Our second morning in Austin reminded me very much of a morning at the camp M. and I worked at together. We awoke early, ate yogurt breakfast bars and oranges, donned bathing suits, stopped to get coffee/tea, and went swimming. The major difference between the two experiences was that we were not in charge of a band of 9 year olds and I was not yelling, “Don’t forget your underwear!” to any girl scout within hearing distance. Um, explanation: At Camp River Ranch the amphitheater overlooked the lake and children would leave their belongings all over the outdoor stone steps before swimming. By the end of each week the amphitheater was littered with panties and unclaimed socks. Barton Springs was surprisingly free of abandoned undergarments and wild children.
We stopped at Jo’s coffee shop near the Austin Motel on Congress before going to swim. Jo’s is a really adorable coffee stand that has grown a porch and seating area into the parking lot next door. They serve breakfast, caffeine, juice, newspapers, cigarettes, and basically anything you need to get over your hangover. It’s a nice people-watching spot, although this particular Saturday morning Jo’s was populated by put-together-at-10 am yuppies and few hard partiers. Recently, Serious Eats issued a call for a return to “mug time,” a
peaceful, contemplative coffee break that doesn’t involve working while drinking or taking the coffee to go. I think we got in some nice mug time on Saturday morning, lazily discussing our swim, our travels, and cooking. It was great to adventure with someone who was not only easy-going but also an easy conversationalist, someone who doesn’t make talking a challenge or a requirement. Those people are hard to find.
We drove to Barton Springs community pool after finishing our coffee. Parking in a dusty lot and paying our $3 to the unenthusiastic attendant, I was a little concerned about this well-reviewed swimming hole. Not to worry. As we wandered down the lush hill to the pool, it became evident that we had happened upon a slice of paradise. Hipsters and sorority girls sunned themselves in the park, while a giant swath of clear blue water filled the bottom of the small valley. Serious swimmers in caps and a few in wet suits lapped the three acre pool while kids played in water wings at the shallow end. We took the walkway around the deep end, watching the people playing in the “free” area of the springs, a runoff creek on the other side of the fence where mostly babies and dogs splashed around in the cold blue. The dressing rooms were open air and lush with wildflowers and grass. Walking back down to the water with our noodles and towels, we soaked in the sun’s heat to brace ourselves against the year-round 68 degree water. It did no good. Whether one plunges in or tentatively eases in, the water takes your breath
away, fresh and clear and cold, cold, cold. Sitting chest-deep in the water after finally getting in I felt refreshed and comfortable, but it took a while to get there. We spend an hour and a half the first day, bobbing around on our noodles, chatting idly, people watching, and lazily paddling around our “floats only” area. I wish I could explain how BIG Barton Springs pool is, how grateful I felt, how weird to be in a natural springs looking at downtown office buildings through the trees. It’s the closest place to Lake Langlois or Buffalo National River I’ve been in a long time, and that’s a high compliment.
After our swim we went back to the hotel for showers before heading out for a late lunch. We had every intention of eating at the South Congress Cafe, but ended up at Home Slice Pizza. The smell of pizza and the thought of something quick and simple was appealing after swimming (even lazily) for a few hours. We lucked out! It’s a New York-style pizza joint that sells by the slice. We both ended up with gorgeous slices of margherita, white pie with spinach, and sausage with onion. Yum!
South Congress was pretty crowded with tourists at this point, but we hung around and did some window shopping until the heat became unbearable. Unfortunately, living in Houston’s air-conditioned environs has made me weak to the heat and we eventually had to go back to the hotel so I could collapse into a puddle for bit.
We ventured out later in the evening, taking a stroll around the state capital grounds before meeting a friend of M’s. The capital is really pretty– the trees, architecture, and history are all worth a visit. I was just glad I took M. somewhere off South Congress. We ended our day out on South Lamar at Opa! M.’s friend had recommended Opa for a belly dancing performance and promised to meet us. Unfortunately, the food at Opa was less than appealing. I mean, I may be a harsh judge, but the gyro I had was the worst I have ever eaten with mushy meat and bad textures all around. I ended up munching on an apple and some bread for dinner. M.’s “greek” salad was also uninspired and dry. This is the major regret of my trip. I tend to have a pretty good instinct when I enter a restaurant and just know the food will be sub-par. I should have listened to myself.
But Opa does have it’s charms despite it’s terrible dinner offerings. It has a gorgeous courtyard with lots of tables and benches and swings for two hanging from trees and a big porch and lovely gardening and fountains and… I want to live in that courtyard. Opa also has an awesome wine bar with a lot of variety. It’s more than likely an after-work and after-dinner hangout. The belly dancers were also fun and interesting, wandering among the tables and gyrating in the most lovely, talented way when it got dark and they lit the torches. One dancer used some fire in her routine, balancing a bowl of flame on her head and holding small torches in her hands. We were happy to visit with friends and enjoy the warm evening and our last night in Austin.
Before leaving we decided to visit Barton Springs one last time. It was still cold and clear and meditative and delightful. I’m pretty sure a piece of my heart resides there now. I may go to visit but I doubt I’ll ever retrieve it. M. and I regaled each other with stories from camp, something we had yet to do during our visit. From crying children to hysterical counselors to impromptu spoken word poetry to gossip, we relived our fun summer while bobbing around the pool. What a way to end a trip! The only other thing we did before leaving was stop for breakfast migas at The Screaming Goat, a cheap, fast, air conditioned restaurant where everyone was intently drinking coffee and watching soccer. I made sure to buy some of their unusual salsa for J. as a consolation for having to work all weekend. Austin, as usual, was full of hidden treasures, quiet moments, fun, laziness, and great food. I can’t wait to visit again soon.