Tuesday, September 12, 2017

New Orleans and Voodoo

(Note: The following is by no means an attempt to explain voodoo in full. There are many excellent books on the subject for those interested in learning more. When visiting New Orleans, be aware that voodoo is a spiritual belief system and should be treated with respect.)

It is almost impossible to separate voodoo from New Orleans history and the modern-day culture. They are all intertwined, meaning that you would be missing out if you do not attempt to understand some of the voodoo religion and its continuing influence over the city.

Display at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

Louisiana voodoo developed as an amalgamation of traditional religious practices brought by slaves from West Africa and the Catholic religion which the local landowners and settlers followed. Slaveowners tried to make their slaves convert to Catholicism. Like so many other aspects of New Orleans culture, religious beliefs combined, bringing together various backgrounds to create something unique to the region.

The most famous practitioner was Marie Laveau, the daughter of a white planter and a black Creole. While working as a hairdresser, she developed a reputation for being able to cure sickness, unite lovers, and bring luck to clients. Her customers ranged from the wealthy white elite of the city to slaves and the impoverished. A strict Catholic, she encouraged many of her followers to attend Mass, and it may have been this that helped to cement the link between the two systems.

Today, although voodoo has become very commercialized in New Orleans, used to sell all manner of trinkets to tourists, it is still an important belief system. Many stores in the French Quarter can provide good luck charms, dolls, and advice.

A good place to learn more is the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street. Visitors can learn about local tours, or can book readings with practitioners. They can also browse the museum which, while small and often crowded, contains a wealth of information about Marie Laveau, voodoo's origins, and its links to Catholicism. Again, be aware that many of the displays are altars and should be treated with respect. They may look very different to a Christian church altar, but each item carries significance.

Offerings at the tomb of Marie Laveau
The other key place to visit is the tomb of Marie Laveau in St. Louis Cemetery #1, aka the City of the Dead. Since 1789, thousands upon thousands of people have been buried in this small burial ground, which barely covers one city block. Since 2015, the cemetery has been off limits to unaccompanied visitors. This is to cut down on vandalism which sadly has caused lasting damage. Those wishing to visit may do so as part of an organized tour, such as the one we took with French Quarter Phantoms.

Burial vault marred by scratches
The cemetery is absolutely fascinating but most people want to see Laveau's tomb, where people still leave small offerings. You will notice that one her tomb and, more prominently on several other tombs, dozens of Xs have been etched into the stonework. DO NOT DO THIS! Tour guides back in the early 20th century started a rumor that Laveau was in fact buried in a different tomb and that if visitors scratched XXX into it, they would gain good fortune. This brought the guides larger tips from eager visitors, while causing irreparable damage to the tombs. Show respect to the dead rather than desecrating their resting places.

Incidentally, the story of how people are buried in New Orleans is incredibly interesting but I shall leave that for you to learn from your guide.

This Voodoo Circle was originally located in a building on Toulouse Street and is believed to have been used to protect the inhabitants from the spirits.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Treme: The Musical Heart of New Orleans

There's no going to New Orleans and ignoring the music. Why would you want to? The city is a vibrant combination of color, life, and sounds. This is a place where, if you can pull together a band and $50 for a license, you can have a parade for any reason. Seriously! If I lived there, I'd be finding all sorts of reasons to party. Sunny day? Let's have a parade. Feeling blue? Time for a parade to lift the spirits!
Old Satchmo himself - Louis Armstrong

But while many people associate New Orleans with jazz, there is so much more variety to the musical history of the Big Easy. It is the very heart of American music.

One of the best ways to learn about the musical history of New Orleans is to take a walking tour. French Quarter Phantoms does a fabulous musical tour of the Treme neighborhood. (We weren't paid to say that - we took a number of their tours and enjoyed every one.) Our group set out with our trusty guide Justin and a boombox of tunes for a neighborhood discovery that ranged from the drumbeats of the Congo to Marilyn Manson (yes - there's a New Orleans connection).

