San Antonio, TX….When the onset of an adventure has friends flying to a common starting point I recommend a brief interlude. Primary motivation is to avoid the damage inflicted by flight delays, but I have come to appreciate a bonus from this wiggle room. When a landing strip is chosen only to serve as a launching pad it is a recipe for stress. The first leg of a journey is usually the longest, so after enduring that ordeal it makes little sense forcing a hustle through customs, grabbing rental car, etc.…particularly when exhausted and jet lagged. Pausing affords insulation from hiccups, with an unexpected reward of escalating attitude. To begin our Texas ramble everyone flew into San Antonio from hither and yon with reservations for a night along the city’s storied River Walk. Thus our focus was not on scrambling to dash away, but upon savoring local highlights and opportunities, replacing anxiety with the feeling that we had “arrived.”
As a veteran of San Antonio, I arranged lodging and looked forward to introducing friends to the River Walk and the Alamo. Thank heavens travel has also taught me to go with the flow, because today I would be a rookie just like my companions. One of our team was Samia, who has a PhD in architecture and formerly taught overseas. A fellow she worked with at one university, Paul, now lives in San Antonio and rendezvousing with him for lunch was our only planned event for the day.
Paul asked us to meet him at LaGloria, a fun restaurant that would reacquaint me with the magic of Mexican food. I have always enjoyed this cuisine, but before moving to Texas I was oblivious to how amazing it can be. After three years of Texas residency my family returned to Maine to catch up with old friends and made a brief jaunt back to Acadia National Park. Memories stirred as we drove Route 1 along the stunning Maine coast, and I impulsively informed the family we needed to stop at a Mexican restaurant in Ellsworth. Mexican restaurants are few and far between in Maine and the joint had been a ritual whenever making the trek to Acadia. But as we dug into our fare I looked at my wife and exclaimed “this is crap” — time in Texas had opened my eyes.
LaGloria features Mexican street food, the menu spanning tacos to ceviche. Not only was the meal fabulous, so was the décor and more particularly, the setting. We were in the Pearl District. Formerly the sprawling grounds of the city’s renowned Pearl Brewing Company, I had no clue of its existence. Today travel would reinforce how rapidly times change and remind me my last time in San Antonio was fourteen years ago. A day which dawned with expectations of playing tour guide quickly morphed to being an eager student.
There is a compelling history behind the resurrection of the Pearl District. The Pearl Brewing Company began operations in downtown San Antonio back in the 1880’s, the success of their brew spawning expansion across neighboring city blocks. But time marches on and corporate mergers led to the facilities pumping out Pabst beer by 1985 and ultimately being shut down in 2001. During my years of visiting San Antonio the area was basically a conglomeration of rotting infrastructure, but someone recognized the beauty of Pearl’s vintage architecture and began restoration. Today, Pearl District is thriving.
Our walking tour after lunch revealed another dozen interesting restaurants about. The cluster is probably driven by the Culinary Institute of America establishing a campus here. The kinder, gentler ‘CIA’ is renowned as a place to earn a college degree in culinary arts and they have their own stellar eatery on the grounds (Savor). Most of the CIA buildings are housed in rehabilitated structures from Pearl’s glory days, but Paul would shortly escort us into the grandest resurrection of them all.
Hotel Emma is remarkable. They have converted one of the most opulent buildings in the Pearl portfolio, naming it after an equally remarkable figure in the Pearl legacy. Emma Koehler’s husband was the president of Pearl. When he passed away in 1914 Emma stepped into his shoes and profitably led the brewery through Prohibition. Like kindred operations forced to convert, Emma steered Pearl into soda and near beer production, but also entertained dry cleaning and auto repair! The most extraordinary footnote to Emma’s savvy is that during her tenure of almost twenty years, Pearl retained full employment (most breweries went out of business). The landmark namesake is a bit beyond my price point, but walking through the ostentatious lobby is free and recommended.
After trooping about the Pearl District a bit more we returned to familiar turf for moi, the River Walk and the Alamo. I found this little changed. San Antonio’s River Walk is a possibly the earliest and most famous “subterranean” urban pathway. You will need to descend a stairwell to reach the paved sidewalks along either shore of the San Antonio River, but here is a succession of restaurants and retail outlets nestled in lovely landscaping. As appealing as that may sound, experience taught me how obnoxiously crowded this can get. During my first visit it felt like we would get shoved into the water because the sidewalks were so jam packed. The benefit of living nearby meant my family could return during weekends in February: the weather is often pleasant this time of year in southern Texas and there are no crowds then.
Even when I visited so long ago, the River Walk was being overrun by shopping malls and chain stores. I was heartened to see no further encroachment and there are still several enchanting spots. La Villita is one of those. While this is not directly upon the River Walk, one only needs climb a few steps to be immersed in an intriguing ‘little village’. Perhaps what appeals to me most is that La Villita was established back in 1939 with the specific purpose of encouraging native art. Today it is a collection of art shops featuring creations by local artisans true to their craft. Better yet, fun cultural events are frequently presented in the central plaza. As our party included a native of India and a native of Pakistan, everyone was pleased to discover a Festival of India being staged, and all enjoyed the performances for a half hour.
Although I had already been to the Alamo three times I was not weary of a return. Recognizing this pales when compared to places like Rome, I am still amazed by finding a historic site being embedded within the heart of a major city in the USA. Free entry makes returning easy, though I suggest dropping in early to dodge the crowds (open 9A – 7P daily, closing 5:30P between Labor Day and Memorial Day). You will be surprised at how small the grounds seem, but there is actually quite a bit to explore. With so much literature available on the Alamo I will not regurgitate, but I will pass along a recommendation: please drop in on the Long Barracks. A separate museum within the Alamo, the artifacts, displays and information here never fail to intrigue me.
Though I would not have selected San Antonio as a starting point, going with the flow revealed new insights and evoked fond memories. Getting back to the Alamo was not a repeat performance: it was time travel which recalled the first visit when we had to pick up souvenir coonskin caps for my daughter and her cousins. Our whirlwind tour omitted a few favorites, including the San Antonio Museum of Art, where we ventured during one of those February outings to revel in a Botero exhibit. That probably came to mind because the institution is similarly housed in a former brewery (for Lone Star Beer). And even though I knew nothing about Pearl Brewery, our pause allowed fresh discoveries because travel delivers satisfaction many different ways. Look out, Texas — we have arrived!