Sunday, July 30, 2006
Visiting the Alamo was a given on our trip. It was one of the three destinations we planned our trip around (the others being the Grand Canyon and Graceland). We were told to expect to be underwhelmed by the Alamo itself. True, it isn’t very large, but it is such an iconic place in the American experience that nothing could detract from it.
My wife was expecting something more fort-like, but I knew it had been a Spanish mission. What I didn’t realize was that it had been decommissioned as a religious mission before it had been militarized. The museum portion of the exhibit had a good History Channel synopsis of the history of the Alamo as well as well-done exhibits that put the mission and it’s role in the Texan Revolution into context.
The Alamo and the remaining surrounding grounds are administered by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas which does not receive any government funding in any way. So we bought some souvenirs for our share of the upkeep. Even if you don’t want to buy tacky tourist crap, the gift shop is worth visiting because it has an incredibly detailed diorama of the battle and a display case of Bowie knives.
On a whim, since we had a short driving day, I had read that there were other missions in the area operated by the National Park Service, so I called the number in the Texas Tourism book and learned they were less than five miles from the Alamo.
The first mission we visited was Mission San Jose which is the central site for the Park and had a visitor center with exhibits and information. The San Jose mission is also the best restored and largest of the four missions. The church is part of an active parish despite being on Park Service land. The altar and chapel have the ususal votive candle set up for donations. The mission has a small religious store and actively solicit denotations. The grounds are large and well groomed. One corner of the courtyard has a group of cacti growing on the roof of an overhang.
We backtracked up north for the second mission, San Concepcion. In contrast to San Jose, this mission has never been restored on the inside and is as close to the original condition of any of the missions. To the side of the chapel was a very beautiful breezeway. This mission, like all the others, were nearly deserted. It was a weekday and very hot, but compared to the Alamo, there was nobody touring the more obscure missions. I understand the historical significance of the Alamo, but these other missions better capture the flavor of the 18th and 19th century Southwest.
To get from one mission to another, you can take the main roads or follow a winding road that follows the San Antonio River from mission to mission. For many sections, the river was indistinguishable from a muddy creek. One of the sites in the park is the Espada dam which is the still working dam on the river from the mission era. We followed the river road to the San Juan mission, which has a bell tower that looks great against the clear blue sky. This mission had an outbuilding that was in ruins. At one end of the complex was a wooden cross embedded into a cactus garden.
The final mission was Mission Espada which also had a bell tower. The arched esplanade was landscaped with flowers and cultivated fruit trees. Next to the chapel were signs cautioning visitors not to disturb the residences that are next to the chapel. Like the other missions, this is still a working chapel and it seems to still have an order on site, even though I haven't learned which one. The San Concepcion mission had a display board on how the Franciscans trained their missionaries on how to set up a mission like a franchise operation.
I’ve go plenty more pictures of these in this Flickr set so you can compare the missions. And if you are ever in the San Antonio area, make sure to spend some time going back in history on the Mission Trail.