“Have you been here before?” The owners of a tiny little art shop in the heart of La Villita greeted us warmly as we gawked at their paintings. Excited, we told them that this was our first visit to San Antonio.
“San Anton. Everybody here just calls it San Anton.” The lady smiled as if letting us in on a big secret. This casual and friendly attitude is characteristic of just about everyone you meet down in the south of Texas. We didn’t buy a single painting — although many of them had us counting the money in our wallets — but we left the shop with a heap of helpful suggestions about what to see and where to eat.
The historic city of San Antonio was not what we had expected. My friend and I had flown in from Vegas and didn’t see any of the countryside that we passed. Coming from the desert and heading further South, we just figured it would get drier. Texas as it’s portrayed in Westerns appears as rather dry and barren. Tumbleweeds come to mind often.
In contrast, San Antonio is a lush green garden with colourful buildings and a gentle river winding its way through the downtown core. The River Walk is a long series of pedestrian promenades along the river’s edge that provide a beautiful space from which to explore the old parts of the city and its major tourist spots. This scenic walkway winds through downtown in a loop and is supported by a network of bridges crisscrossing the river, as well as staircases leading up to street level.
The River Walk is truly an attraction in of itself. Beautifully landscaped, the pathways are surrounded by a variety of subtropical trees, flowering bushes and brightly coloured flowers. As we walked along we passed mosaics illustrating the city’s history, cascading fountains, wooden sculptures and miniature waterfalls tucked into archways.
Every once in a while we saw strange little mooring posts along the walkway with checkered yellow signs. These serve as stops for River Taxis which are essentially miniature barges that ferry people back and forth down the river. How they manoeuvre around the considerable number of ducks on the river remains a mystery as the waterway is filled with all manner of birds.
Where the river loops around the downtown core there exists a small artist community called La Villita, meaning “little village”, which has roots going back to the 1720s. Many of the buildings in this historic district were built in the 19th century and still stand today. There are a variety of beautiful shops selling all sorts of handmade wares — paintings, pottery, copper sculptures, glass bowls, wooden figurines, woven rugs and scented oils.
We stopped in a quaint little shop whose artwork focused mainly on cats and we were not very surprised to learn that most of the painters in the co-op were somebody’s grandmother. They took for their mascot one of the many strays that calls this village their home and gets daily hand-outs from the numerous store owners.
Beside La Villita we found a grass-covered amphitheatre that sits across the river from an outdoor stage. The Arneson River Theatre is well known for its evening shows featuring traditional and folkloric dancing. San Antonio’s nightlife is pretty lively as there are a multitude of restaurants, cafés and bars with patios coming out onto the River Walk.
As we headed further downriver we eventually made our way into the King William Historic District. The couple who owned one of the art galleries we visited had recommended a tiny hole-in-the-wall diner for lunch in this area. Someone had taken an old gas station and converted it into a café that served specialty sandwiches and strangely flavoured iced teas. Showing a strong Mexican influence, the food was very spicy!
After our late lunch we took a stroll through the well preserved Victorian neighbourhood. The King William Historic District was originally settled by German immigrants in the mid-19th century and they built elaborate and decorative mansions, many of which have now been restored. These fine old houses are very impressive, even those whose columns have been overgrown with vines or whose paint has peeled.
We walked back to our hotel in the evening, slowly making our way along the River Walk. As the day’s heat falls the walkway comes alive with people who mile about under the strings of lights and lanterns. Maybe it’s the friendly people that live here or perhaps it’s just good old southern charm but there is a relaxed spirit in San Antonio that infuses it with a sort of quiet beauty.