I first met Niki de Saint Phalle last June at Herrenhauser Garten in Hannover, Germany.

To be honest, I didn’t exactly meet her – she passed away in 2002 – but I discovered her luminous, color-filled mosaic sculptures that decorate the garden’s lovely Grotto. And I was immediately overcome with that wonderful feeling you get when you see a soul-stirring piece of art for the first time or read a book you can’t put down by an author you hadn’t read before. I was captivated and wanted to learn more about this intriguing artist and her work.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the French-born Niki de Saint Phalle had spent the last years of her life in La Jolla, California. It turns out that she created a host of sculptures for public spaces as well as commissions for private collectors throughout San Diego. And most surprising of all, her final work was a sculpture garden for the City of Escondido, a mere twenty-five minutes from where we live.

How did I not know about this?

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle

Niki’s sculpture garden (yes, we’re on a first-name basis) is called Queen Califia’s Magical Circle and is almost hidden in a 12-acre natural habitat in Escondido’s Kit Carson Park. Visiting hours are limited – Tuesday and Thursday mornings and the second and fourth Saturdays of each month – and it’s closed if there has been rain within the past 24 to 48 hours.

Herb and I set out on a sunny Tuesday morning, hoping to track down the intriguing-sounding Magical Circle. After an unusually rainy California winter, it felt quite liberating to be exploring somewhere new. And since it hadn’t rained for 48 hours, we were fairly confident that the installation would be open.

Kit Carson Park struck me as an urban oasis – or perhaps “suburban oasis” is a better term here – much larger than I’d envisioned, with hiking trails, a sports complex and its own lake. We turned off Bear Valley Parkway and headed to a parking lot, where a trail leads to a dirt path marked by a simple wooden sign with yellow lettering pointing the way.

The Snake Wall and the Maze

But any feeling of being in a quiet wooded place quickly disappears as soon as Queen Califia’s Magical Circle comes into view. It’s an explosion of color and characters mixed in with a bit of craziness that makes you smile before you’ve even stepped inside. And just as I didn’t know that such a place even existed, I also didn’t know that it would be so busy on a Tuesday morning. The docent on hand laughed when I asked if it was a popular tourist destination, telling me there were 300 visitors a day during the Christmas holidays. “We’re from Canada!” a woman who overheard my question added.

A 400-foot-long mosaic “snake wall” creates a periphery for the sculpture garden, with serpents slithering along at various places, appearing to be engrossed in conversation. But before you can enter the circle, you make your way through a maze covered with black, white and mirrored tiles from the floors to the walls.

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle entrance and maze.
Inside the maze.
Serpents along the wall.
A “window” into the park beyond.
Selfie in the mirrored maze.

The Totems and the Queen

Califia is the fictional queen of the island of California from a novel by 16th century poet Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo called Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián). She is the namesake of the California region encompassing California and the Mexican states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. In the Magical Circle, Califia takes center stage, standing on the back of a five-legged eagle, clad in golden armor and holding a small bird.

Eight totem-like sculptures surround Queen Califia, featuring symbols from Native American, Pre-Columbian and Mexican art as well as from Niki de Saint Phalle’s imagination. The sculptures range in height from thirteen to twenty-one feet tall and are decorated with brilliant mosaics that capture extraordinary shades of color and light.

Queen Califia and the Eagle Throne towers over the sculpture garden at 24 feet tall and 22 feet wide.
A starry blue mosaic covers the ceiling inside the Queen Califia sculpture.
Yelling Man Totem.
Birdhead Totem.
Bird on a Square Totem.
Handprints of the artists who worked with Niki on the project are displayed along the wall.

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is artistically and literally a gift from Niki de Saint Phalle. The City of Escondido donated the land and maintains the sculptures, but Niki provided funding for the entire project. It was her dream and vision to leave behind a place where sculptures can be touched and experienced. “It’s like a marriage between the sculptures and the child or adult,” she said in one of her last interviews. “Maybe it brings out the child in adults, too.”

The Treasure of Travel

On the drive home, Herb and I were still scratching our heads about why we didn’t know that Queen Califia’s Magical Circle even existed. We’ve lived in San Diego for twenty years and thought we’d visited – or at the very least had heard about – every attraction in the area. Clearly there is more to explore.

And that’s one of the hidden delights of travel. It leads to us to places we may not otherwise have gone.  It opens our eyes to the wonder of something or someone we never knew, and like an unexpected fork in the road, it leads to new discoveries that enrich our lives as if they’ve always been there.

You travel to Germany looking for treasure and return home only to find it in your own backyard.

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