Rog, myself, and the Bible arrived safely in New Orleans airport, on time, and all luggage correctly accounted for.
We set off to find a taxi, and were directed by the transport kiosk to a particular one. The lady driver grunted at us where were we going, and then told me I should help her lift my case into the back of the cab. Okay it was heavy, but it was the first time that has happened.
We climbed in the back, showed her the full address, and we set off. It was a bit startling to read the warning notice in the cab that if we murdered a taxi driver in the State of Louisiana, we might be charged with first degree murder, punishable by death. It left the feeling that it might be only second degree elsewhere, or that if we didn’t actually kill one, that was okay – what a message to have to carry around behind your driving seat, but I suppose it was necessary!
We did try very hard to engage her in conversation, asking about her plans to celebrate tonight, or whether she would be working this evening, and just got a reluctant ‘No, I’m leaving’ in reply. The rest of the journey continued in silence, and she pulled up abruptly in front of the hotel, saying nothing, so we assumed it was the right place to get out. We helped her unload the cases, and Rog gave her the flat fare rate plus a tip on top, but again she didn’t say anything, just took the money and drove off.
Our luggage was put on a trolley by one of the hotel staff, and be signed in at the desk, and were given the key to our room, which was on the ground floor. The hotel is a converted warehouse, with bare planks instead of ceilings in some places. The room itself is basic chain stuff, it is clean, but some of the walls are hastily painted over crumbling plaster, falling off the bare bricks. Most surprising was the view from the window – out into a back alley with a large digger two feet from the window! I just hope the driver will be getting over the celebrations and not working tomorrow!
We just about had time to get ourselves organised, then we were off to Muriels, in Jackson Square. Much recommended on TripAdvisor, the restaurant was full, it was a really good thing we had booked. The meal was superb, fairly lethal fruity cocktails, followed by a Gorgonzola cheesecake with candied pecans, garnished with fresh apple slices and a strawberry, for me, which really worked well. Rog had a turtle soup, which on blind tasting you might have taken for oxtail, but again very good. Mains were breaded and herbed chicken cassoulet for Rog and a double port chop with caramelised apples and sweet potato mash for me. The chop was nearly 3″ thick, half would have done me, but I did my best, it was very good, and Rog loved his.
Desserts were offered, and the waitress recommended the bread and butter pudding. I usually avoid these, not being keen on soggy sweet bread, but this was, as she said, to die for, one of their signature dishes, with caramelised nuts to add crunch, and some special topping. This had just arrived when almighty bangs started going off outside, and the dining room just emptied as everyone went out to watch the fireworks over the river. We finished ours, paid quickly and just caught the final display.
It seemed a shame just to go back to the hotel, so we went down to the waterfront, where the two steam boats, all lit up, Natchez and Creole Queen were steaming towards each other and sounding their horns in greeting. We watched them pass, and as we turned to go, were accosted by a chap who had been celebrating for some time, judging by the state of him. ‘I don’t care who you are, just give me some money for a drink’ he said. We moved on, and as he was not the only one in that state,we decided to return to the hotel. The shops were still open, the streets full of people, New Orleans was making a night of it, and why not.
We woke up late, after 9.00 am due to the time change, how ever will we be up in time tomorrow for the flight?
The shower was powerful, but the hair dryer cut out after a few minutes. Breakfast with wet hair was not a problem in this climate.
Breakfast in the restaurant was waffles and maple syrup, fruit salad, porridge for Rog, toast for me, and orange juice and coffee. We managed to print off some sort of pre-boarding pass for South West airlines for tomorrow, but the actual one has to be done at the airport, apparently.
Venturing outside, it is certainly hot and humid, but because of the cloud, not unbearable. We decide to look at the French Quarter of NOR-Lens as it seems to call itself, and wander into a praline shop. This is not praline as we would recognise it, but nut fudge, we taste some, however despite being very moreish, but we refrain from buying any. We make our way to Royal Street (no. 3 in the NOLA top 10 attractions according to our guide book. Apparently it used to be called Calle Real when the Spanish were in charge. Then the USA acquired the state, inc. New Orleans by the “Louisiana Purchase” from the French 1803.
