Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nouvelle Orleans and the French 1/4

Carol learns the trade of street artist

On Tuesday afternoon we pulled into Bayou Segnette State Park located in Westwego, southwest of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi.  The park was recommended to us for its birding as well as its large spacious sites with water and electric. An added important bonus: Louisiana state parks recognize the Senior Pass for admittance!
The park also put us within easy striking distance of the French Quarter, another one of Carol’s bucket list to-do’s. Tom had first been to New Orleans in 1967 while visiting a friend living in Baton Rouge. Carol needed to do some catching up.
 New Orleans skyline from the ferry

On Wednesday morning we drove to a small private parking lot on the Mississippi ($5 to park all day) and boarded the free ferry for a ten-minute ride across Old Man River. One doesn’t drive to the Quarter as the streets are narrow and parking is impossible. And when possible, very expensive.
It took a bit of time to get our bearings on the other shore but once we locked in on a destination – Jackson Square – it would be about a twenty-minute walk. But first, a bite of breakfast at Johnny’s Po-Boys Restaurant., the oldest family-owned Po-boy restaurant in New Orleans. Not wanting to fill up too much before lunch, we settled on an egg and English Muffin with cheese and onions sandwich. And black coffee.
Jackson Square

Fortified, we headed east on Decatour about five blocks to reach Jackson Square, considered the heart of the Quarter. Jackson Square faces the Mississippi River and is bounded by the St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo and the Presbytere on Chartres Street (the northwest side), and is flanked by the Upper and Lower Pontalba Apartments along St. Peter and St. Ann Streets. Inside is its namesake, a statue of Andrew Jackson.
Jackson Square also supports a local artist community. The somewhat bohemian colony works and displays their artwork on the iron fences that enclose Jackson Square. In 1970 the city decided to turn the area around the square into a pedestrian mall closing off adjacent streets to vehicular traffic (but allowing horse-drawn carriages) and giving the artists and pedestrians more room.
Continue east on Decatur Street and one will find themselves in French Market, supposedly America’s oldest city market. Today the strip is dotted with restaurants, a flea market, fresh vegetables and live music. We saw little of the fresh vegetables and a lot of flea market, which didn’t particularly interest us. The market’s origin? It began as a Native American trading post. Now it is administered by the New Orleans French Market Corporation and has its own visitor center.
The French Quarter, previously known as Vieux Carré (“Old Square” in French), is bordered on the east by Esplanade Ave, by Rampert Street to the north, and on west side by Canal Street. The Mississippi River and a levee border it on the south. It is contained in an area measured by twelve to thirteen blocks east to west and seven to nine blocks north to south. The district as a whole is a National Historic Landmark and was lightly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when compared to other sections of the city.
Tom and Royal

Many notable businesses flourish and several landmark buildings exist within the district. The most famous – or infamous – street in the Quarter is by far Bourbon Street with its seemingly endless line of drinking establishments. One block south and parallel to Bourbon is Royal, which has more “gentrified” shopping opportunities. Antique stores, art galleries, restaurants and hotels.
 at Pat O'Brien's in the courtyard

As we walked the streets we stumbled upon many landmarks. Johnny White’s Sports Bar, notorious as a biker bar (and one of two bars in the Quarter that stayed open during Katrina). Pat O’Brien’s where Tom in 1967 had his first Hurricane. Back then one could stroll the streets with a O’Brien Hurricane in hand but today glass containers are banned on the streets. O'Brien's has expanded quite a bit since Tom’s 1967 visit, however, New Orleans and the French Quarter are still one of only a few places in the United States where possession and consumption of alcohol in open containers is permitted. Alas, when we were selling our house last year, Tom’s Hurricane drink glass from his 1967 visit went the way of the garage sale and along with it, any chance of a refill.
The Bourbon Pub and Oz located at the intersection of Bourbon and St. Ann, are the two largest gay clubs in New Orleans and Café Lafitte in Exile at Bourbon and Dumaine is the oldest continuously running gay bar in the United States.
Antoine’s Restaurant has been in business since the 19th century. Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s, Broussard’s and Brennan’s are only slightly less venerable.
hanging gardens from balconies

Fires in 1788 and 1794 destroyed much of the old French colonial style architecture leaving the Spanish to dictate the look of the Quarter during their rule. To this day much of the image of the Quarter embraces the extensive use of galleries and balconies, elaborately decorated with ironwork. Colorful pastel hues on walls and roofs abound.
double shotgun

The Quarter has many private residential buildings in the form of apartments and “shotgun houses”. A shotgun house is a narrow rectangular structure with a door at the front and the back with from three to five rooms in a row with no hallway. It is said the name “shotgun house” came from the notion that one could fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would fly cleanly through the house and exit the back door. “Double-barrel” shotgun houses consist of two houses sharing a common central wall. We saw many of these “double-barrel” houses in the Quarter.
street artist frozen in a pose ala "Mr. Natural"

Street artists and musicians abound. One street artist we encountered had struck a frozen pose very much reminiscent of American illustration artist Robert Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” in the middle of a street. When Carol went to drop a dollar in the artist’s bucket, he came to life and gave Carol a quick “how to” posing lesson in the street. While taking a photo I noticed another local longtime character in the background: Charlie Two-Shoes seen here in a YouTube video (his performance is worth watching but Courtney should keep her day job).

Jazz is synonymous with the Quarter. We strolled past Café Beignet, Donna’s Bar and Grill, Maison Bourbon Jazz Club, Preservation Hall, just to name a few. As the afternoon wore on, more live music was heard. Not surprising, as jazz musicians are notoriously night people by nature! In fact, by late afternoon, the look and feel of the Quarter began to take on a more pronounced “night life” feel. Retail stores and galleries began closing soon while the drinking establishments started to come alive. For better or for worse we would not be there when the daily metamorphosis would be completed.
We had one more planned stop to make. The Red Fish Grill, a recommendation by Robin Kinney, from Bentsen RV Resort this past winter. We’ve learned that when Robin makes a recommendation for a place to eat, one is foolish not to follow-up whenever possible. We're card-carrying members of L.A.R.: Let's Ask Robin.
We were not disappointed. The 2 course red plate special: half of a Po-boy (ours were BBQ shrimp) and a hearts of romaine side salad with an exquisite dressing (crumbled Stilton, tomatoes, red onions, and roasted pecans tossed with an apple-rosemary vinaigrette) and a local brew (Abita Beer) hit the spot. At the time we placed our food order we also ordered double chocolate bread pudding. We had been warned not to wait until the last minute to order one – it will take at least twenty minutes to prepare. Wanda, our wait person, dropped off a hard copy of Ralph Brennan’s New Orleans Seafood Cookbook (named “Best New Cookbook” for New Orleans, 2008) at our table for us to peruse during our meal. Yum!
double chocolate bread pudding w/vanilla bean ice cream

By mid-afternoon it was time to head back to the ferry. Along Decatur Street we discovered the Jean Lafitte National Park French Quarter Visitor Center. In retrospect this would have been a great place to start, not end, our visit.  Park Rangers conduct walking tours of the district and it would have been a great way to get the low down on the historical importance of the French Quarter before entering. Ah, well, voilå!
More photos may be seen here

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