Friday 9am-5pm, Saturday & Sunday 1-4pm, closed major holidays. Free admission, suggested donation.
  • Flandrau: The UA Science Center– Hands-on exhibits, planetarium and observatory for public viewing of night skies. Check website for hours and programs, admission fee, night telescope viewing free.
  • The Jim Click Hall of Champions – The heritage and traditions of athletics at the university showcasing student athletes and coaches. Hours vary, free admission.
  • The University of Arizona Museum of Art – Wide-ranging collections of European and American fine art from the Renaissance to contemporary. Changing exhibits and highlights from the permanent collections. Open Tuesday – Friday 9am-5pm, Saturday & Sunday 1-4pm, closed university holidays. Adult admission $5.

 UA Unique

  • SOML – Stewart Observatory Mirror Lab – Tours give a behind the scenes look at cutting-edge optical technology and spin-casting processes used in making giant telescope mirrors. Tours on Tuesday and Friday, reservations required, cost $15/person.

More on UA Campus

  • Campus Arboretum – Pick up a map and enjoy a campus walk among the unique collection of trees, shrubs and plants from arid and semi-arid climates. Free.
  • Performing Arts – Theatre, dance and music performances and film screenings staged throughout the year. Admission fees required.
  • Sonett Visitor Center– Self-guided tour at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory – HiRISE Mars camera, the Phoenix Mars Lander and the Cassini mission to Saturn. Free, 520-626-7432.
  • UA Bookstore– I once heard someone espouse if you want your child to go to a particular university, as a pre-teen take them to the campus and buy them a sweatshirt. All sorts of insignia apparel and gifts are available at the official bookstore in the Student Union Memorial Center. 
  • UA Library Special Collections – Collections of rare books and archival materials in many subject areas including Arizona and the Southwest, changing exhibits.
  • UA Mineral Museum– Fabulous collection of minerals, gemstones and meteorites from around the world – over 2,000 on display. Located on the lower level of Flandrau: The UA Science Center. Check website for fees and hours.
  • UApresents – Professional performing arts – classical, jazz, blues and world music events plus dance performances. Admission fees.

UA off Campus

  • Biosphere 2– Management of the living laboratory of global scientific issues is now under management of the University of Arizona. Tours at the complex 20 minutes north of Tucson. Fee.

  • Boyce Thompson Arboretum – Plants from the earth’s varied deserts alongside unspoiled examples of Sonoran Desert vegetation. The Southwest’s oldest arboretum and botanical garden is located near Superior, 90 minutes from Tucson. Fee.

  • UA SkyCenter– Observatories atop Mt. Lemmon, SkyNights, DiscoveryDays and SkyCamps open to the public by reservation. Located 90 minutes north of Tucson. Fee.

Adjacent to Campus

  •  Arizona History Museum– Focus on southern Arizona history – Spanish colonial through territorial eras. Mining and transportation featured exhibits. Not part of the University but worth visiting while in the campus neighborhood. Check website for current hours and fees.

This list doesn’t begin to include all the possibilities, pick up a University of Arizona Visitor Guide and follow your interest from cutting-edge science to sport competitions. Be campus bound in Tucson.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park – Tucson, Arizona

Down Under and More

Curiosity about Colossal Cave Mountain Park propelled us to the longtime Tucson area attraction that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. We joined a cave tour with several family groups. As we waited kids stayed busy finding the Discovery Tour stations and collecting the different paper punches on their maps. Aftccmp-ramadaer completing all 18 they receive a “Treasure” from one of the two gift shops.

 Because Colossal is a dry cave the formations don’t have that moist sheen frequently seen on “cave bacon” or “draperies.” No beads of water gather on the stalactite  tips waiting to be the next drip.

ccmp-caveOur guide was pleasant if not exactly animated. She shared human history at the cave as well as natural history. In the late 1800s the cave was a reputed bandit hangout. Imagine the wide-eyed expressions on the youngest tour members’ faces. Early in the 20th century a local dude rancher encouraged visitors to explore the cave and bring back a formation piece to prove they had been inside.

