Travels In New Orleans
“It was apparently not known that desire must be dammed up to be self-renewing.” Jacques Barzun
Travel writing is somewhat metaphysical in nature. I mean this in the sense that I am writing about a place trying to convince you it is wonderful many times all the while trying to enjoy the place in question as wonderful. I have to describe to you the paradise of a place while I am enjoying its paradise. It’s all very difficult frankly. However, nothing about New Orleans screams out paradise and thus there seems to me a certain level of simplicity in writing about New Orleans. Of course, being a rather gothic Southern city, the Sodom of all Sodoms as Tim Gautreaux has written, adds back in a layer of complexity that ripples the pond of simplicity. New Orleans is very definitely not paradise. No place where the residents must face death on almost a daily basis could ever turn into a paradise. It combines the maddening weather of the subtropics with a Southern sense of the genteel and then layers all that with a certain testosterone fueled characteristic. The result is a city at once civil and debauched in which nothing seems to be truly beautiful but many things are quite fantastic.
I have been to New Orleans three times now, the latest this past Labor Day weekend. Like so much of the South, a strong sense of history and place pervades New Orleans keeping it strongly tied to its past. At times it seems as if every building is historical in some way. Much of this is lost on the revelers moving through the city streets, frozen drinks in hand, apparently drinking away a multitude of troubles. There is a certain sadness that inhabits New Orleans, an almost fatalistic celebration of bacchanalia carried to extreme. The city is one of the few that I feel like I truly love yet would never live in. It takes a certain kind of psychological framework to exist here, one at peace with the necessary fatalism. Walking the streets of New Orleans bombards one’s sight with spectacles unknown in other locales and assaults one’s sense of smell with a boiling potpourri of fragrances often delicious and disgusting in the same breath. New Orleans at its worst is human nature incarnate, the basest of human instincts not just catered to but actively cultivated in a garden of sin and alcohol. At its best, it exhibits the unconquerable resiliency of the human spirit in face of tragedy and corruption.
We arrived early Saturday morning on the first flight of the day, less than 24 hours after power had been restored to the airport after Hurricane Isaac. As with many of my travels over the past year in the South, the itinerary was largely influenced by the pages of Garden & Gun, the quintessential magazine and voice of Southern culture. We stayed at Windsor Court which can’t be recommended highly enough. It is far enough from the parties and crowds of the French quarter to be reserved and quiet but is a wonderful central location for forays into that section of town as well as the nearby Warehouse and Garden districts. We did not rent a car, never took a taxi or got on a bus and did not feel shortchanged at all. Certainly there are other sights in New Orleans to see but staying here makes many of the main destinations easily accessible.
Saturday involved strolling around the French Quarter starting with a stop at Cafe du Monde for beignets and chicory coffee on the patio while a band played jazz right in front of us. Much of the French Quarter charm is enjoyed outside. Of course, taking a trip there in early September directly puts that in conflict with the steamy weather of late summer so many of our experiences revolved around dashing in places that had air conditioning and cold drinks. Even at 10 AM, the porch at Cafe du Monde was hot and doing anything in the sun involved a significant amount of sweat. Do not make a trip at this time with someone uncomfortable with you being largely sweat soaked throughout the day. It will not be a good time for anyone.
We walked through the French Quarter for awhile before heading back to the hotel to enjoy some AC and a planning session for lunch. Food is a critical part of any trip to New Orleans and above all else, we enjoyed the culinary delights. Lunch was at Frank’s, known world wide for the amazing muffuleta. Do go to Frank’s when in New Orleans. Have the muffuletta. Have a cold Abita beer with it. Do not under any circumstances take any suggestions from the waitstaff regarding other items on the menu like the mozzarella caprese salad which was seemed to be made with tomatoes found floating in the Mississippi and a mozzarella-like substance closer in consistency to riced cauliflower than actual good cheese. Have the sandwich. Drink beer. Your soul will be overjoyed and you won’t have to worry about the overt displeasure of the aforementioned waitstaff person who told you how wonderful the salad was when you leave the entire thing on the table. Trust me on this.
