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Balboa Park

Downtown San Diego is so clean it sparkles. Its crown jewel is Balboa Park, a 1200-acre complex which includes fifteen museums, at least 18 gardens, and the world-renowned San Diego Zoo.

Balboa Park got its start in 1835 under Mexican rule when local officials, honoring a Spanish civic tradition, set aside a large plot of land as a common area for the citizens of San Diego, who at the time numbered only in the 100s.

The park took its present form when it played host to a world-wide exhibition in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. San Diego, which by then had grown to a population of 40,000, hoped the canal would increase its prominence as a center of trade.

In preparation for the exhibition, dozens of buildings went up in a hurry, all designed to last only one year. The exhibition was such a success, however, that it was extended another year and actually turned a profit.

At its end, Theodore Roosevelt argued that the beautiful Spanish-style buildings should be preserved.

His argument won the day. The buildings were strengthened and most of them survive.

My favorite of the old buildings at the park isn’t really a building. It is the Spreckles organ pavilion, home to one of the world’s few outdoor pipe organs.

Each Sunday, the organ roars in concert for an hour. Last week’s concert doubled as a Humane Society event. Orphaned dogs marched across the stage as the organ tweeted “How Much is the Doggie in the Window.”

Minutes earlier, the organist played a big Bach piece. The instrument handled both styles, light and heavy, with room to spare.

Time only allowed visits to three of the museums.

The Timkin Art museum is just the right size for a museum holding great art, including some Rembrandts. It is small. You can concentrate on each painting for a good amount of time, yet still do the entire collection justice without wearing your eyes out.

The San Diego Museum of Art is somewhat larger, with a nice sampling of the major art styles and eras.

By skipping over the Baroque and Renaissance stuff, which I haven’t yet learned to appreciate, and by walking real fast through the Modern section, the museum became manageable.

My eye once again gravitated towards to landscapes of French painter Camille Corot. Not as famous as Monet, Van Gogh, or other 19th century masters, Corot’s muted rural landscapes capture the haunted charm of a lonely, quiet countryside.

I had never heard of Corot until I visited the Louvre in Paris, an art museum so massive it would take months to fathom.

Months, or maybe years at the rate I walked: I got stuck in a room full of Corot paintings and never left! Unlike the Mona Lisa room, which was filled with gabbling, rabid, elbowing tourists, I had Corot all to myself. Peaceful paintings in a peaceful setting. It is a memory I cherish. I felt as if I had met a new friend.

So, as I walked through the 19th century masters back in Balboa Park, and zeroed in on a beautiful little painting of a country scene at dusk, with the setting early winter sun lighting the bare aspen branches, I was thrilled to see the name “Corot” written at the bottom.

“Ah, it’s you again!” I said to myself.

On to the photography museum, which contained six separate exhibitions. The most thought-provoking: A series of swirling mixes of glowing rainbow colors, abstract masterpieces, utterly beautiful — until you realize they are overhead pictures of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and not abstract at all.

You sink into the fantasy world of a good museum, only to walk out the heavy steel doors, blink back the sun, and reenter the crazy world of the present.

Specifically, we jumped on a city bus packed with commuters who hung from high steel bars, revealing, at close range, the inadequacy of their deodorant.

What a come down — until you think of the old days, the pastoral scenes painted by the masters, scenes of farms with rustic, unbathed peasants; scenes of the city market where peddlers sold live chickens out of unclean pens; scenes of Europe’s horse-packed, sewage-caked streets of 1685.

The aromas of a packed city bus in San Diego on an 80 degree day in February were probably mild in comparison to the aromas in the beautiful, painted scenes.

Best to view the smelly past from the antiseptic, air-conditioned comfort of a museum in Balboa Park, a gift from the area’s Spanish colonial heritage dating back to 1835.

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