New Orleans: Bacchus, blues and beignets


Victor Block

How can you not love a city where local rogues and scoundrels have streets and bridges named after them? A place that celebrates its oddball residents on a website: A destination where elegance lives comfortably with decadence.

Welcome to New Orleans, where no matter what your interests, you’re likely to satisfy them and more.

Enjoy outstanding cuisine? This is the place to be. No matter what your musical preference, it’s there in abundance. The city’s history is as colorful as its varied architecture.

For many people, New Orleans means the French Quarter. Gracious hotels and restaurants, music venues, boutiques and art galleries line Royal Street.

A short block away on Bourbon Street, the scene is very different. T-shirt shops vie for attention with posters touting strip shows. Ear-pounding music spills out of lounges, along with patrons sipping from plastic “take-out cups” of adult beverages.

The architecture bespeaks of the city’s European roots. Graceful townhouses are adorned with cast iron balconies set off by intricate ironwork. Courtyards brim with lush greenery and flowers surrounding splashing fountains.

A focus of the neighborhood is the French Market, a collection of shops, cafes and farmers’ stalls that have been in business at the same spot for more than two centuries. The biggest crowds line up outside the Café du Monde, waiting to order café au lait and beignets, artery-clogging fried dough slathered in powdered sugar that are as delicious as they are renowned.

Very different from the crowds and atmosphere of the French Quarter is the quiet elegance of the Garden District. Established in the early 19th century, it became a haven for the newly rich, who built stately mansions surrounded by lovely gardens. The neighborhood now is a favored hideaway for Hollywood celebrities like Sandra Bullock and John Goodman.

Another area was little known until it became the setting for a popular television series. Treme (pronounced treh-MAY) is one of the oldest enclaves in the city. During the 18th and 19th centuries, free persons of color and, later, African slaves who achieved their freedom, acquired property in Treme.

It’s almost impossible not to be moved by a stop in Congo Square. That open space is where slaves once sold crafts to earn money for buying their freedom, and gathered to socialize and dance. The music they played was an early forerunner of African influence on American jazz.

Another popular Treme site is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the most famous of a number of graveyards in New Orleans where the deceased are buried above ground in stone crypts and mausoleums. One tomb is said to be that of Marie Laveau, a legendary “Voodoo Priestess” who was believed to possess feared magical powers. Some visitors scrawl X marks on the grave in the hope that even after death her spirit will grant them a wish.

Many visitors to New Orleans tour the Ninth Ward to view remnants of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, and ongoing recovery and revitalization efforts. Among stark reminders of that disaster are numerous vacant lots where houses once stood, and chalk marks still visible on some doors that were made by rescuers to indicate if any bodies were found inside.

The best-known annual event in New Orleans is the Mardi Gras celebration, which attracts hundreds of thousands of celebrants. I preferred to sample a bit of the fun and frivolity without the franticness.

I found the perfect alternative at Mardi Gras World. There, in a warehouse so huge it could have its own zip code, artists spend a full year making floats for the Mardi Gras parade and other events.

Entering the cavernous building, I became a Lilliputian in a world of giants. Larger-than-life paper mache gladiators, movie personalities, cartoon figures and more dwarf visitors. Flowers are the size of trees, and the “Old woman who lived in a shoe” could move right into oversized footwear.

No matter where you are in New Orleans, you’re never far from the mighty Mississippi River. In fact, without “Old Man River,” there would be no New Orleans. On its 2,400 mile run from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, it carries millions of tons of sediment every day, and that soil created the land which today is Louisiana.

A good way to experience the powerful waterway is during a sightseeing cruise aboard a steamboat, which combines views of the city with an authentic taste of the past. The Creole Queen and Steamboat Natchez offer enchanting paddlewheel tours. During a mini-voyage on the Natchez, I alternated listening to the informational narration, bellying up to the buffet and dancing off a few calories to the foot-tapping music of the Dukes of Dixieland.

If you go …

For more information about New Orleans, call 800-672-6124 or log onto