Having spent my semester in North Carolina, I decided to explore other states during the fall break. Due to the diversity, the United States has to offer, I encountered serious difficulties in selecting a destination. Therefore, blindfolded I stuck a pin in the map and pinched the Jazz stronghold of New Orleans. However, before diving into my travel experiences, I would like to provide you with a few bits of background information about the city and its surroundings.
New Orleans, located on the east bank of the Mississippi River is the largest city in the state of Louisiana. Three-quarters of the city’s area is up to one and a half meters below sea level. 200 kilometers of dikes along the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain together with one of the world’s largest pumping stations were supposed to ensure that the city did not drown after hurricanes and heavy rainfalls. Tragically, in 2005 faith in man-made structures was shattered by the devastation caused by Hurrican Katrina, which flooded 80% of the city.
On May 21st, 1540, the Spaniard Hernando de Soto became the first European to reach the Mississippi. He was on a mission to locate fabulous Indian treasures. 80 years later, in 1620, the French founded the first settlements on the Gulf, including the city of New Orleans. When the city was named the capital of the French territory of “La Louisiane” in 1722, inhabitants of various ethnic backgrounds lived there. Owing to the continuous stream of settlers, the Native Americans were pushed back further and further and in 1731 it became a French colony. Under Louis XV, everything west of the Mississippi River was ceded to the Spanish, including New Orleans. Spanish and French families began to mix, thereby creating a new Creole culture.
The face of the city was changed fundamentally by the devastating fires of 1788 and 1794. In 1800 Louisiana was, once again, handed over to France, but only three years later, in 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte sold it to the United States. In 1815, New Orleans resisted a British assault and was the scene of a famous victory by American troops, led by the future president, Andrew Jackson. The next military venture on which the city embarked was caused by its reluctance to surrender one of the foundations of its wealth, the slave economy, and ended in 1862 with its capture by Union forces in the Civil War. The ensuing economic decline lasted until the end of the last century.
Nowadays, New Orleans is the most important trade and industrial center for the Mississippi states and their predominantly agricultural products. It is also an important center for oil and gas processing (the state of Louisiana ranks third in the USA in oil production). The port extends to over 20 kilometers on both sides of the river. In addition to the port, cotton processing, chemicals, shipbuilding, food, apparel, and engineering are also important.
Given my European background and having been cooped up for two months at College, I was getting itchy feet for some cultural and historical diversity. What better place, therefore, than New Orleans, a city bounding in mixture. Whilst catching a very early flight to the land of the bayou in October 2019, I was not only daydreaming about Jazz-playing musicians who teleported me back to the era of Louis Armstrong but also rhapsodizing about the old houses with their impressive patios in which culinary works of art abounding with garlic, oregano, thyme and Tabasco sauce are celebrated in accordance with all the ingenuity of Creole art. My far-away thoughts were indeed to be realized but not quite in the way I had pictured them.
Whilst in the very act of arriving at my destination, I was confronted with a veritable once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Hard Rock Café Hotel was in the process of being built when suddenly it partly collapsed. I, merely shaken and otherwise unhurt, could not stay in the hostel directly opposite but had to take up residency for one night in the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel, the only hotel with a spare room. This turbulence naturally did not dampen my exploratory spirit.
My first stop was to pay my respects to “Old Man River”. From the Riverwalk I observed how the Mississippi River had grown old now at the very end of its nearly 3,800-kilometer trajectory. Yes, it was sluggish, muddy and looking forward to spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico. Taking my cue from the river, I sauntered towards the French Quarter and more specifically to Jackson Square to the spot where the oldest congregation in Louisiana was founded in 1727 and on which now stands the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, completed in 1793. It is also the place where Andrew Jackson, on his pedestal, can observe benevolently the multitude of artists eager to display their skills to unsuspecting tourists. Its hustle and bustle did remind me of the Place du Tertre in Paris!
My next port of call was, of course, Bourbon Street, a one-mile pedestrian zone which, while relatively quiet during the day, really lights up (literally) at night. It is a real potpourri of commerce where a large array of bric-a-brac shops rub shoulders with entertainment emporia of a decidedly adult variety. Definitely an eye-opening experience!
