Last week, I took a trip “down yonder to Old New Orleans” after finding great deals for travel on off days during the holiday week. I am happy to report that this vacation spot is better than ever after Katrina. With the Super Bowl coming to the Crescent City this February, the city is hard at work repaving roads, upgrading the streetcar system and making other improvements to infrastructure. The shops and galleries of the French Quarter, the main draw for tourists, are open now that most of the proprietors have returned after the storm.
Cross the border of the French Quarter at Rampart Street, and you’ll enter Tremé, which is considered to be the first black neighborhood in America. Many famous musicians were born in the Tremé, and it’s even considered the birthplace of jazz. It’s also the site of the recently renovated Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square, where slaves used to gather on Sundays to play music and dance. If you ask anybody in the French Quarter, they’ll warn you not to go to the Tremé. Maybe they say that to keep the visitors spending money in the tourist area, or maybe it’s because I’ve lived in Baltimore for so long, but I felt completely comfortable walking around the neighborhood during the day. Everyone I passed said hello or made friendly conversation, making me feel welcome.
|Backstreet Cultural Museum|
If you are uncomfortable visiting Tremé alone, French Quarter Phantoms offers a wonderful two-hour tour. My guide was Emelie, who provided a wealth of information on the history and culture of the area and seemed to know everyone we passed. Since I was the only one on the tour, I felt more like I was hanging out with a friend than playing tourist.
After finishing the tour, I returned to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which tells the story of the Mardi Gras Indians and other groups that make the culture of New Orleans so interesting. Mr. Francis, who founded the museum, is a delightful man, who enjoys telling personal tales about the people who donated the memorabilia. Although the museum only has two rooms, I spent more than an hour there, fascinated by the intricate work of the Indian costumes and his stories.
Wanting to experience the true music of New Orleans, I visited Kermit Ruffins’ Tremé Speakeasy at 1535 Basin Street after reading about his new restaurant in a local entertainment magazine. On Monday nights, this cozy restaurant offers a delicious, affordable meal and an amazing set by Kermit and friends that starts around 6:30 p.m. Etiquette in New Orleans calls for any musicians in the house to get up and play with the band, so a long list of people were called onstage to perform, even some of the servers. Since there are only about ten tables, early arrivers invite the late-comers to fill in the empty seats, making it a great way to meet people. By the end of the set, everyone in the room was dancing together and tossing balloons around like old friends. It felt more like being welcomed to a house party than hanging out in a bar. You don’t find that friendly, laid back attitude in the North.
|A typical night on Frenchmen Street|
Laissez les bons temps rouler!