We’ll start by laying all our cards on the table – we LOVED New Orleans. It was our favourite place we’ve been to so far (sorry Texas). New Orleans has such an interesting and unique mix of cultures that really set it apart from the rest of the US (well, what we’ve seen so far.) A few people told us that New Orleans is also one of the most European cities in the US, so maybe that’s why we liked it 😉
New Orleans has an interesting and chequered history that made it into the cultural
melting pot that it is today. The city was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1718 and according to our couchsurf host was mainly settled by criminals, prostitutes and pirates at first. It was ruled by the Spanish from 1763 until 1803, when it briefly returned to French rule until it was sold by Napoleon to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, when the US bought a huge stretch of the present-day United States from the French.
The city is famous for its Creole, French, Spanish, Cajun, Haitian, Italian, and African-American influences (among others, I probably missed some there). The Cajuns are an interesting group of people who embody the mix of cultures that New Orleans has come to symbolise. They are the descendants of a group of French exiles from Acadia (a French colony in modern-day Canada) who travelled down to Louisiana after they were expelled from Acadia by the British during 1755-1764. According to our couchsurf host, they travelled down through the present-day United States, mixing with local Native American populations, which is why they look a bit browner than your average white person (I haven’t been able to verify this but it sounds plausible). In Louisiana they formed their own dialect, music, cuisine and folk culture.
Creole people are a group distinct from the Cajuns, but they are often confused because they are both French-speaking. Creole is a term with such a wide range of uses, but the Louisiana Creole people specifically are those descended from the inhabitants of colonial Louisiana under French and Spanish rule. They share a lot of cultural ties with the Cajuns, like speaking French and the wide practice of Catholicism, which is why there is a lot of confusion surrounding the terms for outsiders.
Just a brief note about Catholicism in New Orleans – it’s not like any Catholicism I’ve ever encountered anywhere else. People from New Orleans are super laid-back about the rules of their religion and how they practise their religion, and see no conflict with allowing influences from voodoo and other religions to mix and intermingle with theirs. Our couchsurf host told us a story about a New Orleans priest who was pictured greeting people leaving Mass wearing a Superbowl T-shirt after New Orleans won a victory in the Superbowl. I found a picture of this on Pinterest with the caption “Only in NOLA”.
Day 9: Tuesday 21st March
New Orleans is built on a swamp and as we drove in we could really see that – the bridge into New Orleans is built on pillars lifting it high out of the boggy water, and we could see houses built on stilts. It’s quite fascinating to think that a whole city was built on a swamp, and you have to wonder who thought that would be a good idea – but I guess the poor Cajuns didn’t have a lot of choice 😦
We fell in love with New Orleans even as we were driving into it. St Charles Avenue looks so quaint and interesting with the old-fashioned streetcar, the trees still adorned with their Mardi Gras jewellery, and the array of restaurants.
We arrived at our couchsurf host’s house – we knew she wouldn’t be there because she was at a rehearsal, but she had such amazing trust in us that she left her key for us to let ourselves in! She lives in a shotgun house, so named because you can fire a shotgun the entire length of the house without hitting any doors – it is a style of house which is long and rectangular with the rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at either end of the house. They are typical of the American South, especially in poorer neighbourhoods. She told us that the houses were built this way because poor people only had thin narrow bits of land to build on.
After walking round the house for about twenty minutes repeating, “Wow!” we decided to explore the area and tentatively look for some food. We were still a bit nervous about eating as Gwynnie had still been throwing up that very morning and neither of us had really eaten anything all day, so we decided to look for some very plain food. We were very upset about having food poisoning/stomach flu (we still don’t know what it was) in New Orleans as New Orleans is famous for its food and I (Anna) had been mainly looking forward to sampling the culinary delights. So we were a little bit heartbroken at not being able to sample any Cajun food that evening but we were hoping that after one night of plain food we’d be OK.
Our house was just off Magazine Street, a lovely street full of little boutiques, cafes, bars and restaurants, so we walked down it looking for a place to eat. The street has some interesting shops and businesses of a kind that I haven’t seen anywhere else on the trip so far, including some repair shops for bags and shoes, and a dentist’s with fairy lights all over the porch and windows.
We gawked in a lot of the cute shop windows and went into Barú, a Latin Caribbean restaurant that looked lovely to ask if they had any plain food but unfortunately they didn’t. One of the waiters recommended a Chinese restaurant further down Magazine Street. With a little sob we left (the food looked amazing and the staff were really nice) and went on in our search for some plain food that wouldn’t upset our already traumatised stomachs too much. We went into an east Asian fast food type place where there seemed to be a lot of college students, mainly sorority girls, (I can’t for the life of me find it on Google Maps now so I don’t know what it’s called, but we went there) but decided to go on and look for the Chinese restaurant the waiter had recommended.
