The air of celebration is thick, lit up by the glow of metallic Mardi Gras beads while the skin of the crowd glistens beneath warm evening rainfall. Colourful bottles and quirky mugs in the hands of each passing tourist, the tinkle of shop bells and Cajun spices lure people into alleyways and onto ornate balconies, while throngs of thrill seeking tourists on ‘ghost tours’ weave beneath the awnings down St Peter Street. You’re in the French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana where every day, all year round, the festive atmosphere seems to permeate the night streets.
For some Bourbon Street is the ultimate destination; a round-the-clock drinking spree with a healthy dose of karaoke, incredible live music and all-you-can-eat Southern cuisine at your fingertips. But there is more to the French Quarter then its Mardigras infamy. Using our wits and our noses my sister and I found our teeth locked into shrimp po-boys in a yet another Saint-named-street, delighting in their simplicity but unmistakable authenticity. For all vegetarians out there, strong cautionary advisory to temporarily branch out to pescatarianism for your stay in NOLA or you’ll be dining on nothing but crisp, crunchy lettuce and bread rolls! Personally, not being a meat eater, I think I reached my salmon and shrimp saturation quota after this visit!
We had to try it all. Po-boys (shrimp,fried oysters, fries and anything else you can think of!) stuffed foot long bread rolls (We call a similar item a ‘Gatbsy’ at home in South Africa); Shrimp Creole; Prawn Etouffe and the traditional Gumbo & Jambalaya. Bred into a world where desert is mandatory, we had to pay homage to our sweet tooth cravings. It took some weaving in between voodoo shops, an all year round Christmas store, spice & sauce shops, New Orleans keep-sake stores, horse drawn carriages and tram tracks until we reached Cafe du Monde where we sampled the soft, warm pastry of Beignets, dusted with a lifetime of icing sugar and served with cafe au lait. We were happy, covered in sugar snow and ready to treat dessert with dessert. Thanks goes to Aunt Sally’s Praline store that kept us coming back for tasters and ‘care packages’ for friends and family.
With our stomachs dutifully filled, it was time to tune into the sounds of the streets. When it isn’t raining in New Orleans, you’re meditating on your breathing patterns in the endless humidity. Initially a claustrophobic experience, it doesn’t take long to get used to and the creativity that dominates the streets certainly helps distract you! Gypsy clad tarot card readers are scattered in between painters on the square in front of the church while a handful of brass musicians toot their tunes out, scanning the crowd for paying tourists. Turn another corner and a man with a fiddle is down on his knees in musical ecstasy while the double bassist and the banjo player tap their feet and smile widely at passersby. Our bodies like voodoo dolls following a musical spell of their own accord, we found another corner where a woman in bright purple sequins twanged a blues melody from her crystal vocal chords and her companion, a bespectacled grey haired man, lets his magic meet a keyboard and our ears. All this in a simple stroll around the streets of the French Quarter.
Sticking close to ‘The Quarter’, we couldn’t resist taking a stroll around Louis Armstrong Park, literally a three-minute trumpet solo away from our hotel. We edged quietly over the old stones of the Congo Square, straining to hear the echoes of Native American and Haitian sacred ceremonies, all the while conscious of the histories that have unfolded in this gated green enclosure. Our ‘hoodoo radars’ tuned in on high, how could we not visit a graveyard and pretend, like many others, that we stood where the infamous Marie LeVeaux had been laid to rest? We whispered prayers and personal mantras and I placed an Indian Rupee and some South African cents on the paraphernalia littered alter. Incredibly dramatic tombstones towered over us, a macabre fascination sending us wandering through the maze in awe of the reverence paid to those once living.
The French Quarter, initially built up by Native Americans who cleverly chose the above-sea-level spot, has been a safe haven for the cultivation of many of New Orleans’s finest (and ‘other worldly’) traditions and has now become a treasure chest for curious travellers. Every day spent wandering the narrow and colourful streets is a veritably exhausting and exciting adventure that leaves you happy to fall into the soft down pillows of your hotel and equally hankering to wake to the next warm dawn of exploration.