Across Texas (part two)

Austin

Just short of three hours and two hundred miles later we found ourselves on the outskirts of Austin, at the base of the 360 Bridge. The bridge itself was not our destination but a reference point to one. The actual destination was the eminence adjoining the bridge, whose entire span could, in turn, be observed from the top.

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The path to the apex is a treacherous one, guarded by no fences whatsoever; and the dusty soil splattered with hundreds of rocks, eagerly rolling and sliding from under your soles, degrades the ascend to a mere clamber. The view is, however, very spectacular and certainly worth the trouble for an adventurous photographer.

Less adventurous beauty-aspiring Texans have the option of purchasing mount-top villas with similar breathtaking outlooks.

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The downside of that option is the remoteness of water, whereas to many access to a river bank trumps the “loftiness” of an estate. The view from atop the Mount Bonnell, where we arrived next, is a testament to that liking.

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The case is somewhat different in Downtown Austin—or in any American metropolis for that matter—where the land is at a premium, thus necessitating significant vertical growth in addition to the planar expansion.

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The skyline of high-risers promised great nighttime photography, yet we proceeded to the next stop without worries of missing something worthwhile, for our evening plans included the sight of the bat colony by the Congress Avenue Bridge, and we reckoned that we would eventually wind up at about the right place and time anyway.

It is truly amazing how one’s experience may vary within the confines of one country, state, or even city. For example, it would be unusual to find a free zoo in the U.S., let alone be allowed to approach the animals to within a hand’s reach. At Mayfield Park Cottage and Gardens, however, you have the opportunity to not only contemplate a half-dozen gorgeous peacocks—quite an exotic bird on its own account—but come in as close a contact with them as the creatures will let you.

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And the site itself is not too shabby either.

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On top of that, the Mayfield Park abuts on a lovely historical mansion by the name of Laguna Gloria, built on the shores of Lake Austin and surrounded by equally delightful scenery.

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But this is where our trip, and so will this story, took a turn in a more prosaic direction. We went back to the city and in a quick succession made a number of comparatively inessential stops. First, the Hyde Park Gym.

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Then the Avenue B Grocery.

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Elizabet Ney Museum…

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…and, presumably, one of its misplaced exhibits at the end of the block.

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Hyde Park Grocery Store.

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Hyde Park Bar and Grill.

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And finally the Sparky Park, which has serious claims for being the smallest park I have ever seen.

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It took a bit longer to reach our next destination, the University of Texas. But even there we did not hesitate one bit once we had learned that the fountain that was supposed to adorn our photographs was not functioning.

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The next target, the HOPE Outdoor Graffiti Gallery, was a big unknown because graffiti art is often as disappointing as it is upsetting, owing to the lack of censorship and essential limitations of the expressive medium. Fortunately, other sites of Austin demonstrated defter graphic workmanship than generally characteristic of street art, so we were rather… hopeful of the HOPE Gallery.

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And though there was still lots of garbage to be seen, we were in general pleased with the quality of the paintings.

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The gallery is situated on an acclivity of a hill, and to get to some of the best pieces one needs to climb aloft.

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Chosen next for navigational convenience rather than as a contrasting appendage to the previous exposition, the Texas State Capitol building joined at least a dozen of its predecessors from other states in our photographic log.

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A few moments later we had a chance to descry the Saint Mary’s Cathedral in its conciliatory beauty.

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Afterwards, we proceeded to the 6th Street, picked out for our evening ramble due to a number of attractions, ranging from live music and rich subcultural vibe, to the splendor of the stately Driskill Hotel.

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Live music is taken seriously on the 6th; so seriously, in fact, that neighboring bars seem to compete with one another for the title of the loudest and most rocking joint on the block. Consequently, the sound reaches such outrageous volumes that one gets nearly deafened simply walking next to these clubs, let alone being in one. Fortunately, though, the competitive spirit seems to benefit the quality and quantity of the music played. Say, how frequently would you see a dueling piano bar?

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Whether the dangerous crowds dwelt into this neighborhood at random after the construction of the Driskill Hotel, or the hotel’s proprietor intended to refine the area with a tad of upscale gloss, the establishment is rather an oddity on the 6th street. I suppose in a good way.

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What was anticipated to be the highlight of our trip turned out to be a major letdown. Arguably the most well-known attraction of Austin, the bat colony at the Congress Avenue Bridge, proved for us a seasonal, difficult-to-photograph, and likely overdramatized phenomenon. Let me explain.

Seasonal because the bat population in late May seemed to be less numerous than that of the people who came to watch it. Difficult to photograph because the critters only showed up after dark, leaving me no choice other than to switch the camera’s focus to manual mode and set longer exposures—settings useless for rapidly moving objects. And, ultimately, overdramatized because… well… it kinda sucked for us. Still, I managed a good picture or two while waiting.

