Tuesday, November 13, 2012

48 Hours in San Antonio

Dining Along the San Antonio Riverwalk
      Our plane landed around 11a.m. in one of America's greatest theme cities.  It's as though Disney sprinkled Doritos® dust all over town coating it with Tex-Mex flavor, color, and culture.  As the 7th largest city in the country, traffic was exceptionally light and navigation quite easy.  It's a sprawling landscape, but with little congestion, which most likely adds to the small town feel of this spectacular urban center.  

Italianate Home in King William District
Greek Revival Home
      We headed to lunch at Rosario's Mexican Cafe y Cantina just south of downtown in the King William district. It's a great introduction to the city's primo cuisine with its extensive menu and colorful eclectic interior.  (See our review posted November 11, 2012.)  Walking around the area afterwards gave us a sense of San Antonio's beginnings when wealthy German merchants first migrated there in the 1840's. (Yes, the city actually began as a German settlement.)  Named for King Wilheim initially, it has gone through several names through political battles finally settling on the English version.  The area is reminiscent of the Garden District in New Orleans with the prominent Victorian, Greek Revival, and Italianate homes ranging from meticulous restorations to total disrepair.

San Antonio Riverwalk
      We chose the Marriott Courtyard on the northern edge of the Riverwalk for our stay, giving us the centerpiece of the city at our doorstep.  You may find it hard to believe, but the San Antonio River has always flowed through downtown much as it does today.  In the 1920's there was extensive flooding in the city's core that killed fifty people and led architect Robert Hugman to promote the idea for connecting the flow of the river with dams and different elevations in the 1940's to eliminate the problem.  Downtown revitalization in the mid 1970's led to a renewed interest in the water's edge below the city's street system with many restaurants and hotels popping up along its way.  The result was one of America's urban wonders, one that has never been duplicated.  It's a little like our version of Venice.  Today, the Riverwalk has been extended in all directions with further walking paths.

Tower of the Americas
Juxtaposed with
Torch of Friendship
by Mexican Artist Sebastián

      We made our way along the north edge of the Riverwalk, passing the many riverside cafes, fountains, and bridges.  Signage is helpful and extensive with police officers acting as tour guides.  Coming up to the streetscape, we saw the Tower of the Americas from HemisFair '68 in the background.  

Lobby of the Menger Hotel
We were on our way to the Menger Hotel across from Alamo Square.  It's an opulent Victorian architectural landmark that has hosted Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, and Bill Clinton when running for president to name just a few.  It was the best known hotel in the Southwest during the late 1800s and maintains its status as the most haunted hotel in Texas with some 32 spirits wandering the magnificent surroundings.  The courtyard has fine examples of the area's botanical offerings.  We also found the King X shop of miniatures in the lobby quite fascinating.  

Reception Area and Courtyard of the Menger Hotel

The Alamo: An Official Texas State Shrine
The Ornate Carvings
of the Alamo Mission
      The Alamo is synonymous with San Antonio and Texas history and the most visited site in Texas.  Its appearance is anything but dominating, pale in comparison to what it stands for and the belief that everything is bigger in Texas.  The battle fought there for independence in 1836 is far more important than the fact that it was once a mission.  Today it is an official Texas State Shrine commanding the respect of the public as we saw when one visitor was asked to remove his cap upon entering.

      Retracing our steps, we descended to the Riverwalk level and proceeded along the Southern portion of the waterway passing La Villita (the area where San Antonio was founded) and a much quieter portion of the walk.  Surfacing to street level we headed back to our hotel before venturing out for the evening.

The Riverwalk After Dark
      The Riverwalk seemed our obvious choice for dinner and we had checked out several options.  But when we were in the moment of making our way along the river path, we decided on something much more unconventional…Schilo's, a German deli. Just above the Riverwalk, it's been a San Antonio destination since 1917.  Surviving from the days when most San Antonioans were of German descent, we recommend it for sheer authenticity and a different flavor than the modern day Tex-Mex establishments. (See our future review.)  Walking back on the opposite side of the river, we 
Glass Valecia Oranges
Signed by Celebrities
had a different view taking us to the Valencia Hotel and one of the current hot spots in the city.  It was a Wednesday night and probably too early for things to be hopping, but a walk through the second floor public areas are worth a stop.  

Façade of Mission San José
     Day two started with a drive through the Southern neighborhoods to our final destination of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.  There are four missions within the park with the most notable one being the San José Mission.   There's a short and revealing film shown continually at the Visitors' Center.  From it, we learned that basically the religious settlers came to overtake the land from the natives bringing disease to them in the process.  That left them with only one way to turn in their misfortune—to the Catholic faith, leaving them as virtual slaves living within the mission walls.  It became their only way of survival.  That's an oversimplification of history, but you get the gist.  

Walled Grounds of the Mission San José
Restored Altar
at Mission San José
      Entering the walled grounds, one gets a sense of what life was like within the protected area.  The restoration of the park is a work in progress.  The most recent renovation is of the alter area of the mission.  The missions were painted in bright colored mosaic patterns on the exterior which have all gone pale over the years,  Hopefully, restorations will eventually include this important cultural feature of the buildings.  The grist mill and aqueduct system adjacent to the church are worth checking out for their simplicity of operation.

      The short drive back to town brought us to the King William distract again for lunch at the Madhatter's Tea House and Café.  We arrived early as the line for ordering can get long.  It's a local Panera type of place, and you can''t beat this local take on breakfast and lunch.  We were attracted to the iced tea bar with several different blends to choose from.  Save room for dessert as the locally made pies and cakes are considered the top in the city and the options are extensive.  (See our later review.)

Courtyard of the McNay Art Museum
      Driving northeast of downtown, we got a better sense of the city's culture and educational influences as we passed Trinity University, University of the Incarnate Word, and the Witte Museum.   The McNay Art Museum was our eventual pursuit housed in the former Spanish style mansion built by Marion Koogler McNay and expanded after her death to accommodate the extensive collections of several San Antonio families covering several periods and genres including theatrical arts.  It's one of the greatest art museums we have visited and well worth the several hours we spent there.  (See our separate story on the McNay to come.)

      Dinner was a short walk from our hotel to Restaurant Gwendolyn, slow food preparation made for foodie exploration and enjoyment.  It was one of the highlights of our visit to the city.  Definitely not a place for everyone, it is for the serious diner that wants an experience rather than just nourishment.  Our evening was spent there, but we have the memories forever.  (See our post from November 15, 2012.)

Main Altar of the San Fernando Cathedral
San Fernando Cathedral
      The next morning was spent exploring the western edge of downtown.  Our first stop was the San Fernando Cathedral placed on a plaza allowing worshippers to stop by on their way to work.  The altar is a stunning work in gold flanked by two smaller altars on each side.   It was also the only church visited by a pope in Texas when Pope John Paul II was there in 1987.  We continued by walking past City Hall and O. Henry's house on our way to the El Mercado in Market Square and Mi Tierra Cafe for breakfast.  The latter is an over-the-top Mexican restaurant with an interior made for celebrating whatever you're there for.  Breakfast was the perfect time to visit with lesser crowds and freshly made bakery items.  It's open 24 hours a day, so plan accordingly.  Our final stop was El Mercado, the Mexican Market located inside with many shops of clothing, trinkets, and collectibles.

Shopping in the El Mercado

All that…and all I got was this useless Mexican cat with a bobbly head.  Oh, yippee for me!

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