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 – in the peeling facades of the old French Quarter, 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.

It has become painfully clear to the rest of the world, too, since the events of August 2005, that there’s a lot more to the “Big Easy” than its image as a nonstop party town. Even at the best of times this was a contradictory city, repeatedly revealing stark divisions between rich and poor (and, more explicitly, between white and black); years after Katrina, with the emotional and physical scars slowly healing, those contradictions remain. While you can still party in the French Quarter and the Marigny till dawn, dancing to great jazz and gorging on garlicky Creole food, just minutes away are neighbourhoods that are still struggling to rebuild. That’s not to say that enjoying life is inappropriate in today’s New Orleans – while it was let down not only by nature but also by federal and local government after Katrina, the city’s vitality, courage and stubborn loyalty remain strong. The melange of cultures and races that built the city still gives it its heart; not “easy”, exactly, but quite unlike anywhere else in the USA – or the world.

New Orleans is called the Crescent City because of the way it nestles between the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain and a horseshoe bend in the Mississippi River. This unique location makes the city’s layout confusing, with streets curving to follow the river, and shooting off at odd angles to head inland. Compass points are of little use – locals refer instead to lakeside (toward the lake) and riverside (toward the river), and, using Canal Street as the dividing line, uptown (or upriver) and downtown (downriver).

Brief history

New Orleans began life in 1718 as a French-Canadian outpost – an improbable, swampy setting in a prime location near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Development was rapid, and with the first mass importation of African slaves, as early as the 1720s, its unique demography took shape. The Black Code, drawn up by the French in 1685 to govern Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti) and established in Louisiana in 1724, gave slaves rights unparalleled elsewhere, including permission to marry, meet socially and take Sundays off.

In 1760, Louis XV secretly handed New Orleans, along with all French territory west of the Mississippi, to his Spanish cousin, Charles III, as a safeguard against British expansionism. Despite early resistance from its francophone population, the city benefited greatly from its period as a Spanish colony between 1763 and 1800: by the end of the eighteenth century, the port was flourishing, the haunt of smugglers, gamblers, prostitutes and pirates. Newcomers included Anglo-Americans escaping the American Revolution and aristocrats fleeing revolution in France. The city also became a haven for refugees – whites and free blacks, along with their slaves – escaping the slave revolts in Saint-Domingue (Haiti). As in the West Indies, the Spanish, French and free people of colour associated and formed alliances to create a distinctive Creole culture with its own traditions and ways of life, its own patois and a cuisine that drew influences from Africa, Europe and the colonies.

Louisiana remained Spanish until it was ceded to Napoleon in 1801, under the proviso that it should never change hands again. Just two years later, however, Napoleon, strapped for cash to fund his battles with the British in Europe, struck a bargain with President Thomas Jefferson known as the Louisiana Purchase. This sneaky agreement handed over to the USA all French lands between Canada and Mexico, from the Mississippi to the Rockies, for just $15 million. Unwelcome in the Creole city – today’s French Quarter – the Americans who migrated to New Orleans were forced to settle in the area now known as the Central Business District (or CBD) and, later, in the Garden District.

New Orleans’s antebellum golden age as a major port and finance centre for the cotton-producing South was brought to an abrupt end by the Civil War. Economically and socially ravaged by the conflict, Louisiana was almost brought to its knees by Reconstruction, with the once great city suffering a period of unprecedented lawlessness and racial violence. As the North industrialized and other Southern cities grew, the fortunes of New Orleans slipped.

Jazz exploded into the bars and the bordellos around 1900, and, along with the evolution of Mardi Gras as a tourist attraction, breathed new life into the city. And though the Depression hit here as hard as it did the rest of the nation, it also – spearheaded by a number of local writers and artists – heralded the resurgence of the French Quarter, which had disintegrated into a slum. Even so, it was the less romantic duo of oil and petrochemicals that really saved the economy – until the slump of the 1950s pushed New Orleans well behind other US cities. The oil crash of the early 1980s gave it yet another battering, a gloomy start for near on two decades of high crime rates, crack deaths and widespread corruption.

By the turn of the millennium things were improving, until Hurricane Katrina and its subsequent floods ripped the place apart. In 2010 the Saints football team, amazingly, won the Superbowl; so deeply emotional was this victory that the election of Mitch Landrieu, the black-majority city’s first white mayor in thirty years, went barely noticed in even the local newspapers. A few months later, the sense of new beginnings was dealt a savage blow from the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and its long-term implications for the economy; if ever a city knew how to hold on and to fight back, however, New Orleans is it.

