San Antonio: Missions, Rivers and the Alamo
After New Orleans, we didn’t expect to find another place in the U.S. that felt as exotic and unlike America as the Crescent City. But just a week and a half after leaving Louisiana, we found San Antonio. Like New Orleans, the South Texas City was vibrant and alive, with its own distinctly different culture. It too, made us feel like we’d taken an exit off the highway into another country.
San Antonio was dramatically different than a lot of the other cities we’d seen. Our first impressions were of beautiful limestone and terra cotta buildings against a bright blue sky. We saw buildings that were hundreds of years old, with domed roofs and intricate decorations. We also saw buildings that were modern, like the San Antonio public library. The library was orange red, the color of rocks in the Valley of Fire in Nevada, with odd, imposing angles in concrete, primary shapes.
Our second impressions were at San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which was built, in part, by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930′s. As we walked down to the water, we saw bridges, fountains, tunnels and graceful foliage. We also saw the brightly colored umbrellas over restaurant tables that lined the water. And as it was a warm Sunday morning, the river was full of small motor barges that carried diners having brunch and tourists who wanted a guided tour of the Riverwalk, something we did later on that week. Also on the Riverwalk we found an outdoor, grassy amphitheater at the entrance to a place called La Villita, one of the oldest Colonial Spanish settlements in San Antonio.
After the Riverwalk, one of the first things we did was head to one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Alamo. The Alamo was one of five missions placed along the San Antonio River in the beginning of the 18th century. The Spanish King and Catholic Church placed them there as community centers and living shelters. Their prime focus was on making Texas a part of Spain through the conversion of the Native Indian tribes to Catholicism and the European culture. The compounds also served as defensive forts against aggressive Apache Indians, and refueling stops on the old mission trails.
Over time the Alamo was converted entirely to a military fort and in 1832 it was the site of the famous nine-day siege against Mexican General Santa Ana in the Texas War for Independence. Almost everyone died in the fighting there including Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie, creator of the bowie knife. The remains of the fighters are buried nearby in the Cathedral of San Fernando. We toured the grounds, amazed to be in such an historic building. Texas has a reason to be proud.
As we walked through San Antonio signs of Catholicism were prominent. Mexican crucifixes and statues of Mary and other saints are scattered throughout stores, restaurants and tourist shops. One afternoon we visited the Cathedral of San Fernando. Built of stone and wood with candlelight and the purple accented decorations of the Catholic season of Lent, it was one of the most beautiful churches we’d seen. A simple, distinguished and very spiritual place.
In San Antonio we also visited the missions connected to the Alamo that are at the root of the city’s Catholic heritage. These crumbling, yellow stone buildings are located just outside the city in an approximately ten-mile winding drive. They were breathtaking. At Mission Concepcion, the best preserved of all the missions, we saw a stone church with echoing halls and a simple altar. The remains of a 250-year-old fresco and other inscriptions that were hundreds of years old decorated side areas for prayer and confessions. Iron bells that called the mission to prayer each morning and marked their days topped these churches.
In Mission San Jose we saw a better, though not entirely original representation of how the mission buildings were laid out. With more of the crumbling structure re-built and fortified, we could see how the mission provided a village-like atmosphere for its inhabitants. The church was surrounded by a large courtyard providing meeting spots for classes, a graveyard, a tannery and other tradesmen quarters. A thick wall with a series of doors surrounded the courtyard to defend the compound and provide housing for the mission Indian families. Up to 350 people at a time could be housed inside a mission like the one we saw. We were impressed by the size of the missions, amazed at how Indians and other workers could build their compound with such limited resources.
On another morning in San Antonio we visited the Mexican market. Brightly painted and seemingly vibrant, we expected a bustling and colorful experience. Unfortunately, on a mid-weekday morning in winter we were disappointed. Many of the fresh fruit and vegetable stands were closed while the indoor shops were tourist traps complete with cheap items for sale and bored-looking shopkeepers. We guessed the market would be better in summer with crowds, musicians and busy restaurants.
Although the market might have indicated otherwise, San Antonio has good food. At our first night we ate at a traditional Mexican restaurant while a mariachi band serenaded us with guitars and trumpets. Next to us were Tejanos from the neighborhood – descendants from Texas Americans and native Mexicans. We knew we had come to the right place for authentic food. Later that week, we also ate on the Riverwalk at a place called Boudros where we had homemade guacamole prepared tableside. Boudros and its sister bar Zinc became our two favorite places to eat in the city.
When we were through with touring we realized we’d enjoyed San Antonio almost as much as New Orleans. With its Americanized, Mexican culture we felt like we were in another country and probably wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d been asked for our passport. San Antonio was vibrant, alive and had unique historical color and cultural characteristics. It seemed to be a joyful city, almost pleased with itself and happy, with guitar and trumped music in the air. We were glad to have been able to visit.