On the second full day of my visit to San Antonio I decided to explore the old Spanish Missions that extend along the river to the south of the city. The Missions were created as means of extending and consolidating Spanish rule in Texas during the early 18th Century. The missions were established and run by the Catholic Church and were intended to convert the local Native Americans who would then become loyal Spanish subjects. Initially unwalled communities centred on a church, walled compounds were constructed to protect the communities from attacks by hostile Apache and Comanche tribes.
There are five missions all built close to the river. The first of these was the the Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo. The others are to the south of the city and there is a Hike and Bike Trail extending along the river which allows easy access to the Missions.
I paid for a 24 hour pass for a B cycle – the San Antonio version of the urban bike scheme like they have in London, Paris and many other cities these days. It costs $10 for a day pass and then the use of the bike is free providing you return it to one of the docking stations before 30 minutes is up. There are plenty of docking stations along the river and also at the Missions themselves (they were a short ride along quiet roads from the river trail). There were water fountains at the docking stations and at other points on the trail. Just as well given that the temperature was over 30 C and there was a real risk of dehydration without regular top ups of water.
II visited 2 of the missions. As I spent some time at each and was running low on supplies I needed to head back at 2 o’clock so I could get something proper to eat.
The first mission I came to was the Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña. Today only the church is left standing. It was dedicated in 1755 and is the oldest unrestored stone church in America. According to the information centre at the site, it appears very much as it did over two centuries ago. Originally the outside walls would have been decorated with colourful geometric designs , but these have long since faded or been worn away.
The church is a mixture of styles. Although predominantly Romanesque, there are some Gothic arches and other features and Moorish and Native American. Built of limestone it has a dome and twin bell towers.
As a “working” church it is typically Catholic inside, but there remain traces of frecoes on the wall and ceiling
Grabbing another bike from the docking station I carried on south and headed for the Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo. This is the largest of the missions and was almost fully restored to its original design in the 1930s by the WPA (Works Projects Administration) and shows the visitor how all the missions might have looked over 250 years ago. It has a good Visitor’s Centre and there are regular guided tours.
The reconstruction allows visitors to get a good idea of how the Franciscan Friars and their Native American converts lived. The Friars were housed in the Convento, attached to the church itself, which hasn’t been restored,
while the Native American converts lived in small apartments within the double skinned walls.
They would have had a very regimented lifestyle governed by worship at prescribed times and would have worked in fields outside the main compound. There was a small flour mill outside the walls and a large granary within the compound.
The compound itself would have had defensive features such as the corner bastions.
and firing platforms above the gates.
The church was completed around 1782 and has ornate Baroque carvings inside and outside, especially on the front wall.
The inside has also been restored with this every ornate and colourful altar decoration only recently installed based on the original.
The nave itself is relatively simple
La Ventana de Rosa, the Rose Window, with it’s ornate Baroque carvings, the church’s most well known feature, is located on the south wall of the church sacristy.
Shell motifs, usually associated with Saint James (Saint Iago in Spanish) were evident throughout the church, including over this door
After I’d had a look around I decided to take the free guided tour that was on offer. It was very informative and as well as learning about the history and architecture of the Mission we were told about the everyday life of the converts and about the food they would have eaten.
It was two o’clock by now and my supplies, and energy, were running low as the temperature continued to rise. So I decided that I’d have to give the remaining two Missions a miss and head back to downtown San Antonio .
By the time I got back to San Antonio centre, it was nearly half past 3 and my blood sugar had dropped – no wonder I was finding it difficult to keep the pedals turning towards the end. So I grabbed a nice burger and chips (lots of carbs – I needed them- with tomato ketchup for a bit of sugar) at a good Tex-Mex by the bike docking station at La Villita.