As The Rough Guide to New Orleans aptly describes it, NOLA is a town of melancholy beauty and ebullient spirit. Founded by the French in 1718, it became part of the United States in 1803 when the Louisiana Purchase was signed at the Cabildo). After that, New Orleans grew rapidly and became the second largest port and the fourth wealthiest city in the United States.
The city’s beauty is mingled with great poverty and a level of crime that has guidebooks warning visitors to be mindful of their surroundings and avoid wandering alone, especially at night. Still, every block holds surprises, gorgeous or quirky. Laure’s description of the city nailed it: genteel, with a good dose of grit and moxie.
This was a working trip for us both, and each day began early, after a cup of coffee and a look through our maps and guidebooks. We grouped things we wanted to see geographically as best we could, since we had no car and depended on public transportation to get us where we wanted to go. We rode the streetcar every day, both St. Charles and Canal Street lines—not the speediest method of travel, but we got to see more of New Orleans than if we’d been contending with traffic in an unfamiliar city. We spent the rest of the time on foot, in order to see more and, perhaps, to make up for the praline taste-testing we did all over town. And the etoufee, and the po'boys, and the gelato and the beignets.... This is not a town for the calorie-conscious.
The French Quarter, or Vieux Carre (“old square”), fascinated me. Graceful wrought-iron balconies awash in plants stand next to dilapidated and rundown buildings. Narrow alleyways lead to leafy courtyards, men walk down the street with cats (or snakes) draped over their shoulders. Interesting and unique shops selling everything from Mardi Gras masks to voodoo dolls to perfume line the narrow streets. I fed my obsession with books when I stumbled across a used bookstore in the Quarter (the Librairie) and deliberately sought out the Faulkner House bookstore, so named because William Faulkner lived and wrote there for a time.
Any discussion of New Orleans must include reference to Katrina. I had never been to NOLA before, so had no way to compare pre- and post-hurricane conditions. Though I looked for it, I did not see the “Katrina tattoo”—the line on many buildings that marked the high point of Katrina’s floodwaters, and we didn’t stray into the Ninth Ward or the other areas that were hardest hit by the storm. (There are hurricane tours you can take, but for several reasons we chose not to do this.) The few residents we spoke with gave me the impression that they had been emotionally scarred by Katrina, but were so deeply rooted in the area they would find it nearly impossible to leave. After visiting, I believe it would be a tragedy to lose New Orleans and I applaud those who have worked so diligently to bring it back.
The French Quarter is so much more than Bourbon Street, and New Orleans is so much more than the French Quarter. Even spending 10-12 hours a day exploring, we simply didn’t have time to see everything we wanted to see—we’ve barely scratched the surface of this mysterious, multi-faceted town.
Care for a beignet?My feet still hurt.