The French Quarter, the Steamboat Natchez

The wonders of jetlag: After having travelled for 22 hours yesterday, today I woke up at six in the morning lucid enough to perform surgery. It didn’t help, of course, that right outside our house was a talented songbird that could effortlessly switch between the tunes of “backing forklift”, “pedestrian crossing streetlight signal” and “burglar alarm”. At least I slept like a rock; after failing to switch off the air conditioning last night I thought I may freeze to death while it was 20 degrees Celsius outside (why is there no degree symbol on the iOS keyboard? OMG found it it’s on the zero) 20°C outside! But it wasn’t that bad in the end. 

By the time we left the house, at 11h, I was bouncing off the walls, so I was super excited to start sightseeing! For our very first day in New Orleans, we decided to just walk around the French Quarter a bit. We just have to go down Ursulines St and in about a quarter of an hour we run into Bourbon St and Royal St in the Lower French Quarter (the Eastern side). Then we could follow them west towards the Upper French Quarter.

Even though they run side by side in parallel, Bourbon and Royal are quite different. Bourbon St is the rowdier, drunker street, all bars and clubs and liquor stores. Royal St is much more pleasant to me, with clothing or handcraft stores to go along with the inevitable souvenir shops and bars.

Walking down these streets was everything I expected and then some. There are hundreds of those beautiful houses with metalwork balconies all over the quarter: some are exquisitely conserved and adorned with flowers, while others just one block away are in complete disrepair with the balconies full of broken bicycles and other junk.

In a talk he gave about Treme in Paris, at Shakespeare & Co., David Simon said that in New Orleans you can hear music being played at any time as you walk by. I understood what he meant, but I didn’t expect it to be literally true at noon on a Sunday; and yet, as we walked down to Jackson Square by the time you stop hearing a street performer you begin to hear the next one, and then you turn a corner and there’s a jazz quartet on the balcony of a restaurant.

Jackson Square itself is less about the music and more about painters, caricature artists, tarot readers and also just plain weirdos exhibiting their craft to passersby. It features the St. Louis cathedral, dating from the 18th century (old for American standards) and the beautiful Pontalba buildings. Several historic sites here that we’ll have to come back to. It’s also right next to the Mississippi river, so we took the chance to sit there for a spell and rest.

Next we walked up to the French Market, the food section of which was smaller than we thought, and we’re not huge fans of flea markets so we peaced out and went to lunch at Fiorella’s nearby. I had a giant roast beef po’boy, which is a sub sandwich (a rose is a rose is a rose). Our guidebook described it as “messy”, and indeed between the sauce and all the pickles and mushrooms and everything else I nearly had to shower after eating it. But it was delicious!

After lunch, we were just at the right time and the right place to board the Mississippi cruise on the Natchez steamboat. To my amazement, it’s an actual steamboat -I had assumed the paddle was just there for our amusement, but it’s apparently a 1925 steam engine built into a more recent boat.

The tour takes two full hours and goes downriver, towards the Gulf, and then back. It was very enjoyable because the weather was nice, we could sit on the deck in the shade, and there was stuff to do like visit the engine room or listen to a jazz band, but as for the actual river there’s absolutely NOTHING to see there. It’s all just one awful industrial sight after another. After a whole day walking it’s always great to sit down, but at $30 a ticket it’s a bit pricey as far as cooldown activities go!

After the boat, we took a short walk around the Upper French Quarter, failed to get into the Historic New Orleans Collection -closed early on Sundays!- and, on the way back to our rented house, stopped to buy some groceries at a store while a woman sang the blues to a rapt audience right outside. One of the advantages of renting instead of staying at a hotel is getting to dine in when you don’t feel like being out until late!

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