STILL BREATHING IN SAN ANTONIO
If you're planning a trip to San Antonio, take along our own personal guide...
+ A Brief History of San Antonio
+ What to Do in and Around San Antonio
+ A Guide to Still Breathing Locations in SA
SAN ANTONIO is warm breezy summer nights, the sound of music and laughter drifting along a slow, small river, and an egg-and-potato taco and ice tea for breakfast. Most of all it's the Texan spirit of do-it-yourself independence laced with a sweet aristocratic respect for yesterday.
It's the oldest of Texas' cities, the third largest, and the most diversified in past history and present color. San Antonians believe it is easily the best city in the state: a city with grace, charm, history, beauty and heart. South Texas, the massive area of which San Antonio is the capital, is as different from North Texas and East Texas as Pennsylvania is from Vermont and Virginia.
Among the Nation's sizable cities, San Antonio is one of a few which, in the same sense as Boston, Charleston, New Orleans and San Francisco, are distinctive in their individual atmosphere. It was a Spanish outpost, then an American frontier town, and is now the tenth largest city in the country.
Contrary to the typical American plan, San Antonio's downtown streets radiate like a huge spider web from the center--an irregular quadrilateral bounded by Houston and Commerce streets, Alamo Plaza and Main Avenue with the City Hall just off the center. The streets have been described as a "skillet of snakes" by citizens of years past. The core of the business district overflows this central area, while on its outer fringe, east and west, remains of the Spanish occupation (the Alamo, the Cathedral, and the Governors' Palace) mark the spread of the old town of the Dons.
Its ancient missions still stand, as do the ways of an earlier day when, again and again, armies fought for the city. Violent deeds and vivid episodes splash its history. One such battle brought deathless fame to its dead, and made the Alamo, in the city's heart, the patriotic shrine of Texas.
Throughout the city lingers the influence of the conquistadors, the padres, and the early Spanish settlers. Its skyscrapers appear alien beside historic buildings. The Spanish/Mexican influence is a very strong part of San Antonio, it establishes the easy-going pace of the city.
Not the least of the city's charms is the river, so winding near its source in San Antonio that an oft-repeated legend most adequately describes it. Back in the days when the Indians learned much from the Padres, they characterized the river by an Indian word which meant "drunken-old-man-going-home-at-night." Spanned by 42 bridges in the business and residential districts, this unhurried stream travels 15 miles to cross six miles of city blocks. It is the spiritual heart of the city; it is, in fact, the reason the city exists at all. If you visit San Antonio you will find yourself undoubtedly spending many hours on its banks, walking, eating and shopping... although many locals feel it has been hideously over-developed. But without a doubt, it is one of the most special places in the entire country. Try to spend some time on the river when the crowds are gone, early in the morning or late at night.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SAN ANTONIO
On June 13, 1692, Don Domingo Teran de los Rios, accompanied by Father Damian Massanet and an escort of 50 soldiers, found a large rancheria of Payaya Indians at the headwaters of a pleasantly shaded creek. What he found was a virtual oasis in the semi arid Texas countryside. Cold, clear water poured out of hundreds of springs that had been a dwelling place for Indians for centuries. The Indians called the village "Yanaguana," but Father Massanet, having set up a cross and erected an arbor of cottonwood boughs under which to say Mass, rechristened the place San Antonio, in honor of St. Anthony of Padua. In 1714, the French explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis reported the advantages of the location for settlement.
Don Martin de Alarcon, Captain General and Governor of the Province of Texas, and Fray Antonio de San Buenaventura Olivares, with 72 settlers, monks, and soldiers, pushed laboriously across 600 miles of wilderness from Mexico, and reached the "site called San Antonio," in May of 1718, driving before them 200 cows, 548 horses, 1000 sheep, and 200 oxen. The soldier Alarcon and the missionary Olivares quarreled mightily, and the expedition split before its destination was reached. It was just the start of a mistrust and hostility that was to exist between the Church and the Military for centuries.
