Discovering San Antonio
The Sounds and Sights of San Antonio: Art and Heritage along the River Discovering San Antonio
with Barbara Rizza Mellin
From my hotel, I could hear a group playing conjunto, that unique accordion-based sound that is a fusion of Spanish, German, and Cuban music, Polish polkas, and American jazz, blues and rock. It is part of the contagious enthusiasm that is perfectly suited for San Antonio, a city with a vibrant mix of heritages and an effervescent attitude.
Later, I listened to the energetic rhythms of Mariachi bands that punctuate the three-mile long Paseo del Rio (River Walk.) This area is always crowded (in that wonderful European way) with tourists and locals strolling the river’s edge. Flowers bloom along its bank, and tall Cyprus trees drip their branches over the canals. The River Walk was originally constructed in 1941 as a flood control project for the San Antonio River. An extension added in 1968 linked the River Walk with HemisFair Park for the World’s Fair and proved to be a turning point in the city’s popularity and tourism. Today the city is a major destination.
Here, culture abounds. Art lovers can enjoy the San Antonio Museum of Fine Art located in the former castle-like Lone Star Brewery or visit the nearby McNay Museum with an impressive collection of Post Impressionist paintings and an outdoor Sculpture Park. But you can satisfy your need for visual art just by walking through the city. The downtown area features a 65-foot sculpture, La Antorcha de la Amistad, by renowned Mexican sculptor Sebastian. Like a flowing red ribbon, this “Torch of Friendship” was a gift to the city in 2002 to commemorate the bond between the two countries. At El Mercado, the largest Mexican market outside of Mexico, you’ll find colorful shops overflowing with Mexican goods from sombreros to pottery. Be sure to stop at Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia. With piñatas hanging from the ceiling and walls of decorative tiles, it is like walking into a Fiesta.
On the south bank of the San Antonio River, I visited La Villita, the city’s first neighborhood, originally housing the soldiers from the Alamo. Today it is an arts and crafts village offering wonderful handmade products from hand-hammered copper to hand-woven clothing. There are also art galleries, restaurants and Little Church of La Villita built in 1879 (a popular wedding site).
History permeates this city. Mision San Antonio de Valero (The Alamo,) built in 1718, was their first mission and is the beginning of The Mission Trail, which connects five sites, the largest concentration of Spanish missions in the United States. Of course, at one time the area belonged to the Spanish, and a visit to the Spanish Governor’s palace allowed me to get a sense of that period. I also visited San Fernando Cathedral. Originally built between 1738 and 1749, it is the oldest continuously operating Church in the United States and the oldest building in Texas. But, for some modern history, I took in a performance at the city-owned Majestic Theater, one of the country’s most ornate stages. It was built in 1929, abandoned, rescued, conserved, and reopened in 1989. Once a movie theater and now home of the San Antonio Symphony and a venue for concerts and Broadway shows, it is elaborately decorated with back-lit colored windows, balconies, columns, and carved flowers that make it seem like a fantasy Spanish villa under a canopy of stars. San Antonio is truly a feast for all your senses.