For a dramatic ecology lesson visit Colossal followed by a tour at Kartchner Caverns State Park. It’s a graphic demonstration of abusing an environment verses protection and preservation. There are two other caves in Colossal Cave Mountain Park that are carefuccmp-windmilllly protected and used for research.

I don’t regret visiting, however, it goes on the list of “Been There, Move On, Don’t Need to Go Again.” That list is much shorter for me than the “Want to Repeat” one. For those who had never before been in a cave seeing the underground world was a treat.

After our cave tour we drive to the La Posta Quemada Ranch section of the park – a working ranch for more than a century. We didn’t have time for a horseback ride but a ride in the Rincon Mountains along the National Mail Stagecoach Route would be very scenic.

ccmp-cccThe Civilian Conservation Corps were largely responsible for development of Colossal Cave Mountain Park in the 1930s. The adobe CCC office building has been renovated, housing a museum recalling their efforts and the men who served. From developing the tour route through the cave to the limestone buildings and ramadas the CCC deserves great credit.

The ranch house serves as a museum with exhibits covering topics from ancieccmp-human-sundial2nt Hohokam Indian culture to modern cave research. I was most intrigued with the Analemmatic Sundial which I renamed the human sundial. The horizontal calendar grip is unlike any sundial I’ve ever seen. I tried to get Bob to stand still long enough to serve as the gnomon (vertical rod).

Cave, museums, natural areas, horseback rides, picnic area, and mining sluice –  a family can easily fill an entire day at Colossal Cave Mountain Park.

ccmp-whoaWhen You Go: Colossal Cave Mountain Park is open every day of the year. The park is located about 17 miles southeast of Tucson. Saguaro National Park – Rincon Mountain District lies north of Colossal Cave.  The basic cave tour lasts about 50 minutes covering a half-mile route with numerous stairs, temperature inside the cave is a consistent 70° – a pleasant relief in mid-summer. Reservations are not required, tours are not pre-scheduled; they promise you’ll never wait longer than 30 minutes after purchasing your ticket. There are also Ladder, Wild Cave and Candlelight Tours – these do require reservations. They also suggest reservations for the trail rides.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park participates in the Tucson Attractions Passport program (see blog). The Passport covers the park use entrance fee. Regular fees for cave tours and trail rides apply.

Contessa Cafe Italian Buffet – Tucson, Arizona

Caps Off to Contessa Cafe

I love it when the day comes together with sunshine, fresh air, outdoor activity, a good meal and relaxation. We spent most of the day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, then finished the afternoon at the Red Hills West section of Saguaro National Park. No lunch, an ice cream cone bridged the hunger cap at mid-afternoon. Checking into our motel we asked for locally owned restaurant suggestions. Not only did they offer options but handed me a coupon for 20% off at either Contessa Italian Buffet or La Olla Mexican restaurant. The desk clerk made it known that the margaritas at La Olla where the best.

contessas-chef-diane1Bob was ready for a switch from Southwest cuisine so Contessa became our destination. We expected it to be nearby but drove several miles before finding the address in a rather dark, nondescript strip mall. We experienced a moment of doubt about our choice. A Pizza Hut stood in the same parking lot nearer the street, should we go there instead?

Stepping through the door we were immediately greeted and seated by chef/owner Diane Gallardo. The dining room is rather small but nicely decorated – booths had church pew style seating, colorful inlaid tile tops tables. A family with young children enjoyed the warm March evening on the patio.

The dinner buffet offered caesar and pasta salads, fresh fruit, ingredients for a make-it-to-your-liking garden salad and antipasto. Bob started with a cup of the daily soup, a chicken ???. A basket of fresh in-house baked bread was served along with our ice tea. Five main dishes and a nightly special change throughout the week. Diane says Tuesday night is stuffed shells night. Main dishes are kept covered until served by an staff member, nothing is dry or sporting that crusty, no one’s eaten me buffet look. We tried small servings of most of the items including the evenings special of Chicken Palerno, eggplant parmesan, and what Diane declares to be the best meatball on the planet. I indulged in the fettuccine – some with marinara, some with alfredo. I thought the creamy cheese sauce to be the perfect balance of richness without being thick and heavy. We stopped after one plate of entrees but could easily have gone back for more.

contessas-dessertsIn the name of research we made selections from the enticing dessert tray, raspberry cheesecake for Bob and cannoli for me. I opted for the traditional instead of the one with chocolate chips. Bob totally enjoyed the cheesecake but one bite of my cannoli and I thought I might have to fight him off with dual forks.

