Thursday, February 26, 2009

A River Runs Through It

We visited San Antonio last week for a national principal's convention. I wrote the trip up for the travel column in the newspaper. It's nice to get paid to do something I should write in my journal about for free. Again, I get paid by the word so it's nice and long!

Visiting a new city with Elementary School Principals is a lot of fun. They want to see everything in a short amount of time and enjoy learning historical trivia. It’s like traveling with kids without all the potty breaks. While our spouses diligently attended their convention sessions from 8-4 each day, we were equally conscientious in our shopping and strolling activities. Using our GPS guide named TomTom we were able to navigate the area with only one wrong turn down a one way street – and since that put us in the historic home district of St. Williams we really enjoyed our bad decision.

Our first stop had to be the Alamo. Remember the Alamo? In the center of San Antonio and the first of the missions we visited, it is the most famous because of the historical battle which took place there. We also drove down the mission trail and toured two more sites which are all included in the National Park system. A volunteer at Mission San Jose demonstrated the water-driven flour mill and we admired the determination and ingenuity of the early residents. The limestone churches are in the Spanish colonial Baroque architecture style surrounded by walls that housed the native people. They worked at the mission as tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers or builders and many farmed nearby.

The favorite highlight of our visit was the River Walk Boat tour operated by the city Parks Department. The River Walk is a beautiful area below the street level of the city. Picture leaning over a stone bridge and looking down on a small meandering river lined with Cyprus trees, raised flower beds and curving sidewalks dotted with colorful umbrellas over dining tables. I’m starting to sound like a travel brochure!

Down on the River Walk our boat tour begins at the dock inside the mall. It’s very convenient if you need to pick up a little something at Macy’s or one of the other hundred stores hoping for a share of the tourist dollar. The lagoon area where we board our flat boat named “Ms. Sandra” for Sandra Day O’Connor, has a small stage where a Peruvian band serenades our arrival. I’m not sure if the music sets the proper tone for a Texan boat tour but hey, I’m all for creating a festive atmosphere.

Our pilot wears the official blue shirt and straw hat so we know we are not with pirates or any unauthorized boatman. “If the boat starts to sink I will jump overboard and walk to the sidewalk in two feet of water while you all put on your lifejackets in an orderly fashion.” End of safety instructions. He is a S.A. native and warns us that he will tell us true facts but of course they will be “slightly embellished” because we’re in Texas after all.

As we slowly approach the first stone bridge in our small open boat, he tells us to wave to the pedestrians crossing above us. “It’s a well-know fact that if they’re wavin’ they aren’t thinkin’ about spitting.” We all waved with enthusiasm. The stone statue on the right bank is St. Anthony for which San Antonio is named since the town was established on his Saint Day. “It’s a good thing it wasn’t one week later or we’d be St. Louis, and one week earlier we’d be St. Bernard,” our guide explained. We could tell his particular knowledge of history was going to make this an entertaining tour.

La Villita comes into view with its quaint shops on the site of the Spanish soldiers barracks assigned to the Alamo. The outdoor stage, our guide points out, was where the “Miss Congeniality” movie filmed the swim suit scene. Ahh. He points out the metal work on the famous Rosetta Bridges. Five of only ten in existence are on this river. There are 370 weddings a year held nearby where legend states that your marriage will last forever or at least it will feel like it - more river pilot humor.

San Antonio has many beautiful churches. Our guide points out a limestone edifice built by the early German immigrants. When they arrived church services were in Spanish which they couldn’t understand. They decided it would be easier to spend 27 years building a church than learning a new language – according to our guide.

Around the bend a tall octagonal building comes into view. As we crane our necks upward we learn it is the only one still in use. The gargoyles, thought to be lucky, also function as drainpipes. The Tower Life Building opened in 1929 after being constructed at a cost of 7 million. Unfortunately the gargoyles couldn’t prevent the stock market crash and the building went at a bank sale for $27,000. Part of the movie “Ghost Busters” was filmed at this building.

After the great flood of 1921, flood gates were installed to control the flow and depth of the river through the city. There were some residents that wanted to fill in the river but Emily Edwards and other residents wanted to save the river. Emily was also a teacher and helped influence her student, the architect Robert Hugman to design the River Walk in the late 1920’s. It takes a woman to get things done!

When 7 million visitors came to town for the World’s Fair in 1968 hotels were quickly built or renovated. La Mansion began in 1853 as St. Mary’s Boy School, and ended its education days as a law school. Two enterprising law school graduates turned the river front building into a hotel. Another hotel was built partly off site and rooms were lowered by crane onto the first floors already furnished and ready to occupy as soon as they were cemented into place just a few days before the World’s Fair began.

The tall sniper tree comes into view where Santa Ana perched Mexican soldiers to shoot at the Alamo soldiers as they rode out from the fort. According to our guide the Texan commander inside the Alamo put his snipers up on the nearby Holiday Inn balcony. This is a good example of stretching the truth Texas style.

Now our pilot directs us to yell “Give us the guacamole and no one gets hurt” as we pass one of the many outdoor restaurants along our route.” We yelled, and someone actually sprayed us with their margarita! As we pass Duck Island, nick-named the local duck manufacturing facility he tells us to reach out and touch the foliage. “That’s Texas Poison Ivy folks but I have calamine lotion right here for sale.” At the end of our tour he reminds us not to feed the ducks – feed the boat drivers.

And now the most important decision of every day. Where do we eat? We ate Texas Barbecue at Rudy’s which is next to a gas station just outside of town. Calling Rudy’s a restaurant elevates it way above its culinary category. Kind of like saying sleeping in your car at a rest stop is an overnight stay at the Hilton with easy access to the highway. The meat is served up by the pound and your tray is an old blue plastic Pepsi case which holds your containers of creamed corn and ribs and a couple of slabs of white bread just fine. I did have to go next door to the gas station to pick up the soda I ordered which added to the “who cares about appearances” attitude perfectly. For Tex-Mex on the River Walk we chose Casa Rio and found dinner under the umbrellas to be reasonably priced and delicious. The fresh seafood at Pappadeaux required an hour wait on Friday night but it was worth it for the delicious crawfish, soft shelled crab and stuffed shrimp.

I recommend visiting San Antonio in the late spring. You can cruise the River Walk and visit historic sites with cooler temperatures. And if you take Mr. TomTom along he will guide you to great places to eat and show you the natural and historic wonders of San Antonio in full bloom.

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