San Antonio – The Alamo and a lot more

In early January of 2017, I rode the train into LA Union Station and took the express bus to LAX. Traffic at the airport was horrendous, so the bus driver drove to the arrivals level instead, and got everyone to their terminal in no time. I had enough time for a cup of coffee in the newly renovated Delta Airlines SkyClub before boarding the non-stop flight to San Antonio. As we departed Los Angeles, there were stunning views of the snow covered mountains of southern California. As we passed over southern Arizona, a very nice lunch was served in First Class – BBQ chicken sliders, kettle fried potato chips, and a delicious lemon drop cookie for dessert. Arrival in San Antonio was on time and soon I was on the Super Shuttle van to downtown, where I checked into the historic Menger Hotel. It was a beautiful old building built in 1859 from local hand carved limestone and located across the street from the Alamo.

The Alamo
The Alamo at night
Mission Park at the Alamo

I was given one of the original rooms that had been “updated” in the early 1900’s to install running water and electricity! It was a beautiful, classically furnished room, including several antiques and a lovely view overlooking the courtyard garden.

My room at the Menger Hotel
Courtyard of the Menger Hotel

Later, I went downstairs to the Menger Bar for a cold beer before heading to the nearby Convention Center to register for the International Imaging Conference. In the historic old bar were displays of artifacts and memorabilia from the 10th Texas Cavalry that had seen action during the “Border Campaign” in 1916-17. From 1910 to 1919, during the Mexican Revolution, there were several occasions when the US Army’s 10th Texas Cavalry fought on both sides, the rebels and the Mexican Federals. In 1915, Mexican rebel leader, Pancho Villa, launched an attack on a US Army supply post in southern New Mexico, destroying the small town and inflicting several casualties. In response, President Woodrow Wilson ordered General Pershing and 5,000 soldiers to march into Mexico and capture or kill Pancho Villa. However, the rebel leader evaded capture and retreated into southern Mexico. As an interesting side note, early in 1918 the US Army Intelligence Command at Fort Huachuca, Arizona detected a German military presence in northern Mexico and began surveillance activity. It was later discovered that the German government had attempted to persuade Mexico to enter WWI on its side, with promises to aid Mexico in recovering land it had lost in the Mexican-American War. (namely the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California!) In 1919 hostilities ceased along the border, bringing an end to the Border Campaign. It’s a fascinating part of Texas history.

Also on display above the old dark hardwood bar were several white footballs that were souvenirs from the annual Alamo Bowl game. The cold bottle of Saint Arnold’s Elissa IPA from a craft brewery in Houston was an excellent recommendation from the bartender. He told me stories about the fascinating history of the old hotel, including the fact that electricity came to the hotel in 1897. It was one of the first buildings in the city with electricity, and amazingly, the original light bulbs behind the bar were still working! Meanwhile, the music was mostly traditional country and western, but suddenly there was a song that one could only describe as “Redneck Rap”, titled “Talk About Me”! At the same time, the NFL wild card game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers played on the one and only TV screen. As I left at halftime, the score was Green Bay 14 and New York 6. (eventually Green Bay won 42 – 20)

Leaving the old bar, I walked over to the new Convention Center by way of the RiverCenter Mall and part of the RiverWalk – a lovely route that avoided crossing any streets.

Convention Center
The Riverwalk
The Riverwalk and RiverCenter Mall

I arrived in time for the Welcome Reception and enjoyed lots of delicious pork and beef BBQ. During the reception I met a nice guy named Marty who had driven 12 hours from Slidell, Louisiana through an ice storm. Later in the evening, I walked back to the RiverCenter Mall and stopped in the Yard House for a cold point of local “Southerleigh Darwin IPA” from San Antonio – a very nice, smooth, yet crisp finish. As I’ve done in every Yard House, I asked the bartender what was the most popular of the 137 beers on tap from around the world. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be Bud Light, with Michelob Light a close second! I closed out the evening back at the Menger Bar with another Saint Arnold’s Elissa IPA. I noticed there was a large portrait of Teddy Roosevelt above the bar, so I asked the bartender what was the story behind it. Turns out that Teddy had frequented the bar often and recruited many of his “RoughRiders” in the bar as well. Apparently, they trained in San Antonio for the Spanish-American War. That explained why the bar was selling T-shirts with “Honorary RoughRider” printed on them.

I began the next day with a visit to the “Tower of the Americas” in HemisFair Park, site of the 1968 World’s Fair. From the observation level at the top, 800 feet above the ground, I had spectacular 360 degree views for more than 50 miles around the city.

