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Timeless River San Antonio and Its Offspring - This Historic River Walk

by:
Sheila Rosenberg

From the time of the discovery by Spanish explorers in 1691, the River San Antonio running through what is today San Antonio’s famed River Walk or Paseo del Rio area has been flush with greenery, shady banks, and toweri-ng trees. In the beginning these explorers used the waterway to supply water to their missions. Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo, was the first to reap its benefits. Throughout the centuries the river flooded its banks many times.

In 1921 the worst flood on record killed over 50 people and caused millions of dollars in damage to the city. There were various plans brought forward as to what to do. An architect (Robert H.H. Hugman) convinced the city officials and business leaders to turn the area into a beautiful urban park patterned after old cities in Spain, where narrow winding streets that were closed to traffic were able to secure the best shops and restaurants.  It actually took until 1939 when the River Walk was officially built with walkways and the first kiosks.

Today, the River Walk winds through downtown San Antonio like a lush and long meandering garden. It is thick with plantings of flowering trees and shrubs and dozens of restaurants, hotels, and shops. I consider it one of the prettiest and most romantic, if not the prettiest and most romantic, of all the urban rivers in the U.S. 

I’ve been visiting the River Walk since 1965 when it was mostly small hippy arts and crafts boutiques and tie die shops and a few restaurants like Casa Rio. As I recall, in comparison to today it was also fairly seedy and untidy. My favorite time to visit is Christmas. Each Christmas season the city of San Antonio displays for its visitors and residents a spectacular display of millions of fluttering, twinkling lights of many colors along the length of the River Walk downtown. The lights are turned on each year the Friday after Thanksgiving. It just makes you feel good to be there – like entering a fantasy land for grown ups!

One of my always favorite things to do is ride the Rio Trans River taxis. The taxis are a center piece of the area as they traverse the narrow canal that makes up the River Walk’s two and one half miles winding through the downtown area of San Antonio. You just know everyone on board is enjoying what I can only describe as a highly stimulating multi-sensual experience that they will remember. The taxis stop continuously at over 39 stops giving you the opportunity to relax and enjoy the absolutely lush green views and the historic and romantic feeling surrounding you on your way to your favorite River Walk restaurant, shop, club, or hotel. 

Some of my favorites on my “must experience” list are the Arneson River Theater, the La Mansion del Rio Hotel, and the Casa Rio restaurant for their contributions to the rich history of the River Walk.  The Arneson River Theater is located out of doors on the River Walk The stage resembles the old historic missions in San Antonio including bells. An arched stone bridge connects the Theater to terraced grassy stone benches on the opposite bank of the River. The audience sits on what appear to be giant steps. It’s a perfect venue to watch a dance, play, or musical performance. The Theater is next to La Villita Historic Arts Village. It was San Antonio’s first neighborhood comprising a settlement of primitive huts for the Spanish soldiers stationed at the Mission San Antonio Valero (the Alamo). La Villita is a testament to the vision of past community leaders who acted to preserve the area as an important part of San Antonio’s history.

Walking along the River Walk you will pass by the La Mansion del Rio Hotel, an elegant and very old world hotel built right into the side of the River Walk. It expresses itself as a grand hacienda blending the Spanish Colonial architecture and European-style furnishings true to San Antonio’s bi-cultural heritage. According to history, 17 years after the famous battle of the Alamo in 1852, four teaching brothers from the Society of Mary decided to create a center of activity for education and enlightenment in the still-untamed Texas frontier. In 1968, the Hotel was transformed from a 139 year-old-school building into a luxury class hotel. Today, the two-story schoolhouse remains relatively untouched as the architectural heart of the acclaimed historic Hotel. It has been designated a historical treasure by the Texas Historical Commission and the San Antonio Conservation Society. Founded as a center of enlightenment it survives today as a tribute to those founders as a center of grace, romance, and beauty. La Mansion del Rio Hotel was one of the first hotels opening on the River Walk in 1968, just in time for Hemisfair, San Antonio’s 1968 World’s Fair.

On my numerous visits throughout the years to the River Walk, I’ve eaten regularly at the Casa Rio restaurant. It is an original to the River Walk opening in 1946. It was the first business established at River level. You can’t miss the restaurant with its primary colored umbrellas on its outdoor patio right next to the River’s edge! According to River Walk history, it seems Alfred Beyer had an appliance store at street level that was losing money to department stores. Being what in modern terms is called an “out of the box” thinker, he excavated his basement of the store, built stairs down to the River, and opened what has remained a popular Mexican restaurant. According to the local history, Beyer discovered remnants of a Spanish-era home which have been preserved as part of the restaurant.

The River Walk is a “feel good” place. You go there for a day and its ambiance with its natural gardens, old fashioned lamp posts, stone pathways and bridges puts you back in time and makes you feel good or, at least, possibly feel better than before you got there!

About the Author:

Sheila Rosenberg, Ph.D., spent 35 years in Adult Education and Adult Literacy Education.  She has also spent the past 25 years writing and traveling - turning her favorite hobbies into her occupation.  As avid traveler, Shelia has visited cities around the glob including living and working in South Korea and South Vietnam for two years.  Places she have visited include cities throughout the US and to Mexico, France, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, England, Puerto Rico, and Aruba. Sheila who resides in Texas specializes in writing about the history and cultural aspects of a travel location.  (More about this writer.)

 

Email: johannaroughley@optusnet.com.au.

 

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