The First-Timer’s Guide To New Orleans

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Sunday

Bed 0130, up
0630

Bus 0800, flight 1300

Brian was recognised by one of the US Immigration officials at Dublin
airport. A music fan.

Long flight to Chicago, long wait at Chicago. Then a short flight into
the warm Louisiana night.

The porter was so helpful: he directed us from the expensive airport
shuttle to the free hotel
transport. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to the correct hotel, so we had to
take a taxi. And the driver was a stone crazy woman.

The title of this blog is an unashamed attempt to drive up the number
of hits by implying that it’s a guide for first-timers, rather than the
guide OF a first-timer. I’ve just returned from ten days in New
Orleans, my first visit.

I’ve been to the USA quite a few times, having seen New York,
Washington DC, Atlanta, bits of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee; and
then on the other side of the continent, the Los Angeles and San
Francisco areas. New Orleans isn’t like any of them. In fact, it’s
completely unique.

At least, the old heart of the city is unique, even if the wider
metropolitan area is pretty much generic American. But it’s a big
heart. On a map, you can identify it as the part that lies mostly
inside a
Southward loop of the Mississippi river. Incidentally, the Northern
bank of the river here is the East bank, and the Southern is the West
bank. I don’t know, it’s some convention about whether you face
upstream or down, or something.

That oddity probably wasn’t the reason, but it definitely took me a
couple of days to get a feel for the geography of New Orleans. The
streets do generally follow a grid pattern, but the grid kinks from
district to district. The tourist core of the city is the French
Quarter, a rectangular grid of about a dozen ‘verticals’ and six
‘horizontals’. Once you’ve remembered which streets run parallel and
which cross, then you can easily find your way around.

Monday

Took the correct hotel shuttle back to the airport to get the cheap
public bus into town. Met a guy at the bus stop who had just broken his
ankle. Brian went to get the airport people to call for help, and soon
the sheriff’s dept. and paramedics arrived.

We had read on the Amtrak website that the rail station had a left
luggage department. This was a lie, so we took our luggage on a tour of
the French Quarter and had dinner. It was raining. We got a taxi to
Danielle’s place, where plans to go out on the town again dissolved ino
fatigue.

The French Quarter is bordered on one side by Canal Street, which forms a public transportation hub to the inner city, linking the most
interesting districts. You can be transportated by bus or streetcar
West to the Garden District, and University Area and Zoo. (The
University is the one with Professors.) Another street car line runs
North-South down the centre of Canal itself (it’s cool New Orleans
speak to drop the “Street” or “Avenue”) and the city’s third line links
the foot of Canal at the river to the huge convention center to the
West, and the French Market to the East.

Bus routes also run East from Canal, across the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of
the French Quarter; and further afield to the Faubourg-Marigny and
beyond.

Bus and streetcar prices are a very reasonable $1.25 for each single
journey, or $1.50 for a “transfer” which allows you to take a second
(or even third, or fourth!) line to your destination. You can also buy
a day pass for unlimited travel from the driver. Three and five-day
passes can be bought from the RTA machine on Canal, or from a number of
stores, notably all the branches of Walgreens the pharmacist (of which
there are many, some open 24 hours).

Tuesday

We went out on a mission to acquire musical instruments, and were
eventually successful at New Orleans Musical Exchange on Magazine
Street. We had lunch nearby, got a taxi back to the house, and then
another to the theatre for soundcheck. I say “theatre”, but I really
mean “disused Victorian factory”.

Fringe opening party in the evening. Free food, drink, and pretentious
fringers. Bed 02:00. Incredibly cold that night.

Canal Street is a curious mix of the most upmarket hotels and shopping
combined with tacky tourist shops and cheap, utilitarian stores for
downmarket locals. Actually, the latter two classes intersect.
Historically, Canal formed the boundary between two towns: old French New Orleans, and the town of new American settlers, once the state had been sold to the USA in 1803. The American side is now known as the Central Business District, and as the name suggests, it’s the most boring part of central New Orleans, although not entirely devoid of attractions.

The French Quarter’s central axis is its most famous street: Bourbon
Street. Bourbon is ideally suited for stag parties and hen parties and
the like (what Americans more comprehensibly call bachelor and
bachelorette parties), or in other words, totally unsuited for normal
people. OK, you probably will want to experience it for one evening,
but bear in mind that it’s brash, tacky, vulgar and full of annoying
drunks. Trust me, there are other streets where you get a much classier
type of drunk. Every building on Bourbon is a bar, restaurant or strip
club. (Or, at least, I assumed that they were strip clubs. I was
informed by a more adventurous colleague in search of erotic
entertainment that the real activity is prostitution.)

Wednesday

Bed 02:00, up 04:30

Breakfast TV live broadcast – fortunately and miraculously from the old
church just 50m from home.

