San Antonio: A city with a river for a heart

William M. Dowd photo

SAN ANTONIO, TX -- From 10,000 feet the first impression you get is of land as flat as a pool table but considerably less green.

Swooping a bit lower, the snaky San Antonio River comes into view, cutting through the heart of this city that began in 1718 as nothing more than a Franciscan mission in a remote northern province of Mexico.

And then I am here, in the second largest city in The Great State of Texas. Home of both the tiny Alamo and of the 7,000-acre Lackland Air Force Base, among other military installations. Proud location for such modern entertainment complexes as San Antonio SeaWorld, Six Flags Fiesta Texas and the Alamodome, home to the NBA's Spurs. A community that is home to numerous colleges, from the University of Texas/San Antonio to the University of the Incarnate Word. A place soon to be home of the Museo Americano Smithsonian.

But, above all, there is Paseo del Rio, the River Walk.

It is the heartbeat of San Antonio, a waterway down below street level, accessible by stairways or elevators.

Paseo del Rio is the culmination of generations of fooling around with the depth, flow and direction of the river as part of various flood-control, navigation and ecological projects.

Since the 1960s, when the city got ultra-serious about making a portion of the San Antonio River a world-class draw for locals and tourists alike, it has continually developed its amenities under strict zoning regulations.

The river is flanked by pedestrian walkways that lead past dozens of cafes, shops and bars, each with umbrella-shaded tables lining the riverbanks.

Cypress and magnolia trees reach out lazily over parts of the water. Thick stands of philodendron flank stone benches. Flower gardens are tucked into every available niche in the stonework that dates from the 1930s as part of a government renovation project.

Large barge-like tour boats ply the river, sometimes quietly, other times with boisterous passengers exchanging brief choruses with singing cafe patrons on land.

River Walk, a tourist magnet for margarita-sipping in outdoor cafes and chowing down in restaurants dishing up Tex-Mex, is going to keep growing. Nine more miles in the $279 million project are due by 2014. Two miles of that stretch were opened this week, doubling the River Walk in size.

The River Walk food covers the spectrum from pub food to fine dining -- Tex-Mex, Cajun, Japanese, Italian, German ... . You can dine at waterside or indoors, on the pedestrian level or on small balconies overlooking the passing scene.

As I strolled both sides of the river on a sunny Friday afternoon, I shared the narrow pathways and climbed the arched stone bridges that link the two sides with a seemingly endless flow of young parents pushing strollers and herding lagging toddlers, of older couples strolling hand in hand, of groups of obvious tourists trying not to get separated, and with Mexican visitors here for the day from the other side of the border down near Laredo, a mere 2 1/2 hour drive away.

Curiously, despite the mass of humanity, a laid-back atmosphere persists -- no pushing, no jostling for space. It was all more civilized than a visitor from the aggressive northeast could have expected.

The next day I found out that despite how busy the River Walk is during the day, when the sun goes down on Saturday night the activity rachets up, way up. Seating is tough to come by as evening closes in. No wonder, with all the free music and people watching to be had.

I commandeered a patio-style chair at the water's edge near a bend in the River Walk. Strains of Tejano music trickled from several bistros. A loud sing-along from a nearby Irish pub made one almost unconsciously join in. A jazz combo behind me played New Orleans-style music on a tiny open-air stage.

For one moment I couldn't quite believe another sound intruding into the mix. But, there it was. The skirling of bagpipes bouncing off the underpinnings of one of the arched stone bridges. It was real, shared courtesy of a Celtic organization in convention downtown and anxious to test the River Walk acoustics.

The jazz musicians good-naturedly waited for the impromptu concert to end, then resumed their own music after the piano player observed, "Ain't that some kind of jazz?"

Captivating though it is, the River Walk is not all there is to San Antonio, a city that might have ended up being called Yanaguana for the original Payaya Indian name for the river. It was renamed on June 13, 1691, by Domingo Teran de los Rios, first Texas provincial governor who selected San Antonio as the name after participating in a St. Anthony's Day mass at the water's edge.

The Alamo, a brief stroll from the Riverwalk, obviously is a must-see for all visitors.

Many people know that the building we refer to as The Alamo is quite small, virtually empty, and not particular inspiring to see. But The Alamo of the famous 1836 battle in which an overwhelming Mexican force overran a small band of 189 Texians -- as the independence- minded locals were then called, foreign adventurers, frontiersmen, freed slaves, and various others was far different from today's unimposing physical structure.

The history of The Alamo -- originally called Mision San Antonio de Valero but renamed by soldiers from the Mexican town of Alamo de Parras when the complex was turned into a cavalry post -- is clearly spelled out in poster-sized displays and in pamphlets supplied by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas who operate the admission-free site that has a gift shop larger than the main building.

At the time of the fateful battle in which such American icons as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie died, The Alamo was a series of buildings, including the present mission structure and the Long Barrack, the first recorded hospital in Texas.

The Alamo is located in an otherwise frivolous neighborhood. It is fronted by a large plaza, one corner commandeered the day I visited by a self-styled street preacher, another by an ice cream vendor. The vendor drew a larger crowd.

Across the street are a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, a souvenir T-shirt store and a jackalope museum and store that is a tribute to the mythical cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope that is one of the Southwest's great tongue-in-cheek creations.

Oddities are not confined to that area of the city, however. The Buckhorn Saloon, established in 1881, takes up an entire corner plot on the major East Houston Street thoroughfare that is lined with non-theme hotels and restaurants. It is a combination lunchtime restaurant and museum of Old West memorabilia ranging from stuffed animal trophies to personal items from William S. Hart, perhaps the greatest of all silent film cowboys.

In addition to its historic architecture and safe downtown walking areas, San Antonio takes great pride in its wide array of museums. Rather than the typical museums so many cities offer, those in and around the city often are very specific to the region. And not all of them involve animals and cowboys.

Take the San Antonio Museum of Art. It houses a vast collection of pre-Columbian art and antiquities as well as modern and Mexican folk art and the 30,000-square-foot Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Arts.

The Witte Museum is a complex of historic homes and log cabins and is known for its history and science exhibits of Texas dinosaur finds and Paleo Indian cultures of the Rio Grande Valley.

The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures showcases the 27 major ethnic groups identified as shaping the culture of the state.

Outdoors, the area has many attractions both inside Loop 410, the interstate route that encircles the city and makes getting around simple, and outside. In addition to the aforementioned theme parks, there are the San Antonio Zoo, Travis Park -- named in honor of William Barret Travis who commanded the Alamo, the 33-acre Botanical Gardens, the Japanese Tea Gardens and the 232-acre Friedrich Wilderness Park that offers hiking trails in hilly, heavily forested land.

San Antonio is a complex city that, with its lack of big-city skyscrapes and hustle-bustle sort of sneaks up on you. It's a nice feeling.


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