Day Six: The Garden District and Katrina

Because this was my first time in New Orleans, I wanted to take a short city tour that would feature highlights of the city; I was particularly interested in the Garden District, the “cities of the dead,” and the 9th Ward, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Dixie Tours offered a comprehensive tour at a resonable price, and we were picked up at our hotel.  It was a wonderful tour and our guide was nice (although he could have had a bit more personality). We traveled through the northern outskirts of the French Quarter called Storyville, the former red light district of the city and where a lot of good jazz originated; the downtown area; and, by the riverside, where the famous French Market and Jackson Square is located (photo op!). I learned about “shotgun” houses, a type of architecture borrowed from the West Indies. Because of the warm climate, these homes, which have no hallways, are built with high narrow doors at the front and back in such a way that, when open, you can see from front to back (or shoot a shotgun through it).

Then onto other sections of the city, including a tour of the 9th Ward, which was the hardest hit area during Hurricane Katrina. Seeing the damage certainly put the tragedy in perspective – cement steps that lead nowhere, empty grass lots where a home used to stand, gutted homes still standing that are marked with an X for pending demolition, homes that still bear the watermark 15 feet up the house. Recovery is taking place, but is moving slow. Brad Pitt and others set up a foundation called “Make it Right,” which is rebuilding homes for residents of the area who have decided to return to their land (our tour guide said only about 20 percent of the homeowners in that area have opted to come back). These are state-of-the-art – not only can they withstand hurricane strength winds, but the homes, which are already set high above the ground, can actually float, if necessary. New Orleans natives Harry Connick Jr. and Bradford Marsalis have also contributed to the recovery with the creation of Musicians’ Village. With the assistance of Habitat for Humanity, Musicians’ Village is providing a home for “both the artists who have defined the city’s culture and the sounds that have shaped the musical vernacular of the world,” according to the project’s Web site.

Leaving the 9th Ward, we drove to the New Orleans Museum of Art in the beautiful City Park, where we had a brief stop that gave us time to walk over a small bridge crossing the bayou to view an old oak, dripping with Spanish moss, that is hundreds of years old. For the second part of the tour, we stopped at Mentarie Cemetary, a “city of the dead” that was a former horse race track; you can still see the oval shape winding among the above-ground tombs. Our last stop was the stunning Garden District, filled with Greek Revival, Victorian and Italianate homes shaded by huge trees lining each side of the streets. Stopping at the former home of author Anne Rice was especially thrilling for me; as a fan, I would picture her characters coming to life in the neighborhood and nearby Lafayette Cemetary. We also saw the homes of Sandra Bullock, John Goodman and Archie Manning. A tradition I learned about that I really liked is that homes of the kings and queens of Mardi Gras (aka Rex) are marked by a special flag. On our way back to our starting point, we drove down St. Charles Street and saw the beautiful old green trolley cars that run the route; Loyola and Tulane universities, which , to my surprise, are side by side; and the warehouse district.

We asked our tour operator to drop us off on Royal Street in the French Quarter instead of our hotel because we were hoping to have lunch at Mr. B’s Bistro. We had called during our break in the tour and were told the restaurant was booked all day. But Linda had the wise suggestion to just drop in. We had a 45 minute wait, but were able to get a table and, during that time, had a delightful talk with a couple from Texas at the bar. The service at the bar was poor, but lunch was wonderful! My choice from the menu was Seafood Gumbo, one of the things I wanted to make sure I had in New Orleans; beans and rice with a pork chop; and, champagne for dessert.

When we left, we walked back to the hotel via Royal Street for a change. This is a very quaint street lined with shops offering everything from antiques to souvenirs. I shopped for the first time since arriving; two wonderful shops I highly recommend are Razzle Dazzle for its unique assortment of gifts, and Road Trip, because of its quirky inventory and accommodating staff. One of my favorite finds of the trip was at the latter where I found a T-shirt touting “Road Trip 2010 – New Orleans or Bust.” How much more appropriate can you get?! 

On our way back to the hotel, we walked by the Royal Sonesta Hotel, which was referred to by the Grateful Dead in their song “Truckin’ (“Busted down on Bourbon Street . . .).  One last stop I had wanted to make this afternoon was The Old Absinthe House, also on Bourbon Street. The cover photos on “In Through the Out Door” are modeled after this bar where Jimmy Page supposedly met his ex-wife. However, the bar was so packed, you couldn’t even open the door. For that matter, Bourbon Street was starting to get crazier than I had seen it since I arrived. Because of this, plus the fact that it was literally freezing outside, Linda and I reluctantly decided to forego the evening’s Orpheus parade featuring Harry Conninck Jr. among others and opted for a “rest up” evening at the hotel.  A shout out to Rocco at our hotel, the Hotel St. Marie, for getting my Internet connection to work so I could use the down time to write.

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