Bed 06:00, up 12:00

Walked to French Market and caught the riverfront streetcar to Canal
Street. We crossed to Algiers on the free ferry, but there was not much
to see, so we came back and had lunch (some with margaritas) at the
Riverfront Mall food court. Strolled up Canal to Bourbon Street where
we bought frozen daquiris which lasted all the way home.

Speaking of buildings, it’s the architecture that makes the French
Quarter so quaint and tourist magnetic. (Yes, as well as the alcohol
and easy ladies.) Virtually everything dates to
the nineteenth century, or even the latter years of the eighteenth.
Everything. What would be an execptional survival in San Francisco or
Washington is just par for New Orleans. Most buildings are
authentically decrepit and wonky; the main exception being the
cathedral. Even though it’s a genuine old building, dating to 1794,
recent renovation has rendered it pristine. It looks like the Disney
castle.

Decatur Street, which runs in front of the cathedral and forms one
border of the French Quarter, is one option for bars absent of people
you’d like to strangle. It also has the green, open space of Jackson
Square facing the cathdral, and opposite that, a mini amphitheatre,
where there’s entertainment at weekends. Right next to that is the Café
du Monde, which claims to have invented the beignet – the New Orleans
square doughnut. Mmmm, beignets. (It’s pronounced “BAY-nyay” in true
French style.)

Decatur (pronounced d’cater) parallels the river. Until relatively
modern times, the riverfront was entirely industrial and maritime, even
right here in the city centre, but there is now a nice esplanade to
stroll along, named “Moonwalk”, not in memory of Michael Jackson (that
would be the brewery) but for “Moon” Landrieu, the progressive Democrat
mayor who promoted its regeneration.

Thursday

The trains wake us up in the mornings, playing a very musical minor
seventh chord on their horns. We found that the cat had been sick.
Everywhere. I cleaned up and went back to bed.

In the morning, we went back on the streetcar to Canal for some
unsuccessful shopping, and in the afternoon played our preview segment
at the festival tent. Free drinks. It went well.

In the early evening, we met up and changed for the first show. The
Candle Factory looked much more inviting with the audience seating set
out. The gig was a good one, with an almost capacity crowd.

Home, changed and out to another fringe party. Drink not free! $3 each.
While the others mingled and talked fringe thee-atah, I listened to the
blues band. Bed late.

Apparently, many tourists never see any part of New Orleans other than the French Quarter. Unless your time was so short that you couldn’t go elsewhere, a little more exploration is highly recommended. Adjoining the French Quarter on the East side is the district known as
Faubourg-Marigny. Although mostly residential, it does include
Frenchmen Street, a much better and more authentic site for real New
Orleans nightlife than Bourbon Street.

The quiet, tree-lined streets of the rest of the Faubourg-Marigny are mostly filled with the old, original style of house, the shotgun shack. Generally built as a semi-detached pair, the shacks are narrow, but deep, with a single column of interconnected rooms with no corridor. In the one we stayed in, you had to walk through both bedrooms to get to the kitchen.

Friday

The cat was better. He slept on the arm of the couch that was my bed.

I checked out and took a taxi to the St. Vincent’s Guest House, or “The
Orphanage”, as I called it. Because it was. Huge room with a very high
ceiling, and my first act was to pull down the curtains off that very
high ceiling. Getting them back up required some ingenuity.

I walked to Canal St. and then the French Quarter and had a late lunch
po’boy; then met the rest of the team and performed a short set at the
festival tent.

In the evening, we all went to ‘Pravda’, an ancient, ramshackle bar in
the French Quarter, with a long garden/courtyard at the back, where we
saw fringe buddies doing circus stuff and belly dancing in the
candlelight.
It was like something from the eighteenth century. I walked home, about
half an hour.

On the opposite, Western, side of Canal Street to the French Quarter
and Faubourg-Marigny, the Garden District is a moderate walk or short streetcar ride. It too is residential and filled with traditional
houses, but these are mansions, not shacks. All big columned porticoes
and that sort of thing. And gardens, of course. Further out is the
University area and Riverbend, but I only got there for one night,
seeing a gig at the Maple Leaf with the Rebirth Blues Band.

Saturday

I took the streetcar up Canal to the Regional Transport Authority
headquarters so that I could get some maps and timetables and a bus
pass. It was closed, but a nice security man let me in and gave me the
material. I got the pass from an automatic machine outside.

I used my new bus pass to get to the festival tent where we played a
carefully selected afternoon set for the kiddies. Afterwards, we split
up and I wandered the French Quarter a bit more, having lunch and then
a pint of Guinness in the Kerry before getting the bus home.

The 9pm show was good although my bass stopped working and had to be
miked up. The perils of live music.

Afterwards we all went to Frenchmen Street. There was a mediocre covers
band playing in the bar we chose, but fortunately we heard a great
street band outside, and spent the rest of the evening listening to
them. (Well, it was the rest of the evening for me. Some continued to
indulge.)

