I thought I would like San Antonio more than I did. The Alamo is a “Shrine” here. But across from this martyred plaza where Travis, Crockett and Bowie made their last stand are Ripley’s, Guinness, Coyote Ugly, Tomb Raider, Mirror Maze, and Tussauds. Hop On trolley-style buses, horse drawn carriages and a huge gazebo make this more a Disneyland Main Street than a Tex-Mex city. Canal tour boats and miles of River Walk remind me less of Texas than Pirates of the Caribbean. There is even a 622′ Tower of the Americas, a Seattle Needle knock-off if ever there was one. However, San Antonio is definitely worth a couple days visit.
When thinking San Antonio, one primarily thinks of the Alamo. In point of fact, there are five missions in the area of San Antonio and all within a 5-mile radius along the San Antonio River. Each mission is unique and worth a visit and all can be easily seen in a few hours. An exuberant person could walk or bike them but probably it is best to drive, at least to reach the furthest south of the missions. To tour only the Alamo is to miss the best reason to visit San Antonio.
In the 1700s, Franciscan missionaries established six missions along the San Antonio River in close proximity to what would become downtown San Antonio. To increase the Spanish population, Spaniards from the Canary Islands were brought over to populate these communities. The primary purpose of these missions was to provide a buffer against the French, and ultimately the Mexicans, convert the native people to Catholicism, teach the natives to be Europeans and learn European crafts and skills. Need I spell out “exploitation?”
Each mission was a fortified village and meant to be self-sufficient with its own church, granary, living area, workshops, fields and pastures. Originally, each mission was established in east Texas as a buffer to the French and later moved to the San Antonio area. Unlike California missions built within a day’s walk of each other, missions here were built close together for safety and support.
Five missions survive.
Beginning furthest south of downtown is Mission San Francisco de la Espada, the mission most vulnerable to attack at the time. In March 1731, the mission transferred to the San Antonio River area as a way to solidify Spanish territorial claims in the New World against encroachment from France in what was then recognized as New Spain. A friary was built in 1745, and the church completed in 1756.
Today, the rural setting reflects a time when missions were relatively isolated and self-sustaining. Espada is rather small, but its brick facade church is charmingly simple with a beautifully carved wood beam ceiling and plain interior. Little remains of the surrounding buildings but the stone walls give an idea of size and purpose. The bells still work.
Mission San Juan Capistrano has occupied a rural landscape next to the San Antonio River since 1731. Its restored irrigation ditches show how the mission fields of beans, corn and melons were watered. Again, partially restored stone buildings and what is left of the surrounding stone walls give me an idea of what this working mission looked like in the 1700s. Drawings and brass dioramas also assist. The church is bright whitewashed Spanish architecture with a simple interior and brass bells. It looks to be the smallest of the mission churches.
Between missions Espada and San Juan is the Espada Acequia or Aquaduct. To ensure a constant water supply for its fields, Franciscans and Indians dug ditches curving along the contours of the river valley. In one area the flat lay of the land impeded the natural flow of water so Franciscans oversaw the construction of seven gravity-flow ditches, dams, and a 15-mile network that irrigated approximately 3,500 acres of land using an ancient innovation to keep the water moving. Elevated stone aqueducts moved the water to irrigate the fields. (The use of acequias was originally brought to the arid regions of Spain and Portugal by the Romans and Moors.) The main ditch continues to carry water to the mission and its former farm lands. This water is still used by neighboring residents.
Following Mission Road, I arrive at Mission San Jose with its single ornate bell tower. Built in 1720, it was considered the strongest and most beautiful of the missions. The outer walls are restored and reflects the mission’s defense against attack. All six missions were about a mile to 2 miles apart so if one mission was attacked, another could come to its rescue. Also, missions were built along the river to insure a water source for the agriculture which was grown around its walls.
High double arched walkways and walls and rounded domes are typical of Mission San Jose. The walls of the church are of simple plaster with a high central dome, geometric paintings line walls and a distinctive blue alter decorates the interior. Interesting stone ovens proliferate around the site, many individual rooms for Friars encircle the walls, and ubiquitous water wells dot the plaza – all good indications of the life of the Franciscans.
Also at Mission San Jose is the National Visitor Center with its displays, maps and explanations of the missions. Guides take visitors around the site. A movie explains the settlement and building of the missions and the conversion and treatment of the indigenous Indians. If one listens closely, it is subtlety told that the Indians, perhaps, did not get the best of deals from the foreign invaders.
Mission Concepción is particularly unique. Moved here from eastern Texas in 1731, the mission is about three miles south of downtown San Antonio alongside the river. Its Moorish design is evidenced by its dome and other points of architecture. Nearly all of the structure seen here is original. The church is beautiful and decorated with a unique tile design and double bell towers not seen in the other mission churches. Soaring interior arches and wall designs decorate an otherwise simple facade.
In the three-mile stretch between Mission Concepción and downtown was another mission which no longer stands.
But Mission San Antonio de Valero is the most famous of the missions in San Antonio and the reason most people visit. Located in the center of downtown and in the hearts of Texans, Mission San Antonio was established in 1718 as the first of the six missions built in the area. It is famous as the site of the siege of the Alamo in 1836.
