Archive for Sunday, February 24, 2002

takes Southern hospitality to new level

February 24, 2002


— Like Paris, London and Rome, New Orleans is one of the world's great walking cities. You can see a lot for free, or a mere picayune, the name of the Spanish coin worth 6 1/4 cents that the local daily, the Times-Picayune, proudly boasts on its masthead.

The "City That Care Forgot," as local boosters like to call this picturesque metropolis located on a half-mile-wide bend of the Mississippi River, throbs to a Dixieland beat with a kinetic energy that has little to do with industry, manufacturing or the high-tech information age. The natives seem to be as hellbent on a good time as the tourists, and come sundown it's often hard to tell them apart.

Even when the Mardi Gras floats have been stored in their warehouses and the Jazz Festival is a fond memory, these streets are alive at any hour with music and merriment and mayhem. And yet, thanks to the city's amazingly efficient sanitation crews, the beer cups disappear by dawn. Then the shop owners and dwellers in those tidy, tiny houses come out to hose down the pavements.

Walkers can smell the flowers growing in the lush fenced-off courtyards and on those lacy iron balconies, and hear the steamboats and freighters sounding the melancholy horns that called local waif Louis Armstrong upriver to greatness.

French Quarter

For walking the walk and strutting down Rampart street as a bus named Desire goes by, choose a hotel or a bed-and-breakfast in the French Quarter, that flag-shaped remnant of history-filled yesteryears that lies north of Canal Street, in the shadow of the downtown steel and glass skyscrapers.

Gratefully, some years ago concerned citizens formed a Vieux Carre Commission that cried hands-off to the developers and expressway builders, preserved what they could of a unique architectural past, and successfully encouraged new hotels and businesses to restore and imitate the best of what had fallen to the wrecker's ball.

The roughly mile-square Vieux Carre, the old quadrangle or landing, lies between Canal and Esplanade heading away from the skyscrapers and, going east, between North Rampart and the river. The straight and narrow streets in between are often named for saints in one direction and for French royalty in the other.

All offer different cultural, artistic and noshing delights: antique shops, art galleries, a voodoo museum, elegant restaurants like Antoine's and Arnaud's, strip clubs and jazz joints along Bourbon Street (named for French kings, not for booze), stately antebellum mansions like the Beauregard house, a lovely old convent and handsome courthouse, and lurking behind wrought iron gates startlingly beautiful patios and gardens framed by banana trees.

Jazz lovers flock nightly to Preservation Hall, a living monument to classic Dixieland.

For souvenir hunters, there is a trendy shopping mall inhabiting the old Jackson Brewery, an open-air market in an old wharf displaying Louisiana products like pralines, yams and strong chicory coffee, and shops offering such curios as hand-crafted Mardi Gras masks, T-shirts with X-rated shibboleths, stuffed alligators and gris-gris, the dust collected from tombstones for Creole witchcraft rites.

For the lonely and the thirsty there are Irish bars, oyster bars, crawfish bars, gay bars, piano bars and bars with pool tables, balcony bars to view the eclectic passing parade, landmark bars like Pat O'Brien' s with its tall hurricane drinks and flaming courtyard fountain, and quaint bars like the Old Absinthe House, where over a glass or two Andrew Jackson and pirate Jean Lafitte planned the Battle of New Orleans. Since the War of 1812 was already over, the event turned out to be less consequential than the more recent battle that saved for New Orleans the glory of its French Quarter.

The centerpiece of all this, not exactly located in the center, is the lovingly restored St. Louis Cathedral, named for a French king who became a saint and blessed more recently by a Polish Pope who loves Dixieland jazz and was welcomed to the city by the Olympia funeral band pumping out "When the Saints Go Marching In." Tourists abroad on foot can encounter a brass band accompanying a funeral  playing it slow and sad on the way to the graveyard and jazzily up-tempo on the way back.

The triple-spired cathedral is flanked by two remarkably graceful survivors of the days of Spanish rule, the Cabildo and the Presbytere, both now excellent museums. Across the way is flower-filled Jackson Square, with the general up on his horse waving his hat and flanked by the red brick Pontalba apartments, built by the Baroness Pontalba in 1849 and still one of the most prestigious addresses in the city.

Other attractions

New Orleans finds more reasons and more ways to celebrate its colorful past with festivals and parades than most places 10 times its size and age. Jackson Square is still the setting for the annual "Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest," evoking local laureate Tennessee Williams and his angst-driven main characters in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Along Moon Walk on the opposite side of the square, across from the diapered carriage mules resting in the shade, jugglers, mimes, acrobats, balloon sculptors and clowns perform for free or whatever the passers-by chuck into a hat.

Tired of walking? Board one of the handsomely restored streetcars running along the Mississippi and visit the aquarium, the Riverwalk Mall with its posh shops, Harrah's Casino or the cruise ship terminal where, as in Mark Twain's day, steamboats still head all the way up river to Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Just past Lee Circle, the tall column topped by the general, hop off and visit the National D-Day Museum on nearby Magazine Street. Filled with memorabilia of "Operation Overlord," the Normandy invasion, the museum was founded by historian Stephen Ambrose to celebrate "the American spirit of teamwork, optimism, courage and sacrifice that won World War II." Ambrose, biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, taught at the University of New Orleans, whose Eisenhower Center for American Studies is next to the museum.

For tourists on foot who prefer a guide, the Crescent City offers a wide choice of walking tours: ghost tours, cemetery and voodoo tours, witchcraft and vampire tours, scandal tours (the shutters on these old houses creak with scandal), architecture and jazz walks, gourmet treks, church and shrine visits, nightlife gambols and literary walks to see where Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Anne Rice, George W. Cable, Frances Parkinson Keyes and so many others found inspiration or procrastination.

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