Infused with a dizzying jumble of cultures and influences, NEW ORLEANS is a bewitching place. Here, people dance at funerals and hold parties during hurricanes; world-class musicians make ends meet busking on street corners and hole-in-the-wall dives dish up gourmet Creole cuisine. There’s a wistfulness here too, along with its famed joie de vivre – not only in the ghostly devastation of the flood-wracked Ninth Ward, but also in the peeling facades of the old French Quarter, in its filigree cast-iron balconies tangled with ferns and fragrant jasmine, and in the cemeteries lined with crumbling above-ground marble tombs. New Orleans’s melancholy beauty – along with its ebullient spirit – has always come with an awareness of the fragility of life, due at least in part to its perilous geography.
The Mississippi River
The Mississippi River
A resonant, romantic and extraordinary physical presence, the Mississippi River is New Orleans’s lifeblood and its raison d’être. In the nineteenth century, as the port boomed, the city gradually cut itself off from the river altogether, hemming it in behind a string of warehouses and railroads. But, as the importance of the port has diminished, a couple of downtown parks, plazas and riverside walks, accessible from the French Quarter, the CBD and uptown, have focused attention back onto the waterfront. For details of river cruises.
Crossing Decatur Street from Jackson Square brings you to the Moonwalk, a promenade where buskers serenade you as you gaze across the water. Upriver from here, Woldenberg Park makes a good place for a picnic, watching the river traffic drift by; it’s also the location of a number of free music festivals. At the upriver edge of the park, the Aquarium of the Americas, near the Canal Street wharf (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; $18, IMAX $9, combination tickets available with the Insectarium and the Zoo; w www.auduboninstitute.org), features a huge glass tunnel where visitors – rampaging infants, mostly – come face to face with rays and sawfish. There’s also a Mississippi River habitat – complete with Spots, a white gator – an Amazonian rainforest, and an IMAX theatre. Beyond here, via the Piazza d’España, you can enter the touristy Riverwalk Marketplace mall, which not only has its own outdoor riverwalk but also boasts the superb Southern Food and Beverage Museum (Mon–Sat 10am–7pm, Sun noon–6pm; $10; w southernfood.org), a wonderfully evocative love letter to old New Orleans and its foodie quirks.
The Federal Flood
The Federal Flood
When Hurricane Katrina hit ground in 2005, it seemed at first as though the city had done relatively well in light of the full-scale damage wrought along the Mississippi coast. On August 29, however, New Orleans’s levees were breached, and rising floodwaters soon covered eighty percent of the city, destroying much of it in their wake. Most damage was sustained by residential areas – whether in the suburban homes around the lakeside, from where most residents had been evacuated, to the less affluent neighbourhoods of the east, like the Ninth Ward and Gentilly, where those too poor or ill or old to move were trapped in attics and on rooftops for days. The French Quarter, which, as the oldest part of the city was built on the highest ground, was physically unhurt by the flooding, although the economic blow – not least the loss of a huge number of the neighbourhood’s workforce – was tremendous.
Despite being referred to in shorthand as Katrina, the devastation of New Orleans was no natural disaster: in November 2009, a federal judge declared the Corps of Engineers, the government body responsible for building New Orleans’ levees, as guilty of negligence, ruling that “The Corps’ lassitude and failure to fulfil its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions…Furthermore, the Corps not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the Mr-Go [navigation channel] threatened human life… and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued”. The Corps appealed on a technicality, and the finding may still be overturned, but for most people, the case has been amply proven: the worst engineering disaster in American history could have been avoided.
Staying safe in New Orleans
Staying safe in New Orleans
Although the heavily touristed French Quarter is comparatively safe, to wander unwittingly beyond it – even just a couple of blocks – can place your personal safety in serious jeopardy. While walking from the Quarter to the Marigny is usually safe enough during the day, it’s not a good idea to stray far from the main drag of Frenchmen Street. Wherever you are, take the usual common-sense precautions, and at night always travel by cab when venturing any distance beyond the Quarter.
New Orleans’s local swamps – many of them protected areas just a thirty-minute drive from downtown – are otherworldly enclaves that provide a wonderful contrast to the city itself. Dr Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours, based ten miles north of Lake Pontchartrain, venture onto the delta of the Pearl River, a wilderness occupied by nutrias, black bears and alligators, as well as ibis, great blue herons and snowy egrets. (Wildlife most abundant April–May & Sept–Nov; 2hr; $25, not including transport from downtown; t 985/641-1769, w www.honeyislandswamp.com).
New Orleans food
New Orleans food
New Orleans food, commonly defined as Creole, is a spicy, substantial – and usually very fattening – blend of French, Spanish, African and Caribbean cuisine, mixed up with a host of other influences including Native American, Italian and German. Some of the simpler dishes, like red beans and rice, reveal a strong West Indies influence, while others are more French, cooked with long-simmered sauces based on a roux (fat and flour heated together) and herby stocks. Many dishes are served étouffée, literally “smothered” in a tasty Creole sauce (a roux with tomato, onion and spices), on rice. Although there are some exceptions, what passes for Cajun food in the city tends to be a modern hybrid, tasty but not authentic; the “blackened” dishes, for example, slathered in butter and spices, made famous by chef Paul Prudhomme.
