Happy Birthday San Antonio

By Liz Campbell

All around me, men have removed their hats. Groups move quietly from one area to the next, and the few who are talking speak in whispers. This is The Alamo, an American shrine, a place where, in 1836, some 200 Texans died fighting Santa Anna’s force of 1,500 Mexicans, killing 600 of them.

Here, famous characters like David (Davy) Crockett and Jim Bowie (of the Bowie knife) breathed their last. And their 13-day battle inspired the words used to this day to rally Americans, “Remember The Alamo!”

Their courage is remarkable. When their commander, William Travis drew a line in the sand and asked volunteers to cross it, every man but one did so. Visible to them was the red flag Santa Anna had raised atop nearby San Fernando Cathedral, built a century or so earlier. It indicated that the Mexicans would take no prisoners. They didn’t; the remains of many of the brave Texans, including Crocket and Bowie, are interred in this Cathedral today. A remarkable light show projected on its walls nightly tells the history of the city.

the Historic Alamo at twilight, San Antonio, Texas.

But the Alamo wasn’t a fortress. It was a Spanish Mission called San Antonio de Valero, one of five built in the early 1700s by Franciscan friars, who strung them like gleaming white pearls along the San Antonio River.

Their purpose was to introduce the local Tejan Indians (from whom Texas takes its name) to Christianity and establish a stronghold for Spain in the region. Together, the missions represent the largest collection of 18th century Spanish architecture in the US, and have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Because it stands in the centre of San Antonio, most of The Alamo’s original setting has been lost, so it seems small and inadequate in comparison to its four sisters, all of which still function as parish churches. The grandest is San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, in the middle of the line. The mission walls, Indian quarters and granary have been restored making it easy to see how this might have once been a thriving community.

Indeed, each mission has preserved elements which offer a glimpse into the past. At Mission San Francisco de la Espada, built in 1790, an elaborate system of aqueducts and acequias still bring water from the river to the farmland. Probably the most beautiful must have been the second, Mission Concepcíon, where the frescoes and painted walls of the church have been partly restored. I can’t help but wonder about the effect this magnificent and striking building would have had on the Native Americans who saw it.

San Antonio, Texas, USA downtown skyline on the river walk.

The Missions are easily accessible by bike and city bus along the eight-mile extension of the San Antonio Riverwalk. Indeed, whatever else you do in San Antonio, plan a morning to walk along at least part of this extraordinary path. Meandering below street level but visible from the many bridges that cross it, this charming network of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River is lined with bars, shops, and restaurants, but along its length trees, tropical plants and flowers abound. Wonderful public art installations draw the eye.

Step up to street level to visit the Alamo, or La Villita, a pretty little Mexican style area of shops and restaurants. The Briscoe Museum of Western Art, one of my favourite galleries in North America, is only a few steps off up.

The Riverwalk ends at the Pearl, a newly developed district with the emphasis on food. This trendy area, whose preserved buildings once belonged to the Pearl Brewery, saved from destruction by local billionaire, Kit Goldsbury. At its centre stands the Hotel Emma, a spectacular piece of industrial chic preserving many of the brewery’s original features.

Surrounding it is foodie central with a dozen different restaurants. Indeed, the third Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is located here and the CIA’s student driven restaurant, NAO, specializes in Latin cuisine. Deciding where to eat can be a real challenge.

Whether you come for the food or the history, this is the perfect year to visit this vibrant, fascinating city. This year San Antonio has been celebrating its Tricentennial. Founded in 1718, come see what 300 years have wrought in this unique piece of Texas.