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New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS - A French heart... really? -  Some say that within this very festive American city beats a French heart.

Let’s find out by strolling the streets of its historical French Quarter, visiting the Garden District and its luxurious houses, exploring the plantations along the Mississippi River, tasting its cuisine, submitting to a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride and abandoning our souls to the warm ambiance of its incomparable jazz clubs.
  

Vital companions: comfortable shoes!

“You don’t need a guidebook to see New Orleans – just a good pair of shoes.” James Carville, who wrote this, couldn’t be more right!

As long as you are in relatively good shape, you can wander through this human-scale city and be imbued with its warm, cheerful and vibrant atmosphere!

The French Quarter or The Vieux Carre

New Orleans is a fascinating city and the fabled French Quarter, its historic centre, perfectly translates this attribute. Here, life is a never-ending adventure. Day and night you can hear the sound of jazz permeating through the walls of one of its numerous bars, restaurants and nightclubs or simply from the next street corner over.

The streets of the Vieux Carre are bordered by houses adorned with fine ironwork and flourished balconies. Here, the architecture is from a Spanish influence rather than French.

Strolling through these narrow streets, admiring their small private courtyards with fountains and flower beds, stopping at Café du Monde – just long enough to buy one of the famous beignets that can be savoured during our stroll – being seduced by and attracted to the sound of jazz floating in the air and enjoying a beer in one of the bars on Bourbon Street, named in tribute to the Roi Soleil (at last, a piece of the city’s French heart!) and finally, selecting one of its many restaurants to enjoy local specialties: this is a perfect day in New Orleans!

The Garden District

Hop on the historic St. Charles red streetcar - Tennessee Williams wouldn’t have disowned it for "A Streetcar Named Desire” - to reach the Garden District located a few hundred meters away from the French Quarter.

Strolling on the famous St. Charles Avenue, from Lee Circle to the old city of Carollton, allows us to take a look at beautiful parks and well trimmed gardens surrounding magnificent, affluent houses, built by rich and powerful Americans at the beginning of the 1800, when Louisiana became American. The houses reflect various styles, from Greek Revival to Victorian, including the Italianate style inspired by Sully, the famous Louisiana architect.

One of the best examples of the Italianate style is the Simon Hernsheim house, known as “The Columns”.  It served as a setting for the film “Pretty Baby” starring Brooke Shields at the end of the ‘70s and has since been converted into a luxurious hotel. It is nice to sit at its bar and enjoy a drink and give a break to our beaten-up feet. The architect’s own house, located a little further down at 4010 Saint Charles Avenue, is in the Queen Anne Style and is also remarkable, though more modest.

Speaking of architecture, various styles live side by side in New Orleans in amazing harmony. Their common stucco and wood casing, their columns and wrought iron ornamentations certainly contribute to an image of unity.

Creole cottages, with their exterior stucco walls in various colors, can be found in the Vieux Carre and its surroundings and Shotgun Houses inspired by Sulley are everywhere in town, with half-covered small porches supported by columns and Victorian lace-adorned supports. Double Gallery Houses - two-story constructions surrounded by large balconies with columns and entablature - are landmarks of the Garden District.

The Art District

Close to the Vieux Carre we found the trendy Art District or Warehouse District, where many warehouses have been transformed into museums. The Contemporary Arts Center and The National World War II Museum moved their treasures here, as well as more than twenty art galleries and artist workshops. Large windows and building facades displaying paintings and sculptures are a real feast for art enthusiasts, particularly on Julia Street, and temptations for art collectors and art lovers as well! Why not surrender and bring back a work of art as a souvenir?

The area is also a treat for architecture lovers with buildings that are so well restored and harmoniously integrated into their environment.

A few good restaurants, such as Emeril’s, Sushi Rock-n-Saké, Rio Mar Seafood, offer art from their kitchens, suited to their environment.

To see and see again!

The Besthoff Sculpture Garden, a magnificent sculpture garden in a park of giant pines and oaks that create a natural frame for them. We spent many magical hours in this absolutely superb setting, which unveils an incredible collection of modern and contemporary sculptures at every turn. And just imagine: you are allowed to touch these works of art! What a feeling to caress the voluptuous curves of a Botero sculpture! Many other artists, among which are Henry Moore, George Segal, Louise Bourgeois, Joel Shapira, Jacques Lipchitz signed works in this collection, worth $25 million dollars. All of this is a 10-minute cab ride from the Vieux Carre.