Accommodation in New Orleans

New Orleans has some lovely places to stay, from rambling old guesthouses seeping faded grandeur to stylish boutique hotels. Room rates, never low (you’ll be pushed to find anything half decent for less than $100 a night), increase considerably for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, when prices can double and rooms are reserved months in advance. Most people choose to stay in the French Quarter, in the heart of things. much of the accommodation here is in atmospheric guesthouses, most of them in old Creole townhouses. Outside the quarter, the Lower Garden District offers a couple of budget options, while the Marigny specializes in B&Bs and the Garden District has a couple of gorgeous old hotels. The CBD is the domain of the city’s upmarket chain and business hotels.

New Orleans drinking and nightlife

New Orleans’s drinking scene, like the city itself, is unpretentious and inclusive: whether sipping Sazeracs in the golden glow of a 1930s cocktail bar or necking an Abita at dawn in a down-and-dirty dive, you’ll more than likely find yourself in a high-spirited crowd of bohemian barflies. It is also legal to drink alcohol in the streets – for some visitors it’s practically de rigueur – though not from a glass or bottle. Simply ask for a plastic “to go” cup in any bar and carry it with you. You’ll be expected to finish your drink before entering another bar, however.

Eating in New Orleans

New Orleans is a gourmand’s dream. Restaurants here are far more than places to eat: from the haughtiest grandes dames of Creole cuisine right down to rough-and-ready po-boy shacks, they are fiercely cherished as the guardians of community, culture and heritage. Gratifyingly, prices are not high compared to other US cities – even at the swankiest places you can get away with $40 per head for a three-course feast with wine.

Historic New Orleans Collection

Standing proud among Royal Street’s antique stores and chichi art galleries is the splendid Historic New Orleans Collection. Entry to the streetfront gallery, which holds excellent temporary exhibitions, is free, but to see the bulk of the collection you’ll need to take a guided tour. Tours might take in the galleries upstairs, where fascinating exhibits – including old maps, drawings and early publicity posters – fill a series of themed rooms, or they might venture into the neighbouring Williams House. The Williamses, prominent citizens in the 1930s (no relation to playwright Tennessee), filled their home with unusual, exotic objects, and the house is a must for anyone interested in design and decorative arts.

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 tied up with the city’s labyrinthine social, racial and political structures.

Official carnival took its current form in 1857. At this time, 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 krewe is reigned over by a King and Queen, who go on to preside over the organization’s closed, masked balls. There are women-only krewes, enormous “super krewes”, and important African American groups. The best known and most significant of these is Zulu, established in 1909 when a black man mocked Rex, King of Carnival, by sporting a banana stalk sceptre and a tin can on his head. Today the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning is one of the most popular of the season (and the krewe’s coconut throws some of the festival’s most coveted). 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 them, all spiffed up on some spurious theme.

Tourists are less likely to witness the spectacular Mardi Gras Indians, African American groups who gather on Mardi Gras morning to compete in chanting and dancing dressed in fabulous beaded and feathered costumes – sewed themselves over the previous year. 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”. Teasing masked krewe members scatter beads, toys and doubloons (coins) from parade floats into the crowds, who beg, plead and scream for them.

The two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras are filled with processions, parties and balls. 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 2hr 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 Marigny 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 Marigny, where Frenchmen Street is ablaze with lavishly 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.

Other New Orleans festivals

St Joseph’s Day

(March 19). Sicilian saint’s day, at the midpoint of Lent. Altars of food are erected in churches all around town, and there’s a parade. Celebrated in conjunction with the holiday, on the third Sunday in March (“Super Sunday”) the Mardi Gras Indians (see Entertainment and nightlife) take to the streets – their only official parade outside Mardi Gras.

French Quarter Festival

(early April; fqfi.org). Superb free four-day music festival that rivals Jazz Fest for the quality and variety of music – and food – on offer.

Jazz Fest

(two weekends, Fri–Sun & Thurs–Sun, end April/early May; nojazzfest.com). Enormous festival at the Fairgrounds Race Track, Mid-City, with stages hosting jazz, R&B, gospel, Afro-Caribbean, Cajun, blues and more, and evening performances in clubs all over town. Also features crafts and phenomenal food stands.

Southern Decadence

(six days around Labor Day weekend; southerndecadence.net). Huge gay extravaganza, bringing around 100,000 party animals to the Quarter, with a costume parade of thousands on the Sunday afternoon.

Halloween

(Oct 31). Thanks to 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.

Voodoo Experience

(Halloween weekend; worshipthemusic.com). Three-day rock festival held in City Park with two hundred acts – from Nine Inch Nails to Calvin Harris, plus an eclectic span of local bands – performing to a mixed, high-spirited, Halloween-costumed crowd.