The mainstays of most menus are gumbo – a thick soup of seafood, chicken and vegetables – and jambalaya, a paella jumbled together from the same ingredients. Other specialties include po-boys, French-bread sandwiches overstuffed with oysters, shrimp, or almost anything else, and muffulettas, the round Italian version, crammed full of aromatic meats and cheese and dripping with garlicky olive dressing. Along with shrimp and soft-shell crabs, you’ll get famously good oysters; they’re in season from September to April. Crawfish, or mudbugs (which resemble langoustines and are best between March and Oct), are served in everything from omelets to bisques, or simply boiled in a spicy stock. Everyone should enjoy a café au lait and beignet (featherlight donuts, without a hole, cloaked in powdered sugar) at Café du Monde in the French Quarter; open around the clock, this historic market coffeehouse serves nothing else. And for another only-in-New-Orleans snack, look out for the absurd, giant, hot-dog-shaped Lucky Dogs carts set up throughout the Quarter. Featured in John Kennedy Toole’s farcical novel A Confederacy of Dunces, they’ve become a beloved institution, though in truth the dogs themselves are nothing great.
Mardi Gras and other New Orleans festivals
Mardi Gras and other New Orleans festivals
New Orleans’s carnival season – which starts on Twelfth Night, January 6, and runs for the six weeks or so until Ash Wednesday – is unlike any other in the world. Though the name is used to define the entire season, Mardi Gras itself, French for “Fat Tuesday”, is simply the culmination of a whirl of parades, parties, street revels and masked balls, all inextricably tied up with the city’s labyrinthine social, racial and political structures. Mardi Gras was introduced to New Orleans in the 1740s, when French colonists brought over the European custom, established since medieval times, of marking the imminence of Lent with masking and feasting. Their slaves, meanwhile, continued to celebrate African and Caribbean festival traditions, based on musical rituals, masking and elaborate costumes, and the three eventually fused. From early days carnival was known for cavorting, outrageous costumes, drinking and general bacchanalia – and little has changed. However, although it has become the busiest tourist season, when the city is invaded by millions, Mardi Gras has always been, above all, a party that New Orleanians throw for themselves. Visitors are wooed, welcomed and shown the time of their lives, but without them carnival would reel on regardless.
Official carnival took its current form in 1857, with the appearance of a stately moonlit procession calling itself the “Krewe of Comus, Merrie Monarch of Mirth”. Initiated by a group of Anglo-Americans, the concept of the “krewes”, or secret carnival clubs, was taken up enthusiastically by the New Orleans aristocracy, many of them white supremacists who, after the Civil War, used their satirical float designs and the shroud of secrecy to mock and undermine Reconstruction. Nowadays about fifty official krewes equip colourful floats, leading huge processions with different, often mythical, themes. Each is reigned over by a King and Queen (generally an older, politically powerful man and a debutante), who go on to preside over the krewes’ closed, masked balls. There are women-only krewes, “super krewes”, with members drawn from the city’s new wealth (barred from making inroads into the gentlemen’s-club network of the old-guard krewes), and important black groups. The best known and most important of these is Zulu, established in 1909 when a black man mocked Rex, King of Carnival, by dancing behind his float with a tin can on his head; today the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning is one of the most popular of the season. There are also many alternative, or unofficial krewes, including the anarchic Krewe du Vieux (from Vieux Carré, another term for the French Quarter), whose irreverent parade and “ball” (a polite term for a wild party, open to all) is a blast. The gay community plays a major part in Mardi Gras, particularly in the French Quarter, where the streets teem with strutting drag divas. And then there’s the parade of the Mystic Krewe of Barkus, made up of dogs, hundreds of whom, during what is surely the campest parade of the season, can be seen trotting proudly through the French Quarter all spiffed up on some spurious theme.
Tourists are less likely to witness the Mardi Gras Indians, African-American groups who, in their local neighbourhoods, organize themselves into “tribes” and, dressed in fabulous beaded and feathered costumes, sewed themselves over the previous year, gather on Mardi Gras morning to compete in chanting and dancing. Made up of poor black men, many of whom lost their homes in the flooding, this is the Mardi Gras group that has been most diminished by the devastation of Katrina; their continued existence against the odds is testament to their cultural importance and the sacred importance of their rituals. For a chance of seeing the Indians, head to the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Tremé on Mardi Gras morning; this is also the meeting place for other black Mardi Gras groups including the “skeleton” gangs, who don bloody butcher’s aprons and “wake the day” at dawn by beating bones on drums, and the Baby Dolls, grown women frolicking around in silky bonnets and bloomers.
