Wednesday, 20 March 2013

New Orleans, Louisiana February 2013

This is an odd entry for me - I don't usually write about a city in which I've been a resident.  But seeing as I departed New Orleans in 1998 and Hurricane Katrina has visited since, I felt it was time to return to the Big Easy.

The city has lost something with the mass exit of many of its citizens from Katrina's disaster.  In some ways, it no longer feels like a living community but more like a theme park.  It does, however, retain its historic sites, legendary music and unique food.  In no way do I recommend avoiding this place because it has changed.  For those who have never lived in the City of New Orleans, it continues to be a wild and wonderful experience.

On this recent trip, my sightseeing was limited to the French Quarter but I feel compelled to provide an additional list of important venues that should be visited.

1.  New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park
2.  Audubon Zoo in the Uptown district
3.  Audubon Aquarium of the Americas at the base of Canal St.
4.  National World War II Museum in the Uptown district
5.  Jazz Music
     -Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon St.
     -Snug Harbor in the Faubourg Marigny

Lafitte's is in the French Quarter and is reputed to be the oldest building to be used as a bar in the US - built in the mid-18th century.  It is here where classic New Orleans jazz can be heard.  Snug Harbor has a marvellous reputation for contemporary jazz - Ellis Marsalis and Charmaine Neville are regulars here.  Its neighbourhood, the Faubourg Marigny, is on the opposite side of the Quarter from Canal St.

Note***Let me emphasize a warning here, as I do with all my friends and clients.  Under no circumstances are you to walk out of the French Quarter (between Canal St. and Esplanade Ave. and Decatur St. and Rampart St.) at night.  It doesn't matter if you're alone or in a group - GET IN A CAB!!  This is still an unpredictable city and during this last visit I met a man who had been mugged only the night before.

That being said, during the day, Magazine St. in the Uptown district is an amazing area for window shopping or even more.  If you are a collector of antiques, this is a must-see during your visit.

The French Quarter is also a wonderful place for exploration so wander around if you can.  Places like Faulkner House Books can be found in Pirates Alley - it is aptly named as it is actually in Faulkner's former home.  There are numerous sites affiliated with Tennessee Williams in the Quarter, even a walking tour that you can join to locate them.  Every March the city presents the Tennessee Williams Festival, a five day celebration of the playwright's life and works.  Numerous bookstores, antique shops, boutiques and, of course, untold numbers of restaurants provide a terrific day in this historic district.

Jackson Square is the heart of the French Quarter, sitting across from the Mississippi River on Decatur St.  Opposite the street side is St. Louis Cathedral (Harry Connick Jr. was married here) and along the adjacent sides are shops and restaurants and some of the city's most expensive condos.

In the centre of the square sits a beautiful little park complete with fountain.  It has been much improved and cleaned up since I was last there.

Outside the fence surrounding the park, the square is a mecca for people-watching.  Yes, there are some people who have fallen on hard times and are completely harmless.  There are magicians and tarot card readers and gypsies, painters and sketch artists.  They want your money but at least you'll have a good time spending it.  And there are always musicians on the benches, playing their famous second line jazz.  Jackson Square is a gathering place for just about every kind of person you can dream up (yes, even mimes!).

There is a world famous place that must be frequented by every first time visitor to the Quarter.  Directly across Decatur from the square is Cafe Du Monde.  You'll know it by its green and white striped awning.  Everyone needs to sit and experience their cafe au lait (with chicory) and beignets.  Yes, little puffy deep fried doughnut-like delights sprinkled with powdered sugar.  Oh, you just don't know... BUT, don't ever inhale as you're taking a bite.  It is powdered sugar, after all.

Now, on either side of the Cathedral are two buildings.  To the left (facing the Cathedral) is the Cabildo - in the 18th century it served as the seat of government under Spanish rule and then became City Hall before its current incarnation as a museum.  The Louisiana State Museum primarily houses three exhibits.  One deals with the politics and economics of the territory prior to the Louisiana Purchase, one deals with issues surrounding the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (nice), and the last one is a very informative presentation on antebellum life.

To the right of the Cathedral sits the Presbytere.  Although designed to match the Cabildo and house the Capuchin Monks, it was never used as a religious residence.  It was ultimately used by the Louisiana Supreme Court in the mid-19th century and today is a museum.  Its two exhibits address the city itself.  On the first floor is a very thorough discussion of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.  There are exhibits showing the levee failures and the measures used to rebuild.  Television news footage of rescues and human suffering are played in loops throughout the exhibit and there is a repeating audio loop of people who witnessed the storm and lived through it.  The second floor is much more light-hearted.  It is an amazing history of Mardi Gras presented in several rooms.  Each space houses parade photos, floats, some costumes, and other bling and throws from the many Krewes (or social clubs).  The display is both fun and informative.

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