Visitors to San Antonio might be surprised to learn that it’s the seventh largest city in the USA, larger than San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Boston. This fast-growing city has a population of around 1.5 million. In Texas, only Houston beats it. But the best thing about San Antonio is that with such a compact and walkable downtown, it doesn’t feel big – and that’s why I like it. I’m not alone. An estimated 32 million visitors flock to San Antonio every year.
The Spanish first set foot in San Antonio in 1691, founding a settlement in the early 18th century. Some of the earliest settlers came from the Canary Islands. San Antonio became the capital of the Spanish province of Tejas; today it’s still possible to visit the Spanish Governor’s Palace. Years ago, during my first visit to Argentina, I met a woman from San Antonio and was a little irritated by her insistence on pronouncing Texas as Tay-hass. Now, I realise that perhaps it was just a pride in her city’s heritage. You can read the story here:
The single storey adobe building that forms the Spanish Governor’s Palace was the original comandancia, the place where the military garrison’s officers lived and worked. Its whitewashed walls and simple furnishings allow the building to speak for itself; the tranquil courtyard garden is a serene oasis from the modern city which surrounds it.
Of course, the most famous historic building in San Antonio is the Alamo and no visit to the city can be complete without a visit to this historic mission. From 1821 to 1836, the city was the capital of Mexican Tejas, after Mexico had won its independence from Spain in 1821. But when Antonio López de Santa Anna, later to become the country’s 8th president, abolished the Mexican Constitution of 1824, violence ensued. The Texian Army, a group of volunteers and regulars, managed to force the Mexicans back, capturing San Antonio in 1835 during the Battle of Bexar. But in 1836, Santa Anna hit back, marching on San Antonio to defeat the Texian forces who were trying to defend the Alamo. A memorial stands outside the building, inscribed thus:
Erected in memory of the heroes who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo, March 6, 1836, in the defense of Texas. They chose never to surrender nor retreat; these brave hearts, with flag still proudly waving, perished in the flames of immortality that their high sacrifice might lead to the founding of this Texas.
“Remember the Alamo!” became the rallying cry of the Texian Army. Later that year, Santa Anna was defeated and Texas won its independence. It remained that way until 1845 when it was annexed by the USA with popular approval from the Texians. Texas was formally incorporated as a state of the USA on February 19, 1846.
A stroll along the city’s River Walk is the most scenic way to reach the cathedral. This urban waterway, lined with trees and restaurants, is the social heart of San Antonio. Catastrophic flooding occurred on the San Antonio River in 1921, leading to calls to manage the river as it wound its way through the heart of the city. Casa Rio was the first restaurant to open in 1946, but I’d recommend you pay a visit to Cafe Ole where you should ask if their server Richard is rostered on – he’s excellent.
The cathedral is well worth a visit. Also known as the church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe, it was originally built from 1738 to 1750 and some of those original walls still stand. The current structure largely dates from the 19th century. Each evening, a sound and light show tells the history of the city, the captivating graphics projected onto the cathedral’s façade and twin towers.
Though it can feel like it at times, the city’s not just the sum of its Mexican heritage. There’s actually a historic German district known as King William, located within an easy walk of downtown. In the 1790s, Mission San Antonio de Valero, one of the city’s five missions, sold off land to settlers. It wasn’t until the 1860s, however, that the district was sectioned off into plots and took on its present day layout. At that time, it attracted a sizeable population of German immigrants. The main street was named King Wilhelm 1, after the King of Prussia, though it garnered the derogatory nickname Sauerkraut Bend for a while too. Its wealthy residents competed to construct the most impressive mansions and a stroll along the street today is as much an exercise in real estate envy as it is regular sightseeing. A visit to the Edward Steves Homestead Museum affords the opportunity to see how such families might have lived.
There’s plenty more: a rich cultural heritage manifested in a number of excellent art museums and a plethora of shopping plazas including El Mercado, the largest Mexican market in the USA and La Villita, a concentration of arts and crafts stores showcasing some of the area’s finest artisan talent. And if you wish to get kitted out with your own stetson before continuing your Texan journey, then I’d recommend a visit to this place:
Paris Hatters celebrates a century of trading this year. It’s not much to look at, but the tiny store is packed with boxes stacked almost to the ceiling ensuring that whatever your style choice or your size, there’s something to fit. Its clientele boast a number of the rich and famous, among them former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, George Bush, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, Pope John Paul II, Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jnr., Dean Martin, Luciano Pavarotti, B.B. King and Bob Dylan. You never know, as you look in the mirror, someone you recognise might be right behind you!