We found it and ordered some plain food (rice, vegetables, dumplings). I (Anna) still didn’t really have much of an appetite but since I hadn’t eaten anything for the last 24 hours I thought it might be an idea to put something in my stomach. I felt OK until we went back to the house and met our amazing couchsurf host Kristin (more on her later) and as we were talking and she was telling us what there is to see in New Orleans I suddenly felt a wave of nausea and had to go throw up in the toilets (not a great introduction when you’re staying at someone’s house!) Fortunately Kristin was very kind and understanding (and I did a very neat job of puking in the toilet) so no harm done. After that I was restored to full health so we were able to enjoy all the food that New Orleans has to offer over the rest of our time there.
Day 10: Wednesday 22nd March
We walked to St Charles Avenue and got the streetcar all the way to the French Quarter. The streetcar is not a particularly fast or efficient means of transport – it took about half an hour for us to get where we needed to go, which was only about twenty minutes quicker than walking – but it’s cheap: $1.25 for one journey or $3 for a day pass, and we actually ended up travelling for free because you buy your tickets on the car and when we got on, the driver told us to get on without paying because the ticket machine was broken. But the main attraction of the street cars is that they have that ring of New Orleans about them – Tennessee Williams lived in New Orleans for a number of years and named his play A Streetcar Named Desire after the Desire Line which ran from 1920 – 1948.
They don’t look too different from how they did fifty years ago and you can sit and look
out the windows and enjoy the New Orleans streets passing by you. The other thing we really enjoyed about them was that you could really see the New Orleans community spirit – people seemed to know each other. Lots of people who got on the streetcar knew the driver and would have little chats as they were getting on and off the car. I really like to see this kind of thing when I go anywhere, or even at home – it’s nice to know that people still manage to live in communities where they know each other and are friendly even in big cities. In this way New Orleans has the excitement of big city life and culture combined with the small town feel of community and friendship.
Once we got off the streetcar we walked down Bourbon Street, which is famous for its bars and drinking (New Orleans is one of the few cities in the US, and the only one in Louisiana, where you’re allowed to walk round with open containers of alcohol – you may be starting to see now why it has a very different feel from the rest of the US), but in the daytime it was pretty unassuming, although we did see a lot of signs for Huge Ass Beers (we assume this means big beers rather than ass beers that are huge) and a Barely Legal strip club.
We headed for Café du Monde near the waterfront to try some beignets – one of the five classic New Orleans foods that our couchsurf host recommended (we’ll talk about the others later). We stopped and listened to some outdoor jazz on the way – the French Quarter has a lot of street music everywhere at all hours of the day, and it’s of a very high calibre – I would even dare to say the best street music I’ve ever heard anywhere. After stopping to listen for a bit we continued on to Café du Monde, which as you might expect had a very French colonial feel to it, with its big overhead fans and outdoor seating and white-aproned waiters. We ordered some coffee and beignets, which are sort of like strangely-shaped doughnuts covered in icing sugar.
After our tiny dip into New Orleans cuisine, we split up for a bit and Gwynnie went to the Voodoo Museum. Brought to Louisiana during colonial times by slaves from West Africa, mostly from Benin, voodoo is a form of West African spiritual religion focused on ancestor worship. Louisiana Voodoo is its own thing, and the idea of voodoo dolls (gris-gris) originates from this form of it. To this day, New Orleans has found a way to entwine voodoo beliefs with its other religions – including Catholicism. New Orleans has a few voodoo shops, which contain active shrines where people leave coins and make wishes. I would love to give a detailed history of voodoo, but that would be a whole post on its own.
Meanwhile I (Anna) wandered around by the waterfront and stopped to listen to a guy freestyle rapping as he accompanied himself on some bongos – he was great because he had such a sense of humour and was making up little jokey raps about people who were walking past, mainly jokily flirting with older women who were walking past.
I then wandered over to Jackson Square in front of St. Louis cathedral (allegedly the oldest in the US) and looked at the statue of Andrew Jackson. This prompted me to look up who Andrew Jackson was because I had no idea, and this led me to discover an interesting piece of history that I didn’t know – Andrew Jackson was one of the leaders in the decisive battle of New Orleans which gave the Americans victory over the British in the war of 1812. Now I don’t know about you, but this is definitely not something I was taught in history at school – I didn’t even know there was a war of 1812! As far as I was concerned, the last time the Americans fought the British was during the Revolutionary War and I thought since then there had been “the special relationship”. But apparently not!
Then we met back up and went for lunch at the Gumbo Shop and sampled some more New Orleans cuisine. The five foods our couchsurf host said we had to try in New Orleans were, in no particular order:
- Red beans and rice
We managed to try some of them at the gumbo shop – we had a sharing platter that included shrimp creole, jambalaya, and red beans and rice – and it was DELICIOUS. Then we had warm bread pudding with whisky sauce for dessert, which was also amazing. Our waitress was really sweet and kept calling us ‘baby’ – a standard greeting/term of endearment in New Orleans.
After this we wandered round a bit more, I bought myself a hat, and we went to the French Market, a historic market dating back to the early 1800s, then headed to Louis Armstrong park just north of the French Quarter. Then, we decided we’d done enough walking and sightseeing for one day and went to a gay bar on Bourbon Street where we got chatting to a New Orleans local for a while about the guys she was currently dating and about how she slept with a guy dressed as a Brazilian priest at Mardi Gras. She told us that she had been to Europe many times, how New Orleans was really liberal (in terms of drugs, politics etc) and perhaps the most “European” city in the USA.
