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Sunday, January 27, 2008

San Antonio's real River Walk

I made it back to the city center just before 9am, parking the van off Main Street between Houston and Travis Avenues. (I found out later I was only a block away from the River Walk!) I brought the city map that Maggie gave me yesterday, although the high rises in the downtown area: the Drury Inn, the Robert E Lee Hotel ("Air Conditioned"), the Tower of the Americas, the Tower Life building with its long TV antennae, the Hyatt and the Marriott hotels all kept me oriented. I was at most five blocks from all the major attractions.

My first plan of the day was to walk the length of the popular River Walk, a 2.4 loop off the San Antonio that is now lined with expensive eateries, pubs, and shops. The walk continues both north and south along the San Antonio River, making for a leisure six-mile walk from one end to the other. It's the 2.4 loop in the center of town that draw all the tourists, and few ever stray away from the River Walk and explore the rest of the river's shores.

San Antonio's city streets run into the Alamo, causing a vehicular nightmare for most drivers in the city's center. That is why I chose to park the van away from the Alamo/River Walk. Across the street was a statue of Robert Frost, the 20th-century American poet who lived in this city in 1936-37. He, along with other writers such as John Steinbeck and O'Henry was stricken by the Texas mystic. Frost's statue was one of many I would walk past today.

The streets were still empty as I made it to town, and parking was ample. This is what I wanted to see: the River Walk without all the tourist blocking the walk, with their loud noises disturbing the peace. I could walk at a leisurely pace and enjoy any bird calls, which this morning were mostly mallard and pigeons. The highrises kept most of the town below in a cool shadow.

And I got it. The Water Taxis were already working (9-9 daily, $4 a ride), the park police were making their river rounds, and the maintenance crews were floating by picking up water trash. River walk janitors also swept up any more trash on the path. The River Walk was spotless, much like a walkway at Disneyworld. Since the River walk is below street level, the area smelled moist, damp, and when the sun came up high enough, a mist rose from the water. The sunlight on the green foliage was the best part of the photography.

I like the River Walk not so much for the overpriced shops, but for the flora along the way. I saw what to me were giant-sized houseplants: rubber trees, magnolias, fig trees, palmetto and other palms, elephant plants, zebra plants, and African violets the size I've never seen before. Cypress trees along the River Walk (which started out years ago as a flooded, dirty irrigation ditch) shaded the river. The walk smelled like a walk through an encased planetarium. Early morning joggers sprinted by. Ducks of various species floated nearby, watching for hand-outs.

However, because of the pollution in the water, the water must constantly be treated. I noticed many hidden aerators to the water, coming out of hidden pipes along the walls. The Hyatt Hotel, which is located just off the official River Walk, sends highly chorinated water into the River Walk. The hotel smells of a damp hot swimming pool on the first floor. The water is greenish-grey. Most of the live oaks and cypresses along the river walks were planted here in 1939, the year ground-breaking work began on the project.

The tourists started coming out by 10am, mostly elderly tourist couples taking a quiet post-breakfast stroll. By then I had finished the river walk, and continued walking east toward the Alamo. I stopped in the compound again, briefly listening to the red-coated park ranger talk about the courage of the 186 outnumbered Texans defending the Alamo against Santa Anna's troops. The Alamo compound compared to the other missions I saw yesterday is so much smaller, but is much better maintained and due to fundings, also lush with native vegetation and a peaceful walk for locals and small children.

I went south toward the River Center (indoor mall) to the Torch of Friendship, which at night looks like an orange lollipop. From there I walked east on Congress toward the Market Square, passing the old Bexar County Courthouse, a red sandstone on Romanesque Revival style built in 1892, City Hall and its statue to Moses Austin, father of Stephen F Austin, and the old Spanish Governor’s House. This was an area I was at last night, but during the day the streets are livelier, the colors fuller, and there’s less mystery to what is behind the shadows.

I passed many more tourist shops all throughout the downtown area, but didn't stop in any of them. I was more interested in the outer architecture of the buildings and sidewalk art.

I noticed more homeless on this side of the River Walk, people of all backgrounds with all their belongings sitting on bus stop benches and either napping or chatting with other down-trodden people. I wonder where the shelters are? Are they perhaps near the city library, like they are in Dallas?

I like the area west of the River Walk, toward the Market Square. It was here in the 1890s that people would come and shop in the open air. Now the open air has been rplaced with more trendy buildings and made-in-China souvenirs, but I also walked past a duo of Equadorian pan flutists, a Mexican caricaturist, Mexican flauta vendors and a few other locals. The walk-through smelled enticingly of warm, sweet tortillas and my breakfast had long been walked off. I had been walking three hours now and needed to eat, but I didn’t want to eat in a touristy shop.

The Milam Park, where I walked through last night, was filled with homeless people sleeping on benches. It’s no wonder the playgrounds meant for little children stood by empty. But where where all the homeless last night when I came here? The tall statue of Colonel Benjamin Milam, a native Kentuckian who fought with the Mexicans in 1819 to gain their independence from Spain, stood prominently on the park's west side. Milam joined the Texas campaign in 1835 (which surely was a campaign for adventure-seeking frontiersmen like David Crockett as well), fought in the Goliad Campaign that same year, but a few months later was killed before the campaign could take off. Three pigeons perched on his out-stretched sword when I walked by, and their grey plumage blended so naturally with the statue that they looked like part of the original cast.

