Business brought me to San Antonio, Texas this week but I still had a few moments to poke around the usual tourist spots. My luggage wanted to visit a little longer and has been provided a free vacation courtesy of American Airlines. Hopefully we’ll be reunited this weekend.
I first stopped at The Alamo, arguably the most famous site associated with the Texas Revolution and perhaps the most memorable event in all of Texas history. For it was here that the Mexican army killed nearly every Texan defender either in battle or by execution during this lopsided 1836 battle. "Remember the Alamo" became a battle cry that rallied Texan troops which subsequently defeated the Mexican army rather decisively at the Battle of San Jacinto a few weeks later. This gave rise to a new sovereign nation, the Republic of Texas (and ten years later a part of the United States).
I’ve been to The Alamo several times over the years. What I find striking — and seemingly I need to relearn this point each time — is that the Alamo is really small. This former Roman Catholic Mission, such a recognizably iconic structure so burned into the collective memories of multiple generations of American school children, is probably smaller than the local parish church in your neighborhood. Texas is larger than life, the events of the Alamo are larger than life, and psychologically I suppose I transpose this to mean the building should match its mythology.
That’s not intended to diminish The Alamo’s importance. Clearly it is significant. However it’s difficult to put oneself in the moment when the fortified garrison stood as a lone sentinel on a wide, open plain. Today it stands straight in the middle of downtown San Antonio, complete with city noises, ringed by tall buildings, and facing an unfortunate strip of businesses that are barely a step up from a carnival sideshow with barkers hawking to tourists drawn to the nearby historic site.
I then ambled down to the Riverwalk. No, it doesn’t have the significance of the Alamo but it does represent a triumph of urban planning. Rather than piping their small downtown river underground out of sight like many other cities had done, San Antonio decided consciously to make it a part of the landscape. They tamed the San Antonio River starting in the 1920′s with pedestrian walkways along both banks. San Antonio embraced what others would have considered a problem and turned it into a goldmine.
The river meanders below street level, with numerous shops and restaurants along its banks. It allows visitors to avoid crowded city streets as they wander along at their own pace. As a bonus the path oftentimes provides a shady respite from the hot Texas sun. It has become one of the most frequently visited spots in the state and infuses huge amounts of business into the downtown area.
The Tower of the Americas crowns HemisFair Park, and is a rare visible reminder of the World’s Fair that occupied the site in 1968. Apparently the government grabbed much of the area by eminent domain, which is what passed for urban renewal during that era. Perhaps the local residents forced to move from their homes had a different definition of "blighted area." Nonetheless the HemisFair with its Tower of the Americas claimed the site.
The tower itself rises 750 feet (229 m) above downtown. I’ve been on plenty of towers before including the Stratosphere in Las Vegas which is considerably taller, so I passed up the opportunity. I was content to simply walk around the park before getting back to work.
At this point I offer Corollary 1 of my second travel tip: if you wish to go through the trouble of bringing a camera along with you, make sure you pack along a card reader too. Unfortunately I left mine behind and I am only able to post this account now, several days after the fact.