Most of the original mission is gone, destroyed, ill-abused by local businesses, or deteriorated from neglect until saved and restored as a shrine by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. The small church, quiet gardens, and Long Barracks represent but a small portion of what was the original mission at the time of the 13-day siege by Santa Anna’s soldiers. This is the smallest of the five missions I have visited, but the most revered.
Entering the church, most of which was unfinished in 1836, the idea of reverence pauses at the entry where I first have to pose for the “tourist photo” taken by the only human on the planet who has not heard of selfies. Inside the church are the mementos and history of this historic battle site. In the Long Barracks, amid an excellent display of history and artifacts, is a short movie on the Alamo. All go a long way in describing the history, battle, and consequences of this historic time.
In front of the Alamo is Alamo Plaza, the true site of the battle. All remnents of the walls, armaments and buildings of the last stand for these brave men are gone. There is a granite cenotaph in the center of the plaza listing the names of the approximately 200 men who died here defending the Alamo and their independence from Mexico. However, the “hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty” ceases across from Alamo Plaza.
Now standing where cannons and muskets and names like Travis, Bowie and Crockett once defended the honor of Texas are names like Ripley’s, Guinness, Coyote Ugly and Tussauds. The chimes, bells and hawkers commercialize the Alamo Plaza to a new height of tourist kitsch. I suppose the younger you are, the more you will love it all. For me, I grew up on “Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.” So I guess I am a Fess Parker kind of gal looking for Santa Barbara weather and a good winery.
A must-stop to drown my resentment of kitsch and escape the 90° heat is the historic Hotel Menger Bar. The hotel was built in 1858 by German immigrant William Menger. By the 1870s, the Menger was the best known hotel in the southwest. The hotel is mentioned several times in the works of O Henry and hosted such notables as Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Babe Ruth, and Mae West.
The bar hosted Teddy Roosevelt at least three times, most notably in 1898 when he used the bar to recruit Rough Riders who then went to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War. In 1876, the first public demonstration of barbed wire was held outside the Menger and orders taken afterwards inside. The hotel also holds the unofficial title of “The Most Haunted Hotel in Texas.” However, the only spirit I witnessed was a local Lone Star beer among brass spittoons and historic photographs and Texas Ranger mementos.
Two important buildings near the Main Plaza include the Cathedral of San Fernando and the Spanish Governor’s Palace. In March 1731, 55 colonists from the Canary Islands formed the first settlement near Villa de San Fernando. The original church was built between 1738 and 1750 and claims to be the oldest cathedral in the State of Texas. Built by Canary Islanders, in the interior hangs a picture of the Virgin of Candelaria, the patroness of the Canary Islands. In 1831, Jim Bowie married in San Fernando. It was also at this church in 1836, that the Mexican General Santa Anna hoisted a flag of “no quarter” from its tower, marking the start of the siege and the death warrant on Alamo defenders.
Today, the earthly remains of the Alamo defenders are interred in the front of the Cathedral, including those of Travis, Bowie and Crockett.
The Spanish Governor’s Palace was built in the first half of the 18th century, possibly as early as 1722, and is an excellent example of an aristocratic early Spanish house in Texas. In fact, some consider it the most beautiful building in San Antonio. The keystone above its entrance is marked with the coat-of-arms of Spain’s King Ferdinand VI and dated 1749. The building was the residence and working offices of the local military captain, not the palace for the region’s Spanish governor. In 1722 it became the capitol building of the Tejas region of Spanish Texas. The single level masonry and stucco building features ten rooms, a wonderful courtyard and fountains, and is furnished with furniture and artifacts of the period. It is also alleged to be haunted.
Behind the Governor’s Palace is the colorful Historic Market Square – El Mercado. A huge indoor and outdoor plaza lined with restaurants, shops and produce stands. Market Square is the largest Mexican market in the U.S. Not being a shopper or interested in “Day of the Dead” paper mâché dolls, the Guadalajara lamps, sounds of mariachi music and colorful photo opportunities make for a fun break from other San Antonio sights.
But, the real draw, over and over, lunch, dinner and Happy Hour, is the San Antonio River Walk. The River Walk is a network of about five miles of waterways, both along the San Antonio River and man-made canals, one story beneath the busy streets of the city. Lined with huge trees and gardens, bars, shops and restaurants, the walks wind and loop under bridges and even through buildings, connecting many of the major sites of the city.
River Walk is THE place to be. It is like a Pirates of the Caribbean ride without the Pirates. Instead, under the shade of gigantic cypress trees and beside the cool, but muddy, river I can enjoy a beer or margarita, chips and salsa amid scores of tourists, strolling musicians and bread-hungry ducks. But, even though they eat from my hand, the ducks don’t quack and tell the complete story of the River Walk, so I also take the $6 boat tour of the waterways.
And because I can drink just so much beer in the heat and still return upright to my cricket-infested room, I tend to hang around the ducks quite a lot. They have the coolest spot in town. Tonight it is Happy Hour margaritas and human conversation with a Chinese gentleman at the next table. Our conversation concerns the large carp in the river. As we drill down in details about where we call home, I learn that not only is he a first in knowing where my home town of Schererville is, but he lives around the lake where I spent many childhood Sundays. His home is less than a mile from my parent’s home of over 50 years.
Travel once again emphasizes that it is indeed a small world after all (another great Disney water ride). I guess, in spite of the plethora of tourist kitsch, I liked San Antonio.