I have just won third prize in a Travel Writing competition run by the Society of Women Writers & Journalists in the UK and I thought I’d put the piece up this week as my blog.
The article is about New Orleans’ recovery after Huricane Katerina had nearly destroyed it. For some, it did totally destroy their homes and their way of life, but some survived to re-build the city and forge a new existence for themselves and their families. I’ve loved jazz and the city it hails from all my life: I love the easy-going rhythm of life and the people’s insouciance to the travails and troubles that beset them but I take my hat off now to their stoicism and their love of life which has restored New Orleans to something of its former glory.
Third Prize: Title as above
The saxophonist in the too small trilby sits outside a café on Decatur, playing a soft, seductive blues. Just down the street, a trio runs through its repertoire while onlookers stand around in the sunshine and clap each solo. Behind us, on the muddy Mississippi the paddle boats make their way downstream, the sounds of ‘Oh, Didn’t he ramble’ drifting across from the onboard jazz band. Music is everywhere and everywhere it is good.
For this is New Orleans, cradled between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, a dizzying jumble of black and white where European cultures blend with Caribbean influences and where the world’s finest jazz musicians can be found busking on street corners or playing for tips in the magnolia hung Jackson Square.
The history of the city is embedded in the fading, peeling façades of the houses in the French Quarter their filigreed balconies overhung with lush greenery and fragrant jasmine.
Cemeteries full of crumbling marble tombs, voodoo shops and houses selling magic potions called gris-gris should lend a feeling of melancholia but they don’t. This is a place where voodoo is a thriving religion an where a funeral brings people on to the streets to follow the coffin while as many jazz bands as can be mustered tag along on floats to add to the spirit of the day.
The French Quarter was the site of the original settlement and the heart of the city for 300 years and I start my stroll in Jackson Square, once the Plaza de Armes under Spanish rule in the 1700’s but now a green oasis in front of St. Louis cathedral, the oldest continuously active Catholic Church in the USA. The Square is bustling with jugglers, dancers, tarot card readers, and voodoo priestesses, the whole sound-tracked by groups of itinerant jazz musicians.
Zydecko Musicians in Street
Following the map in my self-guided walking tour (available free from the Tourist Office) I check off The Cabilde, from which Spain, France, the Confederate states and the USA have each at one time ruled New Orleans, before continuing through some of the city’s most attractive streets. The leaflet illuminates important buildings from convents and haunted houses to the homes of writers Tennessee Williams and Frances Parkinson Keyes. I hop on the Riverfront streetcar and for $1.50 I ride the 2-mile route along the Mississippi to the famous French Market and the stalls of the Flea Market.
There are plenty of opportunities to stop for a snack or a meal and after a while I head for Café du Monde for coffee and beignets (doughnuts to die for, smothered in icing sugar). New Orleans is gastronomic heaven whether you chose the world’s most famous Cajun restaurant, K-Paul’s at 416 Chartres Street or the more budget range La Madeleine for a croissant and chicory flavoured coffee but the two dishes you must try are Gumbo, the ultimate Creole dish, made with local Gulf shrimps, crabs and crawfish, and the more basic Red Beans and Rice, once comfort food for the poor but now elevated to a specialty. Or chill out with a po’boy sandwich – crusty French bread filled with fried oysters, shrimps or soft shell crabs, roast beef, gravy and cheese. We’re talking BIG sandwiches here. Naw’lins don’t do small!
For many, the best time in New Orleans is after dark when the night beat of Bourbon Street starts up, when Preservation Hall hosts the oldest jazz musicians who play 30-minute sets, and the restaurants and bars fill up with customers. It may require a pre-emptive cocktail or two to cope with the astounding decibels that reverberate in the seven blocks of Bourbon and the even more ear-splitting noise from the dark bars that line the narrow street, so head for the atmospheric Napoleon House at 500 Chartres or Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon for a Hurricane, or a Sazarac, Huey Long’s favourite tipple, a potent mix of whiskies, bitters, lemon juice and aniseed liqueur. Rumour has it that if you ask for a third the barman asks you to sign a waiver.
Bourbon Street is fun but for the authentic jazz experience, head away from the yelps and yells of the crowds that congregate here, towards places like Vaughan’s on Dauphine Street, Tipitinas at Napolean Aveue, the House of Blues on Decatur Street or Snug Harbour on Frenchman Street. If you are heading out of the French Quarter make sure you have the ‘phone number of a taxi company with you as you will find it impossible to pick up a taxi anywhere and, not to put too fine a point on it, you wouldn’t want to be wandering around New Orleans alone after dark.
If it’s Cajun music you’re after – washboards, corrugated tin, fiddles and accordions – or its faster variant, Zydeco, you can find this at Mulate’s on Julia Street where you can work off the fried catfish and dirty rice by two-stepping to the fast rhythms. Instructors are on hand to give neophytes a whirl around the floor.
It’s easy after only a few hours in The Big Easy to put life on hold and forget Museums and churches. There are shops to investigate, a horse and carriage ride around town to contemplae and a ride on the historic landmark that is the olive-green St. Charles’ Streetcar at Canal Street. For $1.25 you can ride for 13 miles from the Riverfront to the Lake and on to the Garden District, to view the mansions built by the rich merchants in the last century, the lush gardens surrounding them dotted with trees hung with gossamer-like grey streamers of Spanish moss.
Best of all is to take a trip on the bayous to observe Cajun life, so book up for a day’s tour through the swamps, either by kayak or cruise boat, and meet the trappers and fishermen, boat builders and farmers. In the tranquility of these Cypress Swamps where turtles and egrets share floating logs in the waters, the noise of the city seems a long way away. You can be lulled into a sense of non-danger but trail your hands in the water at your peril for the alligators move swiftly to snatch at anything that moves in these swamps. And if the alligators miss you, the nutrias, a sort of giant water rat on steroids, might get you.
From the bayous to the grand houses of the plantation owners is like moving from one life to another, from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” to “Gone with the Wind”. Driving along the Mississippi River gazing at the antebellum dwellings will have you longing to sample a mint julep on one of the verandahs. If time is short, the best two houses to visit both in the lives lived by the inhabitants and in the architecture, are Laura Plantation and Oak Valley Plantation. The guides bring the houses to life with their tales of black slaves who laboured in the hot sun to cut the cane that made the owners rich and the claustrophobic life lived by the women of the house. And, at Oak Valley Plantation, you can have that Mint Julep sitting on the verandah of the house and for a few moments, you can be a character in a Tennessee Williams play – if you can forget that you’re drinking a mint julep from a plastic cup.
The New Orleans motto is “Laissez les bon temps rouler” (Let the Good Times Roll) a maxim that took a knock after the Katerina floods, but along with the rest of Louisiana, the inhabitants of the city are doing their best to get the good times rolling again – and they are succeeding.
Despite the tragedy of Katerina, New Orleans is once more up and running and you can again enjoy a cocktail-to- go on Bourbon or Basin Streets -a lurid coloured concoction in a highball glass that you get to drink on the street.
As the locals would say – “Only in Nola”.