On May 1, Father Olivares founded the Mission San Antonio de Valero (the present Alamo), named for St. Anthony and the viceroy, and built a hut as a temporary mission structure. Four days later, Governor Alarcon founded the Villa de Bejar (later spelled Bexar, the present name of the county and pronounced "BAY-ur" or, with a more traditional Hispanic sound, "BAY-har") and left a guard of soldiers.
Within the next 13 years, four more missions raised their stone walls along the green-banked river for a distance of seven miles.
Fifteen families from the Canary Islands limped into the Villa de Bejar on March 9, 1731, after a year's journey, and established the Villa de San Fernando, across the stream from the Mission San Antonio de Valero. They built flat-roofed stone and adobe houses around two plazas, and, like the padres at the missions, dug acequias (irrigation ditches) to water their fields. They quarreled with the missionaries, the soldiers, and among themselves. Their church was built by public contributions, generously increased by the King of Spain, and a school was established in 1746.
As early as 1834, however, the desire for self-government was manifest in San Antonio. A number of local Mexicans joined the cause of independence from the harsh rule of Santa Anna, dictator-President of Mexico. The Battle of San Antonio began on December 5, 1835, when Texas revolutionists under Ben Milam stormed the town and, though out numbered by great odds, won a battle at the old Mission de Conception. Five days later, General Martin Perfecto de Cos surrendered to the "Texians" in a house that still stands in La Villita, just upstream from the hotel.
But the military success of the Texians was temporary. Santa Anna, with an army of more than 5,000, reached San Antonio in February, 1836. The famous siege lasted thirteen days. On March 6, Santa Anna took the Alamo fortress and killed every defender, including Travis, Crockett, Bowie and Bonham... men whose names still grace the streets around the old mission. The Alamo is just a short walk from the river, up the beautiful "Paseo del Alamo".
After the tragedy, San Antonio again was an almost deserted community until, following victory for the Texans, it became a western outpost of the Republic of Texas, and its non-Latin settlement increased.
The beginning of the cattle drives, immediately after the Civil War, and the coming of the first railroad (1877), when the Southern Pacific built westward, brought great changes. Other railroads soon followed. Immigrants poured in. The lusty business of the open range boomed in the late 1870's and early 1880's, and San Antonio, a veritable cattle capital, experienced a wild and unruly period of growth.
Saloons -- most of them with gaming tables -- flourished. Behind their carved and polished bars, flashily dressed bartenders mixed fiery drinks and dodged flying bullets. Men whose herds ranged over ten million acres played recklessly for high stakes against cold-eyed professional gamblers and each other. Variety theaters combined the three ingredients -- wine, women, and song -- but the wine was hard liquor and the song was too frequently interrupted by the deadly explosion of a six-gun. Lynchings were a popular remedy to general lawlessness. A bank -- now one of the city's wealthiest -- originated when a merchant accommodated his customers by hiding their money in a barrel beneath his floor. The first public demonstration of a new invention called "barbed wire" was held in Alamo Plaza.
From 12,000 in 1870, the population increased to 37,673 in 1890. Electricity and streetcars were introduced. The river turned the stones for flour mills. High turrets of breweries loomed like castles on the Rhine. The first cement factory west of the Mississippi raised its smokestack north of town. Stone and gravel were quarried. Foundries became machine shops. The Union Stockyards became a concentration point for livestock.
Despite its growth and varied industries, the city has never forgotten how to play. San Antonio has held liberal ideas as to what constitutes amusement for visitors and citizens, and in catering to a broad variety of tastes, has upon occasion acquired such names as "Unsainted Anthony" and "The Free State of Bexar". It throws itself with a Latin enthusiasm into public celebration, historic, commemorative, religious. San Antonio loves to have any excuse to throw a party... San Antonians love our Fiesta every spring as well as the Texas Folklife Festival and a number of other festivals that dot the calendar year. At Christmas time the riverwalk is at its most beautiful. Varicolored lights are festooned across the streets, across the river, looped over tall buildings, and hung among the trees.
