New Orleans: French Quarter Snaps

The final stop on our trip, and my favourite, was New Orleans, the Big Easy, NOLA.  We visited in July, and the heat was intense. I was thankful we weren't there in August. Temperatures hovering around the early to mid 30s may not seem astronomical, but it's the humidity that gets you. The heat and density of the air is oppressive, and it radiates from the walls and asphalt well into the night. We could barely make it from the sanctity of our air-conditioned room to the end of the street without becoming drenched in sweat, with one day so bad it necessitated three outfit changes before sundown, and we didn't manage one day without an afternoon nap.

We stayed in the French Quarter, a little pocket of quaint European charm laced with unbridled debauchery thanks to the famous Bourbon Street. The quarter abounds with history, legendary restaurants and bars and is the ideal place from which to explore the city. We stayed at Hotel St Pierre, which was perfect. Be sure to hang around the reception area around 3pm - they bring out trays of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and ice cold milk. I'll confess, I made a point of timing my afternoon nap with cookie time...

You may be able to tell from the excessive number of photos, but I absolutely loved the French Quarter architecture, most of which dates from the 18th and 19th centuries. The brightly painted buildings and shutters, the cast iron balconies, tumbling flower boxes and hanging plants; it is veritable feast for the eyes.

Bourbon Street however, attacks a different sense: you will smell Bourbon Street long before you reach it. I don't quite know how to describe the smell to you - it's like a combination of alcohol, an amalgamation of all kinds of bodily secretions, over-worked air-conditioners, alcohol-induced vomit, all stewing together in the dense heat of the air. Sometimes you get a similar whiff from a popular pub on a hot day, which now makes me nostalgic for the days we spent in New Orleans, rather than olfactorily offended.

Historically a prime residential area, serviced by the now non-existent 'Desire' streetcar line, Bourbon Street quickly became a street full of brothels, burlesque and jazz clubs, after the closure of the city's legalised 'Storyville' red light district in 1917. Now, it's a strip full of drinkeries, eateries, strip clubs and hordes of totally shit-faced people making their way under the neon lights from one bar to the next, clutching 'grenade' cocktails and beer in plastic to go cups. It's wild, seedy and a little bit gross, but it is pretty darn fun.

We did have one night out on Bourbon Street. Although there are bars and clubs in the city that were much more to our taste (and more on those later) we thought it would be a mistake to not spend at least one night exploring what Bourbon had to offer. Surprisingly, we started off in a pretty awesome jazz club, Fritzel's Jazz Club, but from there it descended quickly into sticky-floored, whisky-spilling madness. We saw many unsolicited pairs of tits, shared tables with the unconscious, and at the end of the night I found myself sharing a cigarette with a woman telling me all about her 18 years in prison, whilst Dimitris waited for a pastrami reuben.

It may be snobbily dubbed 'inauthentic,' but Bourbon Street is a lot of fun, and if you can handle your liquor, like a good time, and mixing with the inebriated masses, then you should definitely spend a night exploring its myriad bars. 

Perhaps not for the faint-hearted, but then, who is really faint-hearted after a good few whiskies?


Oak Alley Plantation

the eviction pineapple

On our way from Natchez to New Orleans, we made a brief pit stop at Oak Alley Plantation. It is absolutely beautiful, and probably one of the more famous plantation homes in America; it's been used as the backdrop for a number of things, from Beyoncé's Déjà Vu video to Interview with a Vampire. However, it wasn't just the beauty of the place and the incredible alley of enormous oak trees that give the place its name that impressed me, but their comprehensive acknowledgement that the home and the grounds would not have existed at all had it not been for the awful, gruesome practice of slavery.

That might seem a touch obvious - the slave trade, its complete annihilation of human rights and dignity, and total devastation of so many lives is well documented in the history books and is, or ought to be, a stain on the collective conscience of all countries who participated in it. But that wasn't what we had found so far in our trip. Slavery had somewhat been glossed over in our experiences in the plantation and antebellum homes we had visited to this point - at one point a tour guide did provide information on the value of the homeowner's slaves, as if they were a carefully curated portfolio of stocks, rather than actual human beings, but that was about as far as it got. And to be honest, it felt more like a point made to emphasise the owner's wealth, rather than a damning of history. Discussion points of other tours had circled around the business activities, social exploits and post-civil war sob stories of riches to ruin of the owners and family of the plantations, an emphasis which I felt was an effort to sweep the fact of slavery under the carpet. 

At Oak Alley however, this was not the case. True, the tour of the main house did focus on the exploits and social mores of the Roman family who lived there, including my favourite tidbit; when you had outstayed your welcome, you would wake up to find a pineapple on your bed, the old school southern sign for 'get the fuck out my house.' But, there was also an entire area of the grounds dedicated to a reconstruction of the slave cabins, explanations of how they were defined and differentiated and the punishments and hardships they had to endure. There was full frontal acknowledgment of the slaves that lived at that plantation, how the beauty and grandeur of the home and the grounds was entirely as a result of slave labour, and that it was, of course, absolutely, incomprehensibly horrific to be a slave. It was poignant and unsettling, but rightly so; such a horrible chapter of history cannot simply be glossed over to save tourists from unhappy thoughts.

I really rate Oak Alley - it's not only beautiful, but well organised, with entertaining 45 minute tours leaving every half hour, but, it has a conscience; it fully acknowledges the plight of the hundreds of Oak Alley slaves that lived there, and by extension, confronts the dark history of its existence as a whole. So, if you find yourself in Louisiana, I whole-heartedly recommend spending a few hours exploring Oak Alley.

(They also do fabulous mint juleps, just FYI)