Monday, 26 January 2009

San Antonio




San Antonio is towards the south of Texas and feels very much more Mexican than American. The balmy evenings, the colourful Mexican market, the architecture of the buildings, and the number of people speaking Spanish around us all added to the impression. The city, in fact, grew out of a Spanish mission and presidio (fort), built in 1718 as part of Spain's attempt to colonize and secure what was then the northern frontier of the colony of Mexico. Texas was then a buffer zone between Mexico and the French-held Louisiana, and Spain was keen to cement her hold on the area by introducing settlers and converting the natives to Catholicism and loyalty to the Spanish government. The missions in general had no great effect, but the San Antonio area was the exception to the rule, growing into an important city with five missions strung out along the San Antonio river. The first of these, San Antonio de Valero, later became well-known as the Alamo, where 182 Texans died in 1836 fighting against the Mexican army.


Naturally, our first stop in the city had to be this most famous tourist attraction, which today is a shrine for those who died, a symbol of Texan pride, and a gift shop selling Alamo cookie cutters and Davy Crockett coonskin caps. We had a crash course in Texan history and admired the beautiful gardens.


Wandering out again into the streets, Graham announced that he was hungry and wanted a hot dog. Where on earth would we find a hot dog in San Antonio, I wondered - but lo and behold, two minutes later a tiny shop appeared in front of us, announcing that it sold "Chicago-style hot dogs". We purchased two all-beef wieners with a brightly coloured array of toppings, and had fun attempting to eat them without dripping too much stuff down our trousers.


This accomplished, we aimed for a little more sophistication and visited the Catholic cathedral with its stations of the cross, statues of the saints and handful of praying visitors. We walked past O. Henry's house, a tiny cottage which the short-story writer rented for $6/week, and the Spanish governor's house, a beautiful stone building. Heading back across town, we stumbled across La Villita, formerly a part of town occupied by German immigrants but now preserved as calm fountain-centred squares and quirky shops. The highlight there was a river theatre, a stone amphitheatre stepping its way down to the river, with a little stage crowned by a carillion on the opposite bank. Crossing the road, we walked through the HemisFair park in the gathering dusk and gazed up at the Tower of the Americas, one of those concrete pillars with a revolving restaurant on top which every aspiring American city seems to have.


It growing dark, we headed back into town to experience San Antonio's night-life on the Paseo del Rio (river walk) which is justly hailed as a great reason to go to San Antonio. The whole complex sits one level below the streets, and consists of a loop of river with various offshoots, all of which are bordered by landscaped paths and numerous shops, hotels and restaurants. We took a boat tour and had pointed out to us the "Lego hotel" where all the rooms were built separately and completely furnished, down to the towels, before being hoisted into position; thus earning the distinction of being the fastest-built hotel in the world. We learnt that the city drains this section of the river for a week every year in order to fish out all the cameras, watches, restaurant chairs and so on which get dropped into it. In true San Antonio fashion this gets turned into a party and they have a Mud Fiesta to go with the occasion. We ate Mexican, of course, at a riverside restaurant called the Iron Cactus, where I enjoyed a margarita and Graham risked a bright green drink known as cactus juice, which tasted as potent as it looked.


Next morning we were treated to Texas-shaped waffles for breakfast, and thus fortifed drove down to Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, whose stone-walled courtyard and dome-topped church looked absolutely gorgeous in the morning sunlight. Intending only to be tourists, we followed a group of people into the building and were surprised to find ourselves being encouragingly ushered to seats, as Mass was about to begin. The pews were packed with a mixture of Latinos and Anglos; the walls were roughly whitewashed but the ceiling was decorated with colourful blocks of paint; a huge weathered iron chandelier hung in the centre; and the whole was dominated by a carved wooden structure on the front wall with a large crucifix hung upon it. The Mass was in English with some sung responses and psalms, led by an able enough female cantor; it was close enough to an Anglican communion service that I could follow the order easily enough. Although as Protestants we shouldn't technically have received Mass, the congregation seemed inclusive enough that we decided they probably wouldn't mind, and followed the others up to the front rail. We were somewhat disconcerted to be offered an empty goblet with the words "This is the blood of Christ"; what theological implications this has for the sufficiency of His blood I don't know, but there was just enough for us each to get a tiny drop on our tongue, so presumably we're covered.



Emerging again into the bright-lit morning, we decided to drive up to Fredericksburg, a town a few hours north-west of San Antonio. Here the German influence is very strong - sehr Deutsch - and we ate lunch in a local cafe which served Bratwurst with large amounts of pickled red cabbage. A few people were actually speaking German on the street, and we wondered if they were visitors, or whether some of the locals still hang on to the language of the Vaterland.


Fredericksburg is a popular spot for those wishing to explore the Texas hill country, which is vast and dry and covered in brown grass and prickly plants of all descriptions. Some way north of Fredericksburg is an enormous granite dome known as Enchanted Rock, recognisable from some distance by the streams of people walking up and down it like a procession of ants. Despite the usual ominous warning signs at the trailhead, the way to the top resembles a gigantic sloping pavement and wasn't difficult at all. In other places great blocks of granite have sheared off from the surface and lie tumbled over each other. You can wriggle underneath, enjoying the cool still air and hoping that the massive rocks don't suddenly decide to shift and squash you. Coming back down I accidentally bumped into a cactus and discovered that those spikes aren't just for show; I had to extract two large spines from my leg.


All that remained of our trip was to drive the four hours north, back through the empty reaches of central Texas as the sun set red in the west and the dark closed in, miles and miles up half-empty highways until it was a shock to reach the bright lights of the city and realise that we were back to civilisation, and home.

More photos are, as always, on Facebook

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lovely piece of narrative Martha. Love Dad

John E said...

I'm jealous of the balmy evenings. It's so cold in VA right now.

spanish mission archi said...

Lovely piece of narrative Martha. Love Dad