It was time to get moving, but not before I drove toward the King Wilhelm district, a once posh neighborhood of colonial homes built by German immigrants. This district is just south of the River Walk and accessible via St Mary's Street. Many of the homes looked badly neglected and ready to collapse from their termite-riddled homes. What I liked most about this neighborhood were the mature oak trees shading the wide streets.

The locals call this district the “King Willie” district. I figured this would be a nice place to find a good, cheap local eatery. And I was right. My first choice was Rosario’s, a large restaurant facing the main road at an angle. I looked at the menu and saw $9 enchiladas. I went on to the smaller eatery across the street, an old-looking, worn-down white wooden building, Tito’s Mexican Restaurant, and noticed the crowded tables inside. Crowded tables usually mean good food. I gave it a shot and was not disappointed.

Bottles of Mexican and domestic beers lined one wall of the eatery. Colorful Mexican paintings of flowered brunette beauties adorned another wall. Tables were closely to one another, but the customers came and went. I ordered a enchilada verde plate with a margarita and my server, “Joe Black” who looked more like a Jose Benitez but I wasn’t about to argue with him, was attentive and friendly. My bill was less than $13. This was a much better deal than the Blue Star brewpub, which in hindsight was mediocre at best and nothing compared to Lubbock’s Triple J.

I drove around the King Willie district, noticed a river walk and stopped once again to walk. This was the original river walk in the residential district, the southern terminus, where locals walked their dogs, their toddlers, or took a jaunt down the crepe-myrtle lined path. Ducks and cormorants idled along the shore. The female ducks were especially loud, quacking at each other. If the male ducks could roll their eyes in despair, I’m sure at this point they did.

One elderly man, who resembled Sigmund Freud and walked with a cane, briefly joined me on a stone bench where I was getting ready to set the camera, told me the river walk continued “for miles” through town, and that it started at the Blue Star Brewery where I was last night. “It’s at least another mile to the start” he said. That meant I had to check it out…and the walk only took me ten minutes. That’s a half mile for me.

Other families with young children strolled along this stretch feeding the mallards. A few Mexicans on the other side of the river fished with basic poles and waved at me. Why anyone would want to eat fish from the murky waters is beyond me. The river fish were found to contain high levels of bacteria (E. coli), according to the San Antonio River authority in a public news release last fall. And in 2003 tributary rivers flowing into the San Antonio river were found to have excess levels of Polychorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). The shallow river is so murky you can't even see the bottom in the walled portions of the River Walk.

South of the Blue Star Brewery the river turns wild and narrower. Cement walls no longer keep any flood waters in check. The Mission Trail will at one point in the future be connected to the river walk, adding another six miles to the city’s walk. I had developed a hot spot on my right foot, just below my big toe. I wore a t-shirt and jeans. The outside temperature was close to 70F.

A stop in New Braunfels was my next choice.

I drove backroads north through town, driving through the historic district of Monte Vista, a neighborhood that also was once a posh neighborhood of stone homes, wooden villas and hilltop mansions. The San Antonio skyline is visible from here. I passed more run-down homes next to elegant mansions, art shops and taquerias, organic tea rooms and used book stores. This would be worthy of another visit at another time. I passed the old San Antonio Academy, a private military school for boys founded in 1886 and located on a hilltop facing the skyline, and several historic churches of various denominations in this neighborhood.

I needed to get going though as it was passed 3pm and I wanted to see New Braunfels before sunset. I had to get back on I-35 north, via I-410 east. Braunfels is only 22 miles north of SA.

But here I was disappointed. New Braunfels was settled by Germans in the 1840s and twenty years later the county of Comal was 96% German. I expected the old Bauerndeutsch stone architecture to dominate, much like it does in nearby Boerne. What I saw instead as I drove into town were Spanish signs for cheap phone cards to call home in Mexico, more taquerias and gas stations selling gasoline for $2.76, the cheapest yet anywhere this year in Texas. When I stopped at the local Texaco station to tank up, all but one other person in the store was of European heritage. New Braunfels is going through an ethnic change.

I did find a few German buildings in town: the Henne Haus, the Freundschaftsbaum (a live oak) and a few other unique buildings built in the late 19th century. The best part of this town was not the small historic downtown, but the town’s festival grounds west of town on TX46, with an authentic Maibaum, Wurst und Biergarten, and an old German-style mill off the town’s Comal creek. Now that was German. The town hosts an annual Wurstfest in November, which certainly is the Wurst Festival in Texas, if not the country.

I’m glad I got a taste of New Braunfels, but I didn’t get a feel of its advertised “Gemuetlichkeit” the town likes to be famous for. Maybe that is because I wasn’t there for the Wurstfest or any of its other German-oriented festivals, and I definitely by-passed the overrated Schlitterbahn, a large waterpark outside of town.

Now I was officially on my way home, continuing on the hilly section of TX46, getting lost for 30 minutes in Spatzville when I thought a drive north to Canyon Lake would be a shortcut (It wasn’t), and reaching Marble Falls as the sun set over the Colorado River.

It was a lovely weekend, even if I never did touch base with my old high school friend. I will try one more time before I leave TX. Next weekend, if I have time, I will check out Fort Worth if I don't hear from Lynne. I want to see the cattle stockyards and the many dairy farms west of town.

I made it back to my small apartment at 8pm. My legs felt like they got a good work-out this weekend. I drove 348 miles and spent just over $100 for gas and meals, $45 which was for food and sodas . This gives me a good idea of what I could be facing next month when I start my Texas trip.

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