To drive from Memphis to New Orleans we crossed the whole state of Mississippi along a very monotonous Interstate 55. The road is pretty much bounded on both sides by trees making an endless corridor of concrete, which stretched on and on before us. Childhood memories of the adventures of Huckleberry Finn along the banks of the Mississippi have now been replaced by 400 miles of concrete and a Big Mac in Jackson, the only city of note along our route. By now, we had been in five US states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas (we crossed the state line while on a boat trip on the Mississippi from Memphis), Mississippi and soon we were to cross into Louisiana on our long approach to New Orleans.
At least an hour out from the city the dense trees give way to a land of marshes and waterways with timber waterside homes dotted about. The road begins to rise above this watery world to become what appears to be an endless bridge stretching for miles, which reminded us of the Florida Keys. Interstate 55 gave way to the Interstate 10 on the final approach to the city and soon we arrived on Canal Street and our lodgings for the next few days.
Canal Street is a main artery coming from the heart of the city and a streetcar runs along this route day and night conveying locals and visitors alike to and from Downtown New Orleans.
This was our mode of travel each day. It’s very cheap to ride the streetcar: £1.25 each one way or £3.00 for a whole day and the ticket doesn’t expire until 4am the following morning. It’s very much like trams you see in European cities and runs on rails. When the car reaches the end of the line the driver walks through the car and pushes the backs of each bench seat, which conveniently flip to face the other way for the return trip.
The first place we headed for was the French Quarter as we had it on good authority that this was the place to go in the heart of New Orleans. The first thing you notice about the French Quarter is that all the street names are in French. But once you cross Canal Street into a different section of the city the street names revert to American names. The architecture of New Orleans is like something out of a bygone age with Creole and American townhouses, double-gallery houses and more. There is something called a Shotgun House (in other areas of the city) which is very narrow but very long, stretching back from the street. The name comes from the fact that if you fire a shotgun through the front door you can kill a chicken in the back garden, through the back door. A Double Shotgun house is a semi-detached. These were originally for the ‘Free Men of Colour’ in the city before the availability of running water and electricity. Kitchens were later added to the back of the houses. Now, you have to walk from the front room, through two or even three bedrooms and a bathroom to get to the kitchen. It was troubling to hear that when the slaves became free and were given land on which to build these houses, some of them came to have their own slaves. I know the times were different then but maybe this says something about human nature.
The French Quarter is the most interesting and enjoyable area to visit in our opinion. Here are a few photos of the streets in this area.
This photo is of a parade taking place for a wedding. It’s a real carnival atmosphere with dancing, cheering people and Jazz.
We walked and walked for hours in the French Quarter and then wanted to walk some more such is the beauty and mystique of the place. For us, there were three main streets of interest: Frenchman Street, Royal Street and Bourbon Street. Frenchman Street is where the ‘serious’ music is to be found and we enjoyed some great Jazz in a restaurant called the Maison. The food was wonderful and then at 10 o’clock in the evening they clear away the tables for dancing. Dancing, however, was mostly impossible due to the number of people in the restaurant. The street is a string of bars and restaurants, each with its own musical flavour. Royal Street is full of upmarket shops, boutiques, restaurants, hotels, antique shops and art galleries. We spent hours wandering in and out of these and stopping only for cold drinks in the multitude of bars available to us. Some of the original art was being sold for up to four or five thousand dollars. Bourbon Street is where to find the ‘less serious’ music in the city and is one long party with bars and clubs open all night. It’s a pretty seedy place to be with alcohol fuelled crowds and women, almost naked, standing outside of the ‘Gentlemen’s ‘ Clubs, trying to entice you in. Strings of beads and pearls are hurled from balconies by men and caught by women in the street below who are encouraged to bare all for the better beads! Everywhere you go in the city you see beads hanging from trees, tied around lamp posts and in other unexpected places and many people seem to wear them all the time around town, not because they’ve displayed their assets to a bunch of partying blokes but because they’ve simply been handed them in the street or bought them for loose change from a street seller. Bourbon Street makes Beale Street in Memphis look positively tame in comparison.
People-watching is a major pastime in New Orleans. There are all sorts of interesting people here. Here is a photo of one of the street musicians snoozing in a doorway:
This young woman is a poet, who sits at the side of the road with an old fashioned typewriter and a notebook (and the obligatory bucket in which to collect money) and will write you a bespoke poem right there and then – for a fee:
New Orleans is so laid back it’s almost horizontal! Here’s a local policeman in charge of crowd control!! His relaxed approach to policing should be extended world wide if you ask me.
