Understanding the Lone Star State
San Antonio, Texas
If you’ve ever wondered why Texas seems to have a different attitude than the other 49 states, the answer lies in downtown San Antonio, at the site of an old stone fort, otherwise known as “The Alamo.” What looked like just some ancient walls to me were being visited and photographed with incredible fervor, throughout my recent two-day stay, during which I stayed right next-door at the wonderful Emily Morgan Hotel. In fact, I was surprised to learn from our tour guide that the Alamo is the most visited site in Texas.
San Antonio Architecture
I realized that I needed more background on what went on at the Alamo, not only to understand its history but also to understand the mindset of Texans. My friend Linda and I decided to go the nearby IMAX theatre to see the film, Alamo: The Price of Freedom, in order to gain some insight. What I learned was that the Alamo isn’t just a walled fortress in the minds of Texans; it is the place where their one-time identity as the Independent Republic of Texas was forged.
A large part of the romantic vision of the Alamo is owed to the following poetic words of a soldier named William Barret Travis whose fervent message has ignited passionate feelings in Texans ever since the famous battle.
“The enemy has demanded surrender atdiscretion;
otherwise the garrison are to be put to the sword if the fort is taken.
I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls.
I shall never surrender nor retreat.
I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country.”
Travis and his small army held off the invading Mexican Dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna for almost two weeks when they were surrounded at the Alamo Mission in 1836. Although the Texans were killed by over 2000 Mexicans, the resulting delay gave other Texans time to organize and they were able to ultimately defeat Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. This victory led to the establishment of an independent Texas.
At various times during my trip I found myself wondering how memorable this event would have been without Travis’s words. I also find myself wondering if Texans realize that they are no longer a country in their own right since various signs and flags in tribute to the former “Republic of Texas” are on display throughout the city.
Cradle of Texas Liberty
San Antonio is particularly known for the distinctive chain of historic Catholic missions that dot the area, the first of which was the Alamo. These were established during the 18th century by Spanish settlers trying to extend their domain up from Mexico. The structures were much more than just churches; they provided structure for the budding society and formed the foundation for today’s San Antonio. One of their primary goals was to convert the local Native Indians who were brought to live within the missions. The stone churches are lovely to behold, but make sure to check out the museum and see the film in the visitor’s center in order to get a real sense of what early life at the mission was like.
In addition to being filled with history, San Antonio is a beautiful and romantic city and my favorite area, by far, is the River Walk. Lined with lights and tables for two, this is the place where people congregate to dine each night at the elegant restaurants along the banks of the San Antonio River. The first thing we did, which I highly recommend, was to take a boat tour with Rio San Antonio Cruises. The extremely exuberant guide proceeded to explain all he knew about the city’s history, architecture, culture and sights, all without stopping to take a breath. I would love to be able spend several days just checking out the tiered levels of shops that surround the River Walk, as well as sitting in the various cafés and eateries, while gazing out at the river with its lush greenery. Happily I did have a chance to experience two excellent riverside restaurants, the elegant Fig Tree which makes the serving of gourmet French food into a skilled performance and Casa Rio, the oldest Mexican Food restaurant on the river where traditional items such as tamales and enchiladas are available.
We also checked out the King William Historic District, which was the most elegant residential area in the 1800′s and is now a fashionable neighbourhood. A really nice place to have lunch is Guenther House, a beautiful restored home that is now includes a museum, restaurant and store. I was impressed when my tea arrived in an authentic looking cast iron teapot that looked as if it came right from the 1800′s. The food was wonderful; especially the desserts and the place had a nice ladies lunch type of ambiance.
There is a major Spanish influence throughout the city and it is particularly evident in several of the market areas, such as El Mercado, a Mexican style market where colorful crafts and goods are sold and La Villita, a quaint historic area that is populated with local artisans and unique shops.
I tended to think of Texans, before this trip, as Americans with some Mexican flavor, so I was fascinated by my visit to the Institute of Texan Cultures where I learned that such diverse groups as the Swedes, the Filipinos, and the Italians, just to name a few, had an integral role in the creation of present day Texas. This is a great user-friendly attraction, where displays, artifacts and writings help to educate visitors on Texas history and various cultural influences. Larger displays are devoted to especially significant groups such as African-Americans, Native Americans and Tejanos (people of Spanish/Mexican descent).
It was a wonderful treat to stay at the classy Emily Morgan Hotel. The building was originally a medical arts center, as is evidenced by the terra cotta gargoyles hanging over the ground floor windows, that hint at medical maladies and it has been cited as one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival Architecture in America.
Inside, the atmosphere is reserved with a boutique hotel-style feel. It’s sophisticated and modern yet comfortable. The guest room seemed small at first but then I fell in love with my bed and couldn’t get enough of it. The bedding was luxurious but what made it a wonderful experience was the down featherbed atop of the mattress. I literally felt as if I was floating on a cloud all night. The bathroom was large and perfect for personal pampering, with its deep Jacuzzi tub and make-up table, along with Aveda products and a comfy bathrobe made from premium waffle cotton.
Downstairs I found a nice dark bar/restaurant with a contemporary feel and I enjoyed the tasty hors d’oeuvres that were served with drinks around the cocktail hour. The comfortable library had plush couches in shades of deep brown and was a nice place to relax with a complimentary cup of coffee in the morning. I found the pool and hot tub to be especially warm and inviting. Yes, there was pretty much everything that I like in a hotel at the Emily Morgan and its location is a major bonus; I greatly enjoyed having the freedom of being just a quick walk away from the many restaurants and attractions in the downtown district.
My favorite meal in San Antonio was at a little out-of-the-way place called Beto’s. I’ve had the usual Tex-Mex fare but had never tried empanadas before. Let’s just say I am now a big fan of these savory delights of delicious main course fillings that are wrapped in flaky pastry and then baked.
Would You Like To Decorate Your House?
The desert empanadas were so delicious that our group almost fought over the last banana w/leche quemade & pecan offering. They also had alternatives for people on a variety of special diets, something that impressed me in such as small place.
San Antonio is the type of city that invites you to return. It has a friendly small town atmosphere but it is actually a large city with a wonderful variety of shopping areas, restaurants, as well as natural and historic attractions. My two-day stay barely scratched the surface of all that is San Antonio and it certainly stimulated my desire for a return visit. I have a feeling that I’m not done with my explorations of wonderfully atmospheric San Antonio.