DREAMSCAPES WINTER 2018/2019
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A CITY ON A MISSION
 
(2018 - Winter Issue)

Writer: LIZ CAMPBELL



A school of giant sunfish hangs over my head. Sunfish are native to this part of Texas, but I’m not underwater. I’m gazing at Daniel Lipski’s colourful art installation under one of the many bridges that span the San Antonio River.

This is just one of many art installations along an eight-kilometre stretch of San Antonio’s famous River Walk. In fact, San Antonio is a city made for walking, and what better way to explore it than along this beautiful, cypress-shaded pathway. It meanders alongside the river one storey below street level. Downtown, the River Walk is lined with restaurants, shops and hotels. However, unexpected gems pop up along its entire length.

PEARL DISCOVERIES

A huge bronze statue of a cowboy wrangling Texas longhorns catches my eye. It leads me to the Briscoe Western Art Museum, where historical artifacts and striking art celebrate the history of the American West. It’s one of my happiest finds.

Near the northern end of the River Walk is another delightful discovery—San Antonio’s newest foodie destination. The old Pearl Brewery here was nearly destroyed to make way for a Walmart warehouse. Rescued by local billionaire, Kit Goldsbury, the brewery and environs now form Pearl, a.k.a. foodie nirvana.

At Pearl’s centre is Hotel Emma, a masterpiece of industrial chic created from the original brewery building. Combining luxury and elegance, it yet retains the architectural and even the mechanical elements of the brewery. Everything that could be saved was catalogued and reused. Manufacturing tools and components are everywhere, whimsically incorporated into stylishly designed spaces. Everywhere I turn, I find myself playing a game of “Spot the Historical Artifact.”

From its inception, Pearl set out to attract San Antonio’s most innovative chefs. “Food brings us together; food helps us tell stories about who we are and where we come from. I wanted Pearl to be something beautiful and really cool,” said Goldsbury. “And I wanted food to be at its centre. A vibrant food district is at the heart of any healthy community.” 

The restaurants at Pearl cut a wide culinary swathe: French patisserie and breads at Bakery Lorraine, chef Steve McHugh’s charcuterie and pickles at Cured, Peruvian-Asian cuisine at Botika, kosher vegetarian fare at Green, and in the spirit of Pearl’s origins, craft brews at The Granary and at Southerleigh.

One reason this area has become such a gastronomic hot spot is the presence of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). This is the venerable institution’s third North American location and the focus here is Latin American cuisine.

San Antonio’s culinary scene features several recent graduates now specializing in Latin American cuisine. For example, at Mixtli, Diego Galicia and Rico Torres proudly use indigenous ingredients and pre-Hispanic techniques to create authentic flavours. And at La Gloria, Johnny Hernandez sources the ingredients in Mexico for his signature hot chocolate and talks passionately about the importance of terroir. Could hot chocolate be the next wine or coffee?

Indeed, San Antonio, once a bastion of Tex-Mex and hefty steaks, has become a foodie destination. In recognition of this, last year the city was designated a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, and its contribution to cuisine has been dubbed Tex-Next.

HISTORY LIVES ON

My lazy trip back toward the city centre gives me a chance to enjoy the River Walk from the vantage of a boat. I sit comfortably in one of GO RIO’s tour barges and enjoy the guide’s stories of San Antonio.

Of course, one of the most inspiring of these is the history of The Alamo. It was here that, in 1836, some 200 Texans, including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, died fighting Santa Anna’s force of 1,500 Mexicans. Their 13-day battle inspired the words used to this day to rally Americans, “Remember The Alamo!”

But The Alamo wasn’t a fortress; it was a Spanish mission called San Antonio de Valero, one of five built in the early 1700s by Franciscan friars, who strung them like gleaming white pearls along the San Antonio River. Together, these five missions represent the largest collection of 18th-century Spanish architecture in the U.S. and have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

All five missions are accessible along the 13-kilometre extension of the River Walk. If walking 13 kilometres seems daunting, there are also bus tours. The more energetic can rent a bike. Or try a unique approach with Mission Kayak—the paddle is all downstream and there’s a comfy ride back at the end. There’s even a paddleboard tour. Whatever your mode of transport, the missions are a must. In their weathered stones and brick archways, their painted plaster and bevelled bell towers, San Antonio’s colonial past comes to life.

As the sun sets, I’m standing with dozens of others in the city’s Main Plaza to see some of that history come to life. Here stands the oldest Catholic Church in the USA—the Cathedral of San Fernando, begun in 1738. It was here that Santa Anna raised a red flag to warn those defenders of The Alamo that there would be no mercy. And here too, it’s said that Davy Crockett is buried. The stone walls of this church form the screen for a magnificent son et lumière presentation, San Antonio—The Saga, depicting the history of the city. It’s colourful, fascinating and enlightening.

After the show, I can’t resist a stroll up the road to the Spanish Governor’s Palace nearby. I want to see if I can spot a spirit. According to the Sisters Grimm Ghost Walk, the mansion is haunted. Their ghost walk is wonderfully entertaining and informative, but neither my visit with them, nor this one, raises a single spectre.

If he’s still haunting his mansion, the ghost of the governor would undoubtedly be proud. This year San Antonio celebrated its tricentennial. Founded in 1718, it’s worth a visit to encounter the past and see what 300 years have wrought in this unique piece of Texas.

Travel Planner

San Antonio, Texas, is less than a four-hour flight from Toronto and Air Canada (aircanada.com) offers direct service between the two cities with convenient connections from other gateways. The local bus company, Via, sells a day pass for just US$2.75. For children, the Witte Museum showcases a variety of interactive displays. The Mercado is a vibrant little piece of Mexico on Commerce Street, featuring three blocks of restaurants and colourful stalls where you’ll find intriguing little knick-knacks to take home as gifts. For more information on all there is to see and do in San Antonio, log onto VisitSanAntonio.com.

 
 
 
 
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