© Josephine Matyas
The Alamo and more
San Antonio's revamped River Walk stretches to the Spanish missions, art museums and more
It’s hard to open a newspaper without reading about the comings and goings of people, integration and cultural assimilation. I find myself asking: how long has this been going on? As it turns out, a very long time.
In Texas, it’s a story woven into the missions of San Antonio, the most famous of which is downtown’s The Alamo (thealamo.org), the state’s top visitor attraction.
A well-established crossroads, there’s more to San Antonio than history. The movement of people has fostered a community steeped in a vibrant mix of art, culture and tastes that has been influenced by the past, but generates a forward-looking energy. The story of San Antonio begins with the area’s Spanish missions built along the lush San Antonio River.
“Think about someone living in this area in the early 19th century,” says Anna Martinez-Amos, a National Park Service Interpreter at Mission San José on the outskirts of San Antonio. “From 1821 to 1865 — the span of a lifetime — somebody living here starts out Spanish, then they’re Mexican, then they’re Texan, then American, then part of the Confederacy, and then they’re back to being American again. And it all happens without them moving.”
Initially, the missions were built as way stations for travellers coming up from the interior of New Spain (what today is Mexico) on their way to east Texas. By building missions and growing communities, the Spanish felt they could solidify their toehold, decisively planting the flag for Spain.
Large parts of Mission San José are a reconstruction of what would have been a very busy compound; a self-contained city offering safety and prosperity. The long, low double-wall stone buildings were living quarters for the people residing at the mission, with outdoor communal stone ovens shared by several families. The large Spanish Colonial church, with its curved Roman arches, dominates the tree-dotted, walled compound and would have been the very pulse of daily life.
“The Spanish wanted to bring the Native American Coahuiltecan into the mission and teach them the Spanish way of life for the purpose of becoming Spanish citizens who would then populate the Spanish colony,” says Martinez-Amos.
Martin Vasquez, who leads interpretive tours at The Alamo agrees. “The initial goal of the mission program was to convert Native Americans and establish the area as Spanish territory. But, in 1793, when the missions program ended, The Alamo became a fort.”
When the Texas Revolution erupted, it all came to a (very famous, but bloody) head in 1836. During the Battle of The Alamo, the Mexican army of 3000 well-armed troops stormed a mere 189 men barricaded inside the mission. The names Jim Bowie, William Travis and David Crockett are forever linked with the line Remember The Alamo — a reminder of bravery against overwhelming odds.
All that remains of the original mission are the church and the long limestone walls of the barracks where the troops bunked down. Display cases are filled with artifacts like a locket of Crockett’s hair, a Bowie knife and a Spanish cannon used in the famous battle. Many were donated by celebrity musician Phil Collins, who, with a collection valued at US$15 million, is the world’s most enthusiastic packrat of Alamo artifacts.
It was the river that pulled people to this spot. Today, visitors flock to the 24-kilometre River Walk (thesanantonioriverwalk.com) in downtown San Antonio, much of it a tree-shaded walkway hugging the riverbank lined with shops, galleries, colourful Mexican food restaurants and upscale hotels. Weary walkers can take a break on narrated cruises aboard riverboats that travel up and down the canal.
Just steps from the River Walk, the Briscoe Western Art Museum (briscoemuseum.org; adults US$10) fills several floors of the original public library, a building that was painstakingly restored to its former Art Deco, Neo-Classical glory. The Briscoe is one of San Antonio’s newer museums, ironically making its home in one of the city’s older buildings.
Dedicated to the art of the American West, multi-media stations share floor space with an original Wells Fargo stagecoach, a refurbished chuck wagon and artifacts like a saddle belonging to Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolutionary general who was an advocate for the poor.
This theme of creating something new and beautiful from something old and worn is found all across San Antonio. The eclectic, broad collection of the celebrated San Antonio Museum of Art (samuseum.org; adults US$10) is on display at the restored Lone Star Brewery building. The Persian Ceiling in the front foyer is an installation of dramatic and colourful glass art by sculptor Dale Chihuly. The museum is known for its Antiquities — especially Egyptian, Greek and Roman pottery and sculpture — as well as the collections of Asian and Latin American art.
“San Antonio is good at being true to what these buildings were in the past,” explains Cathy Siegel, director of the annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference, as she sips a craft cocktail at Bohanan’s (bohanans.com), a jazzy Old World lounge in the up-and-coming Houston Street historic district of downtown. “Bars like this are places where the bartenders are knowledgeable and proud of their craft.”
Perhaps nowhere in town struts its renovation cred quite like Pearl (atpearl.com), a restored and expanded brewery warehouse right on the banks of the San Antonio River. In addition to hip restaurants, shops and apartments, Pearl has morphed into the place for music in the outdoor amphitheatre, food festivals, a very authentic taco stand and a weekly farmers’ market. It also houses a campus of the Culinary Institute of America (ciachef.edu), where visitors can register for culinary boot camps, cooking classes and demonstrations.
In the original brick brew house, Chef Jeff Balfour of Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery (southerleigh.com) has created a menu of Texas’ cross-cultural cuisine, marrying a heavy coastal influence with traditional south Texan comfort food. In the complex’s renovated cooper’s house, The Granary Cue & Brew (thegranarysa.com) is known for a huge outdoor smoker that cranks out flavourful sausages, beef brisket and pulled pork. Priding themselves on a “from-scratch” philosophy, the restaurant also serves house-brewed root beer and their own craft beers are on tap.
The pleasing mix of forward-looking entrepreneurship and respect for the city’s past have given Texas’s second largest city a distinct neighbourhood feel. People may come for The Alamo, but it doesn’t take much to convince them to stay awhile and tuck into a plate of ribs, a tangy margarita and a dose of San Antonio arts and culture.
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