The first thing I noticed in New Orleans was music. It was everywhere, whether it was the lone saxophonist playing his melancholy lament on the Riverwalk, the 5 piece belting out a lively jazz number at Jackson Square or the blues band in “La Maison” bar on Frenchmen Street. Music seems to provide the pulsating beat for the city, indeed, it appears to be at its heart.
As I meandered around the oldest part of the city, in the French Quarter near to the river, I couldn’t help but notice the stunning buildings and their ornate balconies. Jackson Square (formerly Place d’Armes) is surrounded by famous buildings like St Louis Cathederal and the Louisiana State Museum. The square is overlooked by the oldest apartment buildings in the United States and the area is a type of open air art gallery as local artists show off their paintings and sculptures.
Across the road from the square is the original location of Café du Monde (est 1862) which is best known for its café au lait and beignets. It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and it is not surprising to find a queue there in the early hours of the morning. Another food outlet that is no stranger to a queue is Mothers Restaurant. I was advised to arrive early for breakfast, well ahead of the 2000+ people who are served most days of the week. The New Orleans menu is completely unique, a mix of cultures that mean its perfectly acceptable to have Beef (Debris), Rice (Grits) and Scrambled Egg for breakfast, a suite of foods that we (in Ireland) would not put together. I have to say, though, the taste was amazing. Another restaurant, on nearby Frenchmen Street, is The Praline Connection where the owner, Curtis, offers proper home made food. His inspiration was busy parents feeding their children ‘fast food’ – he wanted to offer the good, wholesome food he grew up on. Most of the recipes he uses were handed down by his mother and his restaurant is one of the most popular in the city. Although in different parts of the city centre, these three restaurants (along with countless others) had one thing in common, Hurricane Katrina. All the businesses had to close, regroup themselves and re-open to offer sustenance to survivors, volunteers and forces.
Whilst I was aware of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it caused, I had not seen much of the effects during my time in the city. It was not until I walked, early one morning, into the residential Marigny district that what happened struck a chord with me. I happened to see a photograph in a shop window of the building in the days after the hurricane, it’s roof was torn off, the walls collapsed and the surrounding street, where I was now standing, under 4 feet of water. Utter devastation – and that was only one street corner. The way the city has built itself back up is nothing short of remarkable. It seems everyone you talk to in New Orleans has a Katrina story to tell.
The city centre is easy to get around, particularly once you master the Streetcar system, which is an inexpensive and quick way to get from place to place. There are a number of fascinating attractions in the city centre, such as the Aquarium of the Americas, which is very interactive and would be of great interest to children. The other big attraction is the National WW2 Museum which has a stunning 4d film exhibit presented by Tom Hanks. It was made all the more poignant by the fact I was surrounded by many veterans who were visibly moved by what they saw. Courtesy of American Holidays, I stayed in the middle of all the action at the Hyatt French Quarter. It’s a very comfortable hotel, with a very welcoming swimming pool which is a perfect escape from the warm temperatures. It’s located close to the main train station, the pick-up point for airport transfers and there is a streetcar stop right outside.
New Orleans surprised me. Like many cities, it has its “questionable” areas that can be easily avoided but it also has stunning architecture, great restaurants, its people are really welcoming and, of course, it has music.