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Party town


Donna Dailey celebrates Fiesta San Antonio, the Texan answer to Mardi Gras

As crowds gather along San Antonio's famous River Walk, I smugly guard my place on an iron bridge above the waterway, where I've bagged a prime viewing spot for the Texas Cavaliers River Parade. This extraordinary floating procession is a highlight of the city's annual Fiesta.


As dusk falls, a foghorn cuts the din and the lead riverboat rounds the bend, bearing the newly crowned King Antonio. Following in his wake is a waterborne pageant of 40 glittering barges, festooned with stars and fairy lights, giant illuminated balls and themed decorations. They carry an array of bands playing everything from tubas and slide trombones to electric guitars, snare drums and ukuleles and a raucous medley rises on the breeze as their costumed crews dance and wave to the crowd.


It's a spectacular introduction to Fiesta San Antonio, one of the biggest festivals in the country. It's akin to New Orleans' Mardi Gras, but with Mexican instead of French accents. Over half the city's population is Hispanic and its diverse culture and spirit are proudly on show with more than 100 events spread over 18 days in April.


The following morning, I board a boat myself for a cruise along the River Walk. This three-mile pathway runs below street level beside the Rio San Antonio and makes a circular loop through downtown. Built in 1941 as part of a flood control project, it is now lined with lively restaurants, clubs and shops and has become the city's star attraction.


As our guide points out landmark buildings, the boat glides lazily beneath graceful, arched stone footbridges. Cypress trees tower above the flagstone path and early strollers stop to watch the mallards paddling along the bank. It's cool and tranquil, a welcome lull in the Fiesta frenzy. Already, the restaurants lining the River Walk are decking out their patios with bright paper flowers and piñatas. Everywhere, strings of orange, lime green and yellow picados – paper banners cut with intricate folk-art designs – flutter overhead.


Hallowed battlegrounds


Despite the Hispanic flavour of Fiesta, it began 123 years ago as a tribute to the heroes of the Alamo and San Jacinto, battles that ultimately won Texas independence from Mexico. America has more hallowed battlegrounds than you can shake a musket at but the Alamo is one of the most famous. Built as the city's first mission in 1718, it's a short stroll from the River Walk.


The sculpted grey stone facade of the church looks small and unassuming. We stand before it in the former battlefield as our guide recounts the facts of the bloody, 13-day siege that ended on March 6, 1836. Vastly outnumbered by Santa Anna's Mexican army, the Alamo's 189 defenders fought to their deaths, legendary frontiersmen David Crockett and James Bowie among them.


Though I've known the story since childhood, I am unexpectedly moved when we step inside the church. It's as if the walls still hold the sadness, fear and defiance of the men, women and children who took refuge here. They included 11 Tejanos (Mexican Texans), as well as men from Germany, Denmark and the British Isles.


Among the memorabilia in the Alamo museum adjacent to the church, I notice a short sword on loan from Phil Collins. The musician has long been a fan of the Alamo, and recently donated his extensive collection of artefacts to the museum.


But this heroic event isn't so straightforward for everyone. Our guide, who is Hispanic, wears an odd Fiesta medal bearing a skull and crossbones. "It's a medal of protest," he explains, referring to the breakaway Texas Republic that followed. "Mexico lost its property. My people lost their property." The Alamo, he says, is a story of courage, honour and bravery on both sides.


Back at the River Walk, the newly opened Briscoe Western Art Museum has an amazing scale model of the Alamo that puts the battle into context. Other rooms thoughtfully display just the right number of exquisite artworks, artefacts and photographs that give a glimpse of the rich culture and traditions of south Texas.


In fact, the city has several outstanding art museums, including the San Antonio Museum of Art, the McNay Art Museum and the Witte Museum. At the latter, a dazzling display of Order of the Alamo coronation gowns reveals an elite Fiesta tradition.


Each year the chosen 'Queen' and her 'court' appear in sumptuous themed gowns bejewelled with rhinestones, sequins and pearls. Complete with tiaras and trains up to 15 feet long, these fairytale dresses can easily weigh 100 pounds. As for the price, well, the owners aren't telling. But it's been hinted that they can cost as much as a high-end luxury car.


whimsical characters


The Queen and court ride in state in the Battle of Flowers Parade, one of the oldest parades in the country. Modelled after a similar parade in Spain, this is the event that kicked off the first Fiesta in 1891. Now, as then, it is produced entirely by women.


For a behind-the-scenes look, I visit 'the Den', one of two warehouses where volunteers are putting the final touches on some 40 flower-covered floats artfully sculpted with whimsical characters. It has taken nine months to bring them to this point, and in two days' time, the whole city will take the day off work and turn out to watch the spectacle. Here, I'm given two special Battle of Flowers medals to add to my jangling sash. Fiesta medals are a festival tradition, happily donated, traded and collected, and the more you can pin on, the better.


Suitably adorned, I head out for a night in Old San Antonio. Tonight, it feels like every one of the city's 1.4 million inhabitants is crammed into La Villita, the original Spanish settlement off the River Walk. People are in full-on party mode. Women don lovely terecitas, ornate flower crowns streaming with coloured ribbons. Others wear silly hats and bright Fiesta colours.


With multiple entertainment stages and cultural zones from a German beer hall to Chinatown, this event highlights the city's diverse heritage. As I shuffle along past the food and souvenir stalls, someone cracks an egg on my head. Colourful confetti spills out onto my hair and shoulders. Cascarones! These celebratory Fiesta eggs are a symbol of friendship.


On my last morning in San Antonio, I return to the river. The River Walk has been so successful that it's now being lengthened to 15 miles, the largest urban eco-system renewal project in the country. I set off to explore a newly opened section along Mission Reach – by kayak. Slightly south of downtown, this stretch runs through a surprisingly open, natural landscape. As I paddle along, the loudest sound is great-tailed grackles scolding me with their odd calls. I spot egrets and heron, and stop to watch a pair of geese with their goslings. The water isn't deep, but where it tumbles over gentle rock falls, I steer the kayak through narrow chutes that provide a bit of excitement. Hike and bike trails run along the riverbank, with portals leading to four more Spanish Colonial missions that make up the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. I reach the end relaxed, refreshed and ready for more festivities back in Market Square, where the party goes on.


The 2015 Fiesta will run from 16 – 26 April, with more details at


Travel Texas lists local hotels as well as discounted package deals with local attractions (Tel: +1 800 447 3372 /


The San Antonio Visitors Bureau has comprehensive information about getting around the city and other things to do (Tel: 1800 676 5808 /

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