I begin my first full day in Austin at the LBJ Presidential Library on the University of Texas campus, and the Hotel Driskill, Austin's oldest and grandest hotel, dating from 1886, which has connections to every major Texas figure including President Johnson (see: Five Days in Austin, Texas: Eat like a Zagat; Explore like a Baedeker and slideshow.)
I continue my exploration of Austin this afternoon at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Bullock Texas State History Museum
It is said that Austin isn't really Texas, that it is a blue dot in a red landscape and all you have to do to realize that is just step outside the city lines.
But that isn't really true. To get the sense of the true Texas, all you need to do is step inside the Bullock Texas State Museum, just across the street from the University of Texas campus.
Start with the multi-media special effects movie in the "Texas Spirit Theater" which uses fog, lightning, wind another special effects to immerse you in its feature presentations. "The Star of Destiny," is billed as looking at "the stories of determination, vision and perseverance that defined the Lone Star State," but I found it an immersion into the arrogance and mythology of "exceptionalism" and self-congratulatory entitlement that underlies the culture and personality of Texas.
Here, the whole creation story of Texas achieves a kind of biblical retelling. There is blindness to the true origination story - how the Texas Founders were slaveowners, Indian killers, and ultimately expelled the Mexicans from their own territory. The "Founders" were mainly slaveholders from the South, and rumbled to break free of Mexico after that country banned slavery (the Tejans managed to secure a loophole which redefined the slaves as "contract workers."). After the Mexican government realized that the Anglos – who were initially invited to the territory - were taking over, they banned any additional settlement from the United States in 1830. And that's when they launched their war and ginned up support from the US.
As I go through the movie and through the exhibits, I am bowled over by the irony: initially the Americans were blocked out, and now the Texans seek to block out the Mexicans. Then, when they managed to establish their own country, there was the fight between investing in infrastructure and imposing taxes to pay off the debt. When the country of Texas was bankrupt, they petitioned to join the US (how funny is that, with all the renewed calls for secession), only to fight for the Confederacy 20 years later. After the end of slavery, comes the rise of the Oil Gushing economy. (I'm sure there is no mention of that in the other feature presentation in the theater, "Wild Texas Weather"" which explores "the science and history behind Texas' extreme weather including hurricanes, tornadoes and drought."
There is a small part of the exhibit devoted to the Indians who were treated abominably. Here, there is a "tip of the hat" to a tribal leader who pushed to assimilate into the white society.
Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 N Congress Avenue, 512-936-4629, thestoryoftexas.com
After visiting the State History Museum, I mosey back across the street and am surprised to find that the Blanton Art Museum stays open late on the third Thursday of the month.
Blanton Museum of Art
Blanton Museum of Art is an oasis of peace and civility. Enchanting.
The art museum offers free admission on Thursdays and stays open late every third Thursday evening (until 9 pm) - and I just happened in at the right time. A free concert had just finished (boy would I have loved to see that), and as I wandered through one of the galleries, I was amazed to see a yoga class underway. Right in the gallery! There were absolutely fabulous exhibits - including a fascinating one explaining the art restoration process.
The Blanton, University of Texas, MLK at Congress, 512-471-7324, blantonmuseum.org.
Eat like a local: I meet up with our son just across the bridge on Congress, and he walks us over to one of his favorite food trucks (Austin is famous for its food trucks and has about 1000 of them). We mosey over to “Hey Are You Gonna Eat That or What” (that’s the name) in his South Congress neighborhood, where we enjoy gourmet sandwiches while sitting under lights at a picnic table. I am in foodie heaven with Chef Eric's specialty, the Shiner Bock beer-battered Monte Cristo – hickory-smoked cheddar, mesquite smoked turkey that Chef Eric smokes himself, black truffle brie, and homemade cherry & fig jelly, while he tells us his story (512-296-3547, www.HeyYouGonnaEatOrWhat.com).
Austin's motto is "Keep Austin Weird," and there is actually a Museum of the Weird, located in the heart of Austin Weird – 6th Street (www.museumoftheweird.com). We didn't get there this time - next time.
Austin also is fanatical about being local. "Think Local. Be Local. Buy Local." the Austin Independent Business Alliance publishes a guide to local businesses, "Indie Austin" (IBuyAustin.com).
