A few months ago, Jeff let me know that he was scheduled go to San Antonio for a few days to speak at a conference. Before we had the girls, occasionally I would travel with him to explore a new city while he was working. I have never been to Texas, so after mulling it over for a few days, I asked if I could join him.
I am not sure that anything could prepare me for the amount of rhinestones, cheerleaders and God-fearing Christians that I would encounter in Texas. I learned very quickly during my layover in Dallas that I was not only in another state, but another world entirely.
San Antonio, with a population of 1.3 million is the second most populated city in the Texas, the 7th largest in the entire country. (Who knew?) Originally settled in 1691 by Spanish missionaries, it is sometimes known affectionately as “Mission City.” One of those missions, San Antonio de Valero, later became the Alamo, site of the famous battle.
Jeff and I arrived in the early evening Monday, so we took advantage of the remaining daylight and went for a stroll along the city’s infamous River Walk. It was an unseasonably cold 48 degrees and raining. There was not a soul in sight. A single Midori margarita at the popular Mexican restaurant Casa Rio knocked me on my ass, so we headed back to the hotel. (I am a super cheap date.)
I hadn’t made any plans before arriving, figuring things would fall into place once I had actually arrived. Jeff had an early call time for his conference. After a leisurely morning, armed with my “Top 10 San Antonio & Austin” guidebook, I set out on foot to explore. Our hotel was adjacent to a mall that I had to pass through to head the direction that I wanted to go. As a result, I stumbled upon the IMAX theater. I took that as a sign from the universe that I was supposed to take in a showing of “Alamo: The Price of Freedom,” an IMAX movie filmed in 1988 on the same set that John Wayne used for his 1960 movie of the same name. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but all of “the good guys” died (including Davy Crockett).
After the movie, I crossed the street to wander what remains of the historical mission turned fort (turned tourist trap). Only two buildings are still standing, the long barracks and the chapel. They house several artifacts and displays with more information about the history of Texas and the importance of the battle of the Alamo and how it paved the way for Sam Houston to build his army and eventually defeat General Santa Ana and the Mexican army, achieving independence for Texas.
The park-like setting was peaceful and nicely manicured. It wasn’t until I accidentally found my way to the busy street out front that I realized that I had entered through the back side. I took one look at the rows of line-corralling ropes and quietly took note at how lucky I was to be able to visit in early March when the crowds were non-existent. The Alamo is the most-visited tourist attraction in Texas.
I had hit my limit of museum-related reading, so I set out on foot for an area known as Market Square or “El Mercado” on the far side of town. As I walked, I realized that the route I was on was probably out of the realm of recommended tourist paths, so I held my head high and forged my way through until I saw the colorful hand-cut Mexican flags (“papel picado”) lining the streets near the market. El Mercado is the largest Mexican market north of the border. I enjoyed browsing around the shops filled with Mexican handicrafts and couldn’t help but to think how much Jeff would have relished the opportunity to do some bartering. I found a beautiful hand painted clay Oaxacan vase and paid full price. I could have probably gotten it for half price with Jeff’s negotiation skills. You can’t win if you don’t play the game, right?
From Market Square I walked across town to La Villita, the historic “little village” that I had read about while at the Alamo. It was originally an Indian settlement before housing Spanish soldiers prior to the Texan Revolution (1836). Over time, the area diminished into slum-hood but was revived when work on San Antonio’s River Walk began as a WPA project in 1939. I am not sure what I expected it to be, but was disappointed to find that it is now a collection of buildings housing artists’ studios and galleries. Yawn.
On Wednesday, I hopped in the rental car and navigated my way across town to the McNay Art Museum. The McNay was founded in 1954 by oil-heiress Marion Koogler McNay. She was an artist and teacher that had the means and incredible foresight to begin collecting works by American and European artists. When she died, she left her collection, house and an endowment to establish the museum. Over the last 60 years it has grown from 700 pieces to over 20,000. I was drawn by the opportunity to see works by two of my favorite American artists, Georgia O’Keefe and Edward Hopper. What I found was so much more! The museum had pieces by almost every major artist I had ever heard of… Picasso, Diego Rivera, Rousseau, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Chagall, Rauschenberg, and so many more. There was also a Renaissance art collection, a “theater arts” collection with numerous stage models, “The Full Monty” male nudes collection, and indoor and outdoor sculpture galleries. There was also a colorful pop art exhibition with the work of Robert Indiana (according to the docent, the “love stamp guy”). I absolutely loved this gem of a museum.
After getting my art on, I was pretty hungry so I consulted the guidebook for food options that were unique to San Antonio. I settled on The Guenther House in the King William Historic District of central San Antonio. Known as San Antonio’s “first suburb,” the area was settled by German immigrants in the late 19th century. They named the main street into the the neighborhood in honor of King Wilhelm I of Prussia. The streets are lined with mansions in varying styles, many of which have been painstakingly restored. On the outskirts of the neighborhood lies Pioneer Flour Mills and the adjacent historic home that once housed the founder C.H. Guenther and his family. The lower level of the family home is now a fantastic restaurant that features baked goods using the products produced at the still operating mill. I had the most heavenly biscuits and gravy on earth. Upstairs there is a museum with historic relics from the home and a gift shop with products from the mill. I left armed with mixes to help me replicate my delicious meal. Yum!
After arriving back at the hotel, I accidentally discovered that I just so happened to be in San Antonio on the eve of 178th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo. After checking in with Jeff at his conference, I wandered back down to the fort to see if the battle was brewing. I had overheard that every year the San Antonio Living History Association performs a reenactment. It turns out the fighting wouldn’t begin until dawn and I wasn’t about to come back at 6 am. I was, however, able to catch the first part of the pre-battle muster. There was a troop of costumed SALHA members milling about with one man reading off names and then (altering his voice slightly) shouting “here!” I got bored about ten names in and wandered off into the streets of San Antonio. I still wanted to check out the Space Needle-esque “Tower of the Americas” at Hemisfair Park.
Hemisfair and the Tower were built in 1968 for the World’s Fair. I guess I expected it to be like the Seattle Center, but I was disappointed. On this particular day, the Tower of the Americas was closed for a private function, so I didn’t get to fully experience what it could have been, but my gut tells me that it would have sucked. The surrounding “park” was dirty and run-down with no public spaces. There were some signs indicating renovation plans for the 50th Anniversary in 2018, but I have no intention of coming back to check it out.
I guess there is something to be said about timing and first impressions. When we arrived in town, the weather was absolutely horrible and the streets were abandoned. Before going to San Antonio everyone mentioned the fabulous River Walk, but when I got there the only excitement we encountered was a homeless man with freshly pissed pants (seriously). By Wednesday, the weather had improved and people had returned to the streets. There was an energy about town that was absent when I had arrived, but unfortunately I had already made up my mind about San Antonio.
I didn’t like the touristy vibe set off by the Ripley’s Believe or Not! Odditorium and the knock-off “Louis Tussauds” Wax Museum and other trashy storefronts that crowded the streets around the Alamo. Much of the downtown area was boarded up and dirty. I found myself constantly thinking, “What would Colonel William Travis or Davy Crockett think about what has become of San Antonio?” Would they be proud that they fought for Texan Independence to have it turned into this?
Maybe I just had bad timing, but then again maybe all of our historic places are turning into traps meant to lure the tourist dollar instead of opportunities to learn about history. At the risk of sounding old, I find it depressing that the significance of meaningful historic places has been so horribly diminished by the necessity to buy cheap souvenirs to commemorate our visit. I needed to buy my keychains and get the hell out of here.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at the airport on Thursday I discovered that I had booked a return flight for WEDNESDAY.
Damn you, San Antonio.