DTour Part 7: Texan History in San Antonio
After an exhausting weekend in Las Vegas I flew south to the one-and-only Texas, the largest state in the USA after Alaska. I had been there twice before, both times to Houston and both times over a decade ago, but this was my first trip to San Antonio, a Texan city with an important role in the state’s history. It’s here in San Antonio that you find the Alamo, the location of the 1836 battle against the Mexican President General Santa Anna and the hallowed Shrine of Texan Liberty. You might have heard about the battle from the John Wayne film The Alamo in 1960 and fittingly enough, I was given the John Wayne-themed Duke Suite in the Emily Morgan Hotel, which is also a DoubleTree by Hilton hotel. The Duke Suite sits on the top floor, the 14th floor, right at the front of the hotel with almost 360º views over the city and it is adorned with various paintings and photos of the man himself, including some of the original film reels used in the making of the film, and other cool artefacts. It’s a gorgeous set of rooms and I can tell you that the enormous whirlpool jet bath tub is to die for.
The Emily Morgan actually sits on hallowed Alamo ground and is right next to the Alamo, which began life as a Spanish church in 1718. The very name of the hotel points to its connection to the Alamo – Emily Morgan was in fact a black servant who is reputed to have slept with General Santa Anna just before the later Battle of San Jacinto , thus distracting him and allowing his army to be defeated. I and a few other local bloggers from San Antonio were treated to a private tour of the Emily Morgan and the Alamo, before a drinks reception in Oro, the hotel’s restaurant, and I learnt a huge amount about the city, both past and present.
One thing I have noticed repeatedly on this DTour is how much the Americans love to celebrate Halloween! With over a week to go before Halloween on the 31st October, houses, restaurants and shops are already fully decorated with pumpkins, cobwebs and skulls. I even saw a full life-size skeleton sitting on a porch deck chair outside one house in San Antonio! In the UK we prepare for Halloween perhaps one day beforehand and don’t put in nearly as much as effort – maybe we should! To mark the fact that it’s nearly Halloween, our tour of the hotel and the Alamo had a special theme to it: ghost stories. The Alamo is rumoured to be home to the ghosts of those 189 Americans who died there in the battle, and the Emily Morgan has its own ghosts too (which I wasn’t too thrilled to hear about while I was still staying in the hotel!). The Emily Morgan began its life as a Medical Arts Centre, a.k.a. a hospital, which of course had a morgue to temporarily store the dead bodies before they were cremated on the top floor, which happens to be the floor I was staying on… There’s even a black and white photo of smoke billowing out of the crematorium’s chimney! The 7th floor is said to be haunted by the ghosts of children who run around during the night, and apparently there’s even a ghost of a woman in a white dress who makes an appearance every night at 10:30pm at a certain window, which they’ve even caught on CCTV… Creepy. I have to say, I was very spooked by the bath tub in my suite, whose jets would randomly turn on by themselves twice every morning…
After the ghost tour of the hotel we were given a private tour of the Alamo just across the road, and I could see that this site means a lot to Texans. If it weren’t for this battle, Texas could have remained part of Mexico until this day. When asked about the presence of any ghosts on the site, our guide Wade made a cracking comment: “I think I might have had one ghost experience, although that might have just been a muscle spasm.” Which just says it all really! It was great to have this exclusive insight into some of the landmarks of San Antonio and to meet some local Texans, who told me all about life in the city.
But there is plenty more to see in San Antonio besides the Alamo. If you stroll 2 minutes west of the Alamo you reach the River Walk, which is a pretty impressive man-made canal that winds through the city one level below street-level, home to numerous restaurants and bars. It’s a lovely pedestrianised area full of cute bridges, gentle waterfalls, water features and an abundance of trees, plants and flowers. It startled me how well the River Walk blends into its surroundings, which are the modern skyscrapers and shopping centres you can find in any main American city. These are very well hidden by the greenery and you could almost trick yourself into thinking you were in small village somewhere or a European canal city.
If you continue along the River Walk to the south you reach a residential area called King William Street, where huge, majestic, well-groomed colonial houses back onto the river. Several of them sport plaques outside commemorating important San Antonians from history who have inhabited these houses and I found myself trying to choose which house I would like for myself…
King William area is an easily walkable distance along the river, and returning back to the city centre I headed west to reach Market Square, via the pretty San Fernando Cathedral and the Spanish Governor’s Palace.
Market Square has a number of small independent shops selling imports from Mexico, as the Mexican border is only 150 miles away (a 2.5-hour drive) and I couldn’t resist buying a pack of naipes (Spanish for ‘playing cards’) as they’re so beautifully decorated. With the playing cards came larger cards showing the painted images (see the photo below for some examples) and I like the idea of sticking them all up on a wall as a piece of art. As well as paintings of the individual cards there were also paintings depicting the Día de Muertos (the Mexican equivalent of Halloween from the 31st October to the 2nd November, where they remember their dead relatives by creating a little shrine and laying out the dead person’s favourite meal, for example). As I’ve never been to Mexico it was intriguing to wander around the different stalls and browse piñatas, ceramics and other trinkets. Had I had more space in my luggage I would have bought a lot more.
One particularly worrying item I found was a metal sign depicting a rifle below the motto “We don’t call 911”. I’ve been told that 65-80% of Texans own a gun, and one of my drivers even has 16 guns in total! Another man I met told me never leaves the house without at least two guns on him. Coming from a country where not even the police officers walk around with guns, this put me a bit on edge and I couldn’t stop my eyes from scanning people’s silhouettes for gun-shaped lumps… Here is a particularly radical difference between us Brits and the Americans: our attitude towards personal weapons. I find it slightly terrifying that absolutely anyone could get their hands on a gun, and statistics show that gun-related incidents are far more widespread in countries with high gun ownership. But that is a whole other kettle of fish that thankfully doesn’t have anything to do with my DTour. One of my friends did suggest I learn to shoot a gun while in Texas and apparently the ‘cowboy capital of the world’, Bandera, is not too far away from San Antonio, but that will have to wait for a return trip.
A couple of other lovely things to do in San Antonio include taking a boat trip along the River Walk and taking a horse-drawn carriage through the city. Food-wise there’s a strong Mexican influence and you certainly won’t be left hungry anywhere. In all honesty, I haven’t felt hungry at a single point on this whole trip – the abundance of food everywhere and the huge portion sizes mean that I only really need 2 meals a day, and I expect November to be a month of dieting once I get home!! The Americans sure know how to make good food!
[I am travelling around North America as a DTourist on behalf of DoubleTree by Hilton. You can find out more about how I won this incredible opportunity here]