Yee-ha! There’s still some kind of magic associated with the cowboy lifestyle, isn’t there? I don’t know about you, but seeing a man in chaps astride a horse is enough to get me all of a tizzy. Back home (and I’m not referring to my husband here) men can seem just a little too in touch with their feminine side. Out on the ranch, though, as they gallop off leaving a trail of dust behind them, well, it’s work for real men…
Yep, a ranch holiday is for me. But whether to spend my holiday on a dude ranch or on a working ranch was too difficult a choice – so I booked both. How did they compare?
Panagea Ranch, located an hour outside Tacuarembó in Uruguay, accepts visitors but expects them to get involved in ranch life. Juan inherited the ranch that his grandfather bought and has an emotional commitment as well as financial to the place which is obvious almost as soon as you arrive.
During my stay, getting involved meant riding out to check on the progress of a sick sheep (and finding it incredibly quickly considering there are 1800 of them!), rounding up some of the 1100 head of cattle to move them to new pasture and herding them into the dip so that they could be treated for ticks. It was hard work for a novice rider (though they don’t require any prior riding ability, it helps to have spent at least a bit of time in the saddle) but there was also a huge sense of accomplishment.
In contrast, the Dixie Dude Ranch, on the outskirts of the Cowboy Capital of the World (that’s Bandera, Texas if you didn’t know) offered more of a vacation experience. It has been welcoming visitors since 1937 and offers sedate trail rides, hiking and a huge pool with hot tub. There’s evening entertainment too. On the first night, we were treated to a ride in a hay cart to feed the couple of dozen longhorn cattle that can be found on the ranch.
The next, we were treated to a show by a trick roper who was in town for the Bandera rodeo before heading off to Morgan Freeman’s 80th birthday party. Marshmallows were also provided to toast over the campfire. I travelled as part of a group and so we enjoyed relaxing by the fire in the evening – it’s a great place to head with a group of friends, though you may wish to stop off at Walmart on the way in as no alcohol is provided. They’re fine with BYOB.
In Uruguay, Juan Manuel was a little gruff at first but has a heart of gold and a genuine desire to both learn more about his guests and teach them how his ranch works. The sole female in a group of men on the first night, things were a bit macho at the start, but I did warm to Juan and have a huge respect for what he does. Susana makes you feel like one of the family from the get-go.
A warm Southern welcome was just what you’d expect from Texas and the staff made you feel like a VIP rather than any old guest. On the rides, at both ranches I felt safe and well looked after. The horses at both ranches were well looked after and their welfare a high priority.
Accommodation provided by Panagea is, by their own admission, fairly basic. Rooms were comfortable but when the ranch is full, single travellers might need to share. The beds were firm and everything spotlessly clean. Hot water is usually available but electricity is only available for a couple of hours each evening. There’s no WiFi. To be honest, I enjoyed that. It made me focus on the outdoors and I slept more soundly as a result. I also thought it was excellent value at US$65 per person per night full board including activities.
Dixie Dude Ranch is more akin to holiday accommodation with a range of chalets for guests and WiFi near the main building (though guests are asked to limit data usage due to restrictions outside the control of the ranch). I stayed in one of the oldest cabins, which was a little more basic than the newer ones. The latter were spacious enough to contain armchairs and even a fireplace. Water is sourced from the property’s well which was temporarily down one morning during our stay; service was resumed rapidly. My only niggle was the noise from the air conditioner which interrupted my sleep! As you’d expect, accommodation in the States is more expensive than in South America. Dixie Dude Ranch charges $165pppn for single occupancy and $145pppn if you share.
Both ranches welcomed guests on a full board basis. At Panagea, Juan’s wife Susana was an incredible cook and the food was in equal parts tasty and plentiful. When Susana’s in town, Juan cooks, and he does a mean barbecue. Dinner is when everyone’s back and the fire’s going; preparing, setting the table and eating is a communal affair with the family. Juan loves to promote Uruguayan wine and will happily toast to that with his guests. In the mornings, everyone helps themselves to what’s there; the wood-fired range was somewhat different to the induction hob at home but a fun challenge to master. The food at Dixie Dude Ranch was good too (though not quite to Susana’s standards) and there was plenty for second helpings. Service there was attentive and sincere.
