|San Antonio River|
|Horse and buggy beside the Alamo, San Antonio|
San Antonio is the 2nd largest city in Texas (Austin is 4th), and the state's tourism capital. The city bleeds tourism the way the Texas sky bleeds heat. It's almost as if Austin had said to its neighbor in a deal made long ago, "We get the university and government, you get the amusement parks." San Antonio has a Six Flags, a SeaWorld, a Tower of the Americas (left over from the 1968 World's Fair) with a revolving restaurant and "4-D film ride," and some sort of hybrid Ripley's Believe It Or Not/Tussaud's Wax Museum/Tomb Raider/Guinness Book of World Records/Buckhorn Saloon entertainment complex, which has a very ill-fitting location right across the street from San Antonio's most famous landmark, the Alamo.
|Monument honoring heroes of the Alamo|
The sight of the Alamo, a 250+-year-old structure that began as a Catholic mission built by the Spanish, now surrounded by tourist shops hawking clothing that changes color in the sun and theme parks featuring a mechanized "World's Tallest Man" and wax statues of Tiger Woods and Sarah Jessica Parker, makes for an unintentional weirdness that even Austin couldn't hope to achieve. San Antonio manages to blend American kitsch and American history like no other city in the U.S. I've been to--and it has both in abundance.
|Parisian Stetsons for sale in San Antonio|
|Menger Hotel in San Antonio. Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders here|
|The author O. Henry's house in downtown San Antonio--closed and forgotten among the theme parks|
The Alamo is only one of many historical buildings in San Antonio, and one of many with religious significance. Along with the fact that the Alamo was built as a mission to educate local American Indians who had been converted to Christianity, today the Alamo is referred to as the "Shrine of Texas Liberty." They take this "shrine" notion seriously--although the Alamo is free to visit, inside you are not allowed to take pictures nor touch the walls of the "shrine." You can purchase Coca-Cola there though.
|In front of the Alamo shrine|
|Behind the Alamo shrine|
|View of Alamo plaza from Hotel Indigo|
Also right in the heart of downtown San Antonio is the San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the United States, built in 1738. It's a beautiful church, with a lovely plaza in front of it that steps down to the Riverwalk (more on that soon). The plaza is the site of a weekly farmer's market and features fountains that shoot up out of the ground. The church meanwhile has a connection to the Alamo, as just inside the cathedral is the burial tomb of Alamo heroes Davy Crockett, William Travis, and Jim Bowie. Just in front of the cathedral is a statue of St. Anthony of Padua, for whom San Antonio was named by Spanish explorers who stumbled upon the original American Indian settlement there in 1691 on June 13th, St. Anthony's feast day.
|San Fernando Cathedral|
|St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of the lost|
Along with the mission that became the Alamo, the Spanish settlers founded several other missions in the early days of San Antonio. Four of them make up the "Mission Trail." I visited two: Mission San Jose and Mission Concepcion. Mission San Jose is the larger of the two and the most complete, but I liked Mission Concepcion better. I found it prettier and a more tranquil setting--maybe the sound of music my friend and I heard just outside the chapel when we walked up to it, where a group of religious women were singing, set this feeling for me. Meanwhile San Jose has a more military compound look to it, with walls all around it that contained little rooms where the Native Americans who were being converted and used as labor there stayed. My friend and I popped our head into one of the little rooms to see just what "Indian quarters" looked like. The Coca-Cola vending machine we found inside (along with the ones at the Alamo) shows these Indian quarters were decked out with some real high-tech amenities for their time.
|Mission San Jose|
|Inside Mission Concepcion|
|On the wall are original frescoes of the old mission|
Back in downtown San Antonio, one of the city's more modern impressive constructs (one where a Coke machine wouldn't look so out of place) is the Riverwalk, an extensive series of walkways that winds for miles at river level and connects all sorts of shops, restaurants, museums, hotels, and entertainment venues.
|The lovely Riverwalk|
The San Antonio River runs through the city. It's a narrow and relatively non-threatening-looking river today, but in the 1920s it flooded with a loss of over 50 lives. The Riverwalk that exists now was born after the big flood out of a plan that combined flood control and commercial development. A major part of the original development was funded through the Works Project Administration after the Depression. Since the initial plan the Riverwalk just keeps getting extended with more plans under way.
The San Antonio Riverwalk really is an amazing urban achievement. It's kept very clean and has been given all kinds of artistic touches like colorful mosaics and carved poetic sayings. (My favorite is: "Like life, como la vida, I have made adjustments bending here and there continuamente.") There are boats that serve as water taxis along the river, as well as boats that give reasonable and genuinely interesting tours about the Riverwalk.
|On a tour boat on the Riverwalk|
|Mosaic along the Riverwalk|
You'll find almost anything along the Riverwalk--from old dime stores selling coonskin caps and pink cowboy hats to old men balancing exotic birds on their heads.
|Me, turned Texan|
|The Birdman of San Antonio|
I admit I found parts of the Riverwalk a bit heavy on chain and theme restaurants, but keep your eyes open for local gems and you'll spot 'em. On our boat tour of the river, a black-wrought-iron-laced balcony that looked straight out of New Orleans' French Quarter caught my eye and I marked the name of the place: the Esquire Tavern. That night while flipping through a local magazine, what did I find but an article about the Esquire--a genuine old watering hole that boasts the longest bar in Texas and was just re-opened after a long decline forced its shutdown a few years ago. My friend and I sat outside on the fancy black balcony overlooking the river and ate from a selection of appetizers (fried pickles, chili fries, deviled eggs with pink peppercorns, and tacos con papas) while drinking French 75s (gin, lemon juice, sugar, and champagne). "Why haven't we discovered French 75s in Chicago?" I asked after my 2nd one--out loud? to my friend? to the river? who can remember? who cares? another pink deviled egg? Don't mind if I do.
|Seargeant Whiskers inside the Esquire Tavern|
I think my favorite experience in San Antonio was this: At La Villita Ampitheater, a section of the Riverwalk for outdoor shows, we stumbled across one of the city's Juneteenth celebrations. Juneteenth is a Texas holiday honoring the state's African Americans and the end of slavery in the state after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. It's celebrated every year on June 19th, and while many states now have Juneteenth festivities, the holiday originated in Texas. On the San Antonio Riverwalk, this year's Juneteenth celebration featured a radio station hosting some mighty, mighty good jazz. It was such a good way to cap off the evening. The teenage trumpeter and saxophonist were amazing. Little night lights were twinkling on the bridges and Riverwalk paths. The wind had picked up and was cooling off the hot Texas air...
|La Villita Amphitheater|
|Jazz band setting up for Juneteenth on the Riverwalk. The 5 bells represent the 5 missions in San Antonio|
Remember the Alamo, the saying goes. I don't know if I'll remember the Alamo in years to come...or the place with the "World's Tallest Man." I'll remember the jazz and the Riverwalk lights though at my first Juneteenth.