IF your idea of Texas is not so much ‘oil billionaires and cattle barons’ but more ‘cowboys and Indians, Davy Crockett and the Alamo’, then San Antonio is Texas as you imagined it to be. It has the slightly dusty look of a frontier town, with low-rise Spanish colonial architecture outweighing the glassy modern bits, and although the 750-feet high ‘Tower of the Americas’ does overlook the city, you won’t even notice it as you wander the streets.
Edged to the north by hills, and with a river at its heart, the city stands on plains that were the traditional hunting grounds of the Comanche and Apache Indians. The native Americans didn’t give it up without a struggle. Then, about halfway through the effort to subdue them, the Spanish Franciscan friars arrived in San Antonio, establishing, in 1718, San Antonio de Valera, the first of five missions which they built along a short stretch of the San Antonio river. They estimated it would take 10 years to turn the Indians into responsible Spanish citizens. In fact, it was 70 years before the number of Indians amenable to the message had so diminished that the missions were abandoned. The former Mission of San Antonio de Valera, having later been used temporarily as military headquarters by a cavalry unit from El Alamo, entered history in 1836 as ‘the Alamo’.
Today, the Alamo, its pale yellow stone facade neatly restored, stands blandly insignificant in the exact centre of San Antonio, surrounded by traffic. For those who know the history of its doomed defence, the atmosphere is almost holy. For those who don’t, a visit to the IMAX theatre near the Alamo is recommended. Here a film called The Price of Liberty brings the story to life : for 13 days, 189 Texans fighting a war of independence from Mexico, defended the Alamo against a force of 4,000 Mexican troops. When the walls were finally breached, the Mexican general, Santa Anna, spared only women and children. Davy Crockett died fighting, but Jim Bowie, too ill to stand, was bayonetted in his cot. You view the hushed interior of the Alamo differently after seeing the film.
After seeing it, you might also be in the mood for some light entertainment and if so, you’ve come to the right place. One of the most enjoyable free attractions anywhere in the world is at hand, Paseo del Rio, the San Antonio river walk. Open boats, vaguely tricked out as oversize gondolas, ply up and down as waterborne buses. At night, candlelight dinner cruises drift past while on each bank of the river, restaurant terraces blend into one another, forming an almost continuous fringe of tables, music and conversation. The Paseo is just the place to pull up a chair and sample a Margarita, said to have been invented by a San Antonio society hostess, Margarita Sames.
While you’re there: San Antonio Visitor Information Center, directly across from the Alamo, offers all the information you could want. Hop on and off the VIA, the Metropolitan Bus Service. It serves the Alamo, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, Market Square (El Mercado, the largest Mexican market outside Mexico), St Paul Square, King William District, the Southwest Craft Center and the Institute of Texan Cultures. This last is a museum that documents the history of the 26 cultures which make up the fabric of present day Texas.