I just spent three days in New Orleans with my daughter, to celebrate a birthday and revive memories of our life in the city where a long time ago, I was attending Tulane University as a single mom hoping to get another degree.
There is so much to do in NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana) that each time we visit we discover new joys. We drove from Florida in a low ceiling of fleece clouds, as the polar vortex covering America did not spare us down here; and the temperature in the high 40s was definitely a serious big chill for us. My bottle of Evian froze overnight in the car!
In recent news, critics were blaming the shoddy construction of wood houses that Brad Pitt had launched after hurricane Katrina, as the material used proved unstable and of poor quality, and is apparently now rotting away in unsafe ways, challenging one more time the security of displaced people after natural disasters. New Orleans is certainly often the center of attention for its troubled past, its air of foreign atmosphere, and its exotic cuisine.
New Orleans has always been a brave city, facing enormous challenges and few resources. But the music goes on, the beads are flying, liquors are joyous and human spirit is brazen. The New Orleanais always have something to celebrate, even defeat (see the Saints' last game).
As soon as we entered the city, we traced an A-line to La Madeleine, the cute little corner coffee shop at Saint Charles and Carrolton, where the food and the ambiance makes us feel a little like we are in France. Croque-monsieur, tartes aux fruits and a baguette are the basic staples of the short menu, and the patisseries are to die for.
The weather not lifting, and the air misty, we decide to check into our hotel, a place we booked online, which turned out to be a complete disaster. I knew from the listed address that it was not going to be a first-class location, but the price was definitely the incentive. Hookers on the parking lot were a bad sign right off the bat. The elevator was out of order, and strange-looking men were slouched on dirty lobby couches. Still, we bravely asked to see a room, before running back to our car and leave. I won't name names.
We then drove slowly along majestic Saint Charles avenue, following its adorable streetcar, dreaming of the inside of the noble mansions lining the artery, with Roman columns, gigantic front porches, ornate iron gates, massive structures of white wood and marble. Some were Victorian architecture, some were Grecian style or Creole design. The streetcar ($1.25 each ride, or $3 for a day pass) line is cut in spots, while the rails are being replaced, and some portions are out of service, so a bus awaits the riders to mind the gap.
After finding a nice hotel on Saint Charles, a huge relief, we rode the tram down to the French Quarter (Carré Français) for some nightly fun. It was loud and busy, wet and deafening, but the music, the dancing, and the food were still amazing and mood-lifting. It felt really nice to boogie one more time to a disco tune without any shame. For a few hours, no one had any care in the World.
Beads are still lining the sidewalks, not sure if it's from the last Mardi-Gras, or a preview of what's coming for the next one (Tuesday March 4). The celebration itself starts Feb. 15, and culminates on the actual Fat Tuesday. Rolling floats of gigantic proportions and infinite imagination will run down the main streets, slowly progress in the French Quarter, going on to the suburbs, with gazillions of beads thrown at the viewers by half-humans/half-monsters of all kinds riding the decorated vehicles. The aim is, of course, to gather as many necklaces as you can without getting hit in the face.
This is fun, this is New Orleans. The next day, the vortex has gone away; the weather is now magnificent. Not a cloud in the blue sky, and it's an amazing 70 degrees! We drive and walk around, taking pictures of all the places we used to live, eat, go to school and shop, along Magazine Street, with its most amazing boutiques. In a city so French-oriented, La Boulangerie (4600 Magazine) is the real thing: A true French bakery where they even sell the authentic fluff pastry Galette des Rois, which is not quite the same than the Kings Cake. Different pastry, different look and no glossy colors on top of it.
La Galette des Rois is offered to celebrate the Christian epiphany, and the Rois in question are the Three Kings bearing presents for the newly born baby Jesus. The day of the Epiphany is January the 6, and is usually celebrated with cakes during the entire month. A small token inside the cake represents the baby, or sometimes an animal from the crèche, such as a sheep or a pig. Whoever bites on it while eating the pie is crowned queen or king, and wears a gold foil crown for the day.
We headed for the zoo in Audubon Park, where my daughter used to adore the playground even more than the animals when she was a baby. I still dislike zoos, but this a trip down memory lane for us, so I did not want to skip one important place on the itinerary. I have to say that the two white alligators of the zoo are some of the scariest animals on the planet. The Bayou Café is just a hot-dog kind of station, but eating on wooden planks among climbing raccoons, surrounded by sluggish green swamps, where alligators bob their eyes on the surface to look at you and your sandwich, is definitely an out-of-this-world experience.
The next day, still with gorgeous weather, we decided to visit City Park and the Museum of Art (NOMA), a grand Greco-Roman edifice. The damn GPS wanted us to take a road the wrong way, which we did for a few yards, until we came face to face with incoming traffic flashing us big time, with people standing on their car horns. We made a fast U-turn and called the tracker every kind of names.
The museum has a rich permanent collection and a few revolving shows. I was happy to see an entire room of Joseph Cornell's boxes, one of my favorite artists. The outside sculptures garden is a very zen place for a little stroll. The park itself is a huge, 1,300-acre spread of lakes and trails, and more than one day would be needed to cover the entire grounds.
The Art-Deco buildings at the botanical garden resisted hurricane Katrina, but the park itself was covered in three feet of water for two weeks during Katrina (2005), and some species did not survive the flood. A nice way to help is still simply to visit. The 16 rides at the amusement park include an antique wooden carousel featuring flying horses, a monkey jump, Ferris wheel, bumper cars and a miniature train.
Around the park, several cemeteries are also worth a visit. The gigantic mausoleums and above-the-ground tombs are a must-see of a New Orleans visit; their ornate stone statues are a museum in their way. Several outfitters offer tours of the many cemeteries of the city; some even so-called haunted spooky tours. But, you don't need a guide to discover the paths and corners of the parks. The city has about 50 different cemeteries and sepultures enclosures, with thousands of stone angels. Some cemeteries still have traces of segregation.
New Orleans is a very special place, not quite American, not French either; it has its own identity and feel. A unique experience where superstition, surreal adventures, exotic food, dance music and sometimes strange encounters, will definitely leave you with a sense of discovery and enchantment. And, although the terrible pot-holes are still everywhere, a danger to any low-riding car or brand-new models, I always return with glee, and I am always comforted by a strange feeling of belonging. My daughter concurs.