Obviously I encourage you all to take the tour so I'm not going to give away everything, but I will share a few of the highlights to hopefully whet your appetite.

So let's start with a little history about the Treme neighborhood. This beautiful collection of streets with the brightly colored houses is adjacent to the French Quarter. It is also the oldest African American neighborhood in the United States, and as such, has a rich history that encompasses civil rights, the arts, social change, and of course music. It was the earliest place where free people of color were able to buy and own property. The streets may have been quiet the afternoon of our tour, but at weekends they are filled with local musicians and residents.

Congo Square
Our tour began in Louis Armstrong Park, more specifically in Congo Square. Here, under the rules of the Code Noir observed by the French colonists, slaves met each Sunday. Their dances, rhythms, and songs, transported thousands of miles, provided inspiration for generations of future musicians.

The park is full of sculptures commemorating New Orleans music, but they might not all be what you expect. For example, the French Opera House Sculpture. While you might not put opera and New Orleans together, a magnificent opera house stood in the French Quarter from 1859 to 1919, when it was destroyed by fire.

French Opera House Sculpture

Nearby, you can also see statues of Charles Buddy Bolden, Big Chief Tootie, and the park's namesake, Louis Armstrong.

As we learned from Justin, after the Civil War, many musicians found themselves back in New Orleans. They would take the military marches and add the drum rhythms handed down from Africa and the West Indies. Jazz was born. Although opinions differ as to exactly who started it and when. Some will say Buddy Bolden in 1895. Others will claim it developed later. In reality, there wasn't just one person on one day. Jazz formed from an amalgamation of styles, instruments, traditions, and creative souls.

Buddy Bolden
There is so much more I could write about this - about the Second Line, about how music continues to evolve to this day in New Orleans with groups such as the Rebirth Brass Band, about how trumpets continue to sound around the city in a seemingly never-ending stream of music festivals, and about how artists in so many other genres come to Treme in search of inspiration. And that doesn't even get to the local hip hop and metal scenes.

But as much as I could talk about it, the best way to experience it is to visit New Orleans. Take a guided tour through Louis Armstrong Park and Treme. Hear the stories. Hear the sounds. It may sound corny, but this city is ALIVE with rhythms and tunes, and all have a story to tell.

Passebon Cottage in Treme, built in 1843, is being renovated to be part of an expanded African-American Museum

In case you can't tell, I sort of fell in love with New Orleans, especially Treme!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Budget Friendly Vacationing in the Big Easy

Photo by Didier Moise

We finally did it! We made it to New Orleans for a vacation.

Ordinarily that might not sound like a big deal, but we had started to think we might be a jinx upon the place. We had first talked about visiting years ago... and then Katrina happened. A few years later, we raised the topic again... and cue another major hurricane. And so on. Until we figured it might just not be in our destiny.

But earlier this year, I was chatting to a bunch of people in Louisiana for several Group Travel Leader pieces I was writing. Maybe it was time to go for real.

Despite the naysayers, we picked a week in July and off we went. And we had a blast. It was not overly expensive either.

Over the next few posts, I'll be sharing some of our adventures in New Orleans and the surrounding area - walking tours, the food, the swamps, the food, the French Quarter... and did I mention the food? I am now obsessed with making every type of gumbo I can find a recipe for.

But to start off, I want to share a few tips that came in useful for us in keeping our vacation very budget friendly. I haven't been paid by anyone to say nice things, nor did we receive any freebies. These are simply a few of the ways we enjoyed our break without breaking the bank.

There's always a reason for a parade in New Orleans!

When you go.

So I mentioned the naysayers. That's because some people felt it incredibly necessary to tell us what a miserable time we would have in Louisiana in July. That we would be entering a unbearably hot and humid swamp of mosquitoes. 

It was actually pretty nice weather. In fact, the air temps were hotter in Lexington while we were gone than they were in NOLA. Sure the humidity bumped it up, but it was no different to if we'd stayed in Kentucky, and definitely cooler than our trip to Death Valley a few years ago! 