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The following morning we felt determined to finish off Austin in an expedient fashion and move on to San Antonio, where we could atone for our bat blunder by visiting more exciting sites. So, first off we hit the Bremond Block, only instead of heaps of pretty houses we found only one pretty house, one construction sight, and one Santa sleigh installation on top of a restaurant (in the subtropics of Texas, really?).

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The SoCo District was hardly more thrilling.

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The Mosaic Bridge… much in the same key.

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Though we felt disinclined to bum around the Zilker Metropolitan Park, on account of its size and unsuitability for our travel interests, we thought that we should give a try. As feared, no good picture came out of it. Butler Park proved a better fit.

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Still, Texas is Texas, especially when there is not a treetop around to save your burning neck, so within an hour or so we arranged our retreat.

The last stop in Austin, as if for a dessert (at least for me), was the Wild about Music Shop—not spectacular in terms of its instrument assortment but in possession of some amusing peri-musical merchandise.

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When we finally left Austin, we felt like we had accomplished as much as we possibly could considering our time frame. In other words, our trip was still very much on schedule if not ahead of it.

San Antonio

Our exploration of San Antonio commenced with the sight of the Largest Boots in Texas. I do not want to meet the guy who left them there.

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Next was Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum. Barney started collecting and decorating toilet seats decades ago, and has since been a guest of various TV shows and subject of numerous newspaper articles. He is old but fairly nimble on his feet and will eagerly demonstrate you his collection and share lots of trivia about every exhibit.

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Designs vary from conservative to obscene, themes—from commemorative to political.

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Next, we proceeded to the Brackenridge Park to take a walk in the Japanese Tea Gardens, a kind of amusement that does not come to mind when speaking of Texas, not to disparage the pleasantness of the place. (The first photograph is a delicious private residence we spotted down the road.)

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I bet it is even more beautiful on an early misty morning.

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The next site, the Grotto, on the contrary would attain its full stupefying effect after dusk.

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Gradually we made it to what I consider to be the highlight of our entire trip—the San Antonio Missions, which there were four. (Well, five, actually, but we visited the four prettiest ones. :) We started with the Mission Espada, perhaps, the simplest of them all.

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At that point, I did not know what to expect, so I was photographing everything that looked appealing. That included certain spots along the road connecting the missions.

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Mission San Juan was next. We were becoming imbued with the colors of Colonial Mexico.

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Strolling by the side of these ancient developments one can fancy the hardships of everyday life that the missionaries of the past had to endure. As evidenced by the premises of Mission San Jose, the sanctuaries erected by those zealous Hispanic evangelists, in their relative elegance and size, really shame what I assume to have been their personal chambers.

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Our acquaintance with the San Antonio Missions Historical Park concluded with an overview of Mission Conception. What appeared unique about this one was not the building itself but what immensely different impressions it made depending on the field of one’s view. For instance, here it sits in the luxuriant, distinctly subtropical setting.

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Here it is embraced in some temperate scenery; if not for a few peculiarities of the architectural style, the shot could have easily been of South European of even North European provenance.

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Finally, here it is in its solemn serenity. Could as well be a still from the Lord of the Rings.

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At that point we were done with the Missions, although our bigger mission was far from being over. Our next stop in the city was the Guenther House. Though the building got closed down for a private party just as we arrived (hence, only a picture of the exterior), we caught sight of a few interesting things on the road.

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While in the same vicinity, we glanced at the Villa Finale Museum and luxurious houses of the King William District.

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We were now headed to La Villita, a Historic Arts Village right in the heart of San Antonio. We zigzagged around endless arts galleries, enjoying the organic comfort of the block-paved passages running to and fro; grabbed a bite at a customer-centric Mexican restaurant; and even got a glimpse of a Mexican wedding act.

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An unsuspecting tourist may think that this is the extent of San Antonio’s attractions, and he would be wrong, because down below there is a whole new dimension of the city known as the River Walk.

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Look at this open theater, these humpbacked bridges, these miniature ferries—it is a positively outstanding experience.

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Alas, the following morning we had to be in Houston, therefore we had no other choice than to vacate the River Walk and complete the exploration of San Antonio before the nightfall. First, we traveled to the Hemisfair Park, for some reason completely empty of people at that hour.

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Then we set for the Bexar County Courthouse, paying heed to interesting sights en route, such as the Buckhorn Saloon and the rear side of the San Fernando De Bexar Cathedral.

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Having seen the back, we wanted to know what the Cathedral’s front might look like.

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The ultimate stop in San Antonio, or rather one of its suburbs, was the giant stag made of scrap metal. I wonder if this is how the residents of this particular area are solving the problem of used-up vehicle disposal.

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(to be continued)

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