Living on a tight budget, I reluctantly had to re-locate. My choice fell on the IHSP French Quarter House, only 3 blocks away from Bourbon Street, which promotes itself as the “first and still ONLY hostel in the French Quarter”. Marvelously situated, it is accommodation aimed very much at students and the like for whom very often the most important criteria of where they spend the night is simply a question of distance.
Continuing my wanderings not knowing what else the French Quarter really had in store for me, I stumbled across the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. As luck would have it, I arrived just as the only tour of the day was about to start. The tour was sold out and we were all packed in like sardines. I was musing about having paid $ 5 for the very tight squeeze when I was brought out of my reverie by a strong and confident voice speaking enthusiastically about the pharmaceutical history in New Orleans, the various epidemics suffered and explaining the many surgical instruments, medicines, voodoo potions, etc. displayed in the glass showcases. Now, this cured all my doubts and I did not even notice how time flew by! Propelled by COVID-19, I decided out of curiosity to browse through their website in search of some useful information and was not disappointed. You may also wish to read how in 1853 a yellow fever epidemic caused severe damage to the population and laid the basis for the “Acts of Establishing and Regulating Quarantine” dated March 15th, 1855 (Source: “History and Collection Guide” which can be read whilst in quarantine).
This uplifting experience brought back my cheer and I decided to try my luck with the city once again. I joined both a free walking tour and a haunted tour. Both were fascinating but, particularly the “Ghost, Voodoo & Vampire Walking Tour” which put shivers down my spine. You can either believe in ghost stories, transmitted by word of mouth down the ages or be very rational about the ancient myths pervading the city for decades. I will just let you know that I was fully enthralled by our guide’s unique storytelling prowess despite many of the haunted places being surrounded by the city’s hustle and bustle. At times I was so focussed that I truly believed I felt something.
Noting the guide’s deeply rooted interest in all things mythical, I, who has always wanted a Tarot Reading, I asked him if he would recommend a place to go for a sitting. Without any hesitation, he gave me the name of “Hands of Fate ”, a small place for spiritual guidance and easy to overlook in St. Philip Street. I was not to be disappointed. “Hands of Fate” was the former home of Mary Oneida Toups, a legendary witch of the French Quarter. Here, Charlie O’Neal, who read my cards, amazed me with his resumé. Although opinions on this topic are split, I was highly satisfied and content with his given professionalism. However, please do not ask me to reveal to you his findings for me! If you are generally interested or are even slightly curious about this ambivalent topic, I would recommend stepping into “Hands of Fate” and discover this world for yourself.
My infatuation with New Orleans has passed and I can now relate to the city more sedately. On my next visit I shall place more emphasis on something else for which it is famed: food. I am well able to while the day away by hopping from cafe to restaurant to eatery in a certain natural order:
So let us start with breakfast, the most important meal of the day – at least that is what my father says. I definitely take this first meal of the day very seriously on holiday since it pumps up my energy levels for the upcoming adventure. At the Streetcar Cafe on St. Charles Avenue, between the French Quarter and the Garden District, I could have not been more greatly satisfied! Attended by wonderfully friendly people, I ordered a freshly made egg-white omelette along with toast and hash browns. It was a perfect start to the day allowing me to ban any lingering morning blues whilst happily sipping my craft coffee.
Wating in lines, manoeuvering through tourist masses and unaccustomed to the oppressive heat and humidity can be very nerve-racking, especially when lunch-time is right around the corner. In those moments I wish for soul-nourishing and flavorsome food that re-energizes me. As soon as I entered The Daily Beet in the Warehouse District I knew I was in heaven! The choice ranging from “Summer Kale” salad to “Breakfast Tacos” to homemade cold-press juices with names such as “Smokey the Bear”, deciding what to feast on was not easy. Everything sounded so delicious! I ended up ordering a “Rainbowbowl” with wholesome quinoa topped with colorful, nutritious veggies and an all-time classic “PB & J” smoothie consisting of blueberries, strawberries, bananas and peanut butter.
Going on vacation is supposed to be wonderful and relaxing. Therefore, I “donut” worry too much about my daily calorific intake since I know I will walk off excess calories anyway! Having persuaded myself by this perfect excuse and admiring the beautiful houses in the Garden District, I spotted the most irresistibly looking donuts and could not retain myself. I was seduced by a deep-fried, sugar-glazed donut. Popping the last piece into my mouth I caught myself licking the last remnants of cream off my fingers and smiled.