In 1718, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville founded what has became known as the Vieux Carré or French Quarter. Back then, this registered national historic landmark was nothing more than a sticky swamp filled with ‘gators, mosquitoes and malaria, but at three feet above sea level, it was – and remains – the highest land area within 50 miles. And given that it’s at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi, that fact made it a valuable piece of real estate.
In 2010, it’s still sticky during the summer, but instead of malaria, you’ll find outdoor café’s serving coffee and beignets, unique shops full of antiques and collectibles and of course, the ubiquitous anti-BP shirts with words that this family friendly blog can’t publish.
Note – all of the crazy stuff related to Mardi Gras is pretty much confined to only one street: Bourbon. The rest of the Quarter is much more tame and family friendly.
After a delicious muffalato (a Cajun style sandwich) lunch at Café Beignet (off the beaten path and doesn’t have too many tourists) on Royal Street, we continued our leisurely sander up this historic avenue, enjoying the outdoor jazz bands, the colorful shop windows and elaborate ironwork galleries that grace the second and third stories of many of these buildings. I must confess that Royal Street is my favorite in the Quarter. It is so quintessential New Orleans.
We arrived in Jackson Square – named for President and Battle of New Orleans hero Andrew Jackson, AKA the dude on the $20 bill – via “Pirate’s Alley.” According to legend, the infamous Jean Lafitte and his band of swashbucklers used this area of New Orleans as a base of operations, often dividing up their booty in the bars along this backstreet.
As we sat on a bench opposite the Cabildo, the historic building where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803 and where the death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte is currently on display, we were entertained by a street performer pretending to be Muhammad Ali. He was quite entertaining, shouting challenges to Joe Frasier and shadow boxing on top of a…soap box, but I’m not sure how Ali is connected to the Crescent City?
On a side note, there are many connections throughout New Orleans to Napoleon because some of his most ardent supporters were in the process of arranging his transfer to New Orleans from St. Helena where he was exiled after the defeat at Waterloo, when he died as they were finalizing plans. In fact, the Napoleon House on Chartres Street was intended to house the former emperor for the rest of his days, had he made it to Louisiana.
After Beignets at a very busy Café Du Monde, it was onto the French Market on Decatur Street. This is a fantastic outdoor market with fresh fruit, vegetables, produce, toys, Mardi Gras masks and almost anything else you can imagine. In fact, because New Orleans allows open containers, Christine and I grabbed two ice cold pina coladas to sip as we wondered between the vendor stalls.
Next to the French Market, there stands a statue of the patron saint of New Orleans: the famed Joan of Arc. A carbon copy of the statue resides in Paris, France. Naturally, as the patron of Orleans, France, she became the same of New Orleans.
Next time you watch the world champion Saints play football, remember that the upper three leaves of the Fleur-de-lis that you see on the side of their helmets represents the Holy Trinity and the bottom three leaves the Holy Family – Joseph, Mary and Jesus. This was Joan’s banner and was subsequently adopted by the French king after Ms. Arc defeated the English.
By the way, if you’re at Café Du Monde and need to escape the crowd to have a nice outdoor lunch – or just need an iced daiquiri to help cool down – walk down the block toward the French Market and stop in at The Gazebo. Great food and even better service, as well as a fantastic outdoor atmosphere with live music; I highly recommend it, especially after the sweaty, mediocre service you’ll receive at Café Du Monde.
But all good things must come to an end. After a gator-to-go order at The Gazebo, we headed back to the hotel, and with a sad goodbye, headed to Louis Armstrong International.
Until next time, New Orleans.