Austin - shines in the lone star state


Now that I live in America, it was only a matter of time before I turned up in Texas. Austin gets a lot of hype so that’s where I tied up my ‘hoss’ (that’s ‘horse’ to you and me, and it was more like a plane, and I didn’t tie it up anywhere).

The first thing I noticed on touch down was the Texan heat, maaan, they like it hothothot down there, ‘hotter than a snakes butt in a wagon rut’ (I don’t know what that means, but it’s a Texan expression! How lovely). The second thing I noticed is that everyone really does say “Y’all”, which I found very endearing, everyone was like a character from the Waltons.

One star above, one legend below
The cab driver who picked us up at the airport was as skinny as a scarecrow, about a hundred and two, and chatted with a high speed Texan chirp, dispensing some odd tourist advice. He suggested we head to the State Capitol, find the star on the ground, hold hands and play ring-a-ring-a-rosey around it while staring at the star. Then stop suddenly and look up “Y’all will see stars in front of your eyes, best entertainment in Texas”. “Sounds great” I politely responded “(if you’re drunk!)”

The first thing you should do, which we didn’t and regretted, is hire a car. You’ll want to flit to different parts of the city to take in all the highlights, public transport is not obvious and taxis are similarly shy. Austin is a big city.

Oh no you didn't!
Texans love a good BBQ, there are lots of restaurants dedicated to just that. Uncle Billys on Barton Springs Road is a good example. It’s rustic chic with skinny hipsters eating huge servings of gloriously barbequed food. The food is ‘finger lickin good’ (another refined Texan expression) and it’s a refreshing change, from the SF chilly eves, to relax into the sultry evening heat that you associate with southern climes.

My gaf
Our hotel was another of my secret hotel jobbies, it turned out to be the AT&T Conference Center on the University of Texas campus. I was kinda hoping more for a spa treatment than free access to a fax machine, but it was fine, and just a walk away from the top tourist site – the State Capitol. Austin is very much a university town, so when the college has broken up for the summer there is a feeling that something is missing. But if you’re not that fond of students, you’re laughin!

At times the heat became unbearable so we ducked into the History of Texas Museum. Of all the states Texas really has one of the most exciting pasts (fall of the Alamo, Davy Crockett, etc).

The Spanish settled Texas or ‘Tejas’ as they called it, with 15 families from the Canary Islands. The fact the early settlers were from the Canaries seemed to amused me no end, I think I may have even elbowed some poor random stranger beside me in the museum to point out the plaque, “Look, look, the settlers came from the Canary Islands, haha, that’s like saying New York was colonized by club reps from Magaluf.”

The yanks make a meal out of breakfast and Texas was no exception; everything is bigger in Texas. Try Annies, which is downtown and has lots of space, great baked goodies and they do a full English breakfast (sort of).

Fueled by a fry up, it was time for one of my harebrained ideas. Let’s go to the firing range! I need to stipulate I am not pro gun and I believe in tougher gun control laws, etc. But… when in Texas.

Go ahead punk, make my day
It was pretty easy to set up, we just rocked up, showed ID, chose our ‘weapons’ (in for a penny, in for a pound, “from glock to AK47 please”), then you had to choose bullets (who knew? ‘I’ll go for the shiny ones??’), get a quick chat on do’s and don’t’s, don your safety glasses and headphones, and in you go.

When the guy beside me shot his gun, I nearly shot my pants. I’m not kidding, my heart left my body and exploded. I was not expecting that level of noise and sheer magnitude of violent energy ripping through the air. Once I settled down and got into the zone, it’s a very exciting powerful feeling to pull the trigger. But I was decidedly uncomfortable knowing that I what I held in my hand could take, maim, ruin a life. Especially with my aim, my perp would have had a very long painful demise with gunshot wounds from head to toe. Dom, however, was a natural crackshot, which both impressed and terrified me. I was glad I did it but I had no interest in ever doing it again.

Oh, and the AK47 has a vicious kickback. I fired a round of shells (Is that gunspeak, I dunno) but it was too much for me, fed up, with tears in my eyes I told Dom to take over, a la Private Ryan “go on without me, save yourself”.

I’m no Rambo, so it was time for something more my speed - Trudys bar for cocktails and tex mex. We got chatting to a local girl who said you can’t visit Austin without going to the LBJ Museum, so we did. LBJ, if you don’t know, was Lyndon B Johnson, he was the vice president when Kennedy was shot therefore assumed office when JFK was assassinated. The museum captures an era and is worth a visit.

It has a cool replica of the Oval office although they are keen to point out it is only seven-eighths to scale, you know what, I had noticed the one-eight missing and I was borderline FURIOUS about it, how dare they (heehee). Oh, some cool legacys that LBJs time in office left with us, the law to buckle up your seatbelt and he legislated for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) which brought the world Seasame St!