Another New Orleans Mardi Gras ritual is the flinging of “throws” from the parade floats. Teasing masked krewe members scatter beads, beakers and doubloons (toy coins) into the crowds, who beg, plead and scream for them. Even outside the parades, tourists embark upon a frantic bead-bartering frenzy, which has given rise to the famed “Show Your Tits!” phenomenon – women pulling up their shirts in exchange for strings of beads and roars of boozy approval from the goggling mobs. Anyone keen to see the show should head for Bourbon Street.
The two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras are filled with processions, parties and balls, but excitement reaches fever pitch on Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras. Some of the city’s best musicians play at Zulu’s free party in Woldenberg Park, which climaxes at 5pm with the arrival of the King and Queen by boat. Following this, you can head to the Plaza d’España, where, in a formal ceremony unchanged for over a century, the mayor hands the city to Rex, King of Carnival. The party continues with more live music and fireworks, after which people head off to watch the big Orpheus parade, or start a frenzied evening of clubbing. Most clubs are still hopping well into Mardi Gras morning.
The fun starts early on Mardi Gras day, with walking clubs striding through uptown accompanied by raucous jazz on their ritualized bar crawls, and the Skeletons gathering in Tremé. Zulu’s big parade, in theory, sets off at 8.30am (but can be as much as two hours late), followed by Rex. Across town, the Indians are gathering for their sacred Mardi Gras rituals, while the arty St Ann walking parade sets off from the Bywater to arrive in the Faubourg at around 11am. Anyone is welcome to join them, as long as they are wearing something creative and/or surreal. The gay costume competition known as the Bourbon Street awards gets going at noon in the Quarter, while hipsters head back to the Faubourg, where Frenchmen Street is ablaze with bizarrely costumed carousers. The fun continues until midnight, when a siren wail heralds the arrival of a cavalcade of mounted police that sweeps through Bourbon Street and declares through megaphones that Mardi Gras is officially over. Like all good Catholic cities, New Orleans takes carnival very seriously. Midnight marks the onset of Lent, when repentance can begin.
Other New Orleans festivals
St Joseph’s Day
(March 19). Sicilian saint’s day, at the midpoint of Lent. Altars of food, groaning with bread, fig cakes and stuffed artichokes, are erected in churches all around town, including St Louis Cathedral, and there’s a parade. The Sunday closest to St Joseph’s (“Super Sunday”) is the only time outside Mardi Gras that the Mardi Gras Indians take to the streets.
French Quarter Festival
(early April). Superb free three-day music festival that rivals Jazz Fest for the quality and variety of music – and food – on offer. w www.fqfi.org.
(two weekends, Fri–Sun & Thurs–Sun, end April/early May). Enormous festival at the Fairgrounds Race Track, Mid-City, with stages hosting jazz, R&B, gospel, African, Caribbean, Cajun, blues and more, with evening performances in clubs all over town. Also features crafts and phenomenal food stands. w www.nojazzfest.com.
(end July/early Aug). Enjoyable three-day festival, celebrating Louis Armstrong, in the Quarter. Includes talks, local jazz and brass bands, food stalls, Second Lines and a jazz mass at St Augustine’s Church.w www.fqfi.org.
(six days around Labor Day weekend). Huge gay extravaganza, bringing around 100,000 party animals to the Quarter and the Faubourg, with a costume parade of thousands on the Sunday afternoon. w www.southerndecadence.net.
(Oct 31). Thanks to its long-held obsession with all things morbid, and the local passion for dressing up, New Orleans is a fabulous place to spend Halloween, with haunted houses, costume competitions, ghost tours and parades all over town.
(end Oct). Three-day rock festival held in City Park with 150 acts – from Eminem via The Pogues to Duran Duran and the New York Dolls – plus an eclectic span of local acts performing to a mixed, high-spirited, Halloween-costumed crowd. w www.thevoodooexperience.com.
New Orleans jazz
New Orleans jazz
Jazz was born in New Orleans, shaped in the early twentieth century by the twin talents of Louis Armstrong and Joe “King” Oliver from a diverse heritage of African and Caribbean slave music, Civil War brass bands, plantation spirituals, black church music and work songs. In 1897, in an attempt to control the prostitution that had been rampant in the city since its earliest days, a law was passed that restricted the brothels to a fixed area bounded by Iberville and Lower Basin streets. The area, which soon became known as Storyville, after the alderman who pronounced the ordinance, filled with newly arrived ex-plantation workers, seamen and gamblers, and, from the “mood-setting” tunes played in the brothels to bawdy saloon gigs, there was plenty of opportunity for musicians, in particular the solo piano players known as “professors”, to develop personal styles. After Storyville was officially closed in 1917, there was a mass exodus of musicians to Chicago and New York. Many more jazz artists left the city or gave up playing altogether during the Depression; but in the 1950s, the city fathers literally changed their tune and began to promote jazz as a tourist attraction. Nowadays jazz remains an evolving, organic art form, and you’re spoilt for choice for places to hear it, whether in Second Lines, at the city’s many festivals, in dive bars or sophisticated lounges.