Thanks to western movies, Texas is world famous for cowboys and wide-open spaces. But its two biggest tourist attractions can be found in the heart of a bustling city - San Antonio. 

One is the Alamo, a tiny mission where in 1836 almost 200 defenders died fighting for Texas's independence from Mexico. And about a block away is the Paseo del Rio, or River Walk. 

This time of year, when central Texas is invitingly warm, visitors by the thousands walk down steep stone steps into a sort of Venice of the American West.  Barges filled with tourists glide around hairpin bends, past cobblestone walkways and beneath arched stone bridges.  Under colorful umbrellas, visitors chat over drinks, including one made from the fermented juice of the cactus pear, and enjoy romantic serenades from strolling mariachi bands.  Close your eyes, and you'd swear you were in a little plaza in Mexico.
The barges get special decorations during Fiesta each spring and for Halloween in October and Christmastime at the end of the year.  For the celebration of the Irish Saint Patrick's Day in February, the city dyes the river green. 

Even the one week each January that the river is drained so that crews can pick up debris and repair the stone channel turns into a party. It's called the Mud Festival, which raises thousands of dollars for charity. 

The inspiration for the River Walk was a tragic flood.  In 1921, the normally placid San Antonio River raged out of its banks, right downtown.  More than 50 people died.  Rather than just dam the river, Robert Hugman, a young architect, proposed creating Old World charm and character of the sort he saw in New Orleans' French Quarter. 

And that's exactly what was created.
For a time in the 1950s and '60s, downtown San Antonio was a virtual slum, and the River Walk was a dangerous and nearly deserted place.  But the city cleaned it up, new hotels rose, downtown came to life, and San Antonio now has another world-class attraction to go with its Alamo. 

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.