Tower of the Americas
Tower of the Americas
View from the Lounge atop the Tower of the Americas

As I walked around the observation deck, I discovered a fascinating exhibit of Texas history under six flags – Spanish, Mexican, Texas Republic, USA, Confederacy, and USA again. Later I took the elevator down one level to the Charthouse lounge for a cold beer and watched the scenery as the room slowly rotated. But later, when I pressed the elevator button to return to the base level, it didn’t light up. I thought it must be malfunctioning, so I pressed it two or three more times. After about 10 minutes, I walked over to the bar and asked the staff if the elevator button was actually working. Sure enough, they confirmed that the button was not working and promptly called the elevator operator on the radio to request a stop at the lounge level. So why wasn’t a sign to that effect posted at the elevator door? No one seemed to have an answer, but we all agreed on the need for it!

That afternoon, I attended a couple of very interesting conference sessions and received a positive critique on some of my photos by a professional photographic competition judge, which made me feel pretty good. On my way back to the hotel, I took several photos of the beautiful RiverWalk and the historic Menger Hotel.

Menger Hotel lobby
Menger Hotel main entrance
Christmas decorations – Menger Hotel
Rotunda – Menger Hotel

Then I asked the hotel concierge for a recommendation of a “local” neighborhood place for dinner. Immediately he said, “you should go to The Friendly Place Ice House, just a 20 minute walk from the hotel”. So I bid him farewell and headed south down Alamo Boulevard, passing through an old neighborhood of San Antonio. What I found was indeed a very local, neighborhood outdoor bar with lots of tables placed under massive Live Oak trees. The bar had over 40 craft beers on tap, so I chose a local San Antonio Brewery IPA. I found a seat outside, under the trees, in the warm evening, among many neighborhood locals and their kids and dogs. Throughout the evening we all watched the National Championship NCAA College football game between Alabama and Clemson, on an enormous 20 foot high TV screen. It felt like being at an old drive-in theater, but without the cars! (a lot of fun) At halftime I walked back to the RiverWalk and stopped at the Patio Bar in the Hilton Palacio Rio Hotel alongside the river. I ordered a “Perdenales IPA”, brewed in Fredricksburg, and a fantastic spicy chicken quesadilla, as I joined a lively crowd for the second half of the game. Clemson trailed the whole game, but won in the last few seconds – a very exciting ending!

The next morning, I walked to the historic “Market Square and Farmers Market”, where I took many photos of the lively and very colorful scene.

Market Square
Market Square
Farmer’s Market

On the way back to the hotel, I discovered the fascinating “Casa Navarro Homestead State Historic Park”, which just happened to be next door to the Central Texas Detention Facility (aka jail). In the small visitor center was a very interesting video about the history of the Navarro family and the original founding of San Antonio. As I walked around the old homestead in the beautiful warm weather, the display of history of the Navarro family and that of early Texas was fascinating. The displays and exhibits were very well designed. The State Historic Park had preserved the original house and buildings that were the residence of Texas patriot Jose Antonio Navarro (1795 – 1871). He was a rancher, merchant, and the leading advocate for the rights of Tejanos (native born Texans). He was also only one of two Tejanos allowed to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico. The lovely structures of hand cut native limestone and adobe were built between 1832 and 1855. The site along the San Antonio River formed the heart of original San Antonio, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2016.

Casa Navarro Homestead State Historic Park
Casa Navarro
Casa Navarro
Jose Antonio Navarro

Later, near the Menger Hotel and the RiverWalk, I came to an old historic area known as “La Vallita”, with many old buildings of hand cut limestone and original adobe construction. The historic La Vallita village was one of San Antonio’s first neighborhoods, dating back to the late 1700’s when the Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known today as the Alamo, was active. At the height of its growth, La Vallita village was home to a myriad of artists and craftsmen, including stone cutters, watchmakers, painters, sculptors, dressmakers, and shoemakers. It was also home to several boarding houses and a few saloons. But by the early 1900’s, the area had declined significantly and was labeled a “slum” by San Antonio locals. When work began on the RiverWalk in 1939, as a project by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick, a close friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, pushed to have the restoration of La Vallita included in the project. The old village was revitalized, while retaining its historic past and charm, and today is a lively and popular place to browse galleries, shops, and restaurants. La Vallita was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

The Little Church of La Vallita
The Little Church of La Vallita
McAllister House & Store – La Vallita
TeJeda House – La Vallita
King Philip V Street – La Vallita

A short walk south along Alamo Boulevard brought me to the historic “German-English School”, which today is the San Antonio Marriott Conference Center. During the years when the school was operating, the policy was that both languages would be taught equally. The school was established in 1858 by German immigrants to teach the language of their newly adopted country, while retaining the essence of their native language and culture. In addition, the basics of writing, arithmetic, geography, and even music were part of the curriculum. The activity of the school was financed through “subscriptions” from the families of the students. It closed in 1897, and over the next 75 years became a public school, junior college, and at one point, office space for the city of San Antonio. During the development of HemisFair in 1965-68, the school was restored and turned into a conference facility for the Marriott Hotel. It remains a significant historic San Antonio landmark and a gorgeous example of traditional hand cut limestone architecture. After visiting the old school (aka conference center), I walked next door to the Marriott Hotel to enjoy a cold beer in their lovely garden overlooking the pool. As I sat on the patio, two gorgeous Peacocks strolled through the garden, as if they owned the place.

