Travelogue – San Antonio, Texas
We were in Texas back in the February drawn to the Lone Star state by the rodeo, held in the city of San Antonio, which was celebrating it’s 300th birthday. Two million tickets were sold for the The San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo which is spread over two and a bit weeks and city was enveloped in rodeo fever. The whole deal, which as you would expect in Texas, was big and took place in and around the AT&T Center, home to the San Antonio Spurs, who play all their games for a month away from home during rodeo season.
We based ourselves at The Pearl, an historic hotel and foodie emporium, that was long home to the famed Pearl Brewery. It was Otto Koehler and after his death, daughter Emma that made the Pearl Brewery one of the most iconic in America. It survived Prohibition, the Great Depression, two wars and then various ownership struggles and takeovers but finally succumbed to financial problems when then owner Pabst closed it down in 2001.
Mind you with the onset of retro taste buds Pabst, which no longer brews beer, now markets it’s old brands including Pearl through licensing agreements, I could still drink Pearl beer locally in San Antonio, and it was very good.
A year later the whole Pearl Brewery 23-acre site was acquired by a private equity firm, who set out to restore the buildings with it’s 197ft symbolic smoke stack at the heart of it. A man called Christopher ‘Kit’ Goldsbury, who made his fortune from salsa, had a dream to revitalise the Pearl not only into a historic living and working destination, but also to change the culinary landscape of San Antonio. I read he wanted to make the Pearl a foodie’s dream. I have the same kind of dreams, and I can tell you that Mr Goldsbury succeeded.
Off the bat Goldsbury succeeded in bringing to the Pearl the Culinary Institute of America, one of the world’s greatest learning places for up and coming chefs, and the campus, in a restored brewery shed, was a hive of activity. The Pearl also has a twice-a-week farmers market and a food hall as well as a wonderful collection of eating and drinking establishments. More on them later.
At Pearl lots of shops and boutiques sit around open play spaces which include a multi-use amphitheatre, and for those lucky enough to afford it, rather expensive homes, one in the original canning plant, but central to it all is the glorious Hotel Emma, named after the redoubtable Emma Koehler, who after Prohibition ended one minute after midnight on September 15, 1933, immediately dispatched a convoy of 100 trucks and 25 boxcars loaded with kegs and bottles of freshly brewed beer. Top girl.
We stayed at the beautiful Hotel Emma, which is within the brick shell of the giant 19th-century brewery, its mammoth cast-iron tanks and steel machinery still standing inside the lobby. The hotel oozed layers and layers of history and eclecticism with added wonderful Texas cowboy charm. The stunning Sternewirth bar, spa and huge fireplaces were big bonuses as was the beautiful two-storey library housing 3,700 books, where we were received with a spicy Texan margarita on arrival.
We ate well, not surprisingly, and didn’t feel the need to venture far from The Pearl. We breakfasted at Bakery Lorraine, ate sushi at Botika, sampled local Tex-Mex at La Gloria, had ice cream at Lick, but as it turned out saved plenty of room in our tummies for Cured, which was really very good.
Given the city’s close proximity to Mexico and its one-time position as the chief Mexican stronghold in Texas (prior to Texas’s independence), it’s not surprising that the rich tapestry of San Antonio’s heritage has a good deal of Hispanic culture woven into it. Visitors can peruse shops selling Mexican crafts and jewelry, dine on Tex-Mex food, and enjoy Spanish music and mariachi bands at Market Square.
The famed River San Antonio flows 240 miles across 5 counties and straight through the heart and history of the city. Here local architect Robert Hugman designed the Paseo del Rio (River Walk) with Venetian influenced arched stone bridges where water barges carry tourists round the loop of the downtown portion of the River which is free of all road vehicles.
We walked from The Pearl where the river is wider and a turning point for the river taxis. There’s also a photo-worthy cascading waterfall. We walked south along the stone pathway following the skyline towards the downtown Riverwalk. It wasn’t the most picturesque walk but there were occasional surprises such as the Grotto with faces carved into it’s cave-like structure, a bridge with a school of floating fish that light the underneath of it at night and an underpass with a whole choir of wild animal noises, and another with a light installation. Tiled murals and historical explanations also spotted the pathway.
We passed the San Antonio Museum of Modern Art, The Tobin Center for Performing Arts, and around a smart little network of locks and dams. Terraces landscaped with native plants kept us company as finally we reached the Art Deco Drury Hotel. At this point the network of walkways led you into a Venice-like interior 20-feet below street level nestled in between tall buildings and cypress trees, and tucked away from the noise of traffic above.
There were tiny arched bridges, river taxi’s and pretty restuarants with mariachi serenading diners. It is of course overtly touristy but grabbing an outdoor margarita watching people shuffle past was a simple decision after a long walk.
The river continues for another 10 miles all the way out to Mission Espada. Key to this segment is restoration of the river and its banks for aquatic life and wildlife, along with 15 miles of recreational trails, picnic and seating areas.
Families are drawn to the big theme parks on the northwestern edge of town. San Antonio’s Sea World is the largest marine-adventure park in the Sea World chain, and has what every kid wants in a park: animals, roller coasters, waterslides, and swimming pools. Meanwhile at the, Six Flags Fiesta Texas, the amusement colossus also boasts a water park.