Which ranch stay would I recommend? I enjoyed both of them immensely, but in terms of the experience, it will be Panagea which I’ll more fondly remember. I think it’s probably because I felt a real sense of achievement there. As a novice rider who’s just about mastered a trot, I didn’t have the confidence to think I could help to herd cattle until Juan showed me I could. He is a great fan of making people step outside their comfort zone! Juan claims he can teach even a beginner in just a few days but I was glad I’d had a few lessons back home to learn the basics.
But I think if I’d never been on a horse before, Panagea might have been a bit too ambitious. Being able to mix riding with other activities (such as lazing by the pool or watching the hummingbirds come and go on the front porch) made Dixie Dude Ranch a great choice for a relaxing holiday. But get those riding lessons booked so like me, you can make it to Uruguay one day!
The Texan city of Austin would like to think so. Proud of its alternative culture and buzzing music scene, the city’s slogan is “Keep Austin weird”. The dictionary definition of weird has the word’s meaning as “suggesting something supernatural; unearthly” or more informally “very strange; bizarre”.Compared to America’s many identikit cities, some parts of Austin have an indy feel, but is this enough to warrant the label?
Google “weird Austin” and there’s no end of blogs and e-zine articles trying to justify the term. From watching bats leave their roost under South Congress bridge to playing Chicken Shit Bingo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, there are no end of suggestions.
But read a little more carefully and you’ll perhaps find such writers are a little economical with the facts. There are suggestions that drinking a particular cocktail or watching a band play live in a bar is weird. Given that you can do that in any major city, I don’t see how that qualifies as weird.
There’s a whole load of street murals which are a common sight in many a city these days and a cathedral of junk – but isn’t that just someone’s interpretation of art? Someone even went so far as to suggest the local propensity for eating tacos qualified the place as weird. Seriously?
I didn’t take to Austin. In its defence, I was there for the weekend – and Memorial Day weekend at that. Entertainment venues were heaving, the restaurants were packed and added to the mix was a bunch of thunderstorms that brought unusually high humidity for the time of year.
The music was pumping, the bass was thumping. If you’re 21, you’d have loved it, but for this middle-aged traveller, it wasn’t ideal. Ginny’s had a classic car show on its forecourt and was even more rammed than the regulars said it should be. The bats left it so late to come out from their hiding place it was too dark to see them when they did. Disappointing it was, weird it was not.
And I’m not alone. Google “Austin is overrated” and you’ll also find plenty of results. For those of us that like to sightsee as well as socialise, there’s a relatively limited number of sights to see. OK it has the State Capitol, which as you’d expect from Texas is bigger than everyone else’s and impressive inside. There’s a couple of good museums, including the LBJ Library and Museum dedicated to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The riverfront is pleasant, but nothing to write home about. There’s a certain charm to SoCo, with its quirky shops and the excellent Jo’s for coffee, but it’s bisected by the busy road which gives the district its name.
Amidst the noise, the many panhandlers that were just a stone’s throw from 6th Street and the Saturday night vomit on the pavement, one place stood out. The Broken Spoke had an excellent band, Two Tons of Steel, and a comfortable family vibe.
Sure, people were drinking, but there were also granddads dancing with their granddaughters and young couples deep in conversation in between masterful circuits of the dance floor. (Yes, the music wasn’t so loud as to drown out their voices.) My brief Texas Two Step lesson wasn’t sufficient to give me the confidence to join them but it was fun to watch. From the moment we stepped through the door to be greeted by an elderly cowboy in a rhinestone studded shirt, we were welcomed. By the time the charming Ben Rogers doffed his Stetson and took a break from propping up the bar to call us a cab home, we were made to feel like we came every weekend.
You see, what made Austin special was its residents. It’s that Southern hospitality thing kicking in again. In every venue and on every street corner, locals were keen to share their city. You don’t need a guidebook in Austin, you just need to hang around and chat. There’ll be no end of people to talk to.
We were given recommendations for places to eat, drink and shop without soliciting for information. What’s more, they turned out to be good. I’d have not known about the Iced Turbo coffee at Jo’s in SoCo if the friendly gent at the lights hadn’t passed the time of day, nor would I have found Easy Tiger, its yummy bratwurst a welcome change from the ubiquitous (but tasty) Mexican fare.