After a brief rest stop at home, we went back to Bourbon Street that evening, and by now it was starting to get more lively and we could see where it gets its reputation from. We got a gator Po-Boy for dinner, thereby combining two classic New Orleans foods. Because Louisiana is so swampy there are alligators everywhere – we saw lots of alligator heads on display in shop windows – and a Po-Boy is basically just a baguette-style sandwich made out of slightly stale bread. Our couchsurf host told us an interesting story about how the Poboy was created – apparently striking streetcar drivers used to go to restaurants and ask for the day-old bread and whatever old bits of meat they could find that the restaurants were going to throw out. When they saw them coming, the restaurant workers would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy’, which in New Orleans dialect sounds like, ‘Here comes another po’ boy’. And thus the Po-Boy was born. I found a more detailed version of this story here.
After this we walked to Frenchmen Street, famous for its jazz and live music. We saw some great music even on the way there – as I mentioned before, New Orleans has so much great live music out on the streets. We stopped by a big gaggle of people who had stopped to listen to a skiffle band – there was even a guy playing a washboard! Everyone was singing and dancing and we joined in because we can’t resist a good song and dance.
Then we went in to the Spotted Cat, a jazz club on Frenchmen Street and listened to a
band playing covers of classics like Sam Cooke’s ‘What a Wonderful World’ (not to be confused with Louis Armstrong’s very different song of the same name!). The singer was great! We stopped in another club on our way home and listened to some more jazz and had a wee boogie.
Day 11: Thursday 23rd March
We went to see New Orleans’s famous cemeteries – because New Orleans is built on a swamp all the cemeteries had to be built above ground in elaborate crypts and mausoleums. The most famous cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery #1, houses the body of New Orleans’s legendary Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. However, you can only access this cemetery by paying for a guided tour, because of the vandalism that occurred when it was free. We decided we didn’t care enough about the Voodoo Queen to pay for a guided tour (we are trying to do this trip on the cheap as far as possible) and more just wanted to get a sense of what the cemeteries are like, so we went instead to Lafayette Cemeteries No#1 and #2, which are about 15 minutes walk from each other, and are free. I could spend some time describing the cemeteries but since a picture paints a thousand words, here are some photos instead:
Our lunch that day was at Mother’s Restaurant, which is in the Financial District. It was recommended to us by a friend of a friend who lives in NOLA (that’s New Orleans, Louisiana). It’s a canteen-style affair where you order your food at the counter and they bring it to you, and the prices are pretty reasonable. We had some more gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish étouffée, a sort of crawfish stew with rice (crawfish = crayfish, by the way). It was delicious!
That evening, our amazing couchsurfing host gave us a FREE ghost tour, although they would normally cost $25 or so. We started by meeting up at the Corner Oyster Bar & Grill, where we had some of the most amazing oysters we’d ever tried, as well as a muffuletta – another ‘classic’ NOLA dish, which is basically a sandwich with a lot of layers of ham and cheese.
She took us around the streets of the French Quarter and told us a lot of fascinating
stories, including one about a convent in which the windows are all boarded up. Apparently, girls used to travel from Europe to the Colonies with their dowries stored in wooden boxes that looked like coffins, and those who had fallen pregnant would often be sent to convents. Anyway, this one convent has five boarded windows, and allegedly after Hurricane Katrina hit, some debris flew into one of the windows and smashed it. While nobody was able to fly in to help the victims, the Vatican flew in with a helicopter. They didn’t save anybody or even drop supplies – they just came to board up the window. This caused locals to speculate about what could possibly be in there. Vampires? She then told us that a few years earlier, a few students had set up cameras to try filming through the windows, but they had all disappeared. Their cameras were found with all the film taken out.
Some other things we learnt: you can still get absinthe with wormwood in New Orleans. And the term “ragtime” comes from a type of music that somebody offered to play at a local brothel so that they could continue to make money in the one week a month when the girls were all “on the rag”…!
After a very entertaining evening, we popped into the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, where some soul music was going on, people were dancing, and we tried a strawberry beer brewed in New Orleans (which was very subtle and nice). The Carousel Bar is so named because the centerpiece of the room is made up from an old carousel, and if you look closely you’ll see that the seats are moving around the bar very, very slowly. Sadly it’s hard to capture this on camera!
It’s hard to say exactly what we loved so much about NOLA, but it was some combination of the beautiful architecture, effective public transport, good food, friendly people, liberal attitudes, fascinating history and the blending of voodoo with catholicism, ‘gators everywhere, art and masks, beads on the trees, being called “baby” by waitresses, amazing live music on the streets, cops on horses with drinks in their hands, spontaneous jazz bands crossing the streetcar tracks, ghost stories, the magical house we stayed in, buzzing nightlife… OK, I think you get the picture. It’s definitely on the top of the list for places to return to in the States..!