The French Market has a flea market open 7 days a week, from 7 in the morning until 7 at night. It is of course located in the Vieux Carre, along the river and its 30 boutiques, restaurants and cafes that offer everything from spices to farm fresh products. Many events, festivals and entertainment take place here at all times: the Creole Tomato Festival, the Mardi Gras Mask Festival, Spring Fiesta, Halloween, the Christmas Decorations Market… we can bet there will be something special going on when you visit!

The St. Louis Cathedral, also named “Basilica Saint Louis, King of France,” is located in the centre of the Vieux Carre. You can’t miss this stunning white church that faces the old Place d’Armes, now Jackson Square. Its white and beige colors are also used inside for the walls and ceiling, contrasting with the dark wood of its benches, balustrades and ornaments. A few beautiful stained glass windows filter the light in a most exquisite way and its ceiling is adorned with quite remarkable medallions. The church dates back to 1718, when Louisiana was still a French territory. It is the oldest cathedral still in use in the United States and has recently been undergoing significant renovations.

The Moon Walk Promenade, located along the Mississippi River. Watch riverboats, tug boats and authentic colorful paddle wheelers parade on the river, many offering cruises for a few hours or a few days in the bayous to visit antebellum plantations.

A few well-earned calories!

Creole cuisine, with its Latin, Mexican, Cajun and Tex-Mex influences, its French fritters, crayfish à l’étouffée, bread pudding and meat pies is very well represented by a dozen great chefs presiding in the kitchens and collecting awards of recognition from their peers.

Does the French spirit claimed by New Orleans hide somewhere in these kitchens?

We were seduced by the legendary creations of chef Leah Chasem, who for 65 years has been a pioneer of “Creole Soul Food” in the Dooky Chase Restaurant on Orleans Avenue in the French Quarter. Dooky Chase’s walls are permeated by creole spices and are covered by local artists’ works.

In the Garden District, the inspired and creative creole cuisine of the young chef Sue Zemanick attracted us to Gautreau’s Restaurant.

Chef Frank Brigtsen’s creole cuisine, offered in his restaurant located in a beautiful Victorian house in the same neighbourhood, also seduced us.

Of course, you can select Emeril’s Restaurant in the Art District, Nola Restaurant in the Vieux Carre or Emeril’s Delmonico in the Garden District; however, bear in mind that reservations have to be made well in advance for these three restaurants owned by the famous chef Emeril Lagasse, author of many cookbooks and host of a TV cooking show. He is the most renowned chef in New Orleans and his restaurants are filled every night.

Don't miss K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen where you can taste, in the romantic setting of a charming courtyard, cakes and bread freshly made on site. Chef Paul Prudhomme, who is also behind many cookbooks and videos, officiates here. If it is on the menu, try one of his famous recipes: the blackened redfish. Chef Prudhomme is also the man behind "Chef Paul’s Magic Seasoning Blends" that you can find in any good grocery store in the U.S.

For Sunday brunch, try Café Degas, named after the 19th century French impressionist painter who lived here. It is a charming restaurant for a French-inspired brunch with Creole accents that can be enjoyed on the outside terrace. It provides a lovely memory!

In summary, we discovered cuisine that is varied, rich, tasty and full of colors, worth being savored slowly under the sun or under the (not so) "cool" air of jazz.

Many routes can be followed to discover the gastronomy of the region, its cuisine, its restaurants, its local products and specialties: Creole Fusion, Bayou Bounty, Seafood Fusion, Capital Cuisine and the Red River riches. It’s worth trying if you have the time and a liver in good condition!

To remember...

Works of art, photos, Cajun spices, cookbooks signed by famous local chefs that can be found in any New Orleans bookstore. Antiques on Royal Street in the Vieux Carre and on Magazine Street in the Garden District.

Designer clothes in boutiques, whose most colorful displays create a permanent carnival and festive atmosphere... Why not enjoy the ambiance year-round, after all?

Our favorite boutique is Hemline, on Chartres Street, not far from the French Quarter. In its enfilade of small rooms, one reserved for shoes – fabulous! - and accessories, another for clothing on sale. It is possible to unearth - at fairly reasonable prices - designer pieces and, of course, extravagant and magnificent ball dresses, not to mention irresistible hats!

To be quite honest, we succumbed to the shop, and I left with a quite extravagant red hat decorated with a peacock feather, while my companion chose to play the role of an Indiana Jones in the city with a most befitting forest green felt hat.

Lastly, do not forget to buy provisions: the famous Creole pralines at Aunt Sally’s Praline Shop on Decatur Street in the Vieux Carre.

How about jazz?

Music is everywhere in this town. For Blues or jazz, just follow your instincts - or rather, your ears - they are still your best recommendations.