Who needs a Harley
As I said, if you don’t’have a car, Austin can be difficult to get around. So a compromise is to do a segway tour. This is tons of fun and an excellent way to get around. A segway is a two wheeled, self balancing, electric vehicle. They give you a crash course on how to maneuver before the tour begins and comfort you with the fact that the chap who invented the segway killed himself by segwaying off a cliff. Oookaaay… probably didn’t need to know that. 

A group of us buzzed across the city, wheeling through crosswalks, and weaving our way between pedestrians. When we got to park areas the tour guide told us to speed up and go nuts. It was awesome, if exceedingly nerdy, something tells me whizzing through the streets on what is essentially a motorized zimmerframe is never gonna be as cool as cutting through the town on a motorbike.

Me on Segway, hell hath no fury..
Our first pit stop was the State Capitol building. There are 6 flags that fly on top of the bulding, which gives its name to the popular amusement park (Six Flags). The flags represent all the territories that controlled Texas, can you name them?... No, I didn’t think so ;) They are France, Spain, Mexico, Republic of Texas, The Confederate States of America and finally the United States of America.

Speaking of flags, according to the guide, Texas is allowed to fly its state flag at the same level as the stars and stripes as it wasn’t forcibly annexed by the US (as most other states were) it joined as part of a treaty. Other states have to fly their flags a foot lower.

If you’re curious about the Republic of Texas (unlike the People’s Republic of Cork, it did actually exist, sorry Corkonians), it came about when Texans gained their independence from Mexico and had their own country for 8 years.

I’m a big fan of skylines - it’s one of the reasons I love New York so much. If you search the Austin skyline you will see a building that looks like an owl, it was designed by a fellow who went to a university that had an owl as its mascot. There is also a building that deliberately looks like a USB stick. It seems like Austonians like to have a sense of humour as the City Hall was constructed to look like the state animal, the Amarillo.

Beside city hall is a famous tree called the Treaty tree. Couples would flock to it to pop the question. One guy brought his girlfriend there, dropped on one knee, she said no (awkward), he came back that night and destroyed the tree (and they say hell hath no fury like a ‘woman’ scorned). The proud Texan, Ross Perot (remember him, little squinty fella, ran for office years ago) gave money to save it, and money saves everything as we know, so saplings of the tree were spread around the city so no one tree could be destroyed by heartbroken headcases.

Austonians talk a lot about bats. Something about bats living under a bridge, and at dusk they all fly out at once and the sight alone will change your life forever. So, craning over said bridge with other tourists, we waited, and waited, and waited, and then some bats flew away, and my life remains untouched by this experience. Hey, whatever gets you going.

I will say, the people we encountered in Austin were so so friendly and welcoming. They love chatting, which I think is a great trait. The girl who booked us into the segway tour chatted to us like we were old chums, she even shyly gave us a ‘Top Tips’ sheet she had written up herself based on growing up in the city that she had yet to show it to anyone. It was great, all insider advice and personal stories.

Another chap in a shop said to me “You have a very different accent, I have a very different accent too, I’m from Louisiana.” I’m gonna be honest, he sounded like he was from Texas. I suppose it might be like someone thinking that my Dublin accent sounds the same as a Kerry accent (the horror! I’m kidding).

One hell of a hat stand. Remember to tip.
The city was modern and had a good vibe, but it kinda could have been anywhere in America. People do say Austin is the least Texan city in Texas, so I was doubtful that I would see some old school Stetson wearing, cowboy boot clicking Texans. I wanted to see JR and Bobby Ewing having a hoe-down throwdown while talking about oil. 

All of this awaited me in the Driskill Hotel. It is very Texan, very old school and a great spot for drinks. There was a wedding on in the hotel so carpets of floral arrangements swept up the stairway, littered with photos of the bride. No shots of the groom, just the bride. A Texan princess perhaps?

I can’t talk about Austin without mentioning it’s most famous street – 6th St. That is where you’ll find all the live music and is home to famous music festivals like South by South West. There are lots of bars, lots of night clubs, lots of noise, lots of hen/stag parties. It’s not really my cup of tea.

On the last day it was time to check out the Mexican side of town. Proper cheap and cheerful, quick and easy, pure Mexican brekker in Juan in a Million will set you up for the day. Plus if you’re short a few piƱatas, everyone and their granny was selling them on Ceasar Chavez St.

Another way to escape the heat is to head to the outdoor public pool in Zilker park. You can cycle, kayak or just lounge around the pool, which is actually just a part of the river that they have sectioned off.

I want to come back to Austin for one unusual reason. While standing at the bridge waiting for the bat epiphany, a local dude started chatting away and said the most Texan thing you could do in Austin was to head to Ginnys Longhorn Saloon for the chicken pooping contest. Sorry, chicken what now?! Nobody can say the words ‘chicken pooping contest’ and not expect to pique interest. I was mad keen to see this bonkers carry on. Alas, old man time got in the way and we had to head to the airport. Given food is served alongside the indoor chicken pooping, maybe it’s just as well.

Next up, a visit to the most visually spectacular state in the nation…

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