On the final day of our Christmastime visit to New Orleans we signed up for a walking tour of the city. Our guide, a short, electric woman with big eyes and a wide, curling smile started the tour with a spiel about New Awlins. Pacing up and down our group like a friendly drill sergeant, she delivered a very good historical overview and set the stage for our Voodoo and Cemetery tour (but we'll save that for another post). At one point, she quipped, "New Orleans is where Americans go when they can't afford to go to Europe." The simplicity of this made me giggle but I couldn't help but agree that New Orleans, while unlike any European city I have visited, is equally unlike anywhere else I know of in America.
My parents invited us to join them on a trip to the Big Easy for a few days between Christmas and New Year's Eve. Though typically this is the busiest week of the year at work, it was through coincidence, luck, and the blessing of a merciful scheduler that I found myself on a four-day weekend during this time. With a freed up calendar, Cindy and I went to New Orleans with my parents and sister, staying in separate hotels in the French Quarter. Everyday of the trip we would make a 10 minute walk to a rendezvous point before starting off on an excursion of some sort—a trolley ride to the Garden District one day and a drive out to the picturesque Oak Alley Plantation on the other. As a result, I actually don't have very many photos of New Orleans during the daytime and what photos I do have are out of chronology. Further, for all intents and purposes this blog is about the French Quarter section of New Orleans, and not necessarily other districts. But enough disclaimers—
After our flight and ride into town, our first proper introduction to New Orleans was actually on Bourbon Street because, with little planning on our part, Cindy and I found our hotel on Bourbon Street! Though I have heard others comment on the noise from partiers keeping them up at night, our hotel was at the far-end of the French Quarter, facing Canal Street, and we were insulated from any ruckus. But it was a ruckus we would enjoy!
Initially in route to my parent's hotel, we strolled down the street, immediately wrapped up in a diverse and kinetic environment. Fancy looking restaurants, dirty dive bars, nice whiskey lounges, cheap daiquiri dispensers, jazz courtyards, strip clubs, street performers, gimmicky peddlers, well dressed tourists, and homeless people all shared the same space, lit by both gas lanterns and tacky-neon. Bourbon Street is a straight path and yet a maze of contradictions bustling with life and entertainment. Of course there's the alcohol, available everywhere thanks to no prohibitive open-container laws. This was the cherry on top that made Bourbon Street everything that you could imagine and enjoy.
As an obvious tourist, it's easy to get pulled in every direction. Barkers line the street, occasionally shouting competing announcements for how much better the deals are in their bar. My favorite was the men holding signs that said, in all caps, "HUGE ASS BEERS!" who managed to sing and dance so loudly as to make their signs the most subtle part of their routine. Another time, a man approached us and flashed an ID holder, suggesting authority, and started talking to us about the crime I committed (something about not lavishing Cindy with gifts). We walked right on past him but on the return trip my parents went missing and I looked back to find them with the man. He had shoved a hat into my father's hands and was attempting to get him to pay for it. Despite the persistence, we never found it bothersome but rather quite humorous.
To avoid sensory overload, we traveled half a block away from Bourbon street to grab a bite at a quieter, well reviewed bar. Ordering po' boys and jambalaya, we shared a few beers and had a cliche' but satisfying "When in Rome" moment as a family. After dinner, we walked further outward from Bourbon Street and within 60 seconds all noise of the non-stop party had faded away.
In its place, we found ourselves in the more romantic, classic environment encompassing the artistic and residential side of the French Quarter (according to our guide, 95% of the Quarter remains residential). The city's famous 3-5 story buildings lined each street with their unmistakeable New Orleanian balconies. As we walked along the streets we peered into storefronts containing art galleries, antique shops, historic exhibits, cafe's, and upscale restaurants. The town was magical and further enhanced by the occasional Christmas decoration that served to remind you what time of year it was.
Then, of course, there were musicians. Just a month before our trip, Cindy and I watched the New Orleans episode of the Foo Fighters' album-accompanying HBO series Sonic Highways. In the episode, which looks at the music scene in different American cities, Dave Grohl mentioned that music in New Orleans was 'literally in the streets'. This proved to be accurate and a fantastic part of our visit. From the occasional guitar player, to Jazz singers, to our favorite, the popular street-musicians Tanya and Dorise. They played a version of "Part of Your World" that actually made me feel something (I hear it far too often) and we were hooked for a bunch of their songs.
