In mid-February I took a tag-along trip to New Orleans, meaning my wife went to a conference, and I tagged along. Apart from a few non-consecutive weeks in Florida, I’d never spent much time in the South. I was excited to see the city still surviving the effects of Katrina, the famous (infamous?) French Quarter, historic above-ground cemetery tombs and a few surviving plantations along the mighty Mississippi. Here are the photos. Read on for the highlights.
The trip began well, with clear skies over much of the Western United States. Thanks to a huge storm the week before, everything East of the Rockies was covered in snow. I love looking at stuff from above, and it’s just that much better when conditions are good for photos.
Unfortunately the cold weather continued even in the Deep South, and it was only about 40 degrees our first day in New Orleans. I even saw an icicle on a drainpipe! The second and third days saw temperatures in the 50s and the sun was out, but it was still very cold. I’m very happy I brought gloves and a warm hat.
Creole, Cajun and Dixie
Creole refers to the culture of people born in the New World to a French-speaking family. We learned all sorts of things about Creoles including their passion for family business, a class-based society – not race (as if that makes slavery more acceptable or something), preference for yellow plantation houses and gender equality that was ahead of its time.
Cajun is a corruption of the word ‘Acadian.’ The Acadians were French colonists that first settled in what is now Nova Scotia. After some unfortunate events, many ended up in Louisiana. My understanding is that Cajuns are specifically descendants of the Acadians, while Creoles are anyone born into the French-speaking culture that flourished here for so many years.
Back in the day, the bank of New Orleans printed ten-dollar bills in French. The French word for ten is ‘dix’ and that’s what the bills said in big letters, so it became known as Dixieland. Pretty simple, but I never knew!
My big takeaway from learning all of this was that this area of the country was truly unique. It’s history and mix of people was unlike any other part of the country or world for that matter, and they operated by their own rules for about 200 years. It’s pretty cool.
The main touristy event was a trip to Laura and Oak Alley plantations (warning: site plays music). Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge there used to be hundreds of sugar cane plantations along the Mississippi river, and North of Baton Rouge it was mostly cotton. Several of the plantations are now tourist destinations. The tours were quite an education experience, a window into the past, if you will. This window included some sobering views of slavery, but it was very interesting to learn how the plantations operated and produced ‘white gold.’
I can’t recommend Oak Alley enough, it was an amazing place. My favorite part is that no one knows who planted the oak trees 200 years ago – the house was built to go along with them, not the other way around. Laura plantation offered very interesting stories about life on a Creole plantation, but there are several other plantations that give tours.
One interesting thing we learned was that when the were operating, most of the plantation houses could see the Mississippi, and the fields stretched out behind them. After a catastrophic flood in 1927 the Army Corps of Engineers built them up to 20 feet, so the views are long gone. The tops of the levees are service roads, however, so we did get to drive on it briefly to see the river and some cars waiting to be ferried across.
Another thing we learned was the danger of kitchens. Because of the risk of fire, they were a separate building and the food would have to be carried over to the main house for meals. Apparently it was a wise building practice, as the Laura plantation’s kitchen burned down several times.
One last interesting thing: because of the high water table, none of these grand mansions have basements. Also thanks to the Mississippi’s sediment, there is no bedrock, so the foundation structure has to be very deep. At the Laura plantation, the ground floor was strictly a storage area, all of the living areas were on the 2nd floor. Good thing no one was handicapped back then.
OK, just a few more interesting things! The houses always faced the river and had copious windows that could be opened to promote breezes through the house in the hot summers. Also for cooling, the houses had kind of an inner and outer layer. At Laura, there used to be a balcony going all the way around the house so the inner rooms never got direct sun, although much of that was closed off and converted to additional rooms later on. At Oak Alley they have an outer layer of galleries with thick brick walls on the exterior. Regardless, I’m sure it got pretty damn hot in either house.
Despite being well aware of what happens on Bourbon Street, I was unprepared for the sleaziness. For a few blocks, it’s nothing but strip clubs! I was expecting plenty of bars, but not quite as many boobs. Bourbon Street seems to be a dividing line – if you continue away from the riverbank there is little to see, and you quickly run into public housing projects. If you head back towards the riverbank, you find more and more stores and touristy stuff. There are cheap stores, fancy stores, cool stores and a very high concentration of restaurants.
The buildings are all close together and about three stories high, but they all have their own unique character. Walking around is a treat for the eyes, there’s so much to see in such a small area. It’s almost a little claustrophobic the way the streets are so narrow and you’re always walking under a balcony. The wrought iron on some of the balconies was very impressive.
