Surreal Impressions: First Days in New Orleans
Itinerary: The Garden District and French Quarter of New Orleans
Miles Traveled: Zero
More often than not, a new destination doesn’t live up to expectations bolstered by previous rumors, tourist brochures or a traveler’s imagination. In New Orleans, this is simply not the case. Within a half hour after arriving in the crescent city, scenes better than what we had expected were unfolding before our eyes.
While prior to our visit we had seen and read about the shadowy gothic mansions of New Orleans neighborhoods, near our first night’s lodging at a hostel in the Garden District, we saw exactly that. Rows of columned homes followed each other tightly and were graced by sweeping, centuries-old oak trees. We love old houses and these delighted us with their widow’s walks, iron fences and bawdy painted colors. Many of them on St. Charles Avenue follow parade routes and we imagined their brightness would match the delirious Mardi Gras revelers we’d see at the end of our visit. We were also sure we saw faces on the tree roots surfacing through sidewalk cracks at Anne Rice’s house near First and Prytania Streets.
On the second day of our visit, we decided that the Garden District looks its best when viewed from the restored St. Charles Avenue streetcar, which runs through the neighborhood. We took the trolley during a New Orleans downpour when shelter was crucial and we were caught without an umbrella. Our coats were soaked and cold while water welled up over two feet in some areas of the street. But even in the gray twilight and winds of this downpour, the houses looked beautiful – strong, dripping and dramatic. We took the trolley loop past Audubon Park and Tulane and Loyola Universities at the outer ends of the Garden District, enjoying the views throughout.
New Orleans is a city known for its poignant mix of good and bad. In this tradition, not everything we saw in the Garden District was pleasant. We quickly saw that New Orleans is a patchwork city and unsafe neighborhoods face gentrified city blocks across a single street. In some areas, beautiful three story Victorians are uncared for and seem top heavy. We are sure one will fall like a drunk on its next-door neighbor and topple the row. Other than this reality, the only disappointment during the early part of our trip was our failure to ride the Streetcar named Desire – made famous by Tennessee Williams and rumored to go through the Garden District. A bus replaced the trolley several years ago and was then rerouted through a New Orleans housing project. We winced, days later as we saw a yellow metro transit bus with the word DESIRE in its front destination window.
After the Garden District we walked Bourbon Street – wild and unpredictable even at 11 AM on a Saturday morning. We stayed on the street for several hours, passing gas lamp-lighted storefronts, bawdy bars and tourist traps blazing Zydeco music. We also saw the beautiful iron balconies the French Quarter is famous for, street boys tap-dancing in sneakers and mule driven carriages mindlessly slowing the passage of cars and people. Traffic is crazy on Bourbon Street as in this section of town everyone does what they please – even drivers. Cars inch their way through narrow colonial streets and cross intersections without looking at anything else that is going on. Walkers do as they please too, and sometimes getting around in the French Quarter becomes a giant game of chicken with one person daring another to stop before somebody gets hurt. Neither is ever willing to back down.
In Jackson Square, just off Bourbon Street, the scene is a bit calmer. The square is over 200 years old and one of the most photographed parks in the city. Re-named for former President Andrew Jackson after he won the Battle of New Orleans, it was the place of many historic ceremonies. Treaty signings, flag raisings and parties took place there when the city was transferred from France to Spain, back to France and finally to the United States. Today, folk and jazz musicians play in front of a statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback. The beautiful white stucco Cathedral of St. Louis – the first Catholic Cathedral in the United States – holds court over a flurry of pigeons, tourists and cafï¿½s.
Other parts of the square are filled with hot dog vendors, fortune tellers and painted mimes. At night the musicians leave but the fortune tellers remain – their mystery and magic heightened by candlelight incense and shadows. It feels like once in Jackson Square, we have left America for another country.
While walking throughout New Orleans, especially the French Quarter, we quickly became accustomed to seeing the unusual. Within days of arriving we saw a boy walking down the street with a large snake, clowns on their way to work and a girl with a small pet rooster on her hand. We constantly had to check with each other to decide if we should believe what had just passed in front of us. One night we particularly doubted our vision when we looked out a barroom window to see three Elvis Impersonators engaged in deep conversation. We saw “old Elvis” in a white jumpsuit, “young Elvis” in a gold jacket and a third Elvis in black leather. After a while we realized this made sense – if Elvis is alive, he’s probably in New Orleans just off Bourbon Street.
In the end, we enjoyed our first days in the Big Easy. New Orleans is a city for luck and good surprises and we found many of them our first days. For example, when we tried navigating without a guidebook we walked backwards into Tennessee Williams’ house. When we expected a quiet night at Borders’ Books we arrived just in time for a jazz band led by a musician who had played Zydeco music with jazz legend Dr. John. We also stumbled into Faulkner House Books near Jackson Square, only to find an autographed rare book by one of Jeff’s favorite writers. Later on, as we paged through a tour book we realized we’d been able to find most of the city sights on our own.
The magic of New Orleans, a little bit of luck and an open mind took us a long way in our new city.