Tucked away in a corner of a town better known for wealthy homes and for having Clint Eastwood as its long-time mayor is one of the most important of the Spanish missions that helped Spain establish control over its wild northern territory in the late 1700s and built a sort of prosperity through a system that imposed forced labor on indigenous peoples.
The 1797 basilica; Carmel is the only mission church with its original bell and tower.
The Carmel Mission, or, to give it its birthname, Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, was the second of the twenty-one missions in California, and headquarters of the system and its founder, Junipero Serra, for almost the mission system's whole history.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is actually its second location; Father Serra first founded it in nearby Monterey in 1770 and moved it to Carmel in 1771 after conflict with the military governor. The original mission chapel in Monterey is now the city's cathedral. Serra lived at the mission until his death and was buried there.
Like the rest of the missions, it had a hard 19th century, secularized and handed over to local landowners when Mexico became independent (most of the Catholic Church stayed loyal to Spain, and suffered for that) and slowly returned to church control after the U.S. Civil War. That it looks so much today as it did two hundred years ago is due to fifty years of painstaking restoration work by a restorer, Harry Downie, between the 1880s and 1920s.
When I visited, only the exteriors could be seen; interiors were closed by Covid precautions.