A bus, a battle and a beat

A day tour is always a good chance to explore the wider area. But as I’ve found over the years, the cheapest way is to organise the whole thing yourself. Websites offer trip out of Austin to San Antonio for upwards of $100. However, without a car, the DIY option is not as straightforward as it should be.

America’s great railroads span the nation, and conveniently there is a route between Austin and San Antonio, just 80 miles southwest. But there is only one train per day – and the outward trip doesn’t get into its destination until after 9pm, taking nearly three and a half hours to get there. On the one hand this might be great for a night out in a different city, but it would also mean an overnight stay and getting up in time for the one return train the next day at 7pm.

So if you don’t want to pay a tour company and don’t have a car, the only alternative is the bus. Fortunately, the Greyhound service takes less than two hours, and conveniently leaves at 11am most days, meaning you can spend a full afternoon soaking up San Antonio’s rich history. Which starts with a notorious battle.

I’m not sure why, but somehow I expected the Church of the Alamo to be… well, a bit more than it first appears. It’s around 35 celsius in baking sunshine, which gives this famous landmark a dry, hot, foreboding feel. And yes, there are statues of the infamous participants – including Davy Crockett. Yet the building itself appears largely…. small. Not that I get to see it until late afternoon, because numbers are limited, and there are already hundreds of other visitors waiting in line.

The biggest city in South Central Texas, San Antonio – as its name suggests – has a distinctive latino feel to it, though always backed up by a strong American influence in terms of culture. The Alamo Plaza itself is somewhat spoiled by the presence of a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not attraction and the associated tacky souvenir stores and obligatory shopping mall. All of which draw the tourists in, but I can’t help thinking it would be so much better if it was all stripped away, just leaving the church with its haunting story at the centre.

But there is money to be made – and most of it rolls in around the water.

This picture really doesn’t do justice to the scale of the Riverwalk – snaking for several miles around downtown, it’s the beating heart of San Antonio’s entertainment district. Countless restaurants and bars line the footpaths, while an army of tour boats ferry visitors up and down the waterways. It’s a pleasant way to spend a lazy lunchtime, with the parasols and buildings providing welcome shade from the strong Texan sun.

There was more to explore here – such as the King William Historic District or the San Antonio Zoo, but after a couple of hours I’m exhausted. It’s far easier to sip a few cooling drinks with the masses and remember the fact that I’m on holiday. I hope that Mr Crockett would approve.

You don’t have to wander too far from the tourist attractions to get an experience of what poverty looks like. And it doesn’t come in any greater manifestation than at the bus station. In Austin, most of the waiting passengers had been fairly reserved, diligently waiting for their ride to arrive. But the Greyhound hub in San Antonio is a different matter. Several buses are delayed; this is the middle of a Friday afternoon rush hour, and while the downtown area looks quiet here, a quick search on Google maps shows lots of congestion on many roads across south Texas.

But along with the delays are the crowds. So great are the numbers that the security guards have unhelpfully blockaded the main door to the street with rows of seats. Inside the terminal is an air of organised chaos. But the worst part is the clamour for space along a single wall, where there’s a row of power outlets. Anyone with a phone wants to charge it, and there’s no sense of waiting your turn. I stand nervously clinging onto my handset while arms and hands reach across from all directions to plug in their own chargers. The most unhelpful aspect of this is a woman – clearly travelling with members of her extended family – who incessantly shouts into a phone having a lengthy argument, all of which is shared by what look to be her sons of several ages.

Eventually – and delayed by just half an hour – the Greyhound delivers us back to Austin, and the relatively comfortable world of its many bars. Or rather, the bus delivers us to the bus terminal, which is inexplicably several miles away from downtown. I’m told it’s to avoid rush hour congestion, but the truth is probably more to do with the cost of maintaining an expensive city centre property. After a long day, I need a drink. And perhaps a song.

You can find music just about anywhere in Austin, and if you don’t want to try very hard you come to East Sixth Street. All kinds of styles can be found here but tonight I’ve opted for a piano bar. Yes, it’s possibly the cheesiest form of musical entertainment going, but this guy can play. And sing. Rather well. There are few performers I’ve met who can simultaneously sign both parts of Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie.

I meet a friendly couple who are from the deep south of Texas – just about on the Mexican border. She’s an estate agent (a realtor here) and he’s a cop. They’ve ditched the kids for the weekend and the feeling of release clearly shows, as they buy round after round of drinks. We each decide to buy a round for the piano player – not least because the cop and his wife have now bought me two drinks and I feel guilty. However, due to a communication error – which is fairly easy at midnight in a crowded music bar – the waitress brings double the order; I’d actually wanted double measures for the shots. And here’s another learning point anyway – a shot here is more like a double anyway. And mixers are for wimps.

The following day brings a small hangover.


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