After kindly being allowed to sleep on a couch in the Faubourg-Marigny during the Fringe Festival, which was based in that area, I moved out into an orphanage. Now the St. Vincent Guest House, it features the original mid-1800s buildings arranged around a courtyard (now with a pool) and offers a range of accommodation from private rooms to shared dorms. It’s shabby but picturesque. Being on Magazine street in the Lower Garden District, it’s within walking distance of Canal Street
(about 20 minutes) or a choice of either bus or streetcar (about 7 minutes). The streetcars on St. Charles Avenue run all night, which is handy for nights out.

As well as the Charles and Canal streetcars, a third service runs
during daytime along the riverfront. It’s very handy for getting from
Canal to the French Market, a covered market on the site of the
original one, but now under a modern open-sided shed. If you must buy
tourist tat, this is the place, because it’s about two-thirds the price
of identical items in the shops. (OK, I bought two t-shirts and a
baseball cap, but the latter only because the hot sun was burning my
head.)

Sunday

This was the hottest day yet. I was up and out by 10:00 to go to the
city’s oldest cemetary. Two of the old tombs had voodoo associations,
and people had left all manner of offerings, from beads to Coke
bottles, and scratched “XXX” into the plaster.

All the old stones are
in French, as late as the 1900s. I was getting sunburned, so I went to
the French Market and bought a hat. Then lunch.

I got the bus back along Magazine Street and accidentally went a bit
too far. So: exploration.

I went out again for the evening gig and got the bus to Canal Street,
then another (with guide) to the venue. Our lovely soundman, Ratty,
(yes, really) loaned me a nice old hollowbody bass, which I liked a lot
more than the (possibly faulty) rented one. The gig went well.

My visit in the latter part of November coincided with a spell of
exceptionally hot weather, with temperatures just below 30°C instead of around 20°C. If you like that sort of thing, and I do, April or October
would be a better month to visit. In July and August, with the average
temperatures well above 30°C and, more importantly, high humidity, I
could imagine that it might be less pleasant. August and September are
the peak hurricane months.

Most of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has been repaired, but it’s still easy to find some buildings, mostly homes, that are still boarded up. Even more sinister are the remaining search team
symbols, spray-painted on the walls, a large “X” with notations of the
date and any survivors — or bodies — found.

While I was in the city, I happened to see a television news item about
the release of the annual ‘City Crime Ratings’ publication, which is
compiled by a commercial organisation, but based on FBI crime
statistics. What made it newsworthy was that New Orleans had dropped out of the top ten most dangerous cities, from 6 last year to 13. Out of 400. (Top of the charts this year is nearby St. Louis, Missouri; and the 400th, or safest, city is Colonie, New York. No, I hadn’t heard of it either. For obvious reasons.)

Monday

Gordon and I took the instruments back to Music Exchange. The bass
worked perfectly when they tried it, of course.

I then went on further up Magazine Street for more exploration, looped
back on a streetcar and returned to the French Quarter. At the
‘Beerfest’ bar, a whaite tresh barmaid called me darling and sold me
expensive beer. I then had an expensive lunch in the upmarket Blue
Bayou restaurant.

The whole team went out for dinner, where I got dreadful indigestion
(which wasn’t on the menu). It kept me awake all night.

Tuesday

Indigestion pain and lack of sleep made me too grumpy to go out in the
morning, but I went back into town in the afternoon. No lunch, but I
sampled the famous baignets at the Café du Monde, which claims to have
invented them. They taste exactly like doughnuts. They’re just square
is all.

In the evening, I went out for dinner by myself, and on the way, saw an
opossum on someone’s porch. Quite a big animal, white face, thick tail.

Wednesday

Last day. I went to the French Market to buy a souvenir t-shirt.
(They’re $13 compared to $21 in the shops.)

I found myself in Washington Square park where I watched the squirrels.
Single, squirrels are cute, but when you get a big chain of them flowing
over a tree, it looks creepy, like a nest of rats. With fluffy tails. I
then took the long walk back towards our first home in the Marigny to a
nice liberal second-hand bookshop to get a book for my flight.

In the evening, I had lunch in the nearby Chinese/Japanese restaurant
on St. Charles Avenue, and then some funny beers in the Avenue Bar.
Like Belgian apple-infused weissbeer, for example.

Drink and excess may be the typical fare of New Orleans, but curiously,
the statistic where it doesn’t do so badly is problem binge drinking.

(Maybe the stat only applies to residents, not visitors.)

With 24 hour drinking and no legal prohibition on boozing on the
streets (as long as your container is not glass) you’d think that New
Orleans people might have alcohol problems, but apparently not. Perhaps it’s the old Southern European culture of drinking for enjoyment, rather than the Northern ethos of drinking to get blotto.

The other excess is food. New Orleans cuisine is a rich mixture of
European, American and African influences, from gumbo and jambalaya to the sandwiches for the poor boys. (A po’boy is a soft sub filled with, typically, either slow-cooked roast beef or seafood. You can buy them everywhere.)

You can always find somewhere to eat at any time of the day. Always unhealthy. But that ‘s the New Orleans way: eat, drink and be merry.

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