When it came to booking a holiday to stave off the winter blues, it became clear that what I was really after was contrast. Instead of grey skies and bitter wind — sunshine and warm breezes; to fill the dull post-Christmas winter with colour, light and music. All we in Britain have to look forward to is Pancake Day — and from that stray thought emerged an idea. Our Northern Shrove Tuesday involves nothing more than pancake batter, but why not head for one of those places where their traditions involve something more exciting? So my first Mardi Gras loomed, and if something is worth doing it’s worth doing properly, so New Orleans it was.
Mardi Gras is the time to visit this city; the highlight of the year, its famous parades and street musicians turn the Big Easy into a month-long party. But I also had another motive for visiting New Orleans: the food! This city is famous throughout the US for its unique Cajun and Creole cooking, retaining a distinct culinary identity in the increasingly homogenised American palate. So I packed my feathers, a hearty appetite, and a good friend, and set off.
My first ever long-haul flight went surprisingly smoothly, even if I did get stuck behind a lot of Chinese students at Detroit Metropolitan and panic about missing the connecting flight. Few noteworthy details about the flights themselves, apart from the surprisingly thrilling statement from the burly Delta flight attendant that ‘we’re just coming over Tennessee.’ The approach to Louis Armstrong International Airport gave us a good look at the famous bayou surrounding New Orleans — tiny creeks and rivulets, pools and stands of tall plants, which glittered in the golden evening light. The airport is half an hour’s drive from the city, so we had booked a shuttle — essentially a minibus and it was there when we got outside; it was also pre-paid, meaning no faffing around for money.
The hotel was on Baronne Street, in the Central Business District. This is perhaps the least colourful neighbourhood in New Orleans — at first glance, it consisted largely of skyscrapers and not much else. But it was quiet, safe and ideally located in the centre of the city, close to both the parade routes and the French Quarter. We were too tired to do much on the first evening, so we followed my Lonely Planet guide down Baronne (nobody says ‘street’ here) to Domenica, a fairly hip Italian joint serving things like roasted cauliflower with whipped feta. My pizza was topped with smoked pork, chillies and red onion — rich and delicious, with a thin crust. That plus my companion’s rabbit tagliatelle came to $40, including the tip. We were off to a good start on the food front.
The next day we had planned to head for a diner we knew of for brunch, but modern technology led us astray and it didn’t seem to be anywhere Apple said it might be. But then, like a mirage, we saw P&G’s materialise. Whirring ceiling fans, formica-topped tables, a white board with the specials, lots of steaming tureens on the counter — no indication of what was what, you were expected to know. Orders being yelled through a doorway filled with steam: ‘I got one fish and grits, one crawfish — you want mac n’ cheese with that? — and one crab gumbo!’ The customers looked so at home they might have been there for years. It was the NOLA equivalent of a greasy spoon; definitely not for tourists, even if it did have pet ‘turtles’ (tortoises) in a little garden out the back, half-buried in mud against the warm winter sun!
We wandered out of the Central Business District — this city is surprisingly walkable — onto Canal Street. Canal is a main thoroughfare and a key point along many parade routes, and we used it to navigate all over the city. Seeing the palm trees and giant billboards first in blazing sunshine presented a suitably striking contrast with the leaden grey skies and streaming rain at home! Crossing a street here means taking your life in your hands; some junctions have ‘walk’ lights, but not all, and the roads are so wide we found ourselves having to guess how many lanes a single traffic light was controlling! And as for the big four-way junctions where anybody sane would have built a roundabout… We eventually got across Canal safely and into the French Quarter.
The French Quarter is the oldest and most famous part of the city, marking the original settlement by French, and later Spanish, colonists on the highest ground by the Mississippi. It’s chiefly notable for its lovely Spanish Colonial-style architecture and the fairytale St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square; most tourists spend their entire visit in the city, without leaving the Quarter. We wandered around, occasionally stopping off for raspberry lemonade, or to investigate a candy shop selling praline (like fudge with nuts), a NOLA speciality. We also had our first glimpse of the Weed Van — essentially a supplier of cannabis lollipops, as far as we could tell — it popped up all over the city, including within spitting distance of a NOPD squad car!
Most of the shops in the Quarter sell tourist tat, of varying quality — masks, T-shirts, voodoo dolls — but there is also a sprinkling of vintage clothes emporia, which are more worth a look-in. They sell a lot of fifties-style dresses, brooches, elaborate hats, sparkly Mary-Jane shoes, and are usually staffed by lovely ladies with fancy hairstyles and red lipstick. One of these ladies, in a shop called Dollz And Damez, went through the parade schedule with us and gave us tips about the best ones to see. She recommended Chewbacchus, a night parade through the Quarter by people in Star Wars costumes, and Barkus — as the name might suggest, the dog parade.
But both of those were still to come as we wandered out of the dim shop into the bright February sunlight, and followed the music. Where to, we didn’t know. But that was the fun of it.
Featured image © Alexandra Leyland-Collins