We only came here in the day, so I missed the craziness. Based on how many drunk people I saw at 3pm on Saturday, however, I’m OK missing out on the festivities.
South of the convention center, there is an abandoned power plant that quickly caught my eye as I walked around. So many people have done photo essays on the destruction in New Orleans after Katrina, but it was still something to see it in person. Nearly every window was broken, and the entrances have steel plates welded over them. I got a few peeks inside, and the place was pretty much gutted and the walls were covered in graffiti. I can’t imagine a future other than demolition for this building.
Another depressing structure was the old Grand Palace Hotel at Canal Street and Interstate 10. It’s at least 20 stories tall and appears to be abandoned, although I found recent reviews (bad ones) for the hotel online. If it’s really operational, I don’t know how you get inside, because the two entrances I saw were boarded up. Tattered awnings still advertise a ‘jazz nite club.’ Considering the scale of this hotel and it’s convenient central location, it’s a strong reminder that recovery is far from over.
The central business district is full of old run-down buildings, but it’s hard to say if Katrina is to blame – most of them just look really old. I found it interesting that ferns were growing straight out of the walls – anywhere that there was a crack in the brick, a fern had taken hold. I could have easily spent another day walking around downtown just exploring.
One thing I saw almost nothing of in either the French Quarter or central business district – homeless people. It was cold, so perhaps some of them were in shelters, but it was odd that I never saw anyone living on the streets. I doubt that the reason is because New Orleans solved homelessness.
I only visited one cemetery, but I walked past a few that were closed and saw several more from the freeway during our plantation tour. Pretty much all of the tombs are above ground, resulting in a vastly different ‘landscape’ than traditional cemeteries with headstones or simple plaques. I spent time exploring Lafayette Cemetery Number 1, in the Garden District. It’s kind of like a maze, and each tomb is unique, although many share similar characteristics. One entire wall is tombs, stacked four high.
Most of the tombs belong to families, and multiple bodies would share the tomb at any one time. Typically the marble slab that contained the names of the interred was removable and behind it was a brick wall that would be knocked down so the new coffin could go in. If there wasn’t room, the oldest coffin would be removed and the bones scattered at the bottom of the tomb. Then they’d rebuild the brick wall and put the marble slab back in place. Pretty crazy!
It was interesting and kind of sad to see the dilapidated state of some of the tombs. Some of them had heavy damage with large pieces broken off, some even had holes in the sides. Apparently grave robbing is still a problem! Luckily there is a local non-profit that works to preserve and restore some of the tombs.
I ate me some good food, including grits, crayfish, alligator, frog legs, oysters, beignets, gumbo, jambalaya, fried pickles, a mint julep and a sazerac. Did I miss any major Southern/Cajun/Creole foods? Certainly, but there were only so many meals in the day.
We stopped by Cafe du Monde for some coffee and beignets, which seems to be a rite of passage for all New Orleans visitors. It was tasty, but it had been built up so much that I wasn’t particularly impressed. I was pointed to Cafe Beignet by a friend and I agree that they actually have better beignets. As you might guess from the spelling, beignets are a French thing. It’s basically friend dough with powdered sugar poured over it. They’re wonderful, and I don’t know why they only seem to exist in New Orleans.
The only place we went with live music was Mulate’s, which was more of a family restaurant than anywhere else I ate. The zydeco band appeared to be family members, and they actually had people tearing it up on the dance floor! It was a really fun atmosphere and I wish we’d gone to more places like it.
A parade featuring a marching band, togas, a horse and carriage, and a dance troupe of mostly old men made its way past our hotel at 10pm for no apparent reason. The Audubon Insectarium is worth the price of admission solely because of the awesome walk-through butterfly exhibit. The two Archdiocese of New Orleans cemeteries near the French Quarter close at 3pm, don’t be late. I saw the house where Jefferson Davis died. Harrah’s is a lonely, depressing place at 10am on a weekday. I rode on all three streetcar lines, and highly recommend them as a mode of transportation. I saw a cruise ship do a 3-point turn in the Mississippi river.
Don’t forget to check out all of the photos in my New Orleans photo gallery!
Next Time I Will…
- Go to the French Quarter at night, just so I can say I did
- Ride a ferry across the river
- Visit more cemeteries
- Take a cemetery tour
- Take a swamp tour
- Check out the Superdome
- Eat at Mother’s
- See Lake Pontchartrain
- Visit the Tabasco factory