In the Vieux Carre, Preservation Hall is the mythical jazz club of the city. Is it a tourist trap or a rendez-vous for the nostalgic among us?

We rather place it in the second category and resolved to go there. We listened to great jazz in the old venue, where musicians sitting on straight wooden chairs face you while you are almost sitting on the floor on low wooden benches. The only decorations on the walls are black and white photos of famous jazz musicians who performed here, such as Louis Armstrong.

You have to go! It is an institution where good jazz is played, even if the famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band is on tour most of the time. Musicians are excellent and work the audience so well that we forgot how uncomfortable we felt at first.

Speaking of tourist traps, there are many! Sports bars feature wet t-shirt contests or wrestling matches with whacky themes meant to please the sports teams and sports fans visiting New Orleans for matches at the Superdome. We recommend avoiding those places, unless you have a desire to regress!

Gone with the wind: bringing back memories?

Louisiana is also famous for its plantations and their antebellum houses, examples of which can be found less than an hour drive from New Orleans.

With their large porches leading to alleys bordered by centennial oaks and facing the Mississippi River, they induce dreams and prompt us to ask ourselves who lived here and what was their life like? Of course, guides are usually very pleased to tell you family stories about the previous owners, often worthy of a novel and most of the time even better than stories we could have imagined…

A few of the plantations have become resorts, housing fine restaurants, such as the Nottoway and Houmas House Plantation and Garden.

Apart from visits to those plantations and fine cuisine tours, many other guided itineraries are offered in the neighborhood of New Orleans: bayou visits, cemeteries, haunted or Voodoo sites and even a "cocktail tour."

Why not a cruise?

On August 2012, the Queen of the Mississippi will be launching its first cruise between New Orleans and Memphis, traveling to Nashville the following week, then St. Louis, inaugurating a cycle of one week cruises plowing through the mythical Mississippi basin.

This new five deck boat, decorated in a Victorian style, will look like a traditional wheeler linking the era of the river that Mark Twain wrote about to a period closer to our times, described in the memorable Lucky Luke by Morris.

And Katrina?

Traces of the devastating hurricane that badly hit New Orleans in August 2005 are still visible. Fortunately, the Vieux Carre and the Garden District were mostly spared; however, other parts of the city have not been so lucky and in neighborhoods such as St. Bernard Parish traces of desolation are still visible.

In those districts, houses were destroyed and haven't been rebuilt, leaving huge, open scars or have been replaced by houses on pilings, sometimes elevated 2 to 3 meters from the ground, or even replaced by prefabricated modular houses. So much for style!

A huge page of history has been swallowed up with the waters of Katrina. In other more affluent districts located close to the dams, "house for sale" signs are omnipresent, making it very clear that people don't want to live through another traumatic experience again.

You can still see utility signposts and viaducts with the marks left by the dirty waters of Katrina. These are ghostly, omnipresent traces, sometimes reaching eye level! It’s quite difficult to imagine that the water was so high!

Where to stay?

As you might guess, there are many options. In the French Quarter, as well as in the quieter Garden District, hotels and B&Bs abound, from the most affluent to the more modest.

We discovered Terrell House, a B&B located in the Garden District on Magazine Street.

Built in 1857, it is a three-story residence in the Italianate style with porches and wrought iron balconies. Vintage furniture fills its rooms with 14-foot high ceilings that are ornately decorated with medallions and where modern comfort is offered.

Its rooms with fireplaces are tastefully decorated, with immaculate bedding that contrasts with the dark wood of its period furniture. A courtyard, where lush vegetation grows between fountains and wrought iron garden furniture, is a magnificent and peaceful haven after long hours strolling and exploring the city.

When to go?

For a long weekend, Christmas or Mardi Gras!

You don't really need an excuse to visit New Orleans and let yourself be filled with its French, Spanish and American culture! It is a vibrant city whose heart might not be truly French, but is very big, because it certainly is one of those places where you can always go back to and simply savour life!

 

Christiane Théberge
 

www.office-tourisme-usa.com/La-Nouvelle-Orleans,-LA-ville_331.html

www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/

www.terrellhouse.com/
 

 

 

 

Fine ironworks on house

Red streetcar

"The Columns"

 A French Quarter house

In the Art District

The Besthoff Sculpture Garden

The famous "Love" at Besthoff

St. Louis Cathedral

Ceiling of the cathedral

Chef Prudhomme's "Blackened fish" 

K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen - courtyard

One of  Chef Frank Brigtsen's creation

At the market

Preservation Hall

Preservation Hall Band 

A plantation house

Houmas House 

Girod St. Cemetery

Traces of Katrina

Houses on pilings 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

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