Where do you begin with describing New Orleans? I know, just wander around, like we did, and so this posting is a bit of a wander around New Orleans.
Everywhere you go you see beads strung over trees, overhead wires, fences – anything at all it seems. And so we asked the lovely lady in a tourist info shop about the beads, and she said: "Honey, they're leftovers from the Mardi Gras. No-one ever pulls them down and so they kind of accumulate over the years. People just throw their beads in the air and they end up anywhere."
This tree on the trolley-bus line leading down to the Garden District was sagging with beady, Mardi Gras gaiety. You also see dorky tourists walking around town wearing strings of beads, even though it's not Mardi Gras time. I'm almost as bad, as I bought a Mardi Gras T-shirt yesterday with a big "Repent" message on it, but I'll save up wearing that one until I get back to the Southern Hemisphere's Sin City, where the message will no doubt be ignored.
Music is of course what New Orleans is famous for, and it really is everywhere. Down in the tourist district of the French Quarter, the police block off the majority of streets so the visitors can wander down the streets (the sidewalks are narrow), and every blocked-off street seems to have its own busker, or more often, its own busker band. This happy brass band, with a 10-year-old girl on drums, mum on clarinet, was typical. The buckets next to the soloist out front are of course for the tips for which they play.
Last night, thanks to our friends Dennis and Lorna's valuable tips on visiting New Orleans, we headed out to the Rock 'n' Bowl. Like the name says, this unusual but popular spot combines a ten-pin bowling alley with a music/dance venue, all under the one roof.
The bowling alleys are right next to the dance floor on the same level, so you can groove to the music while you watch the pins tumble. The music is so loud it easily drowns out that familiar rumble of the balls and the hollow clunking of falling pins.
Last night it was Horace Trahan and the Ossun Express doing the honours in a rocking Zydeco way, and the big crowd of enthusiastic dancers was there from the first bar of the first song. It's a fantastic venue and the atmosphere here was friendly, with all ages there having fun, from three years old to 93. That's a feature of all the dance places here: it's always all ages and everyone welcome.
Earlier that afternoon Pammy and I discovered that the famous French Quarter is much, much larger than we imagined. It stretches for a dozen blocks to the east and north from our hotel, which is right on its edge. Naturally enough all that walking and shopping took its toll, so we stopped for our first Mint Juleps of the holiday, and the bourbon content in this drink almost did us in! One is plenty...
There's a good police presence in the French Quarter (they even have a police station which sells NOPD T-shirts) but this Segway-mounted cop was the star. He was very happy to pose for a photo, and when I asked him how many officers were in the Segway section he said: "Just two, we're trying them out, but they're pretty cool." Agreed, but not sure where the prisoner goes.
One tourist guide I read suggested we "stay away from the French Quarter" and that's a mad idea. I'd totally agree about staying away from Bourbon Street (more on that in a moment) but the rest of the French Quarter is simply wonderful when it's at its best, and even when it's another tourist trap in the parts devoted to shopping for souvenirs it's still incredibly charming (and big).
As we passed beyond the shops the residential areas with their ornate ironwork and quirky decorations provided almost too many things to photograph and admire, and after a while you put down the cameras and take it all in. I could easily spend a whole day here and still find streets I hadn't been down.
This area is a classic of old-style higgildy piggeldy charm, with any possible combination of dwellings tossed together to form a streetscape.
Down the very far end of Bourbon Street, where it's mostly residential, there were lots of houses which looked like this. They were right on the sidewalk, with three or four steep steps quickly rising to the front door. And all the frontages were shuttered off from passers-by. However, as we walked up Bourbon Street in the afternoon, the appalling stench of vomit assaulted our nostrils (and not just for a few steps, as you often find in many city backstreets). This vomit-smell went on for a couple of blocks, intensifying as the endless bars appeared (already full of patrons at 3pm). It was obvious it wasn't going away, and so we escaped down a side street back into the relatively genteel, sweet-smelling charm of rows of souvenir shops selling the same crap. Bourbon Street was truly disgusting.
A far more salubrious part of town is the Garden District, which I will be doing a separate blog on tomorrow, but down in that leafy and beautiful part of town we spotted this classic example of another of New Orleans' "themes": the coming of Halloween and the locals' love of ghosts, ghouls and all things spooky. Everywhere you go, houses and gardens are being decorated for Halloween.
This door decoration is the only one like it we have seen, so it's probably hand-made, based on a theatre mask.
Turning one corner in the French Quarter and we literally were startled by the sight of these spooky greeters.
A visit to New Orleans wouldn't be complete without checking out their famous above-ground cemeteries. This is the Lafayette Number 1 Cemetery in the Garden District. Above-ground vaults and burial chambers are the norm here, as the water table in the district is very close to the surface, so digging six-feet-under just isn't an option. The Lafayette Cemetery is like its own mini suburb, with rows of vaults lined up like they were houses in a street.
Each vault houses far more than one body. This one, for example, had 27 names on the plaques, covering four generations.
And this poignant one was created as the final resting place of destitute orphan boys, and it was well decorated with fresh flowers and beads, so they are never forgotten.
This really is one of the most fascinating cities I have ever been to, and I have only been here a few days. You'd need to live here for years to even start to understand it, but let me finish with two final snippets.
First up, if you want to hear local New Orleans music played all day, you can listen to 90.7 FM, WWOZ, the radio station we have playing in our hotel room. They only play local musicians, and the content varies from Jazz through to funk and brass bands and anything else they think is cool. It really is a New Orleans soundtrack.
Secondly, we were told about WWOZ by the lovely people who drove us home from the Upperline Restaurant (which will feature in Tummy Time 6, coming to you soon on this blog). After we finished an enjoyable dinner at the Upperline, which is a few miles from our hotel, we asked the waiter to order us a taxi. The people on the table next to us (husband Grant and wife Margot and her elegant, elderly mother) said "cancel that taxi, we'll drive you back to your hotel; mum lives near there and so you're on our way".
And so they drove us home, giving us lots of tips on where to eat, what to see and even what radio station to listen to. And they were funny, and loved to talk, and were very warm and very interested in us and where we came from. Even though they had only driven us a few miles, by the time we said farewell it was as if we were seeing off old friends. They were so proud of New Orleans, and thrived on welcoming us here.
Coming up soon, gorgeous grand gardens of the Garden District, plus spicy creole food and lots more in Tummy Time 6. See you then, with beads on!