You wouldn’t guess that San Antonio, Texas, is the seventh largest city in the United States just by looking at her. But then, River City, as she is sometimes called, is full of surprises. And I love (nice) surprises!
I pick up Malaika in Austin, the vegetarian/Australian/dancer I met in Oregon, which is another story for another time. We drive south, hell bent on quickly visiting the Alamo and then moving on to other parts of the South, namely New Orleans. Our plans change, however, due to poor timing. By the time we arrive in S.A., our options are to spend the night or risk a long drive in a desolate, dark part of Texas. We choose to bunk down for the night in the grand ol’ St Anthony Riverwalk Wyndham Hotel.
The Alamo is, well, the Alamo. I am disappointed by the historic site as there is not much there. Malaika, however, takes great pleasure in reading placards about the Spanish-American War and looking at the oversized cowboys hats men wear here and throughout the city. I am just about to consider San Antone a bust and head back to the hotel for a night of television and bathing in what is perhaps one of the largest tubs I have ever seen, but then something grabs me. I take my camera for a walk to chase architectural exposures. Now, the city reveals herself.
Street after historic street makes me feel as though I have stepped through a time portal and witness what it was like to live in 1912, rather than 2012. Impressive old movie theaters, such as the Aztec and the Majestic, share sidewalks with massive Neo-gothic buildings like the Tower Life and Emily Morgan Hotel. A cornucopia of Terra-cotta facades, gargoyles, bell towers, intricate rod iron entryways, and historic street lamps beg me forward into the guts of the city.
Going deeper, I find she is not all pretty and gentrified – something I rather appreciate. Parts of downtown are boarded up and burned out. Seedy bodegas sell cheap beer in brown paper bags to men and women who look like they know how to drink, and live, hard. Homeless folks – just a few – camp on corners and in quiet locations between buildings. Despite the grunge, I never feel unsafe, threatened or harassed. I continue along an unknown path chasing scenes in my lens.
The crown gem of this town – in my opinion – is River Walk. No where else in this country have I encountered such a celebrated riverfront. One story below street level, the San Antonio River is tamed by pedestrian walkways and lined with shops, bars and restaurants. It is alive down here. People jostle for waterfront seating while gondolas motor up and down the river and a din of voices, music and motion waft streetward.
Malaika and I happen to visit just before Christmas when red, green, yellow, and blue LED lights fill nearly every tree. It is a sight to behold and adds to the wonderful experience. We dine at a forgettable Italian eatery, then walk and witness others enjoying this remarkable public space. An added bonus: the people of San Antonio – large hats and all – are nice and welcoming. Perhaps they realize they live somewhere special.
The next morning, we take a long walk along the river before packing up and heading east. As we wave goodbye to this gem of a town, I realize why I am so pleased with our stay: I erroneously held few expectations of this dry, dusty town in the middle of Texas. My expectations, as always, color my experience. It is a good reminder to keep them at a level that allows me to see the beauty in every place.