Starting Out In The Hill Country

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Fredericksburg deserves an overnight stay, even though accommodations are mainly limited to bed and breakfasts or motels. New Braunfels is a good stop for a second night. On the pleasant eighty-mile drive between the two, stop at Comfort, a nicely restored little town with a Civil War monument to twenty-eight of the region’s young men. They shared the antisecessionist sentiments of many of the German settlers and were killed in 1862 by Confederate forces while trying to reach Union lines via Mexico.

New Braunfels sprawls more than Fredericksburg. so its charm isn’t instantly apparent. Still, several stops there help round out the picture of the immigrant experience. Worth visiting are the Sophienburg Memorial Museum, the Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture, and the home of Ferdinand Jakob Lindheimer, a German-born naturalist who cataloged much of Texas’s native flora. He even imported a beekeeper to help the fruit trees flourish. On the outskirts of New Braunfels, a former cotton-farming community called Gruene is home to a country-music shrine: Texas’s oldest dance hall, built around 1880.

The Hill Country comes to an end just north of San Antonio, making that lovely city a logical place to finish the journey. San Antonio’s star feature is undoubtedly the Alamo, but I was at least as impressed by the shady River Walk that winds through the heart of town, linking many attractions on the banks of the San Antonio River. From the river, steps lead up to La Villita, an early Mexican settlement. Now a National Historic District, this flowery retreat of hidden courtyards and splashing fountains is home to artisans who lease their adobe workshops from the city.

More of the colonial and Mexican past is beautifully preserved in a large, lively marketplace, in the early-eighteenth-century Spanish Governor’s Palace, and—unexpectedly—in the middle of a municipal parking lot, where a tiny adobe house functions as the Bexar County Adult Probation Department.

It’s pleasant to get around San Antonio by a bus that resembles an old streetcar and costs just ten cents a ride. I recommend taking the streetcar from Alamo Plaza to the Market and wandering back along Dolorosa Street and past the tree-shaded Main Plaza. Here, across from the San Fernando Cathedral, the Old Frost Bank, its commercial splendor intact, has been transformed into a cafeteria, and a pause for refreshment here, beneath the great classical rotunda, is time well spent.

The first German settlers in Texas shaped a life that sometimes belonged to the Old World and sometimes to the New.

The city’s many sights could occupy a week’s exploring, but for one whose thoughts stray back to the Hill Country it would be a good idea to head for the Institute of Texan Cultures, which tells the stories of some twenty-five ethnic and cultural groups that played a part in the state’s history. Naturally the German experience is given full measure; while I was there, German visitors flocked through on the trail of their adventurous countrymen.

Finish the journey at King William Street, where the second generation of Texas’s Germans flourished. Their huge houses framed by pillars, ornamented by turrets, fringed with gingerbread, and shaded by wide, curving porches speak of infinite Victorian variety. Give all this cheerful excess a tropical setting, with palm trees on the front lawns and yucca plants in tubs, and you have the improbable Technicolor finale to the immigrant’s dream. And it is good to recall here that a trip through the Hill Country isn’t only for those of German background. After all, crossing an ocean to a new land, struggling first for survival and then for success, planting a future, and watching it grow is a tradition most of us are rooted in, one way or another.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP