City Portrait: San Antonio

Text: Troy Hendrick • Photography: Christian Neuhauser

Enjoying an iced coffee and cappuccino under a budding magnolia on the banks of the Riverwalk, Christian and I chat about what to expect on our ride through Hill Country, only a half-hour away. But in the meantime, we've got a couple of relaxing days to explore the Alamo and the Riverwalk before tackling the Texas desert.

Texas is known for the dry, arid climate that holds sway to the northwest and south of here. But on the banks of the San Antonio River, there's no indication of the harsh conditions endured by Native Americans and frontiersman for ages. Like an oasis of civilization making a last stand, San Antonio is inviting and comfortable. And after all, this city is most famous for one particularly valiant "last stand."

The story of the Alamo is just as American as cowboys and apple pie. It's a story of rugged individualism, fighting against enormous odds, and the undying loyalty of men struggling in the name of freedom.

When the Mexican President, General Santa Anna, marched his army of thousands north from Mexico into the Spanish territory of Texas, he thought the Alamo would be conquered in short order. Then he could advance further north to meet Sam Houston and what were then known as the "Texian" Volunteers to end rebellion against the Spanish crown in the Texan territory forever. He certainly wasn't prepared for the 13 days when 189 men, women and children defended the Alamo with gritty determination, issuing cries of "Victory or Death!"

Sam Bowie, co-commander of the Alamo force and a living legend at the time, spent those last 13 days of his life fighting a high fever and the Spanish army. He fought alongside American legend Davey Crockett and his Tennessee Mountain Volunteers. But most of the command fell to William Barret Travis, a 25-year-old firebrand who penned one of the most patriotic letters in American history. Appealing to "the people of Texas and all Americans in the world," Travis sent a courier with the letter asking for help.

"The enemy has demanded surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison is to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken. I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the wall. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you, in the name of Liberty, of patriotism, and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch," he wrote. He signed the letter in capital letters - "VICTORY OR DEATH, William Barret Travis." Only 32 volunteers fought their way through enemy lines to answer his call.

In the end, the Spanish force overcame the volunteers in the Alamo, and Santa Anna executed and burned almost all of the Texans in a funeral pyre. But the 13 days of struggle gave Sam Houston enough time to assemble a force to meet Santa Anna only 46 days later in the Battle of San Jacinto. The soldiers roared, "Remember the Alamo!" and liberated the Republic of Texas from the Spanish colonial empire. Little did I know that Christian would shout that same declaration once we left San Antonio every time we departed a gas station.

The Alamo is located in the center of downtown San Antonio, and the original structure of the mission-turned-fortress preserves its story. It is actually one of four excellent examples of 18th century Spanish missions located in the heart of the city. But it is the only one that became a killing field. Archaeologists recovered artifacts, and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas preserved the site. There is no admission fee but contributions are welcomed.

The Riverwalk running through downtown sets the city apart from others with its system of canals set below the city streets and lined with tasty restaurants, shops, and plenty of outdoor seating. The skyscrapers are rooted along the stone walkways, and their walls are painted in pastel colors with quaint verandas reminiscent of Venice.

Christian and I, great fans of outdoor seating, enjoy the scrumptious weather and marvel at the Spanish and Catholic influence of the architecture of the city. We both agree that the easy walking distances and central location of the Riverwalk are unique achievements in this era of urban sprawl. As a result, downtown has a real essence of vitality. The city streets above are laid with dark-brown brick, and the stairways leading down into the Riverwalk are handsomely assembled stonework. Bridges with iron handrails arch conveniently across the canal, making maneuverability a cinch.

San Antonio is distinctly American. Walking northwest from downtown, we visit the Tower of the Americas, erected for the 1968 San Antonio World's Fair, and floating 750 feet above the downtown skyline to commemorate the blending of Mexican, Texian, and American cultures. In fact, San Antonio is the only major city in the U.S. where English is spoken by the minority, and it is this cultural blend that gives the city such a unique flair. Four bucks apiece to ascend the Tower, and we get a breathtaking view of the city, its suburbs, and the arid desert to the northwest and south.

At Durty Nelly's Irish Pub in the evening, the Billy Joel impressionist is inside making up new lyrics to "The Piano Man," beers are flowing, water is lapping against the stone and concrete banks, and Christian and I have our own full mugs on the table outside the front door. We're right at home.

Chatting with a NASA computer engineer from Houston and her electronics engineer husband, we're trying to sound intelligent and probably coming up far short. We don't feel embarrassed though, because the pleasant weather and tasty brews under the soft lights of the Riverwalk establishments and the starry Texas sky above have us feeling completely content. This early-March weather is typical for most of the cooler months, but we're warned about the summer heat. And speaking of hot, I can't help but laugh at Christian as he tries to deal with the spiciness of his buffalo wings. I correctly assume the Austrian diet isn't replete with Tex-Mex spices, and after all that he's been teasing me about, I'm happy for a little of my own ammunition to get him back. It's a beautiful evening and we're sad to be leaving the camaraderie and culture of such a beautiful and wonderfully centralized town for the wide expanse of land in west Texas.

But we heard a rumor that Hill Country is a motorcyclist's dream, and when we ask locals if it's nice to ride, they smile coyly like they're about to let us in on a big secret. Bring it on, we think.