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 specialities 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 June), are served in everything from omelettes to bisques, or simply boiled in a spicy stock. Everyone should enjoy a café au lait and beignet (featherlight doughnuts, without a hole, cloaked in powdered sugar) at Café du Monde in the French Quarter. 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.

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 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. 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.

At the heart of it all are the brass bands. Although these have been integral to New Orleans’s street music and parade culture since the nineteenth century, their resurgence in the 1990s led to an explosion of energy on the local jazz scene. Young, ragtag groups blast out a joyful, improvised and danceable cacophony of horns – a kind of homegrown party music that goes down as much of a storm in the student bars as on the backstreet parades. Favourites include ReBirth, the Soul Rebels and the Stooges, who mix trad brass stylings with hard funk, hip-hop, carnival music and reggae. The more traditional bands, meanwhile, whose line-up will typically include old hands and up-and-coming youngsters, play music that is just as danceable and equally popular.

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.

The French Quarter

The beautiful French Quarter is where New Orleans began in 1718. Today, battered and bohemian, decaying and vibrant, it remains the spiritual core of the city, its cast-iron balconies, hidden courtyards and time-stained stucco buildings exerting a fascination that has long caught the imagination of artists and writers. It’s a wonderful place simply to wander; early morning, in the pearly light from the river, is a good time to explore.

The Quarter is laid out in a grid, unchanged since 1721. At just thirteen blocks wide – smaller than you might expect – it’s easily walkable, bounded by the Mississippi River, Rampart Street, Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue, and centring on lively Jackson Square. Rather than French, the architecture is predominantly Spanish Colonial, with a strong Caribbean influence. Most buildings date from the late eighteenth century; much of the old city was devastated by fire in 1788 and 1794. Shops, restaurants and bars are concentrated between Decatur and Bourbon streets, while beyond Bourbon, up toward Rampart Street, and in the Lower Quarter, downriver from Jackson Square, things become more peaceful. Here, you’ll find quiet, residential streets where the Quarter’s gay community lives side by side with elegant dowagers, condo-dwellers and scruffy artists.

The Garden District and uptown

Pride of uptown New Orleans, the Garden District drapes itself seductively across a thirteen-block area bounded by Magazine Street and St Charles, Louisiana and Jackson avenues. Two miles upriver from the French Quarter, it was developed as a residential neighbourhood in the 1840s by an energetic breed of Anglo-Americans who wished to display their accumulating cotton and trade wealth by building sumptuous mansions in huge gardens. Today, shaded by jungles of subtropical foliage, the glorious houses – some of them spick-and-span showpieces, others in ravishing ruin – evoke a nostalgic vision of the Deep South in a profusion of porches, columns and balconies. While it’s a pleasure simply to wander around, you can pick up more details about the individual houses on any number of official or self-guided tours.

The historic St Charles streetcar is the nicest way to get to the Garden District and uptown, affording front-row views of “the Avenue” as St Charles is locally known. It’s a popular Mardi Gras parade route; keep an eye out for the tossed beads and favours that missed outstretched hands and now adorn hundreds of tree branches here. Just before the streetcar takes a sharp turn at the river bend, it stops at peaceful Audubon Park, a lovely space shaded by Spanish-moss-swathed trees. You can also approach the Garden District and uptown via Magazine Street, the city’s best shopping stretch, a six-mile string of clothing boutiques, restaurants and stores that runs parallel to St Charles riverside.

The Old Ursuline Convent

Built between 1745 and 1753, and established by nuns from Rouen, the tranquil Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the Mississippi valley, and the only intact French Colonial structure in the city. Following the decisive Battle of New Orleans in 1815, General Andrew Jackson came here personally to thank the Ursuline sisters for their wartime prayers, claiming that “divine intervention” was what had saved him on the field. Inside, the hushed quarters are lined with wordy old information panels explaining the history of the convent; the real interest, however, is in the time-worn rooms, the spectacular gilded chapel and the lovely working herb garden at the back.

Tremé

In the 1800s, Tremé, the historic African American neighbourhood where jazz was developed in the bordellos of Storyville – long since gone – was a prosperous area, its shops, businesses and homes owned and frequented by New Orleans’s free black population. By the late twentieth century, however, blighted by neglect and crime, Tremé had become a no-go zone. Despite this, its rich tradition of music, jazz funerals and Second Lines (loose, joyous street parades, led by funky brass bands and gathering dancing “Second Lines” of passers-by as they go) continued, and the turn of the millennium saw signs of gentrification. While many of its houses remain in bad shape post-Katrina, David The Wire Simon’s HBO series Tremé, which premiered in 2010, brought the area appreciated visibility.

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Andy Turner
10/2/2020
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