So, no, Austin’s not weird, no matter how much it would like to be, and as a tourist destination it’s a little dull, but its welcome is possibly the best you’ll get in the Lone Star state.
“I should as soon think of founding a city on an iceberg as on Galveston Island, if I looked to its safety and perpetuity.”
Before the deadliest storm in US history left low-lying Galveston flattened and in shock, it was a prosperous town. Forty thousand people called it home and a steady stream of cotton steamers created a reliable source of income. The town was littered with mansions, symbolic of the immense wealth being accumulated here; before the storm there were 26 millionaires living within a five block radius. Trolleys carried those too lazy, rich or old to walk about town. At the end of the 19th century, it was the most important seaport in the USA and it seemed nothing could hold it back.
Except the weather had other ideas. After a calm, sunny week, as evening turned into the night of Friday 7th September 1900 the winds began to pick up. Rain lashed the two-storey homes that lined the Strand and weather observers looked on anxiously. Forecasting was in its infancy in those days, but even then the rudimentary instruments told a frightening story. Wind speeds were increasing, reaching 100mph that night, before the equipment blew away. Some meteorologists think the wind speeds could have reached as much as 145mph at their peak. The barometric pressure was the lowest ever recorded up to that point in US history.
By 4am, the sea had surged inland, flooding the town’s streets. A four and a half metre storm surge was more than the island could cope with, the highest ground being being little more than half that. The heavy swell continued to be a concern as day broke. By noon, much of the island was underwater, but there was worse to come. Strengthening winds battered the feeble housing. Debris flew around in the wind acting as missiles against any building still standing.
One observer was sheltering in a house that had withstood such an attack for several hours. He noted that a man trying to reach that same home had his faced sliced clean off by a flying roof slate. It must have been a terrifying time for those who were to become the survivors, that thud of wave-driven timbers on the walls like a mediaeval battering ram on a wooden castle door.
At least 6000 would never know such lasting fear. Whole families were wiped out, making a confirmed death toll impossible to ascertain, but it’s generally agreed that the figure is a conservative estimate of the final death toll. As Sunday morning dawned, the skies had cleared and the storm had passed. What was left was unrecognisable. Much of the island was completely flattened, the powerful waves scouring the landscape and leaving it in places as pristine as when the first settlers had laid out their street plan. A few blocks further along, huge mounds of debris concealed the bodies of the dead. Here and there, properties listed at angles more commonly associated with earthquake damage; a few had been turned completely upside down. From 9th Street east towards the beach, block after block no longer existed.
The human cost was appalling. 5000 families were left destitute; it would be days before word reached the Red Cross in Washington and the much-needed aid would arrive. Marshal law was instigated in an attempt to stave off looting. Pilferers were shot. Those in authority also had to deal with the tricky question of burying the dead. With no time in the heat and humidity to dig sufficient graves, rocks were attached to bodies and they were buried at sea. The water that had killed them would be their final resting place.
Yet the sea had other ideas, washing bloated and putrid corpses up on the shore day after day. A decision was taken to burn the bodies. Those enduring such a horrendous task were paid in whiskey until they threw up from the disgusting stench. It was a job no one wanted but someone had to do. The risk of disease for the survivors was just too high a price to pay to leave the bodies to rot. As the impact of the disaster sank in, page after page of the newspaper was filled with the names of those who had perished.
But the survivors stayed to resurrect their city. In 1902 a solid sea wall was proposed and within two years the designs had become a reality. Together with the wall, a regrading of the roads was undertaken, raising the level of the streets. 3000 houses would be lifted and sand dredged from the a Gulf of Mexico pumped underneath them so the buildings would sit three metres higher, above the danger level. In future, any incoming wave would be weakened by the increased gradient. The cost of this ambitious engineering project was a staggeringly high $6 million. By 1905, Galveston was ready to take on the elements once more. It didn’t have to wait long. In 1915, a hurricane hit, similar in magnitude to the Great Storm of 1900. The city’s residents held their breath. Would their defences hold?
They would: just eight people died. Galveston had a future, though it would never regain its pre-storm commercial status.
Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers. Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.
What’s the current situation?
At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).
Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight. How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes. This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.
So why are people getting upset? Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?
As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge. Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons. They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed. The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:
There’s more here, from The Independent:
There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling. For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance. I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out. I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit. So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.
So have they made a decision yet?
There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:
Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction. In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.
But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector. This article from The Independent explains:
Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality. I’m among them. I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.
Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:
I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there. Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me. But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more. It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today. At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.
Watch this space.
Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update. Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:
The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly. Happy travels!
I’m looking forward to two big trips at the moment, and they couldn’t be more different. The first, in a few weeks’ time, is a ten day holiday to Texas. I’ll be travelling with a specialist operator for the visually impaired, Traveleyes:
It’s outside my comfort zone. Not the place of course – I’ve been to more States than many Americans – but the style of travel. I rarely book a package tour, avoid group travel and try not to allow anyone complete control over my itinerary. Yes, I’m a control freak and yes, I’m happy about that.
The other, in June, is an independent trip to the Caucasus. I’ll begin my adventure in Georgia, spending ten days exploring some of what promises to be the region’s most stunning landscapes, before venturing into Armenia and the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh for a further week. This is firmly within my comfort zone. This is how I like to travel: tailor made by me for me, with me firmly in the driving seat.
The former is a departure from my usual travelling style. Pretty much everything has been planned for me save for updating my ESTA and getting to the airport. There’s some free time, of course, but the way the group rotates to ensure all travellers get a change of company means I won’t know who I’ll be paired with on those days and in any case, free time is to be “negotiated” so both parties are happy. I don’t have a problem with the theory – it should make for a much better trip once we get going – but in practice I feel very disconnected from this trip. The main reason has to be that I haven’t been able to do my usual research. I have some ideas – someone, surely, will want to join me for what’s described as a “gospel-ish brunch” in Austin – but until I get there and meet my fellow travellers, that’s all they are: ideas. Technically I don’t even know what flight I’m getting though I’ve figured that out by a process of elimination and United Airlines, if you bump me there’ll be trouble.
In contrast, the Caucasus planning is really engaging. I’m wearing in new hiking boots and the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has become my nightly read. I’ve been swapping emails with tour providers to see whether organised day excursions would be a better option than going it alone by marshrutka. I’ve compared monasteries and researched foodie experiences, checked weather forecasts and studied hotel rooms. I’m figuring out whether a side trip to Abkhazia is possible even though I’m still half convinced that was the country the Tom Hanks character was supposed to have come from in The Terminal. I really must look that up. A rough plan is finalised for Armenia and once the Tbilisi-Mestia flights are released in a couple of weeks, the Georgia part will fall into place too. I’m happy. Browsing maps, photos and blogs online is giving me a sense of place and the more I find out, the more excited I’m getting.
It’s just that the more I’m getting excited about Georgia and Armenia, the more I’m realising I’m missing the experience of getting excited about Texas. Once I’m there, I’m sure it won’t be a problem, but without this build up, without the anticipation, I can’t seem to be able to savour the place. It feels like I’ll be tucking into dinner without sniffing the aroma wafting from the kitchen. And that’s a shame.
In May I’m off to Texas, and I’m already excited. But this isn’t my usual kind of trip. This time I’m travelling with a company called Traveleyes, who pair sighted travellers with the visually impaired for a trip which promises to enrich the experience for both types of tourist.
The brainchild of Amar Latif, an entrepreneur who went blind in his late teens, the company specialises in offering trips which make independent travel a reality for the blind and partially sighted. Sighted travellers are offered a hefty discount on the price of the tours. In return, they accompany a different traveller each day, guiding the person to their own individual requirements.
Included sightseeing programmes promise to make this a trip to remember. I’m looking forward to visiting Austin, San Antonio and the Alamo, where we’ll be taking guided walking tours to unlock the history of these places. I’m especially keen to visit Galveston, devastated by the USA’s deadliest hurricane in 1900 which killed over 6000 people. It’s long since been rebuilt, of course, but it will be interesting to compare notes with the experience of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
There are also some activities on the programme which you might not expect. A ranch stay forms part of the programme and we’ll be riding out on horseback to enjoy the local scenery. As a novice rider, I’m a little daunted about how I’m going to be able to guide another horse if I’m not fully in control of my own, but I’m trusting that both Traveleyes and the ranch have already thought of that.
Traveleyes have sent through their document on the do’s and don’ts of how to act as a sighted guide and I’m going to be studying it carefully. One thing I do know, however, is that I’m going to learn as much as the people I’m paired with. I can’t wait to see Texas from a different perspective to my own. Check back at the start of the summer and find out how I got on.
If you’d like to find out more about Traveleyes, please visit their website: