Think of San Antonio, Texas, and you think of the River Walk. Of all of the cities bisected by a river, San Antonio has made that river the most successful anchor for its tourist industry. As regular visitors, we have enjoyed watching both the city and the River Walk grow. We arrived here in November and found the downtown area filled with hotels and motels, more than ever before. The entire city is thriving. Here's a note about some of the sights we've seen in the three weeks we've been here.
Today the River Walk defines San Antonio as a major tourist and convention center. It grew out of the efforts of a local women's group, the San Antonio Conservation Society, whose persistence, coupled with the River boat risks of seasonal floods, led to today's amazing construction.
The River Walk itself is set below the downtown streets, so you reach it by descending one of the many sets of stairs, often next to a restaurant. A pleasant walk is along the middle, near the Marriott or Hyatt hotels where there is plenty of accommodation for outdoor coffee or cocktails or dining. The river boats are always busy; some are just taxis, others serve food and drink, but most of them offer guided tours which rival the experience of an Amsterdam canal boat. Often a mariachi band will entertain the passers-by. The pathway has recently been extended north to the museums and south to the missions so an entire two-week vacation could easily be spent just along the River Walk! The more remote reaches have a long way to go in terms of commercial development, but the infrastructure is now in place.
The surprising part of the San Antonio experience, and what draws us back every few years, is the variety and quality of the rest of the city. You can spend weeks here always visiting something new. The Knitted tree sweater people are friendly, pretty easygoing, and generally seem happy. But perhaps the best feature of this city, at least for the visitor, is that San Antonio has a history of supporting historic places and artistic resources.
La Villita, at the top of one River Walk Staircase, is a little collection of houses dating from a couple of hundred years ago. It is a pretty and pleasant neighborhood of artists' studios and shops which has grown slowly over recent times. We wandered in one morning to find some people adding to their collection of knitted wraps for the trees. Naturally we wanted to play, too, and just happened to have the remains of a skein of yarn to make a little patch. We have seen yarn wrappings elsewhere -- in Berkeley and in Bavaria, for example -- and they always make us smile.These will be up through the winter, to bring some added color and warmth to the neighborhood. Tamale festival mariachi band
One Sunday we joined hundreds of other people at the Tamale festival at another newly created and growing commercial venue on the site of the old Pearl Brewery. Making tamales is a Christmas tradition, and the festival featured all imaginable fillings and sauces, to eat in or to take home and freeze for the holidays. At the end (long after we'd returned to bed) prizes were given for the tamales and the chefs. Many establishments donated the proceeds to charity. There was music above and below, along the extended River Walk, where an enthusiastic group of amateurs was learning the salsa.
Located in the old Lone Star Brewery is SAMA, the San Antonio Museum of Art. When last we were here it was OK to good, but now it is terrific, having become the principal repository for the Nelson Rockefeller collection of (ancient and modern) Latin American art. SAMA also collects local and regional art; the Latino art dazzles the eye with its bright colors and imaginative, often surreal, figures. Downtown, the Mexican cultural center in Hemisfair Park displayed a collection of modern prints from Mexican artists. Hollywood Park tame deer
We enjoy driving around the many different neighborhoods. In the northern part of the city where we are staying, many of the developments are gated developments containing over-large houses. The rest of the city has many different neighborhoods and just about any ethnic group you could name. Of course, this being south Texas the majority of "minority" residents are Latino, which means lots of colors everwhere, a wide selection of peppers in the supermarket and many many Tex-Mex restaurants. We have explored the Deco District along Fredericksburg Road where theaters and businesses sport distinctive facades, and where an assortment of houses -- some large, some tiny -- have the rounded corners and carved porch posts of the Art Deco style. In the Hollywood Park area, homeowners have decided to protect the area's deer, which are all over the place, browsing in the heavily wooded yards. If you live there and don't like deer, you erect a very strong and very high fence.
In 1922 and 1923 the City of San Antonio and its schoolchildren were busily raising six thousand dollars McNay Museum patio so they could buy a large collection of stuffed animals as the beginnings of a natural history museum, quite unaware of the fact that a local philanthropist, Alfred Witte, had died in 1921 and bequeathed $65,000 for construction of a museum of art, science and natural history to be located in Brackenridge Park and named for his parents! The building materials for the new museum were quickly relocated to the Park, the museum renamed, and all turned out well. Stuffed animals are rather boring, even if placed in dioramas, so we were quite delighted to see the huge boost in science educational materials that have been placed in one of the many buildings located on the museum grounds. Our hotel manager had highly recommended the Witte, and he wasn't wrong.
The McNay Museum is located on a gorgeous estate left as a museum by Marion Koogler McNay in 1950; at the time, her collection of modern European art was marvelous. We'd been here before and enjoyed the dreamy Mediterranean mansion with beautiful architecture, tiles and patios and gardens, heaped with mouth-watering Bright Tejano colors paintings and sculpture. But we were unprepared for the new modern building added by the trustees to display new acquisitions and travelling exhibits. Again we found works of art influenced by the large and growing Hispanic community of San Antonio; this time prints from Chicano artists.
The Spanish colonialists failed: they didn't find the gold in the Sierra Nevada, they failed to subdue the raiding Apaches, and their missionaries failed to create docile communities of agriculturalists. Militarily, their biggest contribution was the decimation of the Native American tribes of the Southwest by European diseases.
But the Spanish did have an enormous effect. They brought horses and cattle and ranching knowledge - branding and roundups - and thereby changed the entire course of American history: they provided the raw materials for the wars between cowboys and indians, which ultimately led to the largest genre in literature and the cinema - the western.
Arguably this cultural transformation started and grew in South Texas, where the land was so similar to the arid cattle ranching country of old Spain. The cattle and horses found natural fodder - there were plains Mission architecturein South Texas then, instead of the mesquite and cactus thickets that abound today. The animals went wild and multiplied and multiplied. The Comanche warriors became a single fighting unit with their horses, which they stole by the tens of thousands, and the Tejano vaqueros, descendants of the early inhabitants of the failed San Antonio missions, provided the ranching know-how for the enormous cattle spreads of the nineteenth century.
The Spanish missionaries also brought master masons and architects and engineers to lead the native Americans who built the lovely string of six missions and waterworks along the Yanaguana river (later renamed for Saint Anthony). Once abandoned and falling to ruin, the missions hope to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The National Park Service and the Diocese of San Antonio are cooperating to restore the beautiful missions, and progress is evident.