We came across a tour shop, and the VIP New Orleans tout actually covered most of what we wanted to do, so booked the 1.00 pm tour. Just time for a bit more wander round the French Quarter, and to buy tuna sandwiches and Hershey bars for lunch. We ate those waiting in the shop, and our driver, Aaron, arrived.
He was great, really friendly, insisted he only took family touring, and therefore we had better introduce ourselve and becom family! We were the only ones from the UK, I was a bit conscious of my accent when it came to our turn, and there was a surprised gasp from the other passengers. (the group from Canada got the same reaction!)
We set off round the French quarter, but were soon heading out to District 7 and 9, the worst hit by the hurricane Katrina. We were told the wooden clapboard houses we were seeing were ‘double barrelled shotgun houses’, from the sound of it because there was one hallway running from front to back, and all the rooms opening off this. We learnt a lot more, for example why people did not flee. You might think that surprising, given that the highest part of NOLA is around Jackson Sqare at just 14 feet above sea level. In this part of the world hurricanes are very common, the electricity goes off, and the local communities respond by having a ‘hurricane party’ where they barbecue all the food in their freezers which would go off with the power cut. The same happened with Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t the river that flooded, the levee (raised bank) protecting the 17th Street Canal was breached, by the hurricane hurling a floating rubbish container against it, according to Aaron, and that was the start of it. Many of the residents moved to Alabama, and liking the life there better, stayed there afterwards, the city population was roughly halved.
We saw some houses and schools that had never been repaired, because people did not come back, but the area is recovering and we saw some wonderful restored housing. A benefactor called McDonough endowed 24 new schools, each named after him. Later he was buried on the local race course, turned into a cemetry by another extraordinary local character, Charles T Howard, who made his fortune by running the lottery and buying the race course when it went bankrupt!There is a music school to bring youngsters together, and a much better community spirit. Also a new police station, something that was not there before, the areas were a pretty crime ridden place before, but much more law abiding now.
From the Katrina disaster, we moved to an explanation of the above ground burial system. We were taken to the St Louis cemetery 3, where the process of natural cremation was explained. It is not possible to bury underground, because the swamp just floats the coffins back up.
The tombs are made of concrete or stone, which in the New Orleans heat, becomes up to 300 degrees F inside. It is reckoned to take a year and a day to cremate a body in one of these, the year to turn to more or less ashes, and the day because you would not open a tomb exactly a year after the death. Under no circumstances is it possible to open a tomb before the year is up. Once opened, another body can be put in.
I asked what happened to any one who died shortly after a relative, and apparently the body stays in the mortuary until ready to go in the tomb. Cremation was not allowed under Catholic direction before 1966, so the natural process was used instead. Now that cremation is permitted, the ashes are put into the tomb. You will see from the photos that the tombs have two bits to them. The top bit is the cremating bit, with a brick wall behind the plaque, which is smasked open with a sledgehammer to removed the cremated remains and out the next one in. What is left in the tomb after the year is smashed up with same sledgehammer, apparently, then the debris is removed and stored in the lower part of the tomb.
After this truly fascinating lecture, (well we both found it really interesting!) we drove through the large park (larger than New York’s Central Park we were told) to a beignet and cafe au lait shop. We were allowed off to order these, and the still warm beignets (square, not round) doused in icing sugar, and iced coffee were perfect. Apparently tradition is you blow the remains of the icing sugar over your partner, we didn’t attempt that, we were sticky enough as it was!
We had another drive through the Treme neighbourhood, the birthplace of jazz, and the enormous Lake Pontchartrain, with the longest over water bridge in the world. At 23 miles long, we didn’t drive over it!
We finished by driving through the Garden District, with its very expensive mansions, and finished up back where we started.
We then thought it would be good to ride on a streetcar. This was not as easy as we had anticipated. The first one that arrived we tried to board and pay with a note, and the woman driver shouted at us ‘can’t you read, exact fare only, get off the car’. Okay, we went to find change by bying a cool drink and came back. There was a long wait. The next one arrived, we approached the open door, and the drive told us ‘do not get on this streetcar, wait for the next one’. It wasn’t full, and we were beginning to take this personally!. The next one that arrived ignored the stop completely and sailed past us. We gave up at that point and decided to walk.
