Back in 2015, we combined a work conference in New Orleans with an overland trip from Dallas to New Orleans, via San Antonio and Houston. It a long flight from Australia to Dallas, so we were so glad to avoid an internal domestic flight in the States. It was great to break things up with a train trip from Dallas to San Antonio, followed by a road trip across to New Orleans.
San Antonio was a highlight of the trip. It’s a city centred around canals with a series of old suburbs and Spanish built missions that extend south from downtown.
My travels in San Antonio were limited over our three day visit, having been afflicted with food poisoning from a turkey cranberry bread roll on the journey into the city. The thought of turkey still makes my stomach turn. Fortunately we’d booked the Grand Hyatt so the first day was bunkered down within it’s comfortable environs.
As my fragility eased, it was time to venture out for an hour or two along the Riverwalk. Central San Antonio has a mellow network of pedestrian walkways set down below the street level in the centre of the city. The extensive walkways along the river bank are awash with restaurants and large American hotels, with tourist boats plying through otherwise calm waters. This network of canals was once part of a large bend in San Antonio River, which frequently caused flooding. A construction program was completed during the Great Depression divert the river, followed by beautification works from the early 1960s onwards. Nowadays, the city benefits from the large network of relaxing canals and big hotels – it’s a little bit like Disneyland, but more interesting from a historical perspective. This district is well prepared tens of thousands of Americans who constantly descend here for big corporate conventions – at least prior to COVID 19 in any case.
If you get the chance, the Alamo battle site is also located in the downtown district – it’s the site of the 1960 John Wayne movie of the same name. Once you enter the site, you soon respect how it commemorates an important aspect of history, where Texans were courageous but ultimately defeated by Mexicans in February 1836. During Spanish times, this site was Mission San Antonio de Valero – one of several religious Missions in the area – the gardens and grounds still have a very peaceful & reflective atmosphere, so it’s not difficult to contemplate the long history of this site.
Our next day involved rolling along well maintained cycle tracks that extend south from the city through old districts with old homes and factories, in addition to World Heritage listed missions that were established by the Spanish in the 1700s. Cycling is the best way to experience these areas, as it’s dead flat, much like the rest of Texas and Louisiana. And the city has a bike hire scheme that was very easy to navigate: you can drop off your bike at many parking stations that are adjacent to all the major sites.
Initially, we cycled from the downtown RiverWalk area, through a very princely district called King William – oozing with old money everywhere you turn. Grand homes that would make a fantastic setting for the next horror movie to hit Hollywood.
Continuing further south, we rolled into an old industrial zone, where the skyline was dominated by Pioneer Flour Mills. The flour mill buildings were built during an age where factory buildings were solid, grand and very imposing – conjuring up images of Willy Wonka’s factory from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This long running family-owned mill was originally established by one Carl Hilmar Guenther in 1859, with Guenther House now serving as a cafe and shop, under a canopy of grand old trees on the riverside, adjacent to the main mill. Pioneer Flour Mills were a local institution prior to being brought out by private equity in 2018. Such is life in America: 166 years of local history wiped out with one trade by corporate raiders.
After filling up on carbs and coffee, moving on southwards and you’ll arrive at one of the oldest missions in the area. Mission Concepción was built in 1731 by Franciscan monks. The grounds are humble, the highlight being the small restored chapel, which is a great place for reflection, maybe in the same way that the local residents of the mission reflected over 300 years ago.
The church of Mission Concepción is an excellent example of Spanish Colonial architecture. As we were the only people there, the walls echoed as we explored and imagined the many people who had worshipped in this modest but memorable hallowed ground. The silence was only broken by the sinister squawk of a red shouldered hawk that was surveying its territory from a bare winter tree.
Heading further south, the cycle track cuts through parklands and fields as it follows the San Antonio River, towards our final destination for the day. Mission San Jose is about five minutes cycle to the west of the main cycle trail: it expansive and impressive.
You get a real sense of a unique community where life must have been very tough for up to 350 native Indians who were Christian converts under Spanish influence. Long walls with basic rooms open out onto a vast rectangular field. Your sight is drawn to the far end of the compound within these walls, where there is an elaborately ornate church that dates back to 1782, in addition to other large buildings that were essential for this large enterprise. The site was almost impregnable, as the perimeter walls still attest to this very day. Local Apache and Comanche Indians who inhabit the area frequently threatened the community, primarily in the surrounding farmlands and when travelling to other Missions in the area.
San Jose Mission had a fascinating history that provides a window into larger events that have impacted on Texas over the past 300 years. The Mission community ceased when the Spanish lost control of the region in the early 1820s, with a long period of intermittently being used as a military base for the powers that ruled, and then a period of decline and abandonment. The 1930s ushered in an age where history was beginning to be appreciated as the dilapidated buildings were restored, presumably as part of a work program during the Great Depression. Kinds of make you reflect on opportunities that arise for the whole community during times of economic woe – not altogether unlike 2020.
Useful Links about San Antonio
History of San Antonio Missions