Other San Antonio Musings

When we arrived in San Antonio for two weeks, our top priority was to just sit back and relax for a while but with so much opportunity for exercise with the River Walk right out our front door, so much history to immerse ourselves in, and so many places to see, relaxation just had to take a back seat.

Whenever we go to a city where there is this much history, we always seem to gravitate towards the churches in the area and San Antonio was no different.

San Fernando Cathedral is the nation’s oldest cathedral, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.  It was built between 1738 and 1750 and was named for Ferdinand III of Castile, who ruled in the 13th century.  In 1868 it was enlarged considerably in the Gothic style.

Besides being the nation’s first cathedral, it is also renown for having been the location where the Battle of the Alamo originated.  It was here that General Antonio López de Santa Anna, leader of the Mexican troops, hoisted a flag of “no quarter” (meaning no clemency or no mercy for their enemies), marking the beginning of the 13-day siege.

It is also here, in the sanctuary, where the remains of William Travis and James Bowie, co-commanders, as well as Davey Crockett, congressman and defender of the Alamo, are entombed.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was constructed in 1868 for the booming German immigrant population of that time.  It is the city’s 4th Catholic parish and the mass was originally said in German.  The congregation has dwindled over the years as commercial office and retail space has engulfed it.  The interior was worth a few photos, as you can see below.

The King William Historic District is a 25-block area near downtown that was one of the most elegant residential areas in San Antonio in the 1800’s.  Given the number of stunning homes that we saw while strolling through this area, it would be easy to say that King William still holds this title.

The San Antonio Museum of Art is housed in a lovely 1904 historic brewery complex.  While we were there an exhibit entitled “5000 Years of Chinese Jade” was being shown and it was quite impressive, along with the Latin American art, which reminded us of our time in Mexico, but the most notable installation, in my opinion, was in the Asian art gallery, the Medicine Buddha Sand Mandala.

The mandala in this collection was created by a group of Tibetan monks from Drepung Loseling monastery in Karnatoka, India in 2001.  It is one of only four in the US and approval had to be gained to keep it intact.

The mandala is created using colored sands and is painstakingly laid down by the use of tubes, funnels, and scrapers until the desired pattern is achieved.  These symbolic works of art typically take several weeks to create, due to the intricate detail.  Once completed, the mandala is dismantled after a set period of time, as this represents impermanence, a key teaching in Buddhism.  This deterioration is often a highly ceremonial affair.

We are always on the hunt for a farmers’ market when we arrive in a city and the Pearl Brewery was to be our destination.

Pearl Brewery was a working brewery from 1883 until 2001, when an enterprising company, Silver Ventures, Inc. purchased the property and made it the crown jewel in the revitalization efforts of northern downtown San Antonio.  It is now a cultural and culinary destination, with restaurants, boutiques, an Aveda teaching school and a culinary institute.  Saturday morning is the farmers’ market and it was very nice indeed, offering fresh vegetables, meats, baked goods, cheeses, honey, and chocolate, to name a few.

Sadly, our time here in San Antonio is drawing to an end, but we have Big Bend National Park to look forward to next, so we head down the road once again.

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The River Walk

The infamous San Antonio River Walk (aka Paseo del Río) is a network of walkways along the San Antonio riverbanks, one story beneath the downtown area, although it has been greatly expanded beyond the downtown segment since its origination.

River Walk, with Tower Life Building in the background

The section that runs beneath downtown San Antonio, lined by bars, restaurants, shops, hotels, condos, and lofts, has been described as “The American Venice”. Sights, sounds and flavors of Native America, Old Mexico and the Wild West blend with the hustle and bustle of a modern city.  It is an important part of the city’s fabric and a major tourist attraction as well.

In 1921, disastrous flooding along the San Antonio River took 50 lives.  Serious discussions began shortly thereafter for the development of flood control in the area and by 1929 dams were created and bends in the river removed in the hopes of preventing further flooding.

A bond issue was passed in 1938 which provided for the “San Antonio Beautification Project”, a 2.5 mile River Walk in the downtown area.  Robert Hugman, local architect, designed and submitted plans for this project and subsequently became project manager.  Over the decades the River Walk continues to be expanded upon, with the addition of 20 bridges, waterfalls, seating areas, outdoor art, and extensive trees and shrubbery.  What originated as a 2.5 mile project has been expanded into a 13 mile work of art!  The River Walk is maintained and operated as a park by the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department.

The River Walk became our source of daily exercise but for those who would prefer a more relaxed means of motoring around, Rio Taxis are available, with historical narrative of San Antonio provided by the driver.

Rio Taxi on the River Walk

We were in San Antonio for the annual Ford Holiday Parade and Lighting Ceremony, which occurs the Friday after Thanksgiving.  Approximately 1.8 million LED lights are strung among the trees lining the River Walk and are lit at the beginning of the river parade, a panorama of 30 floating barges of lights and music.  The only drawback was the 250 thousand people who attend this event, so it definitely was elbow-to-elbow but worth seeing.  I have included a few  shots of holiday lights, to put everyone in the spirit of the season.

Nightly until Christmas, barges of carolers cruise the canals and beginning December 1st over 6000 luminaries will line the riverbanks in the downtown area.  We wish we could be here for that but are thankful for the two weeks we did have.

