Texas's toe-tappin', walkin' town

Texas is big. And, if you visit Dallas and Houston, awfully bland. Even Austin, now home to the super-hip South by Southwest music expo and film festival, resembles a super-size suburb with constant traffic gridlock.
To those looking for a genuine Texan rose, I would suggest San Antonio—quite possibly my favourite city in the United States.

It surprises me that so few people—US citizens and Europeans alike—seem to be aware of its charms. But in some ways I like that, for aren't secret love affairs meant to be the most tantalising?

San Antonio is superior to all other Texas cities. For starters, it has a centre, a heart. From there, San Antonio can be explored on foot. That the majority of the city's inhabitants are Hispanic lends San Antonio a soulful, Latin ambience. It also means there are countless great Mexican food outlets and the sound of Tejano—a Tex-Mex musical hybrid—echoes out of bars and clubs.

Most people know one thing about San Antonio: the Alamo. Indeed, the fortified mission where Davy Crockett and his allies fought a futile last stand against Mexican forces in 1836 (Texas then being part of Mexico) remains the city's centrepiece. After watching the likes of John Wayne and Billy Bob Thornton defend the Alamo, I was surprised by how small it is. The solid Spanish mission architecture recalls a time when San Antonio was the wild frontier, its thick walls providing ­respite from the southern heat.

Although many US cities appear to regard walking as a fairly suspicious activity, San Antonio encourages strolling. Nowhere is this lovelier than the Paseo del Rio (River Walk), with cobbled and flagstone paths that extend for 21 blocks (almost 5km) along the San Antonio River.

By the time I felt the need for a drink, I'd lost count of the number of blocks I'd walked. Seeing a sign for a bar, I hiked up an iron staircase to the Esquire Tavern and felt as though I'd stepped on to the set of a Sam Peckinpah film. Founded in 1933, the Esquire is the only bar on the River Walk that caters for locals rather than tourists. The original 23m-long bar and the ceiling fans survive, as does a magnificent jukebox packed with classic blues, soul, rock 'n roll and Tejano tunes.

When three strolling mariachis entered, the jukebox was unplugged and they began playing. A heavily-tattooed patron, disgruntled by the slow flow of tips, stood up and shouted: “Give 'em a buck!” From then on dollars flew thick and fast while the mariachis sang superb corridos (narrative songs that serve as a Mexican blues).

The Esquire, I should also note, serves Shiner Bock—indisputably Texas's finest beer—in long-neck glasses. On a hot Texan afternoon, I was in heaven.

San Antonio is a legendary music town, with the city's bars providing a training ground for many rising country, rock, blues and Tejano stars. Best known to British audiences would be the late Doug Sahm, whose rocking Tex-Mex blend on hits such as Mendocino and She's About a Mover won him an international following and helped shine the spotlight on local Tejano heroes Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez. But the city's greatest musical icon remains Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007), the undisputed queen of Mexican-American music.

Mendoza grew up singing on the streets of San Antonio, made her first recordings here in 1928 and rose to superstar status (among Spanish speakers in the US and Latin America) with songs such as Amor Bonito. The ultimate tribute to Mendoza can be found at Del Bravo Records (554 West Old US Highway 90), an old-school record shop that still stocks vinyl. Its affable 79-year-old owner, Salome Gutierrez, has extended Del Bravo to include a Tejas y su Musica (The Texas Music Museum) honouring local artists. Mendoza's guitar is on display, and I knelt before it.

On a larger, if less personal, scale is the magnificent Institute of Texan Cultures, in HemisFair Park, close to the Alamo. The institute offers superb exhibitions and hosts the Texas Folklife Festival every June, where more than 250 participants come together to celebrate their culture and heritage through music, dance, arts and food. And what food! San Antonio prides itself on superb Mexican and barbecue restaurants.

San Antonio's annual Tejano-Conjunto Festival (every May) is also a must for anyone enthusiastic about Texan vernacular music. “Tejano” is Spanish for “Texan”, whereas “Conjunto” means “group” or “ensemble”, and the music made across this festival focuses on the accordion as the voice of cultural expression and Tejano pride. Both festivals are a bargain: daily entry is $7 for Tejano-Conjunto and $10 for Folklife. Also noteworthy is November's Day of the Dead Festival, when the city's Mexican traditions reign.

And outside festival periods, San Antonio boasts a rich live-music scene. The North St Mary's Street club strip is convenient to the downtown area and cover charges for most venues are rarely more than $10.

Among countless bars offering loud rock, a fistful worth checking out are Cool Arrows (1025 Nogalitos Street) and Salute International Bar (2801 North Saint Mary's), both featuring Tejano bands and DJs; Casbeers, founded in 1932, has shifted to 1150 South Alamo Street and offers fine food and leathery singer-songwriters; Cowboys Dancehall (3030 North East Loop 410) lives up to its name, with everyone wearing Stetsons and line dancing to slick country bands. Going to local bars and clubs means experiencing local customs: frisking for weapons may accompany your entry.

Unlike so many US cities, where the downtown areas are dead after dark and chain restaurants dominate, San Antonio thrives on its multicultural identity. Doug Sahm once sang “you just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul”—and in San Antonio that is as true as ever.—Guardian News & Media 2010

More Miles than Money: Journeys through American Music, by Garth Cartwright, is published by Serpent's Tail

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