Ah but it's a different kind of heat. Different to the dry desert heat, but not to the humidity we'd been having in Kentucky. The weather was hot but pleasant and definitely not so uncomfortable that we could not enjoy our time outside. As for the mosquitoes - not a problem in the city. I got bitten a few times when we went out to the swampier areas, but repellent kept most of them away.

So why July? For starters, it was easier for my husband to get away from work. And when I had spoken to various travel bureau folks, they all agreed that July is one of the quieter months. Still pretty busy but fewer crowds than many tourist destinations in summer, and that also means cheaper hotel prices....

Gorgeous iron work in the French Quarter.

Where you stay.

Where you will want to stay depends largely on what type of vacation you are looking for. If you're going to New Orleans to party, no doubt you will want to stay in or close to the French Quarter. The same applies if you are flying and don't want to deal with a rental car. Sure you could get Lyfts  or Uber but that adds up. Chances are you want something within walking distance, or at least along a cable car route, and you will have plenty of options.

Since we drove down to Louisiana over the course of 2 days, it was easier for us to get around. And we're pretty basic travelers - give us a clean room and bathroom and we're good to go. Since my husband travels a lot for work we used some of his hotel points and stayed in a nice new TownePlace Suites in Harvey, about a 20 minute drive into the Quarter each day. But even though we used points, going in July meant we got a much better deal than if we'd traveled at other times of the year.

No we're not suggesting you stay here but do make time to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1

So does that mean ridiculous parking fees?

"You drove into the French Quarter! What about parking?"

That occurred to us once we got down there as well. Having been to Chicago, San Francisco, and New York and seeing the horrendous daily rates for parking in convenient locations, we were considering the cost benefits of getting a Lyft in each day. However, with a quick internet search we were able to find all-day parking in a secure lot for about $7. 

Per day!

We could reserve a spot, pay online and have parking from 10am to 10pm or later for the princely sum of $7 per day. And it was just a few blocks from Bourbon Street.

The company is Premium Parking. I'm not getting paid to say good things about them - we're just glad we found them and saved a bunch of money.

Local color in the French Quarter

What to do.

New Orleans has plenty for visitors to do even if, like us, you have no interest in drinking on Bourbon Street til the sun comes up. But we found huge discounts on the things we wanted to do.

Thanks to Groupon.

We made a list of things that interested us and then got to searching for deals. All told, over the course of the week, we did a fantastic food tour, an eco-tour of the bayou, plus four walking tours - for a total of 48% of what we'd have paid on the day! The tours were great - more on those in upcoming posts. We had fun, met plenty of interesting folks and learned a lot.

New Orleans has a rich and varied musical history.

What to eat.

New Orleans is a paradise for foodies, but it can be really easy to overlook some of the best places to eat. Thanks to our food tour on Monday, we had a list of places to explore for the rest of the week. He pointed out little places in the French Quarter that we would have easily passed by, not even realizing they were restaurants. Muffaletta, gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, gator, oysters... there's so much good food that I would say it's worth taking a food tour to learn a little more before you get started. Skip the tourist traps and find out where the locals eat.

Crawfish, mudbugs... whatever you call them, they're good eatin'!
This is just a start. Over the next few posts, I'll be sharing more details about tours, food, history and more, but hopefully it has given you a few ideas for enjoying the Big Easy on an easy budget.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Introducing British Food and Travel

If you're wondering why I haven't updated here for a while, there have been a variety of reasons, but the main one has been that I've been busy building a new site dedicated to my home country.

British Food and Travel recently launched. The site highlights the best of British food, coast, and countryside. Each week, expect to find at least one food-related post and one travel post.

One current series, posted every Friday, is spotlighting the National Parks of the British Isles. Later this year, I'll be running a series about the literary landscape of Britain, and charting the coastal path. I'll be walking some of the coastal path this fall so watch out for posts about that.

I'll also be featuring places to stay, things to do, and how to experience the very best of the great British outdoors.

So come on over and check us out at British Food and Travel. 

And don't worry - I'm not completely abandoning this page. I've got a bunch of Louisiana posts coming soon!