Its soaring 18th-century Spanish missions are unique

SAN Antonio may be one of the few spots in Texas where history brushes up against the superhighway. Resembling any other Sunbelt city at its fringes -- shopping malls, spiraling subdivisions, and ribbons of freeways -- San Antonio's downtown reveals a unique juxtaposition of old and new Texas. Tattoo parlors, Woolworth's, and an occasional boarded-up storefront contrast with chic boutiques, towering hotels, and a clustering of Cinzano umbrellas that dot the banks of the famed River Walk, the Paseo del Rio. The cumulative effect is that of a Yuppyized Mexican border town -- a definite alternative to the sprawling glitz of Dallas and Houston. It is one reason 8 million tourists -- Texans and otherwise -- find their way to San Antonio each year.

As one of the oldest cities in the United States west of the Eastern Seaboard -- it was founded by a Spanish military expedition in 1718 -- San Antonio boasts a rich Hispanic heritage. The Mexican Revolution, the Battle of the Alamo, even the Chisholm Trail, started, stopped, or occurred somewhere within San Antonio's environs. And there are any number of historic sites to prove it, ranging from the the restored Spanish Governor's Palace to the venerable Alamo where the first archaeological artifacts of Gen. Santa Anna's Army have just been unearthed.

But make no mistake. A prowl around the Alamo's stony faade, followed by a stroll through La Villita, the restored 18th-century adobe village now housing boutiques and craft shops, followed by a plate of burritos in a River Walk caf'e qualifies as nothing other than the most tangential brush with San Antonio's ethnic past.

Better to explore the city's rare and unique collection of 18th-century Spanish missions strung south of the city along the San Antonio River. These soaring adobe churches surrounded by acres of quiet grounds vivify this city's history as well as that of the entire Southwest. Indeed, San Antonio is the only city in the country where a visitor can tour five missions dating from Spain's colonization of the New World.

As part of Spain's military and religious attempts to colonize and civilize the native American Indians during the 1700s, conquistadors and church officials gathered the Indians into communities or missions. In addition to serving an obvious religious purpose, the missions also functioned as forts, military barracks, schools, and granaries. Covering several acres, the missions were literally self-contained complexes which included dwellings for the Indians, workshops, kilns, military housing, gardens, and orchards all surrounded by thick stone and adobe walls fortified with gates and lookout posts. Beyond lay the cultivated fields and ranches.

By the time the Spanish presence in the Southwest had receded in the late 1800s, nearly 40 such missions had been built in the Lone Star state alone, and the earliest predate those in California by nearly a century. Of the few that still stand, five are in San Antonio -- four under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and the fifth, the Alamo, is a state historic site. Most still operate as local parish churches.

While the Alamo, established in 1718 and originally called San Antonio de Valero, is the oldest and best known of the missions, the other four, located south of downtown, are considered more representative of the missions' original state and purpose. Indeed, as Texas's most popular tourist attraction, the Alamo has become somewhat commercialized, and its location, smack in the middle of whizzing traffic and a myriad of one-way streets, does not assist the visitor in conjuring visions of bygone days.

Better to avoid the Alamo fray -- unless you grew up with visions of coonskin caps and Fess Parker dancing in your head -- and turn south toward the four others that collectively constitute the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. (A cooperative agreement between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Departments and the US Department of the Interior in 1983 represented more than 50 years of local effort to obtain national recognition for the missions.) Dating from 1720 to 1731, these structures are best seen by car and are easily located by following the Mission Trail signs that extend south of downtown.

The most notable and by far the largest and best preserved, is Mission San Jos'e Y San Miguel de Auguayo. Originally dedicated in 1720 by Capt. Juan Valdez to the Indians of the Pampopo, Pastia, and Suliajame, Mission San Jos'e still stands as the flagship of San Antonio's missions. The church edifice is considered one of the most beautiful Spanish colonial churches in the US. While much of the building was restored and rebuilt during the Work Projects Administration's renovation efforts in the 1930s, the faade, including the ornately carved doorway and famous ``rose window,'' are original.

While less grand and expansive, each of the other three missions is renowned for particular characteristics. Mission Concepci'on, built in 1731, is the oldest unrestored mission in the state. Some of the original frescoes still stain the church walls, and the acoustics have been compared with the Mormon Tabernacle. Mission San Juan Capistrano, while the smallest, is known for its picturesque bell tower. Mission San Fransisco de la Espada is the farthest removed from town, providing an authentic feel for the remoteness of 18th-century mission life. It also contains the Espada Aqueduct considered to be the oldest stone acequia in the country.

The missions are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and while Park Service officials are on duty, mission tours are largely self-guided. Mission San Jos'e, the most completely restored of the four, renders the most satisfying visit. The long, low-slung rows of Indian quarters and craft shops that encircle the compound have been completely rebuilt and offer the visitor an accurate peephole on the Spartan life style of 18th-century American Indians. In contrast are the Spanish officers' quarters, which include separate kitchens, dining rooms, an office, and a living room with carved wall niches and fireplaces. The church itself is the keystone of the compound -- a soaring stone and adobe structure which still inspires with its Spanish Gothic carvings and Roman arches. A photo display of renovation efforts completes the tour.

It's a humble, unflashy restoration that may leave some visitors hungry for weaving and blacksmithing demonstrations done by local folks in period costume. But such historic histrionics aside, one can't help but be inspired by the complex as a whole. Standing in the middle of the hushed grounds with the Texas sun burnishing the bell tower and the breeze rustling the hackberry, wisatch, and mesquite trees, one senses the nobility and singleness of purpose of life in the ancient Southwest. Even today, the sounds of the outside world, including the hum of Texas traffic, are muffled by the sturdy adobe walls.

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