German- English School
San Antonio Marriott Hotel
Peacock on the patio

Later in the evening, I strolled back to the RiverWalk and was intrigued by a small restaurant named “Little Rhein Steakhouse”, in a beautiful, old limestone building built by German immigrants in the early 1800’s. I chose to sit outside on the terrace overlooking the river, where I enjoyed a fabulous filet mignon, served with crisp steamed fresh asparagus, au gratin potatoes, and fresh baked German dark bread! Meanwhile, I watched the riverboat tours slowly pass by, and as I listened to the tour guides, each pointed out the German heritage of the old restaurant, but each narrative was a bit different.

Little Rhein Steak House – La Vallita Village
Dinner on the terrace overlooking the Riverwalk

As the sun was setting, the colorful lights along the RiverWalk were beautifully reflected in the river. Walking back to the Menger Hotel, the view of the “Tower of the Americas” lighted up against the dark night sky was spectacular!

Tower of the Americas at night

By this time the Closing Party at the Convention Center was in full swing and I was inundated with more great food and drink that followed a Tex-Mex theme. Entertainment included an old cowboy doing amazing tricks with a lariat, and he was very good, especially when “roping” pretty young ladies as they walked by, totally oblivious to his intentions! (it was a lot of fun for those of us watching) I filled a small plate with delicious tacos, grabbed a couple of cold Dos XX’s, and sat outside on the terrace in the warm evening. From the terrace, I had an incredible view of the Tower of the Americas, brilliantly lighted against the night sky. Inside the Convention Center was a very popular “slow motion video booth”, where people could dress up with crazy costumes and props, then act “wild” in front of the camera for one minute. A few minutes later, we all could watch their video in slow motion – lots of fun!

Following the Closing Party, I stopped at the Yard House bar in RiverCenter Mall for a cold pint of Weihenstephan Hefeweizen, my favorite wheat beer, and as I sat at the long bar, I noticed a very strange and unusual program on one of the TVs.

RiverCenter Mall

It was a show about the DRL (Drone Racing League), which turned out to be an international competition among drone “pilots” from six countries. The races involved flying drones by remote control through a very challenging 3D course inside the atrium of a large office building. The action was fast paced, and required exceptional skill from the pilots. Whenever a drone crashed on the course, it was eliminated, along with the pilot! It was really fascinating to watch and quite unusual.

I started the next day attending a couple of excellent technical sessions, and then met up with my longtime friend, Bob, from our days in Seattle and Anchorage. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Ruth Chris’ Steakhouse, and spent a couple of hours catching up on the time since our last get together many years ago. Despite the five hip replacement surgeries, Bob looked great and was getting around just fine. After lunch, I showed Bob a very interesting exhibit in the Convention Center of life size bronze sculptures of famous Texans in history. Then we walked along the RiverWalk to the Menger Hotel Bar for a beer and a visit to the history of Teddy Roosevelt and the Roughriders. Before leaving the bar, Bob bought a Roughrider T-shirt for his nephew, an extra, extra, large size, since his nephew is a huge high school football player. Reluctantly I had to bid farewell to Bob, collect my luggage, and then board the shuttle van to the airport for my return to California. When I got to the airport, I found the LA flight was two and a half hours late incoming, due to a mechanical issue at LAX. So I proceeded to a very crowded airport bar, the one and only in the terminal, for a beer. The barmaid very friendly lady who called everyone “babe” or “hon”, regardless if they were man or woman, young or old. Once the flight departed, a delicious dinner was served, featuring a Charcuterie Plate having slices of Black Forest ham, roast beef, grilled chicken breast, sharp cheddar, smoked gouda, and along with an assortment of pickles, pearl onions, fresh baked focaccia and a fantastic spicy brown mustard! It was the first time I had ever seen this served on a domestic flight, and not that often on international flights for that matter. (really nice surprise)

Since the flight was quite late arriving in LA, I had to catch the last train to San Bernardino, and finally got home around midnight. However, the trip to San Antonio was a memorable one!

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San Antonio Cathedral
Historic San Fernando Cathedral – Old San Antonio
Historic home – San Antonio Mission Park
Historic home – San Antonio Mission Park
RiverWalk near Convention Center
RiverWalk near Convention Center