52 Road Trips

Road Trips Back in Time

History buffs, these are for you.

By John Lomax April 30, 2014 Published in the May 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The Spoetzl Brewery, original home to Shiner Beer. Courtesy Spoetzl Brewery

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the town of Praha in the Czech-Texas Heartland was bubbling with life. From atop its gently sloped hill, grand old St. Mary’s Assumption of the Blessed Virgin looked proudly down on its sprawling, ramshackle-yet-comfortable parish hall, where a huge, extended Czech family sat at long picnic tables, enjoying a reunion over beer and foil trays of sausage and sauerkraut, barbecue and fried chicken. 

Outside the hall, young and old contested vociferous games of ring toss and caught up to the strains of saxophone-and-accordion polka music blasting from the speakers of a pickup truck, while children scrambled up the forked trunks of a wizened old double oak. It’s hard to imagine Texas looking more like a Bruegel painting, the scene depicting a proud heritage whose roots extend deep into European history. Lucky for us, nobody seemed to mind a couple of interlopers.

St. Mary’s is one of more than 20 Czech- and German-built Painted Churches scattered over a vast area, from just beyond the farthest reaches of Houston’s western suburbia to Fredericksburg. Most are clustered around the tri-town area of Schulenburg, Praha, and Shiner, halfway between Houston and San Antonio. The churches’ somewhat understated exteriors belie exuberant, joyful, Easter pastel–shaded interiors: Praha’s St. Mary’s is graced by a crystal chandelier beneath its florid robin’s egg-blue wooden ceiling, while Shiner’s Saints Cyril and Methodius is noteworthy for its breathtaking stained-glass. 

As in Louisiana’s Cajun Country, there’s always a festival in Czech Texas. Schulenburg’s annual downtown wine shindig happened to coincide with our trip, and we snacked on locally made jalapeño sausage and regional wines in the town’s historical museum, also quaffing vino at Sengelmann Hall downtown, the town’s gloriously restored 19th-century two-story dancehall/restaurant.

Nearby Shiner—home to Spoetzl Brewery, founded in 1909—makes a good resting spot, especially its Old Kasper House Bed & Breakfast, a cluster of old houses which the owners culled from the area, moving them to a very large lot on the edge of downtown. All are decorated elaborately, with antique furnishings, clawfoot tubs, canopy beds and the like. You can while away a pleasant morning here with a good book, just taking in the birdsong and the church bells on your cottage porch.

Shiner is, of course, all about suds: you can sample the local concoction while you shop at downtown’s Antiques, Art and Beer boutique, pick up Shiner swag at the Spoetzl gift shop, or tipple at Howard’s, a laid-back biergarten on the outskirts of town.

Also Consider

The scene of the brutal massacre of Colonel James W. Fannin’s Texas revolutionaries in 1836, Goliad, just outside of Victoria, is Texas’s third-oldest municipality and the site of the Spanish Colonial Presidio La Bahia and Mission Espiritu Santo, both built in 1749, as well as an on-site museum that houses artifacts from the Texas Revolution and Spanish colonial days. For a true Texas-history bucket-list stay, book the officers’ quarters inside the presidio, where you can share a two-bedroom suite with the phantoms of Jim Fannin and his doomed men.… While the River Road connecting New Orleans and Baton Rouge was once lined with grand plantations, most are now gone. One exception is Laura Plantation in Vacherie, La., perhaps the finest grand Creole home still standing in rural Louisiana. Though the house itself is beautiful, and brightly painted in the Franco–Spanish–African–Native-American style, it’s the stories that stick with you. Bilingual tour guides take you back to early-19th-century Louisiana, a Catholic, French-speaking world that had more in common with Martinique and Guadeloupe than Alabama or Georgia. Guides also tell warts-and-all tales of the ruling Duparc-Locoul family tree, with its swashbuckling French naval heroes, doomed romances, foiled attempts at selling interracial children down the river, and much more.… Saint Martinville, La. is a gem of a town in a sumptuous setting where you’ll still hear Cajun French spoken in the streets. Lined by Spanish moss–draped oaks, Bayou Teche wends its lazy way through town, patrolled by fishermen and herons, egrets and kingfishers. The 1827 Old Castillo bed-and-breakfast offers balcony views of Bayou Teche, the equally venerable Bienvenue House offers a Cajun breakfast menu and tasteful decor, and the ornate Saint Martin de Tours church is a must-see.... Like Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, Castroville, just outside San Antonio, is one of Texas’s strongest living links to the Old World. Perched on high ground above the jade-green Medina River, the town was founded by immigrants from Alsace in 1844, the last full year of Texas’s independence. Alsatians share a blend of German, Swiss, and French customs, food, and language, and much of their heritage lives in Castroville’s architecture and annual celebrations, such as St. Louis Day, the town’s biggest annual party. Today, all of Castroville is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the city abounds with slope-roofed, timbered buildings and ivy-covered stone bungalows, many converted to guest houses and bed-and-breakfasts. 

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