BY BRIGITTE TREUMANN
It was all Willie Nelson’s fault and his “inspirin’” rendition of City of New Orleans “…I’m the train they call the city of New Orleans…”. I like that song and have listened to it often without rushing to pack my bags and heading south. But a combination of yet another late snowstorm in April, the still-bare trees, the grayness of it all, and Willie’s alluring, twangy voice made up my mind on the spot. And, as they say, before I knew it I was sitting in the lounge of the beautifully restored Union Station – To All Trains – waiting to board superliner “City of New Orleans.” The pleasant and comfortable roomette, my home for the next 18 hours, polite attendants, even the nondescript food advertised on a beautifully designed, evocative menu card, and an entertaining neighbor, a horse rancher named Bob from Hammond, Louisiana, whose accent and interesting grammar were most intriguing, contributed happily to a long and fascinating ride on the rails.
Going to sleep in southern, still sort-of-wintry Illinois and waking up in the green and sunny Mississippi Delta, a region that is known as “the most southern place on earth” in the sense of the American south, thrilled me. I had glimpses of what Big Daddy Pollitt from Cat On a Hot Tin Roof described as “the richest land this side of the Valley of the Nile.” Centuries of flooding by the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers created this abundant fertility with rows of fields, which are waterlogged now, being prepped for planting and new growth trying to “come out” (as Rancher Bob said). The train rattled quite a bit on the shifting alluvial soil. It had me worried for a few minutes, blowing its horn as it crossed many Mississippi small communities and towns en route to New Orleans. I realize now that some of them were key towns and hamlets of the Civil Rights era: Jackson, Greenwood, where Stokely Carmichael gave his famous speech on Black Power, Yazoo City and Greenville. The movie “The Help” was almost entirely shot in Greenwood, Mississippi. Apparently it much resembles Jackson in the 1960s.
Approaching New Orleans, the landscape changes dramatically as it becomes a waterscape and swampland. Inlets and bayous connected to larger estuaries, such as Lake Pontchartrain (really an estuary), and adjacent still waters dominate the views from the train as it hurtles toward its destination on what seemed very narrow bridges.
Prepped for cotton.
Are we on track?
Above the swamp.
But we made it and I alighted, slightly dazed but excited, arrived at New Orleans – Nawlins – The Big Easy – NOLA – Union Terminal, and looking forward to five days in this amazing town.
My choice to stay at the Inn on Ursulines, a French Quarter Guest House, was most fortuitous. It’s understated but simply elegant façade reminded me of a lovely mansion in the French countryside where I spent memorable childhood summers. This New Orleans version has a narrow, quite romantic courtyard in the back that runs between the front and a two story-covered-gallery house supported by columns. I stayed in the gallery house and it couldn’t have been more delightful.
The Inn on Ursulines.
Ursulines Street is named after the Ursuline nuns who established a convent, an orphanage and a school for girls in New Orleans in 1745. The former convent is now a museum adjacent to lovely St. Mary’s Church that was built in 1727. I often walked down Ursulines Street, discovering both a fabulous breakfast spot, the Golden Croissant, and at the corner of Ursulines and Chartres Streets, a charming garden and stately structure, the Beauregard-Keyes house.
Historical street sign.
Like so many other NOLA homes, it has a fascinating history. And while I am not a fan of house tours, this one did intrigue me, not the least because of the reference to famous Confederate General, Pierre Gustave Toutant (a.k.a. P.G.T.) Beauregard. The peripatetic general pops up everywhere in and around New Orleans. He “lodged” here in 1867 (maybe to take a break from being a general?). One prized possession on view is his travel-dinner-trunk, complete with fancy dishes, cooking pots, table cloths and whatever else he needed to dine in style on the campaign trail. In the 1950s, a noted author of romantic and gothic tales, Frances Parkinson Keyes, bought the place, renovated it and designed the tasteful garden.
Chartres Street impression.
Beauregard’s dinner trunk.