There are Voodoo shops all over the French Quarter selling all sorts of gruesome artefacts, jewellery and books on mysticism, witch craft, spells and potions etc. The streets are littered with fortune tellers sat about behind tables containing Tarot Cards and Crystals to entice the credulous and gullible and it’s amazing just how many credulous and gullible people there are! Here is one fortune teller’s table – especially for the kids!
There are artists along the sidewalks and every street is indeed a picture:
And Donkeys pulling carts full of tourists:
With all this excitement and walking about it’s always good to visit one of the many restaurants and sample some local cuisine. Here’s a photo of Crawfish Beignets (top) and Gumbo (bottom):
A Beignet tastes very much like a donut, deep fried, has the same consistency and is usually square shaped. The ones in the photo, however, are shaped into balls. They are also sprinkled with a floury, sweet covering which gets all over the place. Locals say you can neither breathe in nor breathe out while eating a Beignet! So, these are basically donuts right? So, some bright spark, probably under the influence of something illegal, must have said “I know man, let’s put fish in it!” So what I ended up with was Crawfish Beignets – the fish was right in the very middle. But I have to say they were delicious. The Gumbo is basically a broth, very spicy and this one had sausage and chicken in it with a spoonful of white rice placed on top. On another occasion we had another local speciality – Chargrilled Oysters.
They were fabulous; you can tell by Rachel’s face!
They are cooked in the shell with a covering of Cheese and Garlic and are quite salty. The juices are moped up with bread. The effect they had on Rachel was quite shocking. Next morning I woke up to this:
It might have been the Oysters or just a bad hair day. I don’t know about you but I think maybe a little more mascara would probably do the trick? After 28 years of marriage these little off days go largely unnoticed!
Now, moving away from the French Quarter but continuing our gruesome theme, I want to tell you about the Cities of the Dead. These are the amazing and very interesting cemeteries located across the city.
Because New Orleans is a very boggy place and flooding occurs easily, it was not unusual to find the likes of old Uncle Bob, who had died ten years ago, reappearing again after his grave became flooded. This, as you can imagine, would come as quite a shock to the local population and so something had to be done. The solution was to allow families to buy a specially constructed tomb to overcome the reappearing dead body problem. When a family member dies the body is placed on a shelf in the tomb. When the next family member dies the tomb is reopened and the remains of the previous body are moved to the bottom of the tomb. The opening of the tomb cannot happen for at least a year and a day. The remains of the bodies eventually fall into a hole under the tomb and remain there indefinitely. The tombs are built well and are completely sealed. The reason for the year and a day is one year for the body to decompose (this happens quickly due to the New Orleans climate) and a day out of respect for the dead. Many of these tombs have generations of families in them and this is the way many people are buried today. What, you may be asking, happens if someone else dies before the previous body has been in the tomb for a year and a day. Well, they’ve thought of that too: the ‘new’ body is placed in a holding facility until the tomb can be opened. This is all very depressing isn’t it? Well, it gets worse. What about the poor people who cannot afford such expensive tombs (they can cost $50,000 per family)? They get put in one of these:
These work on the same principle but when someone dies the front panel is removed from one of the tombs and the remains of the previous dead person are unceremoniously shoved to the very back of the shelf where they fall down a shaft and come to rest in a pit underneath along with the remains of the people who have gone before. Thankfully, you can also opt for cremation, which sounds like a party in comparison!
Before trying to lighten the mood a little I want to mention the on-going aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80% of the city of New Orleans nine or ten years ago. We went on a tour that took us through the 9th Ward – the area worst affected by Katrina. Even now houses are still rotting away and collapsing. People that abandoned their homes simply never returned in some cases. This photo shows what the rescuers wrote on the front of this house when they came to search for survivors after the disaster:
The letters in the middle identify the rescue team. “NE” means that the house was “Not Entered” and the zero at the bottom means that no bodies were found. The date at the top is the date of the search. The people who lived here were the poorest and it’s amazing how the poorest always seem to be hit the hardest when disaster comes. Most of New Orleans is a few feet below sea level but the French Quarter, being one of the few areas above sea level, was untouched by Katrina.
Now, we really need to lighten the mood to end this blog so here is this journey’s caption competition. Suggest a caption for this photo and you may win an all-inclusive tomb for you and your family in the wonderful and amazing city of New Orleans:
Next, the beach…