Monday morning and for a traditional ‘eye opener’, the bloody Mary in front of me was about as eye opening as you can get. This is breakfast New Orleans style and having it at Brennan’s on Royal Street has been something of a tradition in the Big Easy since 1946.
Brennan’s is old school; the pink 18th century building, the long starched aprons, the palmetto fans, the table side burners, all capturing a golden age when the well to do flocked there to do very well indeed thank you. My eye opener was followed by the traditional Brennan brekkie of Turtle Soup, Eggs Hussarde and the finale, Brennan’s own Bananas Foster, a flambéed banana and rum dessert cooked at the table. All very impressive it must be said.
This is a city full of traditions of course, after all, it’s a veritable melting pot of cultures drawn here by the mighty Mississippi. The French, Italian, African, Creole, Cajun and Caribbean influences all fall over themselves to be heard. So prepare to be bowled over and rolled out working your way through a myriad of exotic culinary delights, from simple beignets and po-boys to spicy stews like gumbo and jambalaya. Mr. B’s for example, a wonderful bistro on Royal Street specialising in Creole food such as blackened Yellowfin Tuna or Gumbo Ya Ya. I had one of the most memorable Filet Mignon’s of my entire life there.
I stroll around The French Quarter, NOLA’s (New Orleans Louisiana) beautiful historic centre. Yes, Bourbon Street, its famous main artery is very touristy; but look on the bright side, every bar has live music, there’s no shortage of people to look at and you won’t find better street musicians this side of the galaxy. But this small, historic and wonderfully atmospheric quarter has much more going for it than just Bourbon Street’s garish bars. There’s elegant Royal Street running parallel with Bourbon Street, its antique shops and art galleries a world away from its noisy neighbour just a block away. I take a wander down a side street and stumble across a delightful little courtyard and then another, lined with those glorious iron balconies.
Hidden away amongst one of these courtyards is the delightfully named Court of the Two Sisters, its daily jazz brunch buffets now almost legendary. The original two Creole sisters are now long gone from this world, but their original courtyard garden is still with us and sampling the delights of this truly enormous buffet sitting amongst the courtyard’s abounding flora and fauna was a real highlight for me.
I take a moment to sit on the corner of Chartres Street, gazing at the iconic triple turrets of the St Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, itself one of the oldest parts of the city. Artists are here peddling their paintings alongside street performers and fortune tellers. Meanwhile, a 10 strong jazz band made up from an assorted cast of characters knocks out a rousing tune. New Orleans jazz has its own style and sound, not surprising really as this was where it all began; a combination of blues, ragtime and brass band music, designed to make you want to dance.
Just a few minutes’ walk and I’m down by the Mississippi, the walkway along its banks perfect for both lovers and joggers. If you fancy experiencing a voyage on one of the few remaining steamships left in service, a couple of hours on the Natchez will do you. There’s an evening dinner jazz cruise, and though the fare on offer is not memorable, you’ll certainly remember paddling down the river as night draws in listening to the live jazz.
Back in town, and I’m looking for a famous old house and I find it a stone’s throw from Bourbon at 830 St. Louis Street. Today it contains the offices of an estate agency, but it was once a bordello called The House of the Rising Sun. Yes, the one from the song.
Outside of the French Quarter, I take a St Charles Street tram along the Garden District and gaze at the huge colonial mansions of the NOLA gentry. Coming back, I get off at Canal and make my way towards Louis Armstrong Park. Where Louis’ statue stands looking over at Congo Square the tree lined corner where the slaves danced and sang every Sunday on their day off.
Just a little further on is the neighbourhood of Treme. Now an HBO hit series, it’s the oldest black neighbourhood in the USA and where many freed slaves came to own their own property. I stop awhile at a 19th century Creole Villa which is now the African American Museum dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Treme area.
I have one last stop to make; Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World. Whilst this legendary carnival has become world famous, it is perhaps the modelling and float making expertise of Blain Kern’s artists that have been instrumental in its rise to stardom. It is right here the magic happens; the colourful floats and papier-mâché characters that make Mardi Gras so special. I take the public tour walking around the huge warehouse, already alive with creations for the next Mardi Gras, just a mere 10 months away.
There is no doubting New Orleans during Mardi Gras is a special time, but once all the carnival crowds have gone, this great old city is still there waiting for you. Recovering from the terrible legacy of Katrina is still very much work in progress, however the spirit and individuality of New Orleans and more importantly her people are all here waiting to be discovered.
Right now for me though it ‘s back to Brennan’s I feel another eye opener coming on.