It’s Easter Sunday and I am out chasing several Easter parades. Trumpets of a passing parade on Ursulines woke me up, a merry introduction to what was a day of pictorial, musical and gastronomical overload, and unforgettable encounters. A day of constant meandering, tasting all those famous specialties: three types of gumbo, truffled crayfish legs, beignets, bread pudding and cautiously sipping drinks with ominous names like Creole Slush, Hurricane Jane, Dark and Stormy. But, to my disappointment, no fancy cocktail named Beauregard Punch! I shall create a fitting recipe.
Pink Easter Parade attendee.
Fabulous parade ladies.
Maurice and Ainsie – two bons compagnons.
The Bearded Belles of Bourbon Street and a smiling author.
Taking a respite from the madding Easter Sunday crowds, a peaceful gliding through the Bayou Manchac, one of many bayous or swamps in the area, seemed just the right thing to do. Our guide from the Cajun Pride Swamp Tour, folksy, fast-talking Capt’n Danny, was entertaining and knowledgeable. He lured slyly swimming alligators by throwing marshmallows their way, or pointed to small and large turtles all in a row, whistled at cute raccoons staring out from dense bushes, and regaled us with tales of a scary voodoo priestess Julia Brown. She cast her spells in this watery sylvan realm and is said to have died with a curse on her lips, saying “when I die I shall take the whole town with me.” After her death, so said the jolly Capt’n Danny, a terrible hurricane destroyed the town. But Julia Brown’s dire predictions did not mar my enjoyment of silent waterways, the luxuriously green river forest, the silvery-gray veils of Spanish moss graciously draped on beechwood and cypresses. It was all sort of dreamlike. Maybe I’ll become a voodoo priestess by the river, but a friendly one.
In the Manchac bayou.
Turtles all in a row.
Back in the maelstrom of lively, happy-go-lucky tourists and New Orleanians my meandering led to the charming Marigny district. I followed Esplanade Avenue with its wealth of early 19th century colorful and appealing mansions, the preferred neighborhood of rich Creole citizens of their time. It is easy to fantasize in “Nawlins”; no longer a voodoo priestess, but now a Creole of Spanish or French descent riding a thoroughbred, doffing his hat to the strolling ladies (this time I would prefer to be a man).
The most popular hub in Marigny is Frenchmen Street. It is often described as the Bourbon Street of yesteryear. Lined with restaurants, cafes, and most of all, live music clubs, it teems with aspiring and established musicians, colorful models, actors, producers and filmmakers. And, of course, plenty of goggling tourists who hope to spot a celebrity, or just to enjoy one of those NOLA drinks you are allowed to carry in plastic cups in plain sight outdoors.
Music at Bamboula’s.
I hit upon a particularly dynamic, noisy and hilarious Hip-Hop happening/production for MTV. They set up (if that’s what one could call it) while I lunched on delicious crab cakes and quaffed the infamous hurricane double/triple rum cocktail at a fun place called Bamboula. But then the show was on outside, and music and action erupted like a benign volcano. I would have loved to have a camcorder, but had to content myself with my little Leica camera, trying to keep up with the speed and constant movement of many faces, hands, legs, and bodies.
Carrying the hurricane.
The youngest hip-hop fan.
On my last day of this perfect week, I booked a historical river cruise on the magnificently vast Mississippi with the Paddlewheeler Creole Queen that takes you downriver for about one hour to the 1815 Battle of New Orleans at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. Here, future U.S. President, General Andrew Jackson led American forces victoriously against a British invasion. It elevated Jackson to the status of National War Hero. The National Park Service maintains the wide green expanse of the former battlefield, crisscrossed by small rivulets and patches of swampy ground. A dignified, white-mustachioed veteran told the story of the Battle of New Orleans in great and poignant details.
The Creole deck.
Spanish moss on battlefield.
Just rolling along…
Continuing the battlefield mode, I spent the remaining day at the highly recommended National World War II museum. As the official pamphlet says, “it offers a compelling blend of sweeping narrative, and poignant personal detail…an expansive collection of artifacts and first person oral-histories take visitors inside the story of the war – why it was fought, how it was won and what it means today.” It has been rated # 3 Museum in the United States, and is absolutely well worth the visit. I focused on the deeply moving and brilliantly curated D-Day section, and that’s only a small part of the whole. I must return to further explore the extensive museum campus and much more of this most fascinating, unique and mysterious city.
Playing the coda.