San Antonio: `The One Truly Lovely City in the State'

Article excerpt

Years before "Lonesome Dove," Larry McMurtry took a driving tour of Texas that started, unfortunately, in Houston. The endless sprawl flattened his mood and left him, in true Texas fashion, remembering the Alamo.

"One sometimes wonders," he wrote, "if Bowie and Travis and the rest would have fought so hard for this land if they had known how many ugly motels and shopping centers would eventually stand on it."

His spirits lifted the next morning when he pulled into the Alamo city itself, San Antonio.

"The one truly lovely city in the state," McMurtry called it. "We have never really captured San Antonio, we Texans _ somehow the Spanish have managed to hold it."

It's easy to see why San Antonio has become one of America's up-and-coming tourist destinations. The Mexicans, losers in the war for Texan independence, stuck around and won the peace. Their omnipresence gives San Antonio a flavor Dallas or Houston should be so lucky to have. Like New Orleans and Miami, this is one of those rare American cities where "multicultural" is an apt description, not an academic buzzword.

San Antonio isn't a border town in the strictest sense. One hundred and fifty miles of scrubby prairie lie between it and the Rio Grande crossing at Laredo. But if you forget the map and listen and look and taste, it's easy to imagine you're in the northernmost city of Mexico.

Red, white and green are everywhere. "Numero Uno hits," blare the radio disc jockeys in one of the few bits of their Spanglish patter I could understand. "Barbacoa," say the signs in front of restaurants that serve good old Texas beef barbecue with good old Mexican corn tortillas.

"When we talk about the Old Country around here, we don't mean Europe," Pablo Rojas, a security guard, told me as we stood looking over the city from the 579-foot Tower of the Americas, the flying saucer landmark of the world's fair that took place here in 1968. He pointed south. "That's the Old Country my parents came from. Mexico."

Lest I think him somehow less American, he hastened to ask whether I had noticed the Mexican names on the honor roll of men who died at the Alamo fighting the dictator Santa Anna.

"Evidently," he said, "Mexicans didn't like him either."

The Alamo used to be about the only thing America knew about San Antonio. It was certainly the main thing I knew before I went in December and again in March. That, and a few stray facts: lots of military bases . . . nation's first airconditioned office building . . . subject of the sweetest tune in western swing ("San Antonio Rose" _ a- ha!) . . . good basketball team (hey, doesn't Dennis Rodman dye his hair in San Antonio these days?).

In recent years, though, another attraction has joined the Alamo in the national image of San Antonio: the River Walk _ Paseo del Rio _ a meandering stretch of the San Antonio River that's lined for 1 miles with shops, restaurants and nightclubs. Travel brochures compare it to a Venetian canal or a Tex-Mex French Quarter. Hype being hype, I figured it was just another festival marketplace _ Underground Atlanta with pinatas.

It's nice to be surprised.

I first saw the place on the weekend before Christmas. Knowing only that it was near the Alamo, I drove downtown, hitched my mount and followed a herd of teenagers to the nearest bridge. There, 15 feet below street level, the rippling boulevard of another city stretched out before me.

Luminaires lit stone walkways on both sides of the river. Strands of multicolored lights hung like Spanish moss from the pecan and oak trees along the banks. Water taxis ferried revelers to and fro. Laughter rang from the restaurant patios and second-story terraces that loomed like bluffs above the dark water. In the distance, a mariachi band stood on a humpbacked pedestrian bridge leading a crowd of strangers in a raucous rendition of "Jingle Bells. …