Diane and staff were friendly and extremely service oriented, especially for a buffet style restaurant. Most everything is made in-house from old family recipes – good Italian comfort food. We’re delighted to tip our caps to Contessa Cafe and the motel staff that recommended it.

When You Go: Contessa Italian Cafe is located at 4145 W. Ina Road, Tucson, 520-572-0222. They do not have a web site. Reservations accepted for six or more. Open for lunch 11am – 2pm, dinner 5-9pm Tuesdays – Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Monday. Lunch is $7.50 for an adult, dinner $11.99.


Arizona – Sonora Desert Museum – Tucson, Arizona

Better than Ever




Since its inception the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has receive accolades as one of the world’s premier interpretive nature facilities. The combination zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden brings life in the diverse Sonora Desert into focus.




Desert flowers are beginning to bloom and here and there a cactus shows off a blossom.  Photographing plants and animals in the museum gave us a great deal of pleasure today. Please enjoy some of my favorite pictures from  this visit. These are all from my little pocket Nikon, imagine what Bob’s shots will look like. Check back later for additional photos and information about the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.



Saguaro National Park – West: Tucson Mountain District – Tucson, Arizona

Protecting Sonoran Desert Landscape

snp-saguaroWe visited the West section of Saguaro National Park this afternoon. Viewing the cactus studded Tucson Mountains we truly appreciate that the National Park was designated 76 years ago. Today the two segments of the national park bracket the growing Tucson metropolitan area.

More about the park later, meanwhile enjoy a few photos.

snp-flag snp-ocotillo



Magpies Gourmet Pizza – Tucson, Arizona

Is It or Isn’t It

“Voted Tucson’s best pizza for 20 years in a row,” proclaims Magpies Gourmet Pizza. Some reviews cry foul, no way is Magpies best. Wanting a change of pace this evening we decide to see what we think.

We chose “The Magpie” made with a ricotta tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, Magpie’s own sausage, pepperoni and fresh mushrooms. The 10″ small was the right size for us to share along with a side-order sized Greek salad – which was crisp and fresh.

We went to the Magpie’s on Oracle north of Ina Road. It appeared most of their business is delivery or takeout. Television noise filled the eat-in area; we decided on one of three outdoor tables. The evening temperature was perfect and pink sunset entertained as we waited. We were told it would take about 20 minutes – this stretched to 30 or 35.

Bob says he’d grade the pizza a B, better than average; I thought it was good but no where close to exceptional. I guess the verdict is still out, is it or isn’t it the best pizza in Tucson?

Mission San Xavier del Bac – Tucson, AZ

Unveiling – Mission San Xavier del Bac

sanxaviermission2008The scaffolding that encased the west tower of the historic mission church came down just in time for Christmas services. Restoration of the tower took five years and over $5 million dollars to complete. Old cement plaster was carefully removed and brick work repaired before refinishing with traditional lime plaster. Original construction began in 1783 – the oldest European-style building in Arizona. A mix of Moorish, Byzantine and late Mexican Renaissance design San Xavier del Bac is acclaimed as the finest example of mission architecture in the United States.

For years visitors have been frustrated trying to capture photos of the Southwestern icon, often referred to as the “White Dove of the Desert.” Photographers better hurry to capture the unblemished glistening white tower. Scaffolding goes up on the east tower in March, its restoration is expected to take three years.21-san-xavier-del-bac1

Located west of I-90, south of Tucson, the mission is open to the public daily from 8 am – 5 pm. There is no fee to visit but contributions to the restoration fund gratefully accepted. A gift shop adjoins the church. When you visit don’t miss the amazing interior and the museum behind the church. A video of the interior restoration merits the viewing time. This is an active parish of the Tohono O’odham, be respectful of worshipers.