At the heart of San Antonio is The Alamo. A one-time Franciscan mission stands as a repository of Texas history, a monument to the 189 Texan volunteers who fought and died here during a 13-day siege in 1836 by Mexican dictator General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The Texans lost, but the defeat inspired a later victory in Texas’s bid for independence with the rallying cry “Remember the Alamo” spurring the soldiers on toward success. Today the historic shrine and barracks contain the guns and other paraphernalia used by such military heroes as William Travis, James Bowie, and Davy Crockett, who all died defending the Alamo. You can step inside the small mission and tour on your own, and then listen to a 20-minute history talk. Outside in the peaceful courtyard, a history wall elucidates the story of the Alamo, including it’s day as a religious mission.
Elsewhere amongst the downtown high rises with shiny corporate names atop of them is the Tower of the Americas. Come here for the dinner with a view. The 750-foot tower, which underwent a multi-million dollar renovation in 2006, features the Flags Over Texas Observation Deck and the rotating steak-and-seafood restaurant Chart House.
Beyond the Riverwalk and the bustling Alamo, whose crowds attracted a variety of street entertainers, downtown San Antonio did offer a historic slice of it’s identity, but looked a little unloved in areas, and lacking in general charm but to be fair we only gave it a little more than a cursory look before hopping in a taxi back to our hotel.
As I said at the beginning we came to San Antonio for the rodeo. This basically decided a fortnight before when looking for a half-term break with a difference, and before my animal-loving-other-half and daughter realized that rodeo isn’t the most caring exhibition of animal welfare. Banned in many states, cities and countries, including the UK, the Stetson wearing Texan families are one of the last bastions of cheering and whooping rodeo fans.
The San Antonio Rodeo lasts for a few weeks, and we came on a random midweek night yet the AT&T Center was packed. We all rose for the American national anthem as around me men uniformly removed their Stetsons and clutched their denim shirts. We were then given a warning that what we were about to see could be a little unsettling for some, but injured, or worse, riders and animals will be dealt with quickly. Then we all stood again for a prayer. It was all a bit surreal as the noise in the stadium was ramped up.
Then for the first time of many occasions beautiful Palomino horses with riders sat up high carrying the Texas flag stampeded around the outside of the sand circuit. The noise reached a crescendo as one of those American sports noise-o-meter’s flashed like crazy in the corner.
First up was bareback riding, where cowboys hang onto a just a handle all the while the horse bucks and pitches for 8 seconds. Similar to a bucking bronco, but real. Then it was steer wresting as a cowboy chases down a very excitable steer and wrestles the steer to the ground. The crowd goes crazy when the cowboy sits on the steer whose four feet wave in defeat in the air. Much like when a fat kid sits on a skinny one in the playground.
The next event was a little tough to watch. Team roping sounds innocent enough but it was like a witnessing a live hunt as a team of grown men chase down a small steer with one attempting to rope his neck and another the steer’s heels, thus collapsing it to the sand.
Then there was a throwback to the Wild West as a cowboy lassoed a young calf, who is given all of a 10 second head start, before the cowboy makes sure he has got his prey by tying the calves legs together. We got a reprise in the next event, or at least the animals did as riders atop of horses raced at breakneck speed in the barrel racing. that was pretty cool.
We had the classic circus half time show when kids got a chance to chase animals in the youth rodeo to lots of oohs and ahh’s. To wrap up we were treated to the ultimate saddle bronco riding as an agitated horse tried to throw his saddled rider. One rider was carted off on a stretcher during this, after what looked like his best Neymar impersonation, but if the cowboy was clearly bruised, he left waving to all four sides of the stadium in some sort of triumph.
With the crowd beside itself we finished off with the bull riding. A 2,000 pound bull is paired against a 150 pound man, who attempts to stay on whilst a clearly quite annoyed, twisting, bucking mass of muscle tries every trick they know to throw his assailant off.
All that and a live performance from Rascal Flatts to finish us off. We left exhilarated, a little shocked at what we had seen and my daughter renewing her vegetarian vows.
The rodeo was an experience, culturally something different but not for serious animals lovers, although I’ll mark it down as one for the books ticked.
My daughter was in her element at the stock show as owners showed their perfectly groomed animals in a gigantic marquee. Why she patted and stroked large beasts, I did a lot of staring as grown men combed sheep, blow dried cows, preened bulls and spruced pigs as they look to claim big money prizes. Tractors and harvesters shined to within a millimetre of their lives were photographed and fawned over and families of all ages stood proud of their livestock and mechanical equipment.
I thought San Antonio, and it wasn’t the best weather, was a little drab to be honest but for a weekend getaway we did a lot, and there was plenty more like the famed theme parks we never touched. We came to San Antonio for the rodeo but as part of the package deal we also got history with The Alamo and a real life walking map of the city with the River Walk, and it was a bonus to share in the cities 300th birthday celebrations.
A real unexpected bonus was the Pearl area and the totally awesome Emma Hotel. How developers have restored The Pearl Brewery and surrounding quarter is a masterpiece, and it not only highlighted San Antonio’s multi-faceted ethnic history but it was also a nostalgic and downright yummy place to explore.