On other nights, we traveled even further down the French Quarter towards Jackson Square and the Mississippi River. Jackson Square, is the famous central plaza of the French Quarter, renamed for Andrew Jackson after the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. A statue of the old President galloping on horseback sits in the middle of a small park, flanked on three sides by buildings and a pedestrian mall. In the center of the square is the St. Louis Cathedral which dominates this part of town and serves as a reminder of the city's Catholic history. Other than a shouting match between a few drunk guys, it was a quiet and relaxing setting that I wish we could have seen in the daylight.
Beyond Jackson Square was Cafe Du Monde (the most famous beignets in the city) and then a pair of staircases up a 15 foot wall to the Mississippi River. Each of these steps is an eye-opening depiction that New Orleans is built below sea-level and unavoidably brings to mind images of Hurricane Katrina. Though we didn't see signs of the storm (the French Quarter wasn't flooded like the Lower 9th Ward was), pre-trip research warned that the locals still felt the sting of the disaster and recommended not mentioning the hurricane in jest. When questions were asked about the flooding during our cemetery tour, our guide's eyes grew wide with fire as she repeated several times that the disaster was man-made and not a natural one. She, of course, was referring to the failure of levees that protect the sunken city.
As we knew this, looking across the Mississippi River was both beautiful and eerie. The river's surface was undefined below a layer of fog, like clouds in a canyon. This somehow added an additional dimension to its size and it appeared to stretch infinitely beyond the CCC, the Crescent City Connection bridges.
As I mentioned earlier, our day excursions to the Garden District and Oak Alley Plantation will be saved for another time, but what I've just descried was how we experienced the French Quarter. Wandering around, eating, drinking, listening to music, and soaking in the culture and architecture was the perfect way to get to know the city. The whole time, the experience felt familiar and yet it was new at the same time.
As a west coaster, it becomes easy to compare the experience to Las Vegas. With alcohol openly carried around in public, as well as bars, night clubs, strip clubs, and even gambling out on the river, it's an easy point to arrive at. Upon further reflection, though, it really is the opposite in that New Orleans has the one thing that most resorts in Vegas do not—authenticity. The French Quarter is composed of centuries-old buildings, each with their own character and stories. In fact, the community works hard to keep it that way. They've established the "Vieux Carre' Commission", an organization designed to preserve the French Quarter in its historic state. This committee regulates all construction of new buildings, modifications to existing ones, and ensures the Quarter's architectural consistency remains in tact.
When wandering around Bourbon Street, I recalled a feeling I got while in Bruges, Belgium. In my post on Bruges, I asked "Is the 500 year old building any less special if it's used to sell cheap merchandise and generic 'Bruges'-labeled trinkets? For us, no." This is even more true in New Orleans. Walking through the party environment, I remember thinking that these old buildings all have their own chronologies and experiences, standing as a witness to history, and yet today serve as a storefront for a cheap daiquiri slushy machines. In my mind, not only does that not diminish the value of these buildings, it manages to add to it because that's what New Orleans is—culturally rich through a series of contradictions.
New Orleans is both classy and tacky, big and small, historic and reinvented. I feel like I saw most of the city and yet can list the many things we didn't do and must when we return. You can point to the city's history for answers: Its Creole culture birthed by French colonists and developed during Spanish colonial rule is still felt across the French Quarter. This culture, and way of life, conflicted with American norms and these clashes make the city what it is—diverse. And perhaps that is what makes the place so enchanting. Anyone can visit New Orleans and have the experience they want to have because New Orleans has so many experiences to be had. With so many things to do, to see, to learn, you might even find yourself enjoying something new. Recognizing I can be a dork, it's an environment that I don't normally feel comfortable in and yet I can't wait to go back. It's become one of my favorite cities.
Perhaps you were hoping for more photos of the buildings in the French Quarter? Or more photos of people?! Either way, to see more of our Christmastime visit to New Orleans and the French Quarter, check out the gallery below!