Day 3: Austin Adventures, Capitol Building
We start out day with Austin Overtures, a fantastic city tour by van. especially with our guide Maggie Olmstead (her husband is related to the designer of Central Park). The tour provides an excellent overview – going out from downtown to the Hill Country, and taking us to all the highlights, with a superb commentary. At the end, Maggie gives a list of the sites/attractions visited with phone numbers, which comes in handy.
We return in time to visit our son at work where we have lunch together and then return downtown to explore more of Austin, particularly the places Maggie recommended.
The State Capital Building offers a free guided tour every 15-30 minutes from the front door (the tour takes 30-45 minutes). The building, copied from the Capitol Building in Washington DC, is majestic and stunning, and has one of the largest domed rotundas in the country. Just days earlier, State Legislator Wendy Davis had become a national hero for her standing filibuster which delayed (but didn't stop) the legislature from passing some of the most restrictive anti-women's choice legislation in the country. In the rotunda of the Capitol building is the portrait of Texas' former Governor Ann Richards.(State Capitol & Visitors Center: Free tours depart daily from the South Lobby, www.tspb.state.tx.us/SPB/Plan/Tours.htm).
Just across the way, on the edge of the University of Texas is the Harry H Ransom Center for Research – which features art, 20th century literature, photography– scripts, and displays an original Gutenberg Bible (this one distinguished by a papermaker's hair embedded in a page and the date 1589 scratched into the gold illumination at the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy; it must have originally belonged to Carthusian and Jesuit monasteries in the southern part of Germany and is the most valuable single artifact belonging to the University of Texas System).
There is also a breathtaking display of the earliest surviving camera photograph, taken 1826 or 1827 by Nicéphore Niépce, "View from the Window at Le Gras." "Because of its uniqueness and its significance to the arts and humanities... it is among the Ransom Center's and indeed he world's greatest treasures."
The Ransom Center also hosts fabulous exhibits. When I visit, there is an exhibit, "Arnold Newman Masterclass" that not only honors the career of photographer Arnold Newman, but examines his creative process, his philosophy, and how he approached his projects, many of them famous portraits that appeared in Life Magazine. True to the title, "Masterclass," you come away with real advice you can apply. I spent a couple of hours until they threw me out at closing time, 7 pm (it stays open late on Thursday). (Free admission; closed Monday, must see; Ransom Center, 21st and Guadalupe Streets, 512-471-8944, www.hrc.utexas.edu)
It is late afternoon - the sun is setting and I return to our son's apartment and we walk together to a park under the Congress Avenue Bridge to see a remarkable phenomenon: bats.
Living under the Congress Avenue Bridge is the largest urban bat colony in North America - up to 1.5 million of them, which each night in March and April, as if on cue, fly out in a mad crush, a spiraling black cloud into the sky.
It turns out that when the engineers reconstructed the bridge in 1980, the new crevices beneath the bridge made an ideal bat roost. Bats had lived there for years, but they suddenly began moving in (and out) by the tens of thousands.
Bat Conservation International notes that at first, locals feared the bats and wanted the colony eradicated. BCI stepped in to educate the populace: "that bats are gentle and incredibly sophisticated animals; that bat-watchers have nothing to fear if they don't try to handle bats; and that on the nightly flights out from under the bridge, the Austin bats eat from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects, including agricultural pests." (I note that there are signs warning anyone not to handle any bat that is on the ground; but the next day, there are signs posted urging anyone who handled a dead bat the night before to contact the health department.)
These are Mexican free-tailed bats, which migrate each spring from central Mexico to various roosting sites throughout the southwestern U.S. Most of the South Congress colony is female (at Round Rock, another colony a short distance away, they are mostly male, I am told), and in early June each one gives birth to a single baby bat, called a pup. The pink, hairless babies quickly grow. In about five weeks, with the help of their mothers they learn to fly and begin to hunt insects on their own. Until that time, the mothers nurse their babies, each locating her pup among the thousands by its distinctive voice and scent. (see: www.batcon.org/index.php/get-involved/visit-a-bat-location/congress-avenue-bridge)
The Austin American-Statesman created the Statesman Bat Observation Center adjacent to the Congress Bridge, giving visitors a dedicated area to view the nightly emergence (and you can visit the site for updates, www.statesman.com/news/news/ways-to-view-the-bats/nRp5T).