Everyone had said ‘you can’t go to New Orleans and not see Bourbon Street’, so we did. The first thing that hits you is the smell of the drains. The next is the noise. There are a large number of bars/dance halls, where jazz is blasting out onto the street, and inside is a heaving mass or bodies. There are street performers too, homeless people asleep/unconscious at the side, shops selling all sort of tourist stuff, including a wide range of masks, we didn’t need to send to Venice for ours for the cruise, it seems!
Eyes were opened by the virtually nude young ladies gyrating in doorways, I imagine it gets a lot more lively at night. It was very hot at this stage, the sun had even made an appearance, and we didn’t manage the entire length of the street, stopped to take photos of the cathedral and a chap in grey paint reminiscent (as is a lot of New before heading back.
We returned to the hotel to get ready for the jazz river cruise. The sky by now had turned very dark indeed, we knew a thunderstorm was on the way, but the forecast only said 4mm or rain, so that’s all right then….
As we started getting changed, the heavens opened, lightning flashed all over the place, and the thunder rolled. It was obvous the stroll to the boat was off, we would be soaked through in the first ten yards.
A lovely man a t the front desk dashed out into the street with a whistle, and managed to get a taxi, a huge achievement giving that absolutely everyone wanted a taxi now. He held an umbrella over my head till I got in, with Rog shouting at me to get in as he was getting soaked. The driver was revelling in the increased business brought by the rain, and was happily chatting to us, he hoped the rain would go on into the early hours – needless to say we did not share his view!
We were dropped off just about in sight of the Natchez, but it was on the other side of the railway track, and there was a goods train trundling past – for ever it seemed. Eventually it slowed and stopped, we were unable to cross, and just had to wait in the teeming rain. At this point I discovered that my new mac was not in the slightest bit waterproof!. After some time the train started moving again, but back in the direction it had come from – oh great!
At long last the track cleared, and we were able to make it to the Natchez. The booking in staff seemed to ignore the weather, even taking shots of the drowned couples going on board to sell to you later!
Once on board, we were told we were the second sitting for dinner, so went to listen to the Dixieland Jazz Band playing in the bar, and with that and another lethal cocktail each, we soon cheered up. The rain stopped, and we were able to go out on deck and watch the huge paddle wheel turning at the stern of the vessel. It might have stopped raining, but you still got wet from the spray thrown up. The sight of the whole sky lit up by multiple flashes of forked lightning was quite a sight, but impossible to catch on camera.
The Captain was giving a good commentary, we missed some of it, but he was pointing out other vessels, factories, and the spot where the Katrina flooding was at its worst. It was still warm, and pleasant to wander outside until it was time for dinner.
Back inside, we got a table by the window, to continue watching nature’s incredible lightning show. There was a dressed salad waiting for us, and a fresh bread baton was brought to share between us. Then we were called to the buffet, which was excellent. There was a hearty beef and vegetable soup, a four cheese pasta dish, fried fish, very tender and flavoursome thick slides of roast beef and roast pork, creamed spinach, and fried sweet potatoes . When we had managed all that (and were told we could go up three times if we liked!) we were given the New Orleans special bread pudding to follow.
By this time we were coming to the end of the two hour cruise, and were glad to find it was dry when we disembarked. In fact the rain had cooled it down to a really pleasant temperature. The drowned rat photos weren’t too bad, but we declined to pay the $22, and set off to see if we could actually get on a tramcar this time. We actually found a driver prepared to let us on, and enjoyed the experience with the locals. The seats were the old bench type where you can slide the back of the seat over to face the other way, in beautiful polished wood.
The shops were still open, so we strolled in and found a small book with the jambalaya recipe as Rog had been unable to try the real thing while we were here. Back to the hotel then to pack.
We arrived feeling a bit disappointed with the reception from the taxi driver and other guests, but we warmed to New Orleans, it does have a special feel to it, it is certainly unique, although Bourbon Street was definitely for the young! I could imagine that in full sunshine in the middle of the summer, the heat would be pretty unbearable, so I guess we were lucky.