The rest of the afternoon involved a nap in the cold AC again instead of a trip to the Civil War Museum since waking up at 5 AM tends to leave you uninterested in walking through the afternoon heat. That evening, we met an old friend at Iris for dinner. The restaurant had not been on our vacation radar but was excellent. After dinner, we ventured far off the beaten path of typical tourism to Bacchanal, a quaint, fascinating place with a live band featuring accordian and clarinet made all the more fascinating by the fact the entire block still didn’t have electricity and they were only open due to a very powerful sounding generator. Bacchanal has a wonderful outdoor backyard that is perfect for getting a bottle of wine and enjoying the ambiance. It’s in the Ninth Ward, largely destroyed in Katrina. It’s worth a trip though it helped to have a NOLA native to guide us there.
After a night cap at the Windsor Court bar, we retired for the evening. Sunday started off with breakfast at a fabulous restaurant off the French Quarter but right around the corner from our hotel. The Ruby Slipper Cafe makes fantastic Southern breakfasts including BBQ Shrimp and grits and Eggs Cochon, a downhome southern take on the exalted Eggs Benedict. This place was good enough that we ate breakfast here both days. The bloody mary’s are good, the service is friendly and direct and the coffee is strong.
After breakfast, we headed over to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The museum is an excellent collection of art from the South and is worth a visit. The museum store is an excellent one as well. We had hoped to also see the Civil War Museum right next door but it is closed on Sundays and Mondays, something to keep in mind for the future. We walked in the World War II museum but the tickets were slightly pricier than expected and having seen several WWII museums in other locations, we decided to head back to the hotel for calmer pursuits. Dinner that evening was a basic po’boy on the Quarter followed by a ghost tour. If you go to New Orleans, the number 1 rated tour company in town (you’ll find their flyers everywhere) is worth checking out, especially the haunted history tour led by Andrew. He’s a fantastic storyteller (not hurt in the slightest by several rum drinks acquired along the way). The tour hits many fascinating locations in the quarter that you might otherwise walk right by including the three remaining French buildings in the quarter and the most haunted house in town.
After the tour, we wandered Bourbon Street hurricane in hand like true tourists. This lasted all of about fifteen minutes after we came to the conclusion that perhaps the debauchery of the street was better enjoyed between the ages of 25-30 when hormones and desire ruled the logical portions of the brain. Like its close cousin Sixth Street in Austin, Bourbon Street is a place for the uninitiated and the truly drunk. It’s an experience worth having once but there is little of interest if you do not want to drink until staggering. The sociological minded amongst you may enjoy the base human element on display but for those looking for a quiet drink are better off on Magazine or Dauphine Streets. While Bourbon Street is the Quarter, it is the opposite expression of dammed up desire. Here almost anything is on the table literally and figuratively allowing any desire to be fulfilled or exhibited. One would expect little else from a city constantly one hurricane away from destruction, a city full of people who must constantly face the fact of possible catastrophe. However much of Bourbon Street activity is the artificial expression of non-residents allowing inhibitions to run free with little consequence other than what must be a truly devastating hangover for many of them.
Monday was low key and quiet. We spent the morning touring St. Louis Cemetery #1, one of the oldest in the city and resting place of luminaries such as Marie Laveau and Homer Plessy. It’s an easy walk from the Quarter though doing it at night might be a different story. Lunch was a true po’boy at Ernst Cafe. The Ernster piled high with roast beef and either fried shrimp or oysters is fantastic. Another cold Abita or two and you can safely conclude the trip a success.
New Orleans is a fascinating place full of history well worth visiting and exploring. But definitely go in October or March and expect it to be a day time vacation unless you are under the age of 25. We didn’t experience as much live music as we might have liked but the food and the history more than made up for that.