New Orleans - 2011
New Orleans, Louisiana is so different from the normal American metropolis that one glimpse of the city puts it firmly on everyone's travel list. Elsa and I finally made it in September 2011, courtesy of our friends Peter and Norma in Atlanta.
The city's unique location is immediately apparent when you approach the city by air - there is water everywhere. The highways march across the landscape on stilts; what dry land there is are islands protected by earthworks and drainage ditches, and with much of the city below sea level the water defences are prodigious. The commercial centre has the usual high-rise buildings, while most surrounding areas comprise one and two story houses mostly built in the traditional clapboard style. Although it is six years since New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, evidence of the havoc it wrought still remains. Crosses painted on ruined properties showing the numbers of those who survived or died inside are a poignant reminder of the human tragedy that resulted from the breached levees. Despite the considerable efforts made to resurrect the damaged areas, the city has a general aura of disrepair and neglect, which belies its undoubted charm as an historic centre of French culture and traditional jazz. Yet the vibrant colours of the people and their houses, the charm of the architecture with its wrought-iron balconies and colonnades, the ubiquitous snatches of jazz music and tempting wafts of Cajun and Creole cuisine all combine to make it an irresistible tourist location.
We stayed at a delightful bed-and-breakfast close to the French quarter, reputedly a 'gentlemen's club' built in the late eighteen hundreds but clearly a former brothel. Southern hospitality was much in evidence, but less formal than we had experienced in Atlanta. Although it was an old house it had been beautifully restored, with the modern conveniences so beloved of Americans included in the restoration. The bathrooms all had antique fittings which worked, the hot water was hot, and the so essential air conditioning gave us respite from the fierce heat and humidity outside.
Our first excursion was a trolley ride into town to experience the French quarter. The trolley system is a collection of traditional tramcars running on fixed tramlines in the centre the street. They provide clean and economic travel along the city's main arteries, offering a quick and cool ride through the traffic for $1.25 per journey, or just 40 cents for seniors, over any distance. We used them all the time.
The French quarter is a tightknit grid of houses, shops, hotels and businesses in the heart of town with a distinctive architectural style and culture reflecting its seventeenth century French origins. The streets are mostly narrow with balconies overhanging the pavements supported by wrought-iron colonnades. The shops are small and cluttered but inviting, with intriguing themes like antiques, couture, craft or voodoo. The centre is Jackson Square, the location of the Roman Catholic Saint Louis Cathedral and a huge statue of General 'Stonewall' Jackson, the Confederate general who became the icon of Southern heroism and commitment. The Square is also a haven for artists, with a massive display of their work all around the railings which enclose the central park. We watched as tourists had their portraits sketched, had their fortunes revealed, took a horse and buggy ride, listened to the live jazz music, or simply soaked up the vibrant atmosphere of the colourful weekend crowd.
A short walk from Jackson Square is the harbour district on the Mississippi River, home for the tourist steamboat and dock for visiting cruise liners. We took the ferry across the river for a wonderful view of the harbour bridge and the city skyline, just as the sun dipped and the lights began to come on. I was surprised by the huge barges plying up and down the river, and the fact that the ferry was entirely free for pedestrians!
Cuisine is another defining feature of New Orleans, unsurprising given its French tradition. We started at the simple end of the food scale with a po' boy, a traditional sandwich of meat or seafood, gaining its name from the poor boys who once survived on them. Mine was a 'small' one, just six inches long but so full of drawn pork and coleslaw that I struggled to finish it. It was delicious. Later we enjoyed some fine restaurant meals which included many local dishes new to us, like creole shrimp, gumbo and jambalaya. The underlying theme is usually hot and spicy, so you need lots of the local beer to keep your tongue cool! The emphasis is always on the food, so even though the eatery may be a little short on style and comfort the meal is usually good.
