After the laid back ambiance of the state park, I was ready for some big city action. I was really looking forward to San Antonio. It had been almost 20 years since I visited here, and Fred had never been. We moved our arrival date up by a day because we heard they were having a Mardi Gras parade on the River at the River Walk on Sunday. Our friends from Alaska, Leslie and Robert were also arriving and we planned to spend some time together, including the parade.
We booked ourselves into the same park they were staying at, Travelers World RV Park
. There may have been less expensive places to stay, but the beauty of this park is its proximity to downtown and the River Walk. It is also located right in the middle of the Mission trail, midway between four historic missions. An added plus was the bus stop right across the street where we could catch the bus that took us right to the River Walk. What a deal. And it was a nice park too. We had a huge site, must have been 60 feet long.
One of the most well known venues for tourism in San Antonio is the River Walk. When I was here in 1990, I had visited it, perusing the great little shops and cafes and enjoying the verdant ambiance. I looked forward to returning and sharing the experience with Fred. I never learned much about it, just assumed it was something the city had created for tourism. In reality, it’s origin has more to do with flood control. It was designed in 1929 by Robert Hugman, an Architecture graduate of the University of Texas. The city’s proposed solution for the flood problem was to fill in portions of the river with concrete (functional but ugly). Hugman’s vision incorporated beauty with function, and he spent the next 10 years lobbying, speaking, writing, and calling on business leaders to believe in his design.
Finally in 1939, Hugman’s proposal was adopted and built with the help of a Work Projects Administration (WPA) grant. This gorgeous parkway was created, incorporating over 11,000 new trees and shrubs and 17,000 feet of walkway, fountains, bridges and even an outdoor theater. (I must throw in an aside here…in the three years we have been on the road, I must say we have visited a lot of wonderful places that exist due to the hard work of the CCC and the WPA during and after the Great Depression. And I am grateful that our government had the vision and courage to make those choices.)
Originally the buildings along the Walk housed offices, hotels and even a school. Some of the buildings fell into disrepair. In the 1960’s, the city recognized the tourism potential bringing a lively concentration of shops, boutiques, cafes and clubs into the mix. A 175 year old school was transformed into an elegant luxury class hotel. Today, the River Walk attracts over 7 million visitors annually, and San Antonio’s tourism is a $3 Billion industry.
That Sunday, all four of us, Leslie, Robert, Fred and I hopped on the bus to the River Walk to stroll around, have some Margaritas and watch the Mardi Gras parade. There also happened to be a craft show set up along the Walk, and Leslie and I perused the many jewelry vendors. After walking around a bit, taking a lot of pictures, and just generally acting the tourists, we found great seats right at riverside to have Margaritas and snacks and watch the parade. Naturally, it was nothing like the one in New Orleans, but we had fun anyway, cheering on the floats and leaning over the edge to catch beads being thrown. Robert was quite lucky catching many of the beaded necklaces which he shared and we all sat around wearing them. It was just a fun way to spend the day.
No trip to San Antonio would be complete without seeing the famous Alamo, so we went back another day to tour the Alamo and take one of the water taxi tours, learning even more about the history of the River Walk. And naturally we found a yummy restaurant for a bite to eat. We’re all kind of OD’ed on Mexican cuisine, so we were happy to find a great Italian restaurant for a change.
The Alamo is most famous, of course, for the failed battle between Texas Revolutionaries (called Texians and Tejanos) and Mexican General Santa Anna and his troops in 1836. But it was originally built as Mission San Antonio de Valero in 1724 and was home to missionaries and their Indian converts for 70 years. In the early 1800’s, Spanish military were stationed here to fight against the Mexicans in their struggle for independence. They named the mission “Alamo”, the Spanish word for cottonwood, in honor of their hometown. The Mexicans defeated the Spaniards and took over the Alamo in December of 1835. In 1836, the Texans battled the Mexican soldiers in San Antonio as they fought for Texas independence, forcing them to surrender and again the Alamo changed hands.
It was a short lived victory as they were surprised by General Santa Anna’s army, fighting valiantly for 13 days, hoping for reinforcements to arrive. In a fight to the death, all of the almost 200 men lost their lives in this defeat, the most well known being Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and the commander, William B. Travis. The Alamo continues to symbolize the heroic struggle for freedom against overwhelming odds.
The building itself is quite simple, and sits today strangely amidst the contemporary buildings of downtown San Antonio. Unlike the other four nearby Missions that are owned by the U.S. government and maintained by the National Park Service, this historic site is owned by the state of Texas, but gets no funds from the government. It is preserved and cared for by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), funded solely by donations and proceeds from the gift shop. Only exterior photos are allowed as the interior is considered a sacred memorial.
Before Leslie and Robert left, Leslie and I got to spend a decadent spa day together. Leslie had discovered a massage school here and had already made some appointments for really low cost treatments. After perusing the treatment menu of Academy for Massage
, and their costs, I seized the opportunity for some pampering. I selected the De-Stress Express package, not that I have any stress of course, but the package included everything I wanted: a 15 minute herbal whirlpool bath, an hour and a half massage, and a 15 minute mini-European facial. Ahhhhh. And all of this for the grand sum of $65! Period! No tipping allowed. By law the students are not allowed to accept gratuities because they are not yet licensed. I tell you, you can’t beat that with a stick.
