Broken shutters dangled askew aside second-floor French windows, as wrought-iron railings, entwined with shreds of tattered ribbons and plastic beads, seemed to sag from the weight of those who had leaned against them for a better view of the street below.
Thick vines consumed the once majestic but sadly neglected buildings that had the misfortune to stand in their path. Had I taken a wrong turn somewhere here in the French Quarter? Was this southern city really the sophisticated gem that Napoleon had once considered moving to during his exile?
During my first visit to New Orleans I had been weighed down with mistaken preconceptions and a particularly whiny companion who couldn’t tolerate the humidity.
Having grown up practically next door to its California facsimile—Disneyland’s French Quarter— I had simply assumed that pristine streets, freshly painted facades and strolling barbershop quartets amongst vendor flower carts were a faithful representation of Art Imitating Life.
Yet life is not as tidy and well-rehearsed as an amusement park. Here in “The Big Easy”, in fact, it’s a deliciously sinful taste that takes more than just one encounter to adequately savor.
By the time I returned to New Orleans for my second visit—accompanied by a husband who shares my thirst for adventure—I was better prepared to see the city for what it really is: a captivating culture where voodoo isn’t the only enchantment that operates 24/7.
But the images here in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans don’t match the air-brushed photos in the slick tourism brochure I’m carrying. The buildings that line the French Quarter seem to carry the weight of years (many date back to the 1700’s) as well as the remnants of numerous parties.
Perhaps the most famous region of New Orleans, the French Quarter consists of 120 blocks nestled along a bend of the Mississippi River. Most of the architecture is Spanish, though, and not French, reflecting the potpourri of cultures that has always existed in this town.
Louisiana, settled in the early 18th-century, was named in honor of King Louis XIV, and New Orleans became the capital of French Louisiana in 1721.
Yet forty years later, France divided Louisiana between England and Spain, with New Orleans becoming the capital of Spanish Louisiana. But that was not the end of it – the city was returned to France in 1800, and then was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
The French-based Cajun culture of today’s New Orleans is a remnant of the former French colony of Acadia (where Nova Scotia is today). Many Acadians immigrated to Louisiana, where they were called “Cajuns” by English speakers who couldn’t pronounce “Acadians”.
The Acadians were later joined by Creoles (of European, West Indian and African descent). This colorful melting pot of nationalities can still be seen in the area’s unique cuisine, as well as the “N’Awlins” accent: sorta Southern, sorta French, sorta everything else.
The landscape is a potpourri as well — swampland in the southeast, forests in the northwest and rolling hills through the middle. It also has the tallest U.S. capitol building (Baton Rouge), was the first to enlist African American officers in the Army during the Civil War and is the only state that operates drive-through daiquiri shops.
Cool drinks, hot jazz and a sticky, skin-soaking steaminess that has nothing to do with Gulf Coast weather leave the traveler feeling as if she or she has just entered some kind of smoldering den of iniquity where moral compasses are checked at the door like a coat or hat. Do the wearers remember to come back and claim them when they leave? Or, for that matter, do they leave at all, swept up in the seduction of what early residents nicknamed, ‘The Paris of the Americas?’
Scantily clad femme fatales with bedroom eyes, honey-coated accents and agendas as conspicuous as their tattoos indolently drape themselves against doorframes in wait for random customers. “Y’all havin’ a good time, hon?” they query, the implication being that they can personally provide a better one for the right price. At what point was the die cast to sell their bodies instead of buying a ticket to somewhere—anywhere—else?
The array of shops lining Bourbon Street are an eclectic mix of the tawdry and the upscale, as if their facades were shuffled like a deck of cards and dealt in no particular fashion. One moment, I was admiring a display case of antique jewelry reminiscent of Napoleon and Josephine; right next door, a toothless gypsy with bad breath and substantial cleavage spilling out of her “Get Scrod” tank top was hawking nose-stinging incense and fluorescent dildoes. ‘Y’all want to hold one?” she invited me, removing a banana-sized selection in an alarming shade of hot orange and waggling it in front of my face. Her witchy cackle floated out the door as I beat an embarrassed retreat.
I liken my first—and still remaining—impression of the city’s historic sector to a once-lovely Southern belle who is reluctant to go gently into her twilight years, clinging fiercely to the multiple pots of rouge scattered atop her dressing table and the fussy femininity of a wardrobe full of skirts of pink crinoline that swish in tempo to the wearer’s step. Though the scent of mint juleps, the glimpse of dainty white gloves and the era of gentle manners have all long since given way to a faster pace dictated by technology and politics, one senses that she keeps a steadfast vigil behind her slanted shutters nonetheless, waiting for the city’s resurrection…and her own.
