By Shari Benyousky
Photographs by Tony Garza
“Look here,” the man in the red vest said, holding out his musket for Tony. “Just like the one sharpshooter Davy Crocket used.” He shook his head mournfully, a dimple in his hairless chin. He cupped one palm against the wind to pour his black powder down the barrel. “Right before sunrise March 6, 1836. Colonel Davy Crockett either fought like a wildcat hero and killed a dozen people or was captured, tortured, and executed after the battle ended. It depends on who ya ask.”
He dropped the musket ball in the barrel and tamped it down with the rod. “Either way, his favorite rifle, Old Betsy, is in our collection inside.”
In the crowd of tourists, a little girl with a red sequined dress and a purple jacket stood open-mouthed. The man leaned over and told her, “Old Betsy killed 125 bears in ten years.”
The little girl stamped her sequined slippers. “I like bears,” she said. “And I don’t like Crockett if he didn’t like bears.” She covered her ears and frowned during the musket firing presentation.
From Hotel Gibbs, where we were staying across the street, The Alamo looked tiny surrounded by the modern trappings of San Antonio. Now that we had crossed the cobblestoned street and plaza and stood looking up at the ancient walls still pock-marked with bullet holes, I was the one that felt tiny. The former mission turned siege-fort radiated a kind of timeless appeal to tourists from all around the world. We saw turbans and robes and buckskin and baseball caps. Tourists milled everywhere, but also myriads of volunteers dressed to re-create spring 1836 when General Santa Ana of Mexico besieged The Alamo for 13 loud, dusty, desperate days.
Tip: Hotel Gibbs is amazing because you can get up on the flat roof and look directly down at The Alamo, a particularly amazing view at night when it is all lit up. Wherever you stay, pick somewhere close to Alamo Plaza.
Evening is a pleasant family experience on the Alamo Plaza with kids playing tag around beer stands and food trucks. You can buy everything from sombreros to hotdogs while you sit under the glowing protection of The Alamo itself.
Heros of the Alamo
The next morning, we took a step further back in time walking a pleasant half mile to San Fernando Cathedral which was born a hundred years before the battle of the Alamo in 1738. “Amazing that 284 years is OLD in the United States,” remarked a European tourist to his partner as they admired the towers. “Notre Dame is closer to 900 years old.” They shook their heads in amazement but looked up again.
Many San Antonio natives refer to the cathedral as “the heart of San Antonio” and it’s easy to see why. Presidents and dignitaries, even Pope John Paul II, have paid their respects. Famous knife-wielder Jim Bowie married Ursala de Veramendi in the church five years before his fated choice to join the defenders of the Alamo. General Santa Ana himself leaned out the tower of San Fernando at the beginning of the Alamo siege to fly the blood-red no-quarter flag, letting the defenders of the Alamo know that none would be spared if they stayed to fight. Spoiler – they stayed.
Tip: If you peek inside the sanctuary, you’ll see a small coffin and a plaque on the wall. After the defenders’ bodies were burned on a giant pyre after the battle, citizens of San Antonio gathered the charred remains and honored them at San Fernando. Well, that’s the headline anyway. The story is more complicated. The controversy started in 1888 when Colonel Juan Seguin claimed that he collected the remains and buried them beneath the altar. Not many believed this until fifty years later in 1936 when workmen creating a bigger alter, discovered remains buried. Still, Seguin was a soldier and had more battles to fight. He did not return to the Alamo until nearly a month after the battle ended. We prefer to think the heroes are really in that coffin.
San Antonio Riverwalk
Nowadays, no one (seriously, the walk welcomes 11.5 million visitors a year) goes to San Antonio without checking out the riverwalk, but in 1968, when San Antonio was awarded the World’s HemisFair, the riverwalk had descended to seediness. Nine months of frantic renovations and upgrades brought the riverwalk to its current prominence. We purchased guided boat tickets to get across town and down to The Pearl for dinner.
“I’m starving,” I said to Tony as we watched the restaurants glide by. It was December, but sun warmed my bare shoulders and several tourists on our boat held various tropical drinks. One had a handful of tacos that dripped down his shirt.
The Riverwalk spans 15 urban, delightful miles. It’s a fantastic mode of transportation, but also a way to see everything from El Mercado to your favorite restaurant, to a live performance at the Tobin, to the 750’ tower of the Americas with an observation platform. If you’re inclined, you can pause to walk onto marriage island where 225 couples get hitched every single year. Quite a remarkable history for a cheap New Deal project from 1929.
Our vessel floated through town and finally reached The Pearl, a renovated brewery now home to foodies and shopping aficionados. We disembarked and ended our day, and our trip, with plates of food and glasses of wine. The way all days should end. “Salut!” said Tony.
Tip: check out how to get on one of those guided boats or gondolas here. If you want to see the Riverwalk sparkle, millions of lights festoon the trees from the day after Thanksgiving until the first week of January.
Know of an interesting place, statue, or restaurant which you’d like to see featured in this column someday? Send SB Communications LLC an email at [email protected].