Wednesday, September 3, 2008
New Orleans' French Quarter
A couple of weeks ago I promised to post more tidbits from New Orleans. As you may recall, I fell in love with this area during a trip my husband and I embarked upon in October of 2006. It was a business trip for Kennon---I got invited to tag along and we spent two weeks in New Orleans.
I've cringed the past few days, praying for the brave souls in the New Orleans area. Hurricane season brings back sharpened remembrances of the havoc Hurricane Katrina wreaked in this beautiful Gulf state. New Orleans is surrounded by water. The Mississippi River cuts along the southern and western boundaries. To the north lies Lake Pontchartrain, the second largest salt water lake in the United States. (Salt Lake in Utah is the largest.) Two bridges known as the Causeway lie across this huge lake (the longest bridge stretches across the middle---approximately 23 miles). To the east of New Orleans lies Lake Borgne & the Mississippi Sound, entrance to the Gulf of Mexico.
New Orleans sits in the middle of these bodies of water, one of the oldest cities in the United States. The initial French explorers: Bienville & Iberville settled New Orleans in 1718 (This city is named after the Regent of France, Philip II, Duke of Orleans.) They selected the highest spot of ground to establish what is now known as the French Quarter.
Kennon and I enjoyed a walking tour of the French Quarter. Tourists were still a bit leery of visiting New Orleans during the fall of 2006, and we were the only two who sallied forth with our guide that day. Because there were only two of us, we got to see a lot of things that our guide didn't normally have time for during other tours, and we loved it.
We were told by our guide that during Hurricane Katrina, the French Quarter only sustained minimal damage because of its location---it was constructed on the highest ground available in the area. The modern section of the city was hit hard---it lies west and below the French Quarter. The two parts of this city merge in the middle, Canal Street links them together.
You've probably heard of the famed Bourbon Street. My advice---avoid it. Many of the windows of varied establishments are filled with pornography. Our guide met us on Bourbon Street in the Cafe Beignet, also home to the Musicians Park---a tribute to jazz greats like Fats Domino. We had decided to take the French Quarter History Tour that day, and as soon as we linked up with our tour guide, Dave, a native to New Orleans, we left Bourbon Street to explore other streets of the Quarter, like Royal Street, Chartres and Decatur. Dave told us that it is a shame what has happened to Bourbon Street---it has become a place of lewd behavior, especially at night.
On with the tour: our guide pointed out the graceful black iron balconies that are evident throughout the French Quarter. Some possess barbs---to keep out the neighbors. There were also barbs attached to some of the iron poles that lead up to the balconies. These are known as Cassanova Curtailers. They were in place to protect the women who watched the original Mardi Gras parades. Men would attempt to climb up to the women, but the barbs soon discouraged their romantic inclinations.
We were shown a beautiful courtyard that lies behind one of the hotels. These courtyards were built as a protective feature. The entire French Quarter burned down a couple of times. The buildings were so close together that tremendous destruction took place compliments of a wayward fire. Courtyards were established that not only provided stone barriers between the buildings, but most contained fountains or ponds, ready sources of water should a fire flare into existence. These courtyards are now relaxing havens from the busy streets of the city.
After enjoying the courtyard, we walked through a fancy hotel that sits where the original St. Louis Hotel used to be. Back when the slave trade was thriving, this hotel attracted a large crowd of plantation owners who would come to buy and trade slaves. A lower section of the hotel was called the slave exchange and it was where the unfortunate slaves were kept. It is the only portion of the original hotel that survived destruction. You can still see the word "Change" on one side. Our guide pointed out that this word ironically depicts the needed change that took place in our nation following the Civil War.
From the top of this hotel, you can see the entire city. Our guide pointed out the canals that wreaked such havoc in the 9th ward areas in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We also later saw the devastation that took place when the levees broke on the southern edge of Lake Pontchartrain. But that is a story for another day. Back to the tour:
Next, we explored Jackson Square, named after Andrew Jackson, the president of the United States, and hero of the Battle of New Orleans. This large area was used as military parade grounds. Now it is the heart of the French Quarter. A cast-iron fence surrounds the park that bears a statue of Andrew Jackson. Artists and musicians alike line the outside of the fence, sharing colorful paintings and wonderful jazz music with all who pass by.
The St. Louis Cathedral lies behind Jackson Square and is the oldest and most photographed cathedral in the United States. It was originally constructed in 1724. The building that now exists in this location is the third attempt at maintaining the catherdral. Fire damage and war took their toll through the years. On the west side lies the Presbytere, the original dwelling place of the monks who served in the cathedral. On the east side of the cathedral lies Cabildo, a government building where documents like the Louisiana Purchase were signed. It is now a museum.
On either side of Jackson Square are the famed Pontalba Buildings, thought to be the oldest apartments buildings in the United States. They were designed and built by the Baronnessa Pontabla in the 1850's. It was her desire to encourage a resettling of the Creole families who were migrating elsewhere, away from the heart of New Orleans. These buildings now house fun shops on the ground level and the apartments on the upper levels that are still leased out.
If you walk south of the square, and up several cement steps you have a grand view of the Mississippi River. We watched large ships pass through, marveling at their size.
Across the river lies Gretna, the original German settlement. We learned during our stay in New Orleans that it is a blend of several different cultures and people---part of what lends such magic to the Crescent City.
To the east of Jackson Square lies the French Market and several fun places to eat. We stopped at an outdoor restaurant to savor a muffuletta---an Italian sandwich filled with scrumptious things like olives, provolone cheese, varied meat slices, topped with a spicy olive oil that makes this one of the most wonderful sandwiches I've ever sampled. I heartily recommend it. As we munched away enjoying ourselves that afternoon, we were entertained by a live jazz artist. All part of the New Orleans experience, it adds an exciting touch of class to this culinary delight.
The French Market is filled with booths of food, Cajun and Creole spices, books, clothing, jazz CD's, and just about anything you can imagine. I could have easily spent an entire day just exploring all it had to offer. And if I get to return to New Orleans someday, this is one of the first places that I'll stop and savor.
The French Quarter is the heart of New Orleans. There were other places to see and numerous attractions I'll tackle in future blogs, but if I had to pick one area to visit in New Orleans, it would be the French Quarter, hands down. It is my hope that it will continue to survive the storms that visit far too often. The historical significance of this choice area is of tremendous worth to our nation, embodying the French theme, "Joi de Vivre," or joy of living. It is such a blend of culture, music, and food, there are no words to adequately describe all it has to offer.
Return to the Neighborhood