We spent Christmas and New Year with Julie’s family in Indiana, then came up to Chicago’s beautiful Union Station to catch the train to New Orleans.
Not just any train.
In 1972, Arlo Guthrie topped the charts with The City of New Orleans.
Good morning, America. How are ya?
Say don’t you know me? I’m your native son.
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.
It’s a homage to the train which was then the longest daytime passenger service in the United States. It was later changed to a night train but still runs the same route – 1,490km from Chicago to New Orleans.
Julie is adamant that Willie Nelson’s 1984 version is better, but either way, the song is one of our favourites. Coupled with our affection for long distance rail travel, it was a much better experience than flying.
The train rolled out of Union Station at 8pm. In the dining car next morning, a European couple (Dutch?) was translating and singing the song over their breakfast. By 3pm, we were in New Orleans.
The city was French, then Spanish, then French again before Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States for $15m in 1803. As the biggest port city in the South, it drew white immigrants and free persons of colour after self-liberated slaves threw off colonial rule in Haiti in 1804. At one time, it had the largest slave market in the States. All these influences combined to create culture, traditions, music, food and architecture unlike any other city.
The French Quarter is a Designated Historical Landmark famed for its historic architecture. Despite its name, most buildings were constructed during the Spanish period or in the first half of the 19th century, after the US purchased it, but the name stuck anyway.
After the Great Fires of 1788 and 1794, the Spanish banned the use of wood for housing. Instead buildings were constructed of brick or stucco with ornate metal verandahs, often comprising a shop below and residence above.
Off the main thoroughfares, Creole cottages blended Caribbean and French Canadian styles brought by Québécois of French background who left or were expelled from Nova Scotia and surrounding areas when they were conquered by the English in the 1760s.
And there are still lots of ‘shotgun houses’, traditionally the homes of poor free blacks. The name arose because it was said the houses were so small and simple in design that if you fired a gun through the front door, the bullet would pass all the way through the house and out the back door without hitting anything.
To see how the other half lived, leave the French Quarter and take the streetcar up St Charles Avenue, nicknamed the ‘Jewel of American Avenues’ for its magnificent oak trees and the dozens of Queen Anne style mansions built in the 1880s. Many are still private homes or have been converted into boutique hotels, a world away from grungy downtown.
Like every tourist, we made the obligatory pilgrimage to Bourbon Street, once the main thoroughfare of the French Quarter. At the turn of the last century, it was renowned as a hotbed of drinking, gambling and prostitution. Jazz was born here, with legendary artists like Jelly Roll Morton developing the sound while playing in Bourbon Street brothels in the early 1900s.
Some of the characterful old names and references to the city’s cultural history remain.
The gambling and prostitution are gone. The street is lined with bars but any sense of the exotic is long gone. Aside from the architecture, Bourbon Street felt like Las Vegas without slot machines, a construct for tourists.
Mostly it’s tacky bars serving ‘cock-tails’ in suggestively-shaped fluorescent plastic cylinders, over-sized plastic cups of ‘big ass beers’ and alcoholic slushies in colours not found in nature. The clientele seems to be college kids intent on getting messily drunk and groups of bucks/hens loving the fact that they can saunter around freely with these concoctions thanks to open container laws which permit consumption of alcohol along the street.
Much nicer is nearby Royal Street with its delightfully retro shops, soulful buskers and funky local characters banging out jazz tunes on the weekends when the street is closed to traffic.
And around the corner, iconic Preservation Hall. After an old shop was converted into a small art gallery in the 1950s, the owner let jazz musicians use it as a rehearsal space after hours. Jazz enthusiasts began coming to listen. Fearing traditional jazz was disappearing, the next owner turned the gallery into a full time performance venue and Preservation Hall was born. In 1963, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was formed, one of the few mixed race bands in the era of segregation.
The Hall is now run by a not-for-profit dedicated to the preservation of traditional jazz. We heard some fine music there, including a 92 year old saxophonist, an original from those early years.
If music isn’t your thing, you can get your fortune told by the tarot card readers around Jackson Square.
Or pop into Saint Louis Cathedral which, along with one in Monterey, California, is the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the US.
Beyond the French Quarter is Treme, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city and an important centre of African-American and Creole culture.
The Backstreet Cultural Museum houses the collection of local identity Sylvester Francis who photographed Mardi Gras parades, jazz funerals and other cultural events in the city for over 30 years. As well as photos, it has a fabulous collection of costumes of Mardi Gras Indians – African American revellers who parade in ornate costumes inspired by Native American culture.
The costumes are entirely hand made and take up to a year to create. Worn just once, many locals gifted theirs to Mr Francis in gratitude for his work in chronicling their culture.
Until the early 1800s, slaves were denied the right to congregate, but in 1817 the city officially designated an area where they were permitted to do so on Sundays. Congo Park became an important social centre, with a market, dancing and singing. The park is still in the same place, with a monument to those times.
It’s part of what is now Louis Armstrong Park, dotted with statues of the jazz greats, like the man himself.
On our wandering, we also happened across the Tomb of the Unknown Slave in the grounds of St Augustine Church, the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the US. Constructed from shackles, chains and grave crosses, it was inspired by the number of unmarked burial sites unearthed as the city developed over many years.
It is dedicated to the countless number of enslaved people buried in unmarked and unknown graves “who either met with fatal treachery and were therefore buried quickly and secretly, or were buried hastily and at random because of yellow fever and other plagues”.
You can’t visit New Orleans without taking a trip to the Bayou Country which surrounds the city. We took a boat trip through Honey Island Swamp, slowly meandering through a maze of streams and swamps filled with old growth cypress trees.
It was too cold to see alligators. They don’t hibernate in the true sense, but survive the winter by bedding down in underground hollows where their metabolism slows down so much they don’t need to eat and their heart beats just twice a minute, emerging only when the temperature begins to rise again.
But there was lots of bird life and turtles.
And Julie’s favourite of the day – raccoons. Ok, most Americans think ‘trash pandas’ are pests, but you can’t deny their expressive, comical faces are quite endearing.
These guys just looked like they were out seeking mischief!
Back in New Orleans, we were lucky enough to be in town for Twelfth Night. January 6, the twelfth night after Christmas and the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, is a traditional feast day brought to New Orleans by French Catholics. Since the 1870s, it’s also marked the beginning of Carnival season.
It also happens to be the birthday of St Joan of Arc, who earned the title Maid of Orleans for her heroics in liberating Orleans in France from the British in the 1400s.
So every January 6, in a classic case of cultural mashup, New Orleans’ unofficial patron saint and the beginning of Carnival are celebrated with the first parade of Mardi Gras season.
Members of the Krewe de Jeanne D’Arc gather at the foot of a gilded bronze statue of St Joan of Arc astride her horse, endearingly nicknamed Joanie on a Pony. They parade through the French Quarter in a series of tableaux which tell the story of Joan’s rise from humble peasant to warrior to convicted heretic, her execution, posthumous acquittal and elevation to sainthood.
It was a lot of fun. And yes, we did have a margarita from one of those bars we bagged earlier. It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Just go with it, right?