It is estimated that more than 100,000 people visit the bridge to witness the bat flight, generating $10 million in tourism revenue a year. (You can also see the bats by cruise boats that go right up to the bridge, and also can rent a kayak).
After the bats, our son takes us to dinner at one of his favorite taco places, Touchy’s – which also is basically a truck connected to an open garage and another open room where there is ping pong and games. Fabulous.
We wind up the evening on 6th Street East – more like New Orleans’ Bourbon Street than Nashville’s Honky Tonk district – lots of bars where there is live music. Just a touch sleazy but not really.
Day 4-5: Outdoor Austin
It's the weekend, when you really appreciate what a young, hip, outdoorsy group the Austinites are. We get to be locals, too.
Austin is one of the fittest cities in the country and it seems everyone is out and about - making for a very festive feeling.
A focal point is Lady Bird Lake and the Hike & Bike Trail, an urban oasis. It seems that all Austin gravitates here. While we are walking on the Lady Bird hiking/biking trail, Lance Armstrong runs past (austintexas.gov/page/lady-bird-lake).
We walk to the waterfront park with our son and come upon one of Austin’s quirkier festivals (which actually says a lot about the city): Doggie Festival – hundreds of dogs are here participating in all sorts of activities . They set two Guinness world records (one for the most dogs wearing a bandana; not sure if they got a record for the most dogs doing the conga) - they actually had Guinness witnesses on hand to officiate.
We return to the waterfront with bikes, to enjoy the trail that goes on both sides of the lake.
We go off to one of Austin's recreational parks, Barton Springs Pool: a natural spring-fed pool that stays a constant 68°, so people swim year ‘round (austintexas.gov/department/barton-springs-pool), but it is so crowded to get in, we return to South Congress (which exemplifies Austin's mantra, "Keep Austin Weird") to explore the quirky shops of South Congress - the famous boot store, Allen's Boots (what an experience!) is Austin’s premier cowboy boot retailer, with hundreds of hand-crafted styles (www.allensboots.com), Parts + Labour, a shop where you can purchase one-of-a-kind products (www.partsandlabour.com) and Uncommon Objects (www.uncommonobjects.com) and where we can buy a poem from a street vendor. We hang out at a live outdoor concert/eaterie.
Later, we watch our son play in his soccer league at an indoor recreation center.
Sunday, we rent kayaks and have a marvelous time kayaking on the "lake".
In the afternoon, before we head to the airport, we stop by Rainey Street – a couple of blocks just west of I-35 where small Victorian bungalows, one by one, have been turned into bars and lounges, each with distinct character. There are TVs on the porch so we can watch March Madness unfold.
I found Hotel Allandale on hotels.com and found it truly superb Even though it was on the north end of the city, just outside the downtown, the "hotel" (actually a condominium complex) offers free shuttle service within 10 miles, to downtown. The condominium complex (they do long-term rentals here) is absolutely marvelous - We have a complete apartment with full kitchen, living room and bedroom, and free WiFi.. Complimentary breakfast is served daily in the pleasant breakfast room in the main building, where there are computers and a business center, and an outdoor pool. It works out superbly for our trip.
Hotel Allandale - superb find, great value (from hotels.com at $100/day), in north Austin (7685 Northcross Dr., Austin, TX 78757, www.theallandale.com)
Austin is a delightful destination to visit - typically people come for some purpose: a conference, a festival, to visit family. But Austin stands on its own with an extraordinary array of worthy and distinctive sites and attractions. The scale of the city makes it particularly pleasant.
There is parking on street – they have meter machines, most for 3 hours at a time, some for 5 hours, plus parking garages, but Austin which is both compact and sprawling, with an exploding population, has terrible traffic (not to mention ridiculous road patterns and signs that seem to be designed to confuse invaders).
You can very possibly do without a rental car - Austin has excellent public transportation - you can buy a 24-hour bus pass on 1L and 1M for just $2; the 100 Bus takes you from the airport to downtown.
Austin is also one of the most biking-friendly cities anywhere, and buses carry bikes.
For more information: Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, 301 Congress, Suite 200, Austin, TX 78701, 512-583-7210, www.austintexas.org.
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