It might have been sentiment that had me longing to return to San Antonio, Texas for the past twenty seven years. The city plays a memorable role in my career because it was in San Antonio where I reported my very first story for CBS News. It was the annual convention of Barbershop Harmony Society, held right before the 1988 political conventions.
I still remember how anchorman Bob Schieffer introduced my story; “Democrats meeting in Atlanta can only hope that their gathering is as harmonious as the one being held in San Antonio this weekend…”, that Bob Schieffer is one clever writer.
I was in and out of San Antonio so fast on that assignment, I barely saw the city, but I do remember the charming walk along the river, the little water taxis chugging through the high-rise canyons and the riverside cafes with their colorful umbrellas providing shade from the Texas sun. All of this to the impressive sountrack of moustachioed men singing sweetly on every street corner. As I discovered when I finally returned this week, San Antonio is enchanting even without the four-part harmony.
My visit was timed to coincide with the city’s annual 10 day Fiesta, in size and scope the equal of Calgary’s Stampede and Rio’s Carnival, Fiesta is a community party that is both specific to the city’s many cultural niches, indigenous American, Mexican, Texan and transplant and a mishmash of all these.
At the 4 day Night in Old San Antonio event, the historic La Villita transforms itself from cutesy tourist shopping plaza to food, music and dance mecca. People arrive by the thousands, many wearing floral halos, stetsons and even more elaborate millinery creations that are themselves a source of entertainment.
Live music indoors and out has people dancing with a beer or taco in one hand and a partner in the other. I swayed to the Eurofest polka band at the Sauerkraut House and shimmied to Patsy Torres’ Tejano band. Truth be told, I covered my ears passing the karaoke stand, but others seem to be enjoying it.
The cacophony emanating from the boats that made up the hour-long Texas Cavaliers River Parade also made me want to cover my ears at times, but oh boy, what a treat for the eyes! The barges are decorated in lights and glitter and they chug slowly through the loop waterway that encircles the downtown area. Spectators line the shore or watch from balconies or from the many waterside restaurants and bars.
Across town the celebration of all things San Antonio goes on 24 hours a day at the Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery. The food is great, the elegant bar is charming and the restaurant, a riot of color and light gives new meaning to the term “trashy chic”.
You must not miss a visit to the banquet room where an enormous, ever-changing mural celebrates important figures in the history of the city and the restaurant including the founder, Pedro Cortez and his family. Any member of the restaurant staff will give a guided tour of the painting.
In the historic Market Square outside Mi Tierra, bands play and the dancing starts long before the sun goes down every night of the 10 day festival. Here is where those who don’t or can’t create a skyscraper sized-sombrero can find all sorts of them for sale in the shops.
The parties go on everywhere, from backyard events in neighborhoods to the downtown celebrations, and company events. I attended one in the warehouse of the Battle of the Flowers Association, filled with floats built by Southwest Parades.
To the Woody Guthrie theme This Land is Your Land, we dined below colorful reproductions of the Wright Flyer, a Texas oil well and the Statue of Liberty all perched securely on trailers that will tow them at the Battle of the Flowers that is one of the Fiesta’s blow-out highlights. These are the private events but the granddaddy of all private-invitation events donchaknow is the Coronation of the Queen, Order of the Alamo.
Now, anyone with $25-$60 can attend the coronation, that’s not the private part. It’s the debutante-style selection of Duchesses, Princesses and Queens, from members of socially prominent families that’s a bit of a secret. One key element in who is chosen must be access to a big ole bank account, because once selected, these late-teen/early 20 somethings have to pay for a custom-made, entirely proscribed dress, train and crown that when complete can weight up to 100 pounds and cost as much as a Lexus.
I learned all about this while ogling the gowns from past Fiestas at the special exhibition, Jewels of the Court at the Witte Museum of Texas heritage. Two words of advice. See it.
Fancy, crystal encrusted dresses on affluent society girls or a pinata and ukulele embellished headdress on a jeans-clad middle aged woman, steak and cabernet sauvignon served on a linen-covered table or grilled tripe rolled into a fresh tortilla; Fiesta’s wide ranging contributions create a harmonious whole.
That’s what I thought on my first visit to San Antonio 27 years ago, that’s what I found it to be like today.
There’s still time to go! San Antonio’s Fiesta involves dozens of activities across the city and runs through April 26th. Click here for more information.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.