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.