Postcard from Portugal: Lessons for San Antonio?

Whenever you travel, you always come across things you’d love to see at home. These are listed randomly, not ranked. Click on the photos to see larger images or the highlighted links if you would like to see additional related photos.

  1. tables under giant rubber trees at Esplanada Cafe
    sandwiches served under giant rubber trees at Esplanada Cafe

    Huge multi-grain sandwiches oozing with melted cheese served under towering rubber trees in a park. This was the easiest of things to adapt from Portugal. Panini(tost)-maker purchased. How did I live without one? It grills veggie burgers, Greek cheese, eggplant, zucchini, naan bread, pineapple, French toast. Anything and everything.

  2. DSCN0748Robert H. H. Hugman designed the River Walk  in San Antonio with varying designs of sidewalks underfoot, but Portugal takes such artistry a giant step farther, and the results are striking. Every step you take should be memorable. Maybe we need a non-slick surface, though. But, it all goes back to something we haven’t quite embraced in Texas. Park the car. A city should be walked to be appreciated.
  3. DSCN0692Statues should be statuesque, or not at all. Poor Henry B. by the Convention Center, wherever he ends up relocated, is rendered too petite. He seems less than life-size. Statues should be awe-inspiring (The exception: Keep oyster-shelly Gompers small and hidden under overgrown trees.).
  4. DSCN1349DSCN1350Festival beer booths do not have to be hideous. Lisbon utilizes these little self-contained booths with several different designs for their special events. Some have homey images, such as a cat in a window or a friendly dog at the door.
  5. DSCN1163Tiles. We have the tradition here. Wonderful tiles from Ethel Harris’ San Jose Pottery. Or those colorful tiles Marion Koogler McNay installed on the risers of her patio stairs. Susan Toomey Frost donated a San Jose tile mural for the Museum Reach of the river to add to the original ones along the downtown river bend, and there are the incredible ones at Alamo Stadium. But we need more. They are such an enduring form of art.
  6. DSCN1200Promotional banners and advertising for festivals do not all have to be identical. Maintaining integrity of logos is one thing, but succumbing to boring repetition renders the message meaningless. Love the way Lisbon engages several artists each year to interpret their marketing materials for its month-long festival in honor of Saint Anthony.
  7. Sardines are a good thing. When they are fresh. Grilled street-side. Just before we left for Portugal, Central Market had a few laid out for the media preview of their Ciao Italia. Then we left, and dove into the land where they were in abundance. We’d like them here, please.
  8. DSCN1214DSCN1216Love our San Antonio Book Festival. But how in the world does Lisbon keep Feira Livro up and running for two weeks? Self-contained booths that can be locked up securely each night help. The sheer number of booths and books made me feel downright illiterate, particularly since the books were in Portuguese.
  9. DSCN0582Inner-city parks are filled with activities on a rotating basis. Farmers’ markets. Regional gourmet food festivals with vendors and tastings. Mini-book fairs. A once-a-month antique fair that would be great some place like Travis Park.
  10. DSCN1316The San Antonio Missions are crying out for intimate, customized tuk-tuk tours crisscrossing the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. The tuk tuks of Lisbon had different designs on the outside. My favorite one, not pictured, was covered with a skin of images of some of Portugal’s distinctive blue tiles.
  11. DSCN1229We now have food trucks, but what about little portable craft beer carts, perfect for sampling new beers on tap in park-like settings. This cart was parked outside the botanical garden. We also encountered wine trucks for sampling Portuguese wine, complete with bar stools for sipping at the wine truck counter. Oh how I would love it if Texas wines were as inexpensive as Portuguese.
  12. DSCN1160Portugal seems to have more than its fair share of parts of saints enshrined in reliquaries. I always thought American Catholics were too squeamish to even want to know how far one saint could be spread, but I was wrong. We just don’t have many saints and parts to fight over. Archbishop Fulton Sheen has not even been beatified yet, and New York and Peoria are fighting over his body and whether he should be exhumed for obtaining some first-class relics to disseminate. I wonder if Portugal would share some modest little second-class relic of Saint Anthony with this city bearing his name….
  13. DSCN1248And about Saint Anthony. He is ever-present everywhere in Portugal. This city named after him needs to pay more attention to him, particularly on his feast day in June. He is a really useful saint.
  14. And, finally, although this blogger might prove the exception….DSCN1257

Note Added: The featured photo strangely popped up on my facebook page immediately after I posted this. Thanks to Mark Twain for providing it.


Wayfinding and New Accessibility Enhance River Walk Experience

Always hated to have to break the news to lost joggers asking for help, the ones who looked really ready to be back in their hotel rooms, that they had veered off about a mile in the wrong direction.  But lately, few are in need of assistance.  The $250,000 wayfinding system funded by the Convention and Visitors Bureau and designed by Marek-Hill of Houston seems to actually work.  For the first time since I have lived in San Antonio, there is an informative, logical and cohesive look to River Walk signage.

Ben Olivo of the San Antonio Express-News writes that Juliana Marek is a product of Alamo Heights High School who:

likens a good system to a bread crumb trail, that it’s impossible, or rather impracticable, to cram mounds of information into a single sign.

“What a good sign system does is break down the information in understandable amounts, because people can’t digest as much as they’re moving around,” Marek said. “You really, really have to try and simplify the information as much as possible.”

The signage also helps those wandering Paseo del Rio locate accessible routes, which, finally, most of the downtown River Walk is.  For years, many preservationists balked at altering Robert H.H. Hugman’s original designs to make accessible pathways, and the city shied away from the expense.  I must confess I, too, was skeptical architects could incorporate the necessary changes without damaging the aesthetic appeal. 

But Judy Babbitt, the city’s Access Compliance Manager, never quit in spite of strong opposition.  Judy always has been reminded on a daily basis where virtually every violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act is located downtown because she wheels it continually.  She literally has devoted decades to the campaign to eradicate unnecessary obstacles. 

According to the Public Works Department website, which includes accessibility maps: 

Since the early 1980’s, the City of San Antonio has been active in eliminating architectural barriers and in creating wheelchair accessibility to and along the River Walk. The City has improved more than 50 locations during these two decades, generating new ramps, pathways and, with the help of private businesses, new elevators.

As a frequent critic of the city’s tendency to “value-engineer” the character out of projects, I am totally bowled over by the sensitivity and quality of materials used in the new system of ramps.  They are handsome additions to the River Walk.  Sensitive areas, such as the stepping-stones by the fountain by Omni La Mansion del Rio, were not ruined.  The craftsmanship of the inserts eliminating the dangerous openings is exquisite. 

Like many pedestrians presented with the choice, I find myself often opting for the ramps over steps.  It feels good to stretch out one’s calves on the slight incline and reminds me what strength would be required to propel oneself up them using only arm-power.  Judy should have just challenged all the nay-sayers years ago to arm-wrestle her for the right to make Paseo del Rio accessible.  The paths would have been completed more than a decade earlier.   

Note Added on September 18, 2010More improvements ahead….

Update on January 27, 2012: The City’s efforts to make the downtown River Walk more accessible are receiving recognition:

The Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities, in partnership with the Accessibility Professionals Association (APA), has announced the winners of the 2011 Accessibility Awards, which recognize businesses and organizations that go above and beyond the legal requirements to provide both physical and service accessibility to people with disabilities.

City of San Antonio Historic River Walk Downtown (San Antonio)
Owner: City of San Antonio
Design Professional: Beaty Palmer Architects, Inc – Michael Beaty AIA, Principal