18 May

Howdy partner and welcome to the 2nd largest city in the Lone Star state of Texas. Inspite of this, San Antonio is easy to navigate on foot if that is your thing but it also boasts a vey good public transport network. However, visitors to the city would be best served by purchasing a hop-on-hop-off ticket from the tourist information centre which you cannot miss as it is located directly opposite to the first place of interest, the Alamo.

Now the first thing visitors to the Alamo will notice is how small it is. However, this is somewhat misleading as what you see today is only the mission church. The Alamo itself was much larger in scale and efforts are underway to re-create the Alamo in all its splendour to offer a better understanding of what occurred there between February 23 – March 6, 1836 and why because of it, the Alamo has become known as the shrine of Texan liberty. 

Under the command of Colonel William Travers, a company of 188 Texan regulars and Tennessean volunteers stood off 3.000 Mexican troops commanded by General Santa Anna. 13 Days of constant bombardment eventually ended with the death of almost every defender of the mission garrison.

Still, as horrific as the outcome may have been, not only did it make heroes out of men like Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, more importantly by holding off Santa Anna, they bought precious time for Sam Houston, the president of Texas, to gather an army to first oppose and then defeat Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto near Houston. As a result, Texas became an independent republic until it was annexed by the United States in 1845. 

The next place you simply must visit is the so-called Buckhorn Saloon which boasts not only one of the most impressive collections of furniture made from deer antlers and buffalo horn, part of it has been dedicated to documenting the history of perhaps the most courageous fighting force the world has ever known , the Texas Rangers.

While the Buckhorn Saloon has been moved from its original location, the exact date is unknown. What we do know is that it contains the private collection of erstwhile German immigrant Albert Friedrich. His father was a cabinet maker and is known to have made horn furniture for the likes of Queen Victoria, Otto von Bismarck (The Iron Chancellor) and Kaiser Wilhlem I of Germany. Albert Friedrich amassed his extensive collection through an arrangement that still stands to this day. Anyone could exchange the ivory or horn of an animal for a beer in the Buckhorn Saloon. 

Situated on the first floor, consecutive rooms encircle the last saloon downstairs and boast examples of animals from each part of the globe to demonstrate the true depth of the collection that was amassed over the years. This means that it holds not just species native to the american plains and wilderness but also the arctic Tundra of the Siberian steppes, the steaming jungles of South America and the at the time largely uncharted regions of Africa and Asia.

However, as I mentioned, the Saloon is not just a glorified poster child for taxidermy. Through it we also learn about the origins and mission of the first defenders of the new frontier, the Texas Rangers.

On August 10th 1823, Stephen F. Austin sought and obtained permission to hire 10 men whose resposability it would be to look after the 300+ settlers which had been granted land by the Mexican government which was desperate to bring skilled labourers to the region. However, while most were skilled and more than capable of surviving in this new land, others were no match for the hostile forces they would encounter, especially the various Native Indian tribes which had called this land their own. Marauding brands of renegades proved too great a problem for a poorly equipped local militia to deal with. Austin therefore needed a group of highly skilled men. They had to be good riders, good shots and adept at living and surviving the harsh conditions of the arid deserts as well as the wide plains. They would take the fight directly to the marauders door step and establish order in the new frontier. 

Yet while the Texas Rangers are perhaps best known for their exploits on horseback, modern versions of this force were responsible for chasing gangsters like Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine-Gun Kelly and perhaps their greatest adversaries, the gun-toting, bank-robbing duo of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. 

In the lower section of the Buckhorn Saloon stands a faithful re-creation of a frontier town from the mid 1800s complete with saloon, sheriff’s office and jail, as well as a  telegraph and newspaper office. 

It also has a display dedicated to the story of Bonnie and Clyde and how both died in a hail of bullets one fateful day in May 1923 as both were cornered by the Rangers in Louisiana, providing a detailed timeline of events that lead to the end of the deadly pair”s crime spree across the American South. Anyone with an interest in the gangster era of the American West should not miss the chance to check this out for themselves. 

Before we move to the next site on the list of things to see, I wanted to draw everyone’s attention to something that is both a natural creation as well as a masterpiece of human engineering, the Paseo del Rio or Riverwalk.

The Riverwalk winds and twists its way through the city, like the yellow brick road from The Wizard of Oz. Stone bridges and winding pathways remind many a visitor of the network of bridges in Venice. 

While the riverwalk itself originates from the San Pedro river, only a part of what we see today was crafted by nature. The rest was the brain child of visionary architect Robert H. H. Hugman, who was not only responsible for the beautification of the Riverwalk but also the construction of a series of flood defences designed to regulate the water table at times of excess rain. Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that it hardly rains in Texas, but as I found out for myself on the morning that I explored the Alamo, the Saloon, the Riverwalk and beyond, I was caught out by a sudden rain storm that disappeared as quickly as it had begun.

Both the modern and original sections of the Riverwalk now boast a collection of stores and eateries offering the finest in Mexican cuisine as well as traditional handicraft and more modern souvenirs. Look along the banks of the river and you will find various sculptures made either by Spanish or Portuguese artists, the latter represented by the sculpture “Stargazer” sitting at the fork between the Riverwalk Mall and Hemis Fair Park.

The next site one should visit is the so-called Tower of the Americas. This stands 230 metres tall and is one of the few remnants of the Hemis Fair (World Fair) held in Hemis Fair Park in 1968. It remains one of the tallest freestanding structures in the western hemisphere. As such, it dwarves the Seattle Space Needle by 26 metres and the Washington Monument by 20 metres. The observation deck stands 59 stories high. Like everything in Texas – go big or go home! 

The last site on my list as this was literally around the corner from my hotel , is Spanish Governor”s palace or Plaza de Armas. This is considered to be the most beautiful building in the city. Really more a mansion than a palace, it is important to point out that no-one actually ever lived there. Its thick adobe walls and beautiful gardens were a haven for lavish receptions and gatherings of the rich and influential dons. The interior is rather simple with the decorative furnishing from the 19th century.

I said this was the last site to visit. Well that is not strictly true. I mentioned the hotel that I was staying at while I was in San Antonio earlier on. Well, it turns out that the building the hotel is housed in is actually a listed building of historical value and therefore no alterations can be made to the outside of the property without the express permission of the city government of San Antonio. The building used to function as the city jail, but like all structures from the Mexican Frontier era, it is a thing of beauty …

Sadly, my brief visit to San Antonio had come to an end. But however complex getting here may have been, based on the natural and man made wonders I got to see, it was well worth it …

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