Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is wholly unlike anywhere else in America. Some
would say it’s wholly unlike anywhere else in the world.
It’s like this most probably because of the eclectic mix of
nationalities and ethnicities that have made up its population for two
centuries: it must have the most diverse gene pool on the planet. You can hear
French and Spanish spoken on the streets, and the cooking contains influences
from a dizzying variety of world cuisines. It’s a little like Noah’s Ark. A
little of each bit of the whole world exists within the city limits.
A vacation in the Crescent City (or The Big Easy, or any of a
host of other nicknames) essentially means a vacation in the French Quarter. In
fact, straying far beyond the French Quarter may not be such a good idea; New
Orleans may feel like a cultured European city at times, but it’s not as safe
as most transatlantic destinations. It suffers from many of the same problems
as L.A. – poverty, ethnic violence and drug crime. Stay in the French Quarter,
however, and use your common sense, and you should be fine. The city places a
high value on tourists, and much is done to make them feel secure.
The French Quarter is essentially the New Orleans you’ve seen in
the movies: intricate wrought-iron railings, balconies, hanging flower baskets,
and gently fading pastel stucco walls. It feels a lot like Trastevere in Rome,
or the Left Bank in Paris. Just within a few hundred yards of Jackson Square
there’s a huge amount to see and do.
Before you get started on wandering around, however, it’s a good
idea to get used to the city’s peculiar geography and the way the locals
describe it. New Orleans sits on primeval swampland (now drained, thankfully)
between the salt Lake Pontchartrain and the Caribbean. The mighty Mississippi
winds through this strip of land and residents of the city use it as a point of
reference. Giving you directions, they may refer to ‘upriver’ (roughly south)
and ‘downriver’ (roughly north). A good map is pretty much essential in the
city. It may be in principle laid out according to a traditional U.S. grid
pattern of streets, but those streets seem to bend and twist off in the
strangest directions following the line of the Mississippi as it grinds its way
toward the sea.
You can take a cruise on the river. If you’ve a little money to spare, and you
really feel like recreating the heyday of New Orleans high society, you can
take a trip on the SS Creole Queen. The Queen is a restored paddle steamer that
plies her trade through the city most nights, usually with a live jazz band
Mississippi River Steamboat
How did we get so far into this article and not mention jazz?
New Orleans is the home of this most American of music – and a lot of residents
will tell you that real jazz has never truly left. It’s hard to tell you
exactly where to go to hear great jazz, as it’s absolutely everywhere in the
And jazz pervades the place not just as an art-form, but as a
state of mind. You can taste it, for example, in the cooking. While you’re in
Louisiana make sure you try some Creole food. Not the stuff you buy in boxes in
Wal-Mart that claims to be Creole. Try the real stuff. And remember that Cajun
and Creole is not the same thing. Gumbo, Jambalaya and red-beans-and-rice come
from a cultural background miles away from the French-inspired roux dishes of
most Cajun cooking. It’s in the kitchens and cafés of the city that you see the
real evidence of its diversity.
A great way – and a safe one – of seeing the city is to take one
of the regular guided tours that set off from Jackson Square. One of the good
things about these is that the knowledgeable and streetwise local guides can
take large groups to places not mentioned in the guidebooks, or to see sights
in areas you might not necessarily want to visit by yourself.
New Orleans Cemetery
One of the absolute highlights of one of these tours is a visit to one of the
famous New Orleans cemeteries. This may sound pretty grim and boring, but
actually they are wonderful places. Years ago it was discovered that if people
were buried in the swampy ground on which the city is built the bodies would
pop to the surface again before very long – not really something that would
meet the approval of the local real estate industry. So dead folks got buried
in above-ground structures. Some of these mausoleums are richly decorated and
spectacular, revealing a lot about the city’s varied history. Kids will love
the spooky atmosphere.
Do you know what it means to miss
New Orleans? Well, maybe not yet – but you will do when you leave!