Tourism is the number one industry in town, followed by the Military and Insurance, Medical and Computer industries. It is the tenth largest city in the U.S. with a million people and is the least polluted major US city.
WHAT TO DO IN AND AROUND SAN ANTONIO
SEE THE ALAMO
The Alamo, Alamo Plaza (222-1693). Founded in 1718, the first of the five Spanish colonial missions is now the center of downtown. (Expect it to be a lot smaller than you think.) It is, of course, famous for the 13 day siege in the war for Texas independence from Mexico in 1836. Don't miss the brass model that represents the mission as it was during the battle. On Alamo Plaza in front of the old mission chapel, it will help explain what's no longer there. The Alamo is open Mon thru Sat 9-5:30, Sun 10-5:30. Free.
The center of everything. Don't forget the river taxis... barges full of people that ride up and down the river. The best place to catch them is at the Hilton Hotel. The only remaining undeveloped portion of the river is downstream past the Arneson River Theater. An early morning walk is the best way to catch the mood of the river without all the people.
Yes, it's pretty touristy -- but it's still fun. The carriages will take you for a tour of the sights and remind you of the slower-paced world of long ago.
La Villita, at S. Presa Street and Villita. This serene village of 19th century caliche, adobe and brick buildings houses arts and crafts shops. These were once the homes of the Spanish soldiers who married Indian girls and were not welcome in the main town... a sort of mixtismo ghetto. Open 7 days, 10am - 5pm; Free. From the river, just go up the steps at the Arneson River Theater, and look for signs.
Also known as Market Square, at W. Commerce Street & Santa Rosa (299-8600). Largest Mexican market in the U.S. with shops restaurants, and a farmers' market. Home also of La Margarita and Mi Tierra Restaurants. Open 7 days, 10am - 6pm. Free. Mi Tierra is open 24 hours a day.
Life as it was meant to be! Here are our favorites:
You'll feel the charm and warmth of traditional wood and brass. It only costs a dime to make a wonderful circle through the city. Catch one at the corner of Alamo Plaza and Commerce. (Turn right at Alamo Plaza) If you want a short trip, take the red line (St. Paul-Fiesta Plaza). If you want a longer trip, take the purple line (Auditorium-King William).
Established along the San Antonio River between 1718 and 1740, the missions strengthened Hispanic culture in the New World. Franciscans acted as teachers and pastors for the resident Indians. Open 7 days, 9am - 6pm. Free. -- Mission Concepcion, 807 Mission Rd. Although the compound is now gone, the oldest stone church in the U. S. has changed little in over two centuries. The site of the famous pre-Alamo battle in which the Texians won San Antonio from Santa Anna's brother in law, General Cos. -- Mission San Francisco de la Espada, on Espada Rd. The structures that remain are the stone chapel, cloisters, and convent. Built in 1720, the Espada acequia system still works. -- Mission San Jose, at Roosevelt & San Jose. The spacious "Queen of the Missions" includes a granary, mill and Indian quarters. -- Mission San Juan Capistrano, on Graf Rd. A mixture of reconstructed buildings and ruins makes up the compound.
A wonderful neighborhood built by wealthy Germans around the turn of the century, it was to be the state's first historic district. If you like walking, it's not too far down the river from many of the hotels... ask at the desk. Combine it with a great lunch at El Mirador on S. St. Mary's Street, or dinner at Rosario's on S. Alamo. Call 224-6163 for walking tour info.
At 300 August (224-1848). Originally, the 1840's complex housed a convent and school for young ladies. After a period of disuse it was restored as a school for handicrafts. Nice lunch restaurant also. Open Mon. thru Fri., 10am - 4pm, Sat.10am - 3pm.
At 105 Military Plaza (224-0601). Although hardly palatial by modern standards, the Spanish Colonial residence was the headquarters for Spanish government in Texas from 1772 to 1822. Open Monday thru Saturday 9am - 5pm, Sunday 10am - 5pm. Admissions are 25 and 50 cents. Don't miss the San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest continuing operating church in America on nearby Main Plaza.
