Deep in the Heart of Texas
Published in the Summer 2013 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Anne-Marie Macloughlin
After several pesky flight delays and bad weather, my arrival at San Antonio Airport felt like a warm hug from an old friend. Blazing sunshine and greenery all around, I was greeted by temperatures in the high 70’s ( South of the border, you get used to using Fahrenheit pretty quickly). Given this was Fiesta Week, the weather seemed to be co-operating nicely.
Located in the South-West of Texas, San Antonio is 150 miles north of the Mexican border, which accounts for the balmy temperatures and cultural influence. Spring and Fall are the recommended times to visit for those with an aversion to scorching heat and an unrelenting sun. Average daily temperatures in April are in the high 70’s to low 80’s, with cooler evenings perfect for strolling the River Walk and enjoying the nightlife.
Fiesta Along the River
From April 18th to the 28th, locals (and thousands of tourists from all over the world) celebrate Fiesta (www.fiesta-sa.org) , which this year marked its 122nd anniversary. The tradition began in 1891 to honour battle heroes of the Alamo (more about that later) and San Jacinto. Fiesta celebrations are diverse and colourful, a lot like this part of Texas itself. The Mexican influence is never more evident than when locals are celebrating, a heavy emphasis placed, of course, on food.
Quick pit stop to freshen up, then a stroll along the River Walk. Covering approximately 5 miles of downtown San Antonio, the river sits one story below street level, which gives this pretty waterway the feeling of a sunken garden in part. Comprised of two parallel sidewalks, it is lined with bars, restaurants, stores and hotels, with stone bridges and stairways up to the street.
Even at high noon, the leafy green cypress canopy over the river provides some very picturesque shade for the sun-shy, and there are many spots in which to cool off and people watch.
As the sun dipped and temperatures cooled off, it was time for a leisurely dinner cruise, courtesy of Rio San Antonio Cruises. As we set off from the Rio Rio Cantina stop (who were catering tonight’s fiesta spread), I became nervous at the lack of guardrails along the waterfront, and the low sides of our pleasure boat.
Reassuringly, our driver informed us that the river channel along the most touristic of areas is only around 4/5 feet deep, and restricted to police, city and tour boats only. That said, it’s not uncommon for some weekend revelers to take an unscheduled dip after one too many margaritas. As we gently wound our way along this pretty waterway, the only life forms we saw enjoying a bath were the many ducks that seemed oblivious to the traffic.
Only city boats, police craft and tour boats are allowed on the river,although according to our guide, an intrepid lawbreaker managed to jet ski along part of the channel before being apprehended. For travelers more inclined to embark on a casual ad hoc-type excursion, the river taxi is $25 for a 3-day pass,or $10 for a 24-hr on and off pass, which lets you customize your stops along the way.
Highlights of the Paseo del Rio are many, one of the most dramatic being a 300 yr–old Montezuma Cypress that stand 9 stories high. I was pleasantly surprised that the boats travelled slowly enough that it made photo opportunities a breeze.
As the evening cooled (remember to bring a sweater or light jacket), we snacked on multi- coloured tortilla chips, pico de gallo and guacamole. Advised by a fellow traveler to resist overindulgence on appetizers, I could see why when the main course showed up. Fragrant steak and chicken fajita style meat arrived posed artfully on a large square platter, with a generous helping of grilled vegetables, refried beans and rice. If that weren’t gastronomic satisfaction in itself, the creamy dessert and tangy margaritas are worth leaving some room for. Note: for the lactose intolerant (such as myself), the servers are were only too happy to accommodate the request, and there are many vegetarian options available.
As colourful were the chips, an equally flashy fellow passenger caught my eye, accessorized as he was in a long sash, heavily decorated with what looked like very cheerful military medals. Advertising all things Fiesta, the medal tradition is rumoured to have started in 1971, the idea being for tourists to acquire as many as possible. Failing miserably with a mere few, I asked this gentleman how he managed to collect so many. Chuckling, he pointed to the name on his sash, revealing his identity as John R. Melleky, CEO of the Fiesta San Antonio Commission, Inc. With over a 100 medals, it looked a little on the heavy side.
