Bat City

Just before sunset,hundreds of people line the Congress Bridge over the Colorado River. On the water, several tour boats jostle for position, along with modern-day pedalos, powered by people sitting upright on what looks like an exercise bike. And they’ve all come to see one of Austin’s most unusual sights. Because when it gets dark, colonies of bats from below the bridge sweep up into the night sky.

As the sun sets, noisy flocks of birds take roost in the trees lining the River. It’s almost as if they’ve come to see the show as well – in the style of Roobarb and Custard.

My guidebook suggests that up to 1.5 million bats can be here at any one time, especially during early Spring. And although we see cameras flashing and hear people cheering on the south side of the bridge, people on the north side see nothing. Time, then for some more entertainment.

If Sixth Street is like Nashville on steroids, Red River Street is its older and wiser cousin. Who doesn’t care much for appearances. But who could resist a bar called Beerland?

Trust me, it’s as dingy looking on the inside as it is from the street. But the musicians in these bars are, for my money, the ones with the real talent. Karen Eubanks writes her own songs, and has a powerful, raw voice which the crowd love. And she’s one of several acts tonight at the Red Eyed Fly – another bar which, if you saw it back home, you’d probably avoid.

You may have noticed that these pictures were taken during the daytime. Austin is a safe city, on the whole. But it didn’t quite feel right carrying too many valuables around Red River Street. Its corners tell the story of the city’s homeless – at least the ones you can see. There’s not too much open begging here and the people who live out of shopping trolleys are probably too drunk or high to be able to inflict any real damage.

Many of the bars on Red River don’t even bother with such subtleties as branding, so when I see another shack with a sign simply reading “Irish Pub” I think it’s got to be worth a go.

Gerry, the co-owner from North Dublin, has been running the place since the mid nineties, long before Austin became a major music tourist attraction.

“It gets mad here with the festivals. South by Southwest. You couldn’t move in here. But there are quiet patches too. Still, it’s not a bad living.”

And that reputation only seems to be growing. On Second Street, a major new hotel is being built.

Texas isn’t quite what I expected it to be – but in a good way. Austin in particular has a hugely diverse community, a high tolerance level (two downtown gay bars and more on the outskirts) and, of course, the enormous music scene. Oh, and if you fancy a curry, try these guys…


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