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San Antonio Riverwalk
By

Mark Glass - Click to Enlarge
By Mark Glass

Mark Glass is a journalist trapped in a lawyer's body, balancing his practice with
writing and broadcasting on travel, entertainment and professional sports.  

One of my favorite urban attractions in the U.S. is San Antonio's delightful Riverwalk. Nowhere I've been competes with the look and feel of this cornucopia of restaurants, shops and hotels, that so thoroughly satisfy both locals and visitors.

After a devastating flood in 1921, rivaling the tornado that allowed us to create Gaslight Square, political and business leaders planned to pave over the waterway snaking through downtown to avoid future disasters.  The river would have become a sewer.

Fortunately, a group of socially prominent women launched a campaign, eventually creating a WPA project to convert the river into a veritable urban parkland, below street level, with walkways and crossover bridges. The group these forward-thinking women founded exists today as the San Antonio Conservation Society, continuing its vigil against commerce at the expense of heritage.

River Walk was primarily a park for many years, even deve-loping a somewhat dubious reputation.  But in preparation for the 1968 HemisFair, commercial development and beautification kicked into high gear, spawning the panoply of delights surrounding its banks.

The river's downtown diversion is shaped like a wine goblet.  At opposite ends of the base are the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center and the multi-level Rivercenter Mall.  Up the stem and along the bowl of the "goblet" are a splendid assortment of shops, restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels. Nearby are the Alamo, muse-ums, art galleries and theaters.  Everything is within comfortable walking distance in this compact city core.

River Walk is a pedestrian paradise.  Scattered among the dining and nightlife sections are quiet green spaces, including a small island which is popular for weddings; there's only room there for the wedding party, while guests watch from the bank.

Open tour boats start from several spots along the river, pro-viding a complete narrated circuit in about forty minutes.  Some vessels serve catered breakfasts, lunches or dinners; still others function as taxis.  The water depth ranges from 2-4 feet, so those who celebrate to excess are hardly in danger if they plop into the drink.  About 2,000 party animals and/or klutzes per year take an unintended plunge.  [At least I assume those dunkings are accidental, since there's a $200 fine for impromptu bathing.]

The river remains amazingly clean for the number of patrons plying its walkways.  That's because they drain it every January.  As only true Texans would, San Antonians turn the occasion into an excuse for a party, wallowing in the bed for a few days of a mucked-up Mardi Gras-style cleanup celebration.

River Walk is far enough below street level that one almost forgets there's a regular city up there.  Office workers and tourists wander at a leisurely pace, among the steady flow of conventioneers, distinguished mainly by their nametags.  The relaxed friendliness of the locals is contagious; one receives more smiles and hellos per linear foot of progress than most places I've been.

Up at street level,  trolley tours cover a slightly wider area, embracing more of the city's historic and cultural highlights. The King William District, just southwest of downtown, resembles New Orleans' Garden District, with lovingly preserved, stately homes (some open for tours, but most still residential).

Other worthwhile sections to explore are Market Square and La Villita.  The former, also called El Mercado, is a produce row with colorful stores, open food stalls, restaurants and street per-formers.  Patterned after a Mexican marketplace, there are over 100 import shops, and myriad festivals throughout the year.

La Villita ("little town") is an arts and crafts community, with twenty-six shops and three restaurants in one square block of the oldest buildings in the city - the original San Antonio settlement.

To the southeast, buildings erected for the 1968 World's Fair include the 750-foot Tower of the Americas, The Institute of Texan Cultures (with exhibits honoring 28 different ethnic groups which contributed to the founding of the city), the Mexican Cultural In-stitute, and a large circular building converted into the most ar-chitecturally unique U.S.

Court House I've seen.  Adjacent to that area is the 65,000 seat Alamodome, home of the NBA Spurs.

Although the heart and soul of the city is the Alamo, it is but one of five missions that are still part of the city's link with its past.  The other four remain as active parish churches.   Each has a specific interpretive theme; none charge admission. The city's Mission Parkway Trail starts at the Alamo and winds south along a nine-mile stretch of the San Antonio River.

Dining in San Antonio is a surprisingly diverse pleasure.  I expected superb Southwestern and Tex-Mex cuisine, but also found   ethnic restaurants of all varieties - many right along River Walk.

Moving against stereotypes, San Antonio's museums include a full range of antiquities and world art from all eras.  The McNay features a large Impressionist collection; the San Antonio Museum of Art boasts a gardenlike gallery of Greek and Roman sculptures, and an expanding Asian section.  Other specialized facilities include the Hertzberg Circus Museum.

For free information about San Antonio, including schedules of festivals and other special events, as well as hotels, restaurants and attractions, call 800-447-3372.

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Email:  lotekguy@swbell.net (Mark Glass)

Mark Glass is a Mark Glass is a freelance writer and broadcaster, based in St. Louis, covering travel, entertainment and professional sports for his readers and listeners. Mark was travel editor for "St. Louis Connoisseur", and now have that role for "Life in the Midwest", based in Indianapolis. For the last fifteen years, he's written and broadcast features on travel, entertainment and sports, while maintaining his law practice in the St. Louis area. (More about this writer.)

 

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