SAN ANTONIO — When I was growing up, I loved visiting my grandparents, who lived just a few blocks from the Texas state capitol in Austin. One of the things I could always count on was the trip my grandfather and I would make to San Antonio, just a few hours away.
To my grandfather, a passionate lover of the history and culture of the American Southwest, a regular visit to San Antonio was a Texan's equivalent of a Muslim's pilgrimage to Mecca.
Our first stop was always the Mission San Antonio de Valero, a nearly 300-year-old Spanish-style mission whose unremarkable physical structure and somewhat undignified location — it's now ringed by retail outlets including a toy store and a fast-food restaurant — belie its place in history.
It was here, for 13 days in 1836, that 189 defenders held out against an army of 5,000 invaders. When it was over and the bodies of those defenders had been burned in the public square on the orders of Mexican Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, the seeds of a new nation had been sown, and the Alamo had earned its place in history and legend.
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I'm not ashamed to admit that I never could visit the Alamo without getting a lump in my throat, seeing the spot where Col. William Barrett Travis might or might not have drawn a line in the sand with his sword, the tiny cell where a desperately ill Jim Bowie fought to the death from his cot, and the spot on the ramparts where Davy Crockett and his Tennessee volunteers went down under the Mexican assault. Neither could my grandfather, and neither, I'm willing to bet, will you.
The Alamo is just a few blocks from the city's famed River Walk, and the main part of the mission remains intact, a shrine to those stalwart defenders.
It takes several hours to tour the entire complex — the church, with its battle memorabilia; the shaded mission grounds, with their sculpted walkways and gardens; and the museum, which depicts events leading up to the siege of the Alamo and those that followed, culminating in Sam Houston's rout of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto and the birth of the Lone Star Republic.
After our visit, we would walk across the street to have lunch at the Menger Hotel, where my grandfather would again patiently explain to me how the Alamo was the New World's Thermopylae, and how Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord were just battles in "that other revolution." But, as my grandfather pointed out, the Menger has a fascinating history of its own, not the least of which is that it was in the hotel's historic bar — which looks the same as it did in the 1880s — that Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders to fight in the Spanish-American War.
Mixing cultures, centuries
Humorist Will Rogers once called San Antonio one of America's four unique cities, ranking it alongside Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco. That holds true today, as the city is a checkerboard of Spanish missions (in addition to the Alamo, there are four others), Mexican markets, German mansions, Japanese gardens and good old American attractions (Sea World of Texas is one of the world's largest marine-life parks, and the San Antonio Zoo is internationally acclaimed), all topped off with a thick layer of Texas pride. If you doubt this, check out the 40-foot-tall fiberglass cowboy boots at the entrance to North Star Mall (they light up at night).
San Antonio's attractions are varied. There is the 270-year-old Spanish Governor's Palace, a national historic landmark, and the 750-foot Tower of the Americas in Hemisfair Plaza. But it's to the Paseo del Rio, or River Walk, that most visitors (5 million annually) head first.
Twenty feet below street level and surrounded by a jungle of palms, oaks, banana plants and towering ferns, the cobblestone paths border both banks of the San Antonio River as it meanders for nearly four miles through the city center, from the Municipal Auditorium on the north to the King William Historic District on the south.
Some stretches of the River Walk are serene and parklike; others hum with activity from open-air cafés, specialty boutiques, luxury hotels and glittering night spots. You can listen to jazz at The Landing; sip a Yellow Rose at the Republic of Texas; sample Tex-Mex cooking at Rio Rio and Boudro's restaurants; catch a flamenco performance at the outdoor Arneson River Theater, where the river separates the audience from the stage; and shop for Indian pottery or designer labels at the RiverCenter, a dazzling three-level complex of chrome and glass.
With its landscaped walks and arched bridges, the river has become as characteristic of San Antonio as the canals are of Venice. That makes it all the more amazing that the city's biggest tourism draw almost didn't happen.
After a 1921 flood that caused millions of dollars in property damage, there was a public outcry to pave over the river with concrete and use its bed as a sewer. A determined group of women, realizing the river's potential, saved it by staging a puppet show with the prophetic title The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.
Remember the Germans
Not all of San Antonio's Spanish and Mexican heritage is drawn from the 18th and 19th centuries. Two of its most popular attractions, La Villita and Market Square, for all their colorful past, are firmly entrenched in the 21st century.
La Villita, or Little Village, has nestled on the east bank of the river for more than 200 years. The original occupants inhabited mud and wood huts, but La Villita today is home to artists and craftsmen whose work includes Mexican tapestries, woven goods from Guatemala, hand-crafted dolls and Indian jewelry.
Market Square is on the spot of an earlier Mexican mercado, or market. Where señoritas known as "chili queens" once peddled their namesake dish, local artisans now sell one-of-a-kind merchandise at 35 specialty shops.
The Spanish and the Mexicans weren't the only ethnic groups to leave their marks on San Antonio. Germans, who had settlements all over the nearby Texas Hill Country, found the city to their liking. Many of the wealthier families built elegant mansions on the south bank of the river in what became the state's first historic district.
Today, the King William District boasts many fine examples of Victorian architecture, including the Steves Homestead and the Guenther House, both of which are open to the public. At the latter, visitors may check out the elegant parlor, with its crystal chandeliers and gold-leaf wall mirrors, before enjoying breakfast or lunch in the restaurant, known for its breads, pastries, pancakes and waffles.
Missions and mariachis, Mexican markets and margaritas, cattle culture and international cultural opportunities, the Old West and the New South — San Antonio has always been known as "every Texan's second hometown." It wouldn't be a bad choice as every American's as well.