Louisiana’s consistent ranking as one of America’s poorest states is compounded by some of the highest rates in health and auto insurance. Neither condition, however, has stopped the locals from showing tourists how New Orleans earned its reputation as one of the best partying towns—as well as the worst place to stick to a diet—in the entire country. New York’s Times Square has nothing on Bourbon Street when it comes to packing a crowd and making a lot of noise. The ordinance allowing open drinks—including $1 hurricanes, which gregarious, entrepreneurial types will happily blend for you atop their wobbling ironing boards set up on street corners—is a prime contributor to the decibel level. So is the proliferation of music, each band striving to lure listeners to linger long enough to greet another dawn.
People don’t go to hotels on Bourbon Street to sleep, we quickly figured out. They go there to be within walking distance of all the action. Top it all off with the carnival milieu of barkers enticing pedestrians to get their fill of naked women, men, and those in—uh—transition. Definitely not Disney.
A litter of pastel handbills on the sidewalk touted romantic dinner cruises on the mighty Mississippi or day-trips to see real live gators in their natural habitat. We had to wonder if amidst those swampy, narrow straits bordered by swaying curtains of Spanish moss there tempts the fate of being kidnapped by backwoods locals who resent the unbidden encroachment of modern, more complicated times. The intrepid side of us wistfully looks back now and wishes we had thrown caution to the wind. The conservative side reminds us, of course, that we’re really not that daring where gators and poisonous snakes might be involved.
We opted to see the river instead from the deck of a large, commercially operated boat that took VISA and MasterCard.
“Was this the same Mississippi River that Mark Twain so eloquently described?” I wondered. The view of rusted car parts, abandoned scows, rotting fish and industrial pollution ran stark counter to my remembrance of Twain’s colorful yarns of riverboat adventure. The parallel to Disneyland started to nudge its way back into my head, making me long for a peppy soundtrack to make the journey go a little faster or, at the very least, distract me from the environmental carnage. We exchanged glances, wondering if maybe we should have experienced this wide stretch of Americana by night. On the other hand, how many times in our lives would we get to watch the operation of an actual lock or scan the shore for glimpses of an anomaly that is unique to Louisiana’s sea-level communities: above-ground cemeteries?
We had saved the weekend to soak up some history lessons. The saucy, wicked, tabloid side of Louisiana’s past was colorfully echoed throughout the halls of antebellum mansions and related to us through modern, ribald anecdotes told by our buggy driver as we made our way around Jackson Square. He was quick to mention the list of native sons and daughters the state is proud to call its own: Louis Armstrong, Truman Capote, Dorothy Lamour, Lillian Hellman and Fats Domino.
Lulled into a state of contentment by the romantic clip-clop of the mule’s hooves, it was easy for both of us to forget what day—or, for that matter, even what century—it was.
Only the driver’s sobering warning of which streets should be avoided by pedestrians after sundown brought us back to the reality of the Crescent City’s ongoing racial tensions, drug traffic and youth violence.
“Y’all come back now, hear?” he said as he returned us to our hotel.
As if we could refuse, we thought. The city had already cast a real-life spell more magical than the House of the Mouse. How could I have missed it the first time?
All of which just goes to show that a second look is always worth the journey.
IF YOU GO
Louisiana Office on Tourism
Best place for a romantic dinner
MURIEL’S is located in an antebellum mansion on Jackson Square that is as famous for its ghosts as its exotic cuisine, stylishly choreographed wait service and great wine list. And If you’re feeling especially bold after dessert, don’t forget to slip upstairs to the séance room to confer with the building’s resident spirits.
Best place for Sunday Brunch
Allow for at least three hours of leisurely dining and free-flowing champagne if you go to The Court of the Two Sisters. With indoor and outdoor seating, a buffet that keeps changing and local musicians playing Dixieland and Jazz, this could easily be your biggest meal of the entire vacation.
Quarter carriage tour
Best place to get your fortune told
Whether your preference is tarot cards, crystal-gazing, palm reading, tea leaves, bone-throwing or checking in with your mystic aura, Jackson Square is where the city’s best gypsies set up shop every day in the shade of the park’s trees. Apparently they also draw enough of a clientele that local artists who come to the same location to sketch and paint have filed petitions to get them to ply their trade elsewhere. Do the artists not know that their adversaries are also well versed at sticking pins in dolls?
Best place for an evening snack
Café DuMonde is a coffee house that dates from 1862 and serves up the best beignets (square, French doughnuts sprinkled with powdered sugar). Fashion tip: Don’t wear dark clothes when you eat one as you will end up wearing half of it before you’re done.
Best place to hear the heart and soul of the French Quarter Preservation Hall, Pat O’Brien’s and The House of Blues are synonymous with New Orleans music. They’re also packed to capacity every night but worth the wait to get in the door.
Best place for architecture buffs
Esplanade Avenue is not only a good place to walk off all those calories from Cajun and Creole meals but to catch a glimpse of the grandeur and excess that was in existence when this city was new. Even Degas found inspiration here and is said to have done some painting while visiting one of his relatives.
Best places for shopping
Royal Street, Magazine Street and the Moonwalk (which runs parallel to the river) abound with bargains for the serious antique collector, the souvenir hound, and everyone in-between.