As sunset darkened into a mild Texas twilight, the river walk really comes into its own. Whether it’s drinking, dining or enjoying the lively atmosphere, bars usually stay open to around 2am. I decided to walk off the satisfying meal and browse the array of entertaining Texas novelties at the Five and Dime, a great spot for some amusing souvenirs. Davy Crocket “Coonskin’ hats, ‘Armadillo’ Meat in a can, and kits to grow your own cacti, are just some of the gems available to tickle your fancy.
Of course, no self-respecting tourist emporium in San Antonio would be without a nod to the Alamo, probably San Antonio’s most famous draw. With the aforementioned on the schedule for the next day’ s sightseeing, an early night was in order – after a little background research.
Remember the Alamo
The Alamo receives about 2 million visitors yearly, and is situated not out in the desert with a picturesque western backdrop as many have come to assume, but in the main downtown core. There are many schools of thought on why the famous battle was fought, casualties involved, and the facts surrounding the siege.
A critical element of the Texas Revolution, whereby Texas sought independence from Mexico, The Battle of the Alamo (March 6, 1836,) has come to symbolize for many people worldwide the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. “Remember the Alamo!’ was the famous battle cry attributed to General Sam Houston, who is said to have uttered the words at San Jacinto, April 21, 1836, the decisive battle in the Texas revolution. Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie (he of the eponymous knife) also fought here (which explains the abundance of coonskin hats and replica knives in most souvenir shops).
The main building dates from the mid 1700’s, with a shady garden and koi pond on the premises. In addition, there is a large gift store, providing not only quality souvenirs, but fudge-tasting (try the bacon-flavoured, I was very glad I did), and replica firearms in glass cabinets.
As I left this legendary historical landmark, I asked our guide, Dr. Richard B. Winders, WHY we should remember the Alamo.
“Folk in their 60’s and 70’s whose only knowledge of the story was from John Wayne movies, especially those from Europe, always wanted to come here. When people finally hear the real story, versus the Hollywood version, it’s a kind of pilgrimage”. And the chance to learn an important part of San Antonio’s history.
Ride ‘em Cowboy (and girl) at the Charro Ranch
In the mood for some Wild (South)West flavor, next stop was the Charro Ranch, which plays host to an authentic Mexican custom, ‘Charreada’. It is the national sport of Mexico and rooted in centuries-old custom. Charreada is an equestrian event featuring horse riding, roping, and the beautifully choreographed Escaramuza. Teams of young female riders don extravagant frilly ranchera dresses and engage in perfectly-timed equestrian ballet, some of it at speeds high enough to elicit gasps from the audience.
For a more varied cultural experience, the Witte (pronounced Witty) Museum is dedicated to exhibits from the South Texas area. Situated on the banks of the San Antonio River with lush gardens all around, I was fortunate to be visiting the museum during a dazzling special exhibition.
Pomp and Ceremony
Until August 18 2013, the Witte is hosting Patriotism and Pageantry, a homage to the military, who have had significant influence on the Fiesta tradition since the first Battle of Flowers Parade in 1891. A big part of this exhibit are the staggeringly ornate gowns worn by the Princesses and Queens in the Fiesta Pageant.
Rocking On the River
As a fittingly-festive end to my first Fiesta experience, I had front row seats to the Texas Cavaliers River Parade, this year’s theme ‘Rocking on the River’. After sampling one of the largest buffets I’ve ever seen (from sushi and seafood, to more traditional Tex Mex fare), I took my seat to admire more than 40 festive floats drift down the river with live music, their occupants throwing medals and novelties to the crowd.
As I witnessed the happy faces all around, I was reminded of the true meaning of Fiesta – party, feast or festival. San Antonio’s version will be a fond memory for years to come.