New Orleans isn’t a city that quietly welcomes the visitor. They call it NOLA (short for New Orleans Louisiana) or N’Awwlins, but whatever you call it, this city assaults the senses – and I happily surrender to the sights, smells and sounds of this amazing city.
Bourbon Street, in the historic French Quarter, is a feast of colour. The ornate, wrought-iron balconies of Spanish colonial buildings are spilling over with huge baskets of ferns or colourful flowers. Below, the tiny shops offer everything from the mundane to the bizarre – unique art, Mardi Gras masks, tacky t-shirts and of course, Voodoo souvenirs.
The Flavours and Aromas
It isn’t long before my nostrils are quivering at the delicious aromas of fragrant gumbo, zesty jambalaya, and grilled oysters offering whiffs of the nearby Gulf. The scents pour from every restaurant and café I pass.
Over the foundation of garlic and onion, whiffs of cayenne and paprika tickle the nostrils; these ingredients are the building blocks of Creole and Cajun cuisine. One of the best Cajun restaurants in the city is Cochon.
A sugary aroma draws me into Laura’s, the city’s oldest candy store. It’s irresistible – I leave with a small box of the delicious pralines for which this city is renowned.
Music provides the most insistent assault. My ears prick up as I pass bars and clubs.
The sounds spilling out have my feet tapping to the cadences of Zydeco or swaying to this city’s legendary jazz. Indeed, this is a jazz lovers’ Mecca for whom a must is a visit to Preservation Hall, just off Bourbon St.
Established in 1961 to honor and preserve one of America’s most authentic art forms – traditional New Orleans jazz – Preservation Hall presents concerts throughout the year. I happily sit on a plain wooden bench – others are squatting on the floor – and for 45 minutes we relish the joyful, spectacular jazz syncopations of some of the greats of the genre. Photos aren’t allowed. Every show might have different performers but each inevitably ends with the listeners on their feet, cheering.
Music and art are ubiquitous in this city. On my quest for the perfect beignet, I head to the legendary Café du Monde by Jackson Square. But before I can get there, I’m drawn by the energy of the artists and musicians enlivening every available space around the square.
The wrought iron railings of the park are hung with art in every imaginable medium. And every few metres, there’s a performer – singing, dancing, doing a magic show.
Now a National Historic Landmark, it was in Jackson Square in 1803, that the Louisiana Purchase was completed, making Louisiana part of the United States and no longer a French territory. But patently the memo didn’t reach the Baroness de Pontalba, who designed the ornate iron fences, elaborate walkways, and landscaping in Jackson Square in the style of the 17th-century Place des Vosges in Paris. At its centre is the statue of its namesake, Andrew Jackson, seventh US president and hero of the Battle of New Orleans.
Indeed, during its 300 years of existence, New Orleans has seen many conflicts and battles. Some of that history can be found in the Historic New Orleans Collection, a rather unique museum dedicated to the history of this city.
But there’s a museum that offers a sobering perspective on a much larger conflict. The National WWII Museum “tells the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world—why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today—so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.” This museum alone makes the trip to New Orleans worthwhile.
A collection of several buildings offers the background and artifacts on every aspect of World War II in fascinating and even frightening displays. Among the most significant to me are side-by-side displays of propaganda – one Japanese and one American – describing ‘the enemy’. In the Japanese one, Roosevelt looks like a monster – a model for Frankenstein. In the American version, an evil Japanese figure is carrying away a white woman. It’s a poignant reminder how easily hatred can be created.
By the way, I got a beignet and spent the day dusted in powdered sugar icing.
It’s easy to explore New Orleans. Charming trolleys move between key parts of the city for the unbelievable price of $3 for a full day, hop-on-hop-off ticket. It’s the best travel bargain in America.
The Garden District
The French Quarter is very busy and noisy. A good way to get away from the bustle is to book a hotel in an area like the Garden District. I stayed at the historic Pontchartrain Hotel, a 12-minute trolley ride down Charles St.
Now a boutique hotel, this was once an apartment building where Tennessee Williams supposedly lived while he wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Indeed, the rooftop bar is called – what else? – Tin Roof.
The Garden District is easily missed in favour of the French Quarter. Don’t! Our stroll on the Historic New Orleans Walking Tour of the Garden District led us past a hodgepodge of architecture – from antebellum splendor to Queen Anne, Greek Revival, and more.
I gawped at mansions belonging to Nicholas Cage, Sandra Bullock, Peyton Manning and other celebrities. But these magnificent mansions are only half the story here.
But New Orleans has tiny homes too. Rows of tiny ‘shot-gun’ houses along some streets intrigued me. Built in the 19th century, these usually have a porch and three rooms in a row with no hallway. The guide tells me they were so named because one could fire a shot and the bullet could pass through every room in the house from front to back.
But Encyclopedia Britannica has an alternative explanation for the name: … the term may also be derived from togun, the Yoruba word meaning “house” or “gathering place.” Although shotgun houses are small, were inexpensively built, and generally lack amenities, they have been praised for their architectural virtues, which include the ingenious use of limited space and decoration such as gingerbread trim and brightly painted exteriors. They represent a unique African American contribution to architecture in the United States.
New Orleans has had its share of sinners – the infamous pirate, Jean Lafitte, apparently still haunts the city. But when their Saints hit the football field, New Orleans comes to life. One resident told me.”New Orleans is perfectly safe but if someone approaches you and makes you nervous, just shout ‘Who Dat?’ and you’ll be his best friend.”
“Who Dat” is, of course, the rousing cry of the New Orleans Saints! They even put it on cookies!
More to Explore
Magazine St. This charming revitalized shopping area in the Garden District, offers excellent coffee shops, restaurants, and unique little boutiques. Check out Saba, Alon Shaya’s fabulous Israeli restaurant.
The Southern Food & Beverage Museum: This nonprofit living history organization is dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. It has a nifty assortment of old utensils. Some (like an ancient meat grinder) made me nostalgic, others had me stumped – what the heck is that? Definitely worth a visit! For more info, click here
Take thehttps://twochickswalkingtours.com/ Unlike the usual tours, this one offers the ghost story and follows up with the REAL story whenever possible.
Our guide debunked a couple of ghosts, but frankly admitted she couldn’t debunk a couple of others. No, we didn’t see a ghost but we heard some fascinating stories.
Dining: When Emeril Lagasse led a foodie tour of New Orleans, one his key stops was Pho Tao Bay, a much lauded Vietnamese eatery. After all, bánh mì, a traditional breakfast sandwich usually made with barbecued pork, is often described as the Vietnamese Po’boy. One of my favourite spots is Maypop.
Chef Michael Gulotta grew up in New Orleans and fell in love with Vietnamese cuisine. His first restaurant venture is the highly successful MoPho, his own blend of Cajun and Vietnamese. His second restaurant, MayPop has taken the fusion to another level with flavours that really sing.