After one particularly good dinner at a restaurant owned by a Geordie, we took a taxi to the jazz area of the French quarter in search of some music. We wound up at 'Snug Harbor', a cosy club offering a hard seat and a cold beer, but with some great jazz. The musicians were mostly locals, drawn to the city by its worldwide musical reputation, but their virtuosity and command of their instruments was wonderful. Norma bought a couple of CDs and had them autographed by the artist, which gave us all a brief opportunity to meet some of the performers. The hard seats eventually drove us home, but the experience will live with us forever.
The city tour proved to be a great way to gain an overall view of the city's sights and sounds; two of them will no doubt stay with me for some time. Because most of the land is below sea level and the water table is barely four feet down, burying the dead is not an option, or 'grandpa will soon be backstroking down Main Street', as our guide so delightfully put it. So when you pass on you can either be cremated or entombed. The cemeteries, therefore, are full of mausoleums, stone structures of varying sizes in which members of the same family are destined to spend eternity. Each new occupant is placed at the top, and the fierce heat of the sun will slowly cremate them to dust, making room for the next one in about twelve months. Leaving no eventuality unconsidered, there is a communal waiting area in the cemetery for those who seek their place too early. Macabre, but practical in the city of water.
My second abiding memory is of the Brad Pitt homes. The film star has close links with the city, so after Hurricane Katrina he was eager to help those who had lost their houses to make a new start. If you had owned a house in the stricken district and lost it to the floods then the city gave you a grant to replace it. Brad Pitt believed that these new homes should be green, so he offered to fund the extra cost with an interest free loan provided the owners did some of the additional work themselves. The result is an impressive array of modern houses, built on stilts with all the necessary flood precautions, powered by roof-mounted solar panels and proper insulation to make them energy efficient. The guy has my admiration for finding a way to help the victims of a natural disaster and promote green issues at the same time. I shall watch his films with renewed interest and respect in the future.
New Orleans is in the middle of swamp country teeming with wildlife, so I was keen to see some of it. But the wildlife includes alligators, which neither Elsa nor Norma had any intention of venturing near! So it was just Peter and I who took the swamp tour. This involved a bus ride out of town across the lake on the newly built replacement causeway, and then boarding a fast boat for a cruise in the swamp. Although much of the wildlife seemed well used to visitors, it was still fascinating to see such an array of flora and fauna new to me - birds, fish, turtles and, best of all, alligators. Our experienced guide knew all their hideouts, and each stop invariably gave us an opportunity to see them up close. 'Big Al', how else would you name a fourteen foot alligator, treated us to a flamboyant display of snapping and leaping with a little encouragement from our guide. Although they appeared more like pets than dangerous descendants of the dinosaurs, there is nothing quite so intimidating as seeing them at such close quarters. The ecology of the swamplands is very carefully monitored, so hopefully these impressive monsters will be around to scare visitors for many years to come.
While we were enjoying the swamp tour the ladies took a journey back into the past to visit two very different plantation houses. The first was called the 'Laura Plantation', named after the last female descendent of the family who founded it. It was built in Creole 'cottage' style and was essentially the business headquarters, with the men's rooms on the left and the women's on the right of the building. The property had been built in such a position as to allow the cooling breezes from the Mississippi to channel into the house via an avenue of trees and the 'breezeures', twin doors in the centre of the front fašade of the building, which were kept open and a chair placed in the doorway to prevent anyone entering. The slave quarters were behind the house and consisted of two roomed huts where the families slept and cooked. The second plantation house was very different, built more in the style of Tara, in Gone with the Wind. The most interesting aspect of this property was the alleyway of some thirty live oaks (evergreen) which led down to the house and again channeled the breeze into the house, and gave the property its name, 'Oak Alley Plantation.'
After three eventful days it was time for us to fly back to Atlanta, and where better to leave than New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport, renamed in 2001 after the city's most famous son and world renowned jazz musician. The main runway is just four and a half feet above sea level, second only in altitude to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, so you may be forgiven for thinking you are departing on a float plane! So we can now include N'awlins on our list of travels, another tick in our log book of life.
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