On any weekend in July, experience the Fiesta Noche Del Rio. This fast-paced musical revue whisks the audience away to Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and then back to the United States. Shows are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:30 at the Arneson River Theater, along the banks of the San Antonio River. Call 226-4651 for additional information.
At 6000 N. New Braunfels (824-5368). This Spanish Mediterranean-style building houses a permanent collection of Postimpressionist French and contemporary American painting and sculpture. The best San Antonio museum, quiet and peaceful, with some excellent paintings.
At 200 W. Jones (226-5544). This former brewery has collections of American fine and decorative arts, Spanish Colonial and pre-Columbian art, photography, and oriental art.
3801 Broadway in Brackenridge Park (226-5544). Local and natural history museum. Displays on Texas dinosaurs, animal senses, and rock art in the lower Pecos. Thru summer: The Art and Craft of Early Texas - furniture, paintings, and decorative arts. Open Mon thru Saturday 10am - 5pm.
3903 N St Mary's (734-7183). Pink flamingoes greet you in this former limestone quarry. Favorite exhibits are the children's petting zoo, aviary, seal pool, and cliffside grottoes for cats. Kid's Korner has petting animals and enclosed towers, slides and bridges to play on. Open 7 days, 9:30am - 6:30pm.
A wonderful Japanese-style garden built in an old stone quarry. One of San Antonio's treasures.
Funston Pl. & N. New Braunfels (821-5115). The Lucille Halsell Conservatory, innovative partially-below-ground greenhouses that are home to plants from around the world. Open Tuesday thru Sunday, 9am - 6pm.
An old German town, a 45 minute drive north on IH-35. Riding the spring-fed river on inner-tubes is the big sport. Look for signs to Camp Warnecke for tube rental. Also go to the amazing village of Gruene ("Green") just north of New Braunfels for Gruene Hall, Texas' oldest dancehall (and a key location in the film MICHAEL with John Travolta).
This attraction, with eerily beautiful underground structures and exotic animals, is also north on I35. Look for signs and exit at FM 3009 prior to New Braunfels. Worth going to, especially with kids.
Bandera (northwest of SA) is the "cowboy capital of the world". Try the MAYAN DUDE RANCH or the DIXIE DUDE RANCH. Highly recommended!
The birthplace and ranch of LBJ is north of San Antonio on 281.
What do you know, it's right there, downtown, in Alamo Plaza! The film opens here with the Tree Man pushing his "tree cart" to the strains of Verdi's overture to "La Traviata". Later in the film, Fletcher does his street performing here.
The "Queen of the Missions" is south of downtown, on Roosevelt Street. The Rose Window on the Mission's south wall is "Fletcher's favorite place" and the site of a key scene with Fletcher and Roz. The walkway where they stroll together is just east of the chapel.
You won't find this wild stretch of river downtown; it's upstream, north, just south of the Mulberry Street bridge.
This location isn't really in LA... it's the Babylon Restaurant on South Alamo Street!
The site of the river scenes with Fletcher and Roz as children, as well as the location of the last image in the film -- Roz and Fletcher floating in copper colored inner-tubes down the lush green river. This river is the shortest river in North America and absolutely clear because it gushes out of its headwater springs at a fantastic rate. San Marcos is about an hour north of San Antonio and well worth a trip! The river is right in the middle of town.
At 328 E. Josephene 227-1187. Not a movie location, but the cast and crew's favorite restaurant in SA. A truly unique place, this old building is leaning to one side, and is always filled with San Antonio's most elite artisans and eccentrics. Very good creative Nuevo-Texas food, too, with the best pecan pie in the state (which means it's the best in the world).
1526 South Flores (210) 224-5350 -- This one isn't a movie location either... It's another cast/crew favorite. It's a GREAT PLACE. Don't leave San Antonio without going there. While you're there, say hello to Franco, the owner, and tell him where you heard about his shop! Maybe he'll make you a special deal on some of his amazing folk art.
+ A Brief History of San Antonio
+ What to Do in and Around San Antonio
+ A Guide to Still Breathing Locations in SA