Downtown San Antonio may have been invented for the first time visitor. The way City fathers utilized the San Antonio River to create the famed River Walk could be a standard for incorporating natural features into city planning.
It was our good fortune to stay at the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter Hotel which placed us at the heart of the City and its many attractions.
One of the first things any visitor wants to see is the Alamo where 165 years ago native Texans and Americans from many places fought and died in the name of freedom. At the Alamo our hostesses were the Daughters of the Republic of Texas who were initially responsible for saving the historic site, creating it into the shrine for freedom that it has become and are still responsible with maintaining the Alamo and its grounds which are located in the center of the City.
Boats, called the Yanaguana Cruise, ply the waters of River Walk showing visitors the businesses, restaurants and clubs that line its banks while the Boatman gives a narration of the history of the area and how the waters of the San Antonio River are controlled.
We took this boat ride filled with admiration for the way trees hundred of years old have been retained in the heart of an urban center. Thanks to the vigilance of groups like the San Antonio Conservation Society and its 3,500 hundred members, devoted to the environment and the City's historic heritage, both old and new blend in together in a unique and wonderful way.
Cultural diversity is a term used frequently but it has real meaning when you visit the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures near the Tower of the Americas. Here is a history of all the ethnic groups that have shaped the Republic of Texas from the many tribes of Native Americans to all that followed--the Spanish, soldier and padre; Americans from the East looking for land; Hispanics who are the legecy of the Spanish and original people; and then all the ethnic groups of Europe, English, Scot, Irish, Italian and German.
The impact and contributions of each group are on exhibit. The Center also holds the Texas Folklife Festival the first weekend of August each year with the foods, music and dress of every ethnic group proudly displayed. Organizations like the Chinese Community Council, Filipino Americans in San Antonio, the Danish Society of Texas all take part and with participation of thousands of locals and visitors.
Dedicated volunteers are responsible for many of the activities at the Center as well as the Festival and other events held during the year.
The Center is a wonderful education experience and on most days you will see wide eyed children there on field trips from their schools. At many of the exhibits volunteers tell them folk tales or serendade them with harmonica or guitar.
River walk is of course a mecca for visitors with its picturesque setting but San Antonio has much more to offer which makes it readily believeable that the City is the number one vacation destination for Texans and is in the top ten as a favcorite for tourists nationally.
There is the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park which are now part of the National Park System. The Missions are all in a 30 mile radius of the City and include Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan and Espada most with public transportation available. We visited Mission San Jose where the Park Service has a Visitors Center and Rangers who conduct tours and describe the role the Missions played for the Spanish and the indigenous people who came to work and live there.
Mission San Jose was founded in 1720 and still has a Catholic Church where Masses are celebrated every day of the year. The Sanctuary building is a church and constitutionally separated from the Park that surrounds it.
The Visitor Center also offers a very well produced movie which describes the indigenous people and how the Missions changed their centuries old culture and then creating the Hispanic people who are so much a part of present day south Texas.
The Hispanic influence is to be found everywhere in San Antonio. One morning we breakfasted at Old Farmers Market where for several generations Hispanic people gathered to sell and buy locally grown agricultural products. But it was much more than that. It was the gathering place for people to exchange news and ideas and for young people to meet.
Currently this district is in the midst of a revitalization and a major part of the effort centers in the renovation and proposed new role for the Alameda Theater, in its time one of the most admired and ornate movie houses in the country.
In an earlier era it was the leading hispanic movie theatre in the U.S. After its renovation is complete in the year 2000 it will once again be a center for Hispanic arts and entertainments including stage productions and with seating for 2,600 an alternate home to the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra.
Family entertainment abounds in San Antonio, just one reason why it is such a popular vacation destination for Texans. The Rivercenter Complex Mall is filled with shops, stores and restaurants and there is the IMax theatres with popular shows like "Alamo, the price of Freedon" or Whales or soon to appear a show on Everest.
The Zoo is a popular favorite with children and adults alike with its Reptile House and Aquarium and is one of the largest in the country.
With a location on one of the highest points in the City the San Antonio Botanical Gardens create a serene enviroment for leisurely walking as well as study of the vast collection of flora and fauna. The Gardens also have a remarkable concept--a Garden for the blind, with signs in Braille and plants that emit scents and odors, that can be touched and experienced by the blind.
In April there will be Viva Botanica with food, music and drink and special entertainment for children.
At the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum we were able to see the current exhibit featuring the art of Georgia O'Keeffe in a special exhibition that will continue until April. The Exhibit included Canyon Suite, a group of 28 watercolors done by O'Keeffe while she lived in Texas.
The San Antonio Museum of Art, already famous for its collecton of Greek and Roman antiquities, will be the home for the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art. A new wing has been built at the Museum to house this collection which includes pre-Columbian, folk, Spanish Colonial, as well as modern and contemporary art. The Opening of this new Center will be in October.
Two other must see cultural centers are the San Antonio Children's Museum and the Southwest Craft Center. The Craft Center was in the last Century a Catholic Girls School and the original architecture and grounds today provide an oasis in the heart of the City.
San Antonio has accommodations for every pocket book. We certainly enjoyed our stay at the Marriott Rivercenter Hotel loving its proximity to the Rivercenter Mall, the River Walk, the Alamo and Convention Center which currently has an addition under construction which when complete will have over one million square feet of exhibition space.
Hilton and Hyatt Hotels also offer central downtown locations as does the four star La Mansion del Rio Hotel. The building here was once St. Mary's College with a superb Spanish Mediterranean architecture with graceful Spanish arches and columns and cloistered courtyards.
A former St. Mary's College law student converted the building into the La Mansion del Rio in 1968 and it has since become recognized as one of the best Hotels in Texas and the U.S.
On our visit to San Antonio we were told by one local resident that Texans are famous for hospitality and a love for parties, festivals and special events. Certainly we found all of these on our visit.
In the next issue of Vittles we will discuss the outstanding cuisine that has developed in south Texas, some outstanding restaurants, and the State's booming wine industry.
Graphic Design by Impact Graphics