Thanksgiving in San Antonio

Here in San Antonio, away from family and friends for Thanksgiving, we wanted to do something to give back, to serve in some capacity.  A famous San Antonio holiday tradition, which began 32 years ago, is the Jimenez Family Thanksgiving Dinner.

In 1979, San Antonio restaurant owner and businessman, Raul Jimenez, wanted to give back to those less fortunate in his community, those not able to provide a Thanksgiving meal for their families, those forgotten individuals.  What began as a dinner for 200 San Antonio residents has grown to 25,000 and is now one of the largest benefits in the country!

We had hoped to participate in this event but unfortunately arrived in San Antonio too late to volunteer.  We were lucky enough to be able to assist the food bank in preparing and serving some of the less fortunate so we are thrilled for this opportunity.

We wanted to take a moment to wish all of you a blessed holiday.  We hope you are surrounded by loved ones but if that is not possible, that you reach out and touch someone in need.  At this time of such uncertainty in the world, let’s take a few moments to reflect not on what we do not have, but instead on all that is good in our lives.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

The Missions of San Antonio

We have settled in San Antonio for a couple of weeks, to recharge and see some of this charming city, so steeped in history.  As far back as 1691 a group of Spanish explorers and missionaries named the Native American settlement and  river they saw San Antonio, after St. Anthony of Padua.  From that small settlement, it has grown to be the second largest city in Texas today, behind Houston, and has a population of 1.3 million.  This city is famous for many things, one being the Spanish missions, which I will focus on for this post.

We had not realized until arriving in San Antonio that there were so many missions here, the reason for their existence, nor the fact that the Alamo was part of this grouping of missions.

The chain of six missions that were established in San Antonio in the 1700’s was one of Spain’s most successful attempts to extend her dominance northward from “New Spain” (present day Mexico), as well as convert the native population. This collection of sanctuaries, established by Franciscan missionaries, is the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America.  Five have survived and four are still active parishes and are a part of San Antonio Missions Historical Park.

Mission San Antonio de Valero (now known as the Alamo) was constructed initially in 1718 , serving as home to missionaries and their Indian converts until 1794, when they were driven out due to continuous attacks by the Comanche and Apache.  The Spanish cavalry arrived from Mexico in 1803 to occupy the mission and changed the name to Mission del Alamo del Parras, or what we know today simply as the Alamo.

Where this mission originally stood and where it stands today are very different. Much of the original mission has now been incorporated into downtown San Antonio and the land where the Alamo now stands has been expanded upon, to include some lovely gardens and research facilities.  We were surprised to see how small the remaining shrine is as we had envisioned it to be of a much grander scale.

The Alamo

An oak tree, dating back 140 years, still stands on the grounds, with its base measuring 12 feet in circumference and its longest branch measuring 50 feet, quite a specimen!

We found the story of the Alamo to be fascinating and we had certainly learned some of this history while in school, although along the way much of the details had been lost to both of us.

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, founded in 1720, second behind the Alamo, was considered the strongest of the missions and was a major social center.  Given her grand design, bastions, and magnificent church, she was referred to as the “Queen of the Missions” and was the model for those to follow. Of all the missions, San José provided the greatest protection against raiding Indians.

San Jose Mission Church

Since there is a visitor center on site, we took the tour of the mission offered by the Park Service, which was very informative.

The courtyard of the church, which is still an active parish today, is lovely, and reflects both a Moorish influence in its rounded archways and a Gothic design in its pointed interior archways.

San Jose Church Courtyard

The restoration work that was done in the interior of the church focused on recreating the colors that existed during the mission’s operation.  The back altar, brought from Mexico, is quite beautiful.

The facade of the church, particularly the archway and statues over the church doorway, is presently under restoration and is quite ornate.

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña (known simply as Mission Concepción), built in 1731, is thought by many to be one of the most beautiful of the missions, and looks essentially as it did almost three centuries ago.  It was well-known for its religious celebrations and its extensive artwork painted on the walls in many of the buildings.

Mission Concepcion

The interior of the church is beautiful in its simplicity.  It is an active parish still today and is the oldest, un-restored church in America.

Mission Concepcion Church Interior

Experts continue to uncover some of the original frescoes that adorned the convento walls and ceiling, which contain a blending of Christian, Spanish, and Native art elements.

Mission San Juan Capistrano was originally San José de los Nazonis in east Texas and in 1731 was moved to its permanent home in San Antonio.  Given its fertile farmland and pasture, it soon became the regional supplier of produce and allowed this mission to be self-sustainable.  The chapel and bell tower are still in use  today and many of the parishioners can trace their roots back to the original inhabitants.  The church is closed to visitors at this time for major renovation.

Mission San Juan

Mission San Francisco de la Espada (Saint Francis of the Sword) also had its beginnings in east Texas and was moved to San Antonio in 1731.  In order to build a strong economy, the missionaries taught mission Indians vocations.  Espada was the only mission that made bricks, which can be evidenced in her bell tower.

Mission Espada

Having the most simplicity of all the mission chapels, when I stepped inside Espada’s chapel the serenity there compelled me to envision her congregation today participating in a mass.

Mission Espada Chapel

This mission contains the best preserved section of the acequia (irrigation system) that was used to bring water to the fields.  Today part of this acequia operates the Espada aqueduct and dam.

The missions here are a treasured slice of Texas history, well-preserved, and still operational today through the active parishes.