Houston, we have a problem…

… your road system is ridiculously over-complicated and supremely unpleasant to navigate: twisty connecting ramps on multiple levels, exits every few yards, and the need to change lanes repeatedly in order to avoid being spun off to goodness-knows-where. And that’s not to mention the fact that everyone drives horribly. Seriously, it all makes driving in New Jersey look positively civilised.

Combine that with the two-hour wait to collect our rental car (which in addition to being independently annoying also meant we missed the tour we wanted to go on at NASA), the leaden skies, cold temperatures and intermittent rain, the general lack of charm, and the fact that you have to drive absolutely everywhere, and you may begin to understand why I’m in no hurry to return to Texas.

However, grumpiness aside, we did actually have quite a nice time. Once we finally got there, NASA’s Johnson Space Centre had a plethora of interesting exhibits about the history of rocket technology, the moon landings, the ISS, and the ongoing work towards manned missons to Mars. We also got to go inside the 747 upon which the space shuttles were flown cross-country.

Back in the city, a friend from New York had arranged for his friend Frank to give us a tour of Houston’s highlights, and we spent a superbly informative few hours being driven around all kinds of neighbourhoods – the giant (and not entirely tasteful) mansions of the oil squillionnaires, the medical centre with its conglomeration of hospitals and research institutes (about the size of a normal city’s central business district), the attractive campus of Rice University, the collection of former artists’ accommodation around the Menil gallery building, the dark and sombre Rothko chapel, a variety of parks, the surprisingly attractive downtown, and the sprawling suburban strip-mally oh-so-American Chinatown. It really was an amazing afternoon – Frank has lived in Houston almost all his life, and was a fount of history, information and juicy tales about everything we saw – we wouldn’t have seen even a fraction of it all on our own.

After our epic driving tour, the next morning saw us back in our own car for the three hour drive across to San Antonio. Continual rain and unpleasantly scrapy windscreen wipers made us very glad to arrive at our next hotel and abandon the car in the car park – miraculously San Antonio has a walkable downtown area! More than that, the riverwalk is actually a delight – the river (more like a canal) loops around the city centre about a storey below street level, and is flanked by attractive walkways, landscaped planters, large trees, and terraces housing a variety of bars and restaurants.

Our first destination was the Alamo, of course, and we began with the ubiquitous informational video. In brief, Texas used to be part of Mexico, and the Alamo was a Catholic mission church. Anglo settlers were encouraged into the otherwise unpopulated Texan territories, which was fine until the Mexican government’s policy changed and they started to think that independence would be a good thing. The Alamo was by that stage a military outpost, and became a stronghold for the Texan revolutionaries who held it for around two weeks against a bombardment by Mexican general Santa Anna, before the besiegers broke through and slaughtered the company (including, interestingly, a possible member of my mother’s family).

After the video we looked at various exhibits, wandered briefly around the site (it was really cold!), marvelled at some of the items on offer at the gift shop, and then took ourselves off to a cosy cocktail bar. (I should say that we were expecting temperatures in the 50s & 60s, so the winter coats had stayed in NYC, whilst in reality it hovered around 40F for our entire visit.) For dinner, we had decided that a trip to Texas wouldn’t be complete without steak, and the Saltgrass restaurant did not disappoint. Afterwards it was lovely to walk back to the hotel along the riverwalk, warmed by plenty of food and wine, enjoying the holiday lights as we went.

 

Next morning we popped back to the Alamo to see inside the church – there had been a long line the previous afternoon, but arriving shortly after opening we walked straight in. Then it was back on the road for the short hour-or-so to Austin, the third and final destination on our trip.

Dry and almost-sunny conditions meant that we could see our surroundings – mostly suburban sprawl, with a few stretches of farmland, scrubby trees and cattle. Looking out at the endless strip malls along the way, I couldn’t help but wonder – who sleeps in all these motels, shops at all these stores, eats fast food at all these burger joints? It really is quite amazing to me that they can possibly all get enough custom to survive, yet there they are. Once in Austin, and continuing the historical theme, we spent quite a lot of the afternoon in the Bullock museum, which traces the history of Texas from its Mexican roots, its decade as an independent republic, its Confederate position in the civil war, through cattle ranching, oil and the space race. It was nicely laid out, and very informative.

Emerging into the present day, we walked down to the river (a properly wide one, here), and strolled along for a while. We had hopes of discovering some of Austin’s reputed charm, but it eluded us, save for a short strip of fun-looking food trucks and little cabins housing bars and restaurants, crouching defiantly in the shadow of a series of shiny high-rise apartment buildings.

Back at the car I rebelled against the interstate and insisted on driving to our hotel along regular roads, which meant that we saw a nice little residential neighbourhood along the way, with another enticing strip of eateries. Dinner took us to Austin’s East Side, which is apparently quite the place to go (at least according to our taxi driver). Internet reviews had led us to select Licha’s Cantina – we couldn’t leave without at least trying some Mexican food! – and it was superb. A lively local crowd, excellent cocktails and delicious food all made for a most enjoyable last evening.

We seem to know a lot of people with Texan heritage or connections, and I feel a little guilty that we didn’t have time to fit in even a tiny fraction of the recommendations we received. Another visit to the Lone Star State may well be in order, but I think someone else can do the driving next time…!

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