The next time you are in a sizable city and feel the need for some relaxation, check the phone book for massage schools. Funny, I had read that as an economical tip a long time ago, and filed it back in my brain in the section for useful/useless information. Apparently my cerebral file cabinet is a bit messy because I hadn’t really thought about it again. Thanks, Leslie, for reminding me :) And the Massage school just happened to be next door to a café that Leslie was familiar with called la Madeleine. So before we went home, we stopped there to pick up some yummy pastries and deserts to take home to our “boys” for after dinner.
And while I’m on the topic of “sizable cities” let me tell you that San Antonio is way bigger than we ever thought. We knew it was a pretty big city, but were surprised when Robert mentioned that it was the 6th largest in the country. Fred couldn’t believe it and later googled it, only to find that Robert was close…it is the 7th largest. Smaller than Houston, but bigger than Dallas, it is the most visited city in Texas (20 million visitors a year), which would support the claim of a $3 Billion tourism industry. The city itself has a population of over 1.3 million, with a metropolitan area population of 2 million. I had no idea.
Although we concentrated our time in the downtown area and the nearby missions, we did experience it’s large geographic size when we made several treks to the local Petco and Petsmart stores around town searching for the perfect “kitty condo” for our beloved Phoenix, to complete our remodeling furniture acquisitions. (But that is the subject for another blog, soon to come.) And just to finish the size demographics, it is also home to one of the largest military concentrations in the U.S. Both Army and Air Force are represented here with multiple installations each, including an Army medical center.
The last thing I did before we left San Antonio was to spend one afternoon visiting the other historic missions. There are four along the mission trail which ran right past our campground. I didn’t really allow myself enough time to see them all. They are fascinating and it is easy to spend a lot of time just admiring and exploring. I only got to three of the four, really only getting enough time to inspect two of them thoroughly, arriving at the third just before closing time. Funny, but my recollection of the last time I was here is that exactly the same thing happened. You’d think I would learn, wouldn’t you?
The missions were established by Franciscan missionaries and Spanish colonizers in the 1700’s with a two-fold purpose: the spiritual conversion (Christianization) of the native population (the Coahuiltecan Indians) and the continued advancement and establishment of the Spanish empire in the New World. Water, timber and game in this rich valley attracted the Spanish explorers and the missions were the seeds for one of the most successful Spanish communities in Texas.
Agriculture quickly became a rich source of their livelihood spurred on by the establishment of a highly successful system of irrigation known as the acequia system. With rich farm and pastureland, the missions became regional suppliers of produce and meat. The early missions were simple clusters of wood and adobe buildings, but as tensions among the different tribes increased, they became walled communities. Many Indians were happy to live inside the mission compounds for the safety they provided.
The once scattered tribes of nomadic hunters and gatherers became sedentary farmers. The men worked the fields and the women were taught to cook, sew and spin, tend gardens, make soap, pottery and candles. The essence of the mission system was discipline, and the missionaries replaced traditional Indian rituals with religious festivals teaching Christian beliefs. Some did flee the missions to return to their old lives. But most accepted Catholicism and became active participants in Spanish society. These missions flourished and became the foundation of the city of San Antonio.
I spent a lot of time at the two largest missions. The first, Mission Concepcion, is the best preserved and least altered mission in the group. Gone are many of the colorful geometric designs that graced this church, both inside and out. Some faded work is still visible on some of the inside walls. In 1988, conservators cleaned and preserved the original wall paintings inside the convento, removing centuries of dirt and stabilizing wall surfaces. They did not attempt to reproduce or restore, but simply maintain what was left.
The second mission I visited, Mission San Jose, is the largest restored mission. The church has been quite extensively restored, and the adjacent mill was rebuilt on the site of the original in 1930. The mill, built in 1794 was the first in Texas, and was an attempt to introduce wheat into the traditional Indian diet of maize. It also produced flour for surrounding settlements. Attached to the church are the ruins of the convento, which was living quarters for the missionaries and their lay assistants. The ruins standing today reflect a major reconstruction effort begun by the Benedictine monks in 1861, work that was never completed.
Doors to some of the Indian quarters were open so you could see the small quarters in which they lived, usually just two rooms: a main room that contained a hearth for warmth and cooking, and another small room probably for sleeping. Further down the wall, after many closed doors, I saw once again an open door from which came a humming sound. I decided to investigate and cracked up when I looked inside and saw a colorful Coke machine plugged into an electrical outlet. Obviously a modern day convenience. Strange and jarring, and so out of place.
While all four missions are active church parishes today, the one at San Jose seems to be the most active with daily Mass, Monday through Friday in the chapel, Saturday and Sunday in the big church, and regularly performed Baptisms and Weddings.
I really enjoyed spending time learning about these historic Missions that formed the basis for the city of San Antonio, and appreciated the beauty of the Spanish architecture. They are truly a tribute to the workmanship of their time.