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Having always wanted to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I finally made it this year, flying there from Manchester via a snowy New York ! The city was awash with the carnival colours of ‘purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power’ and I had the nails to match. Thank you, Studio 6!
The motto of Mardi Gras is ‘Laissez les bons temps rouler’ (Let the good times roll) and that was certainly the case.
The days were sunny and warm, every building in the French Quarter was decorated and strings of beads cascaded down from the wrought iron balconies into the eager hands of the crowds below.
Following a recommendation by publisher John Jarrold, who knows New Orleans very well, we stayed at the 3* Prince Conti. Although only just round the corner from the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Bourbon Street, the suites (!) we’d chosen at the back of the hotel were quiet and had every comfort. Pushing the boat out isn’t generally a feature of Cobbett economics, but this was a very special trip and the purse strings were relaxed for once. We only had four full days and were determined to make the most of it.
N.B. On my only previous visit to New Orleans I was a 20 year old student, it was during a hot steamy August week and all about the jazz. Four of us shared the cheapest room we could find, sat on the pavement outside Preservation Hall and existed on a diet of fries washed down with bottles of Dr Pepper. What a joy it was this year to be able to afford decent accommodation and food!
How about this for a breakfast, chosen from a very comprehensive menu at Café Conti and accompanied by jazz in the background?
Sampling the famous doughnuts (beignets) at Café du Monde was also a must.
Eating one without getting our clothes covered in icing sugar was a challenge we failed and I was the only one to try the chicory-flavoured café au lait. Here’s a tip! Don’t order a large anything in New Orleans unless you really mean it!
Several of the places recommended for dinner were either closed during Mardi Gras week or impossibly crowded, but The Bombay Club next to our hotel had a great atmosphere and good food for carnivores. As the odd one out, the pesky vegetarian, I didn’t have much to choose from, but the pecan pesto tagliatelle was delicious and the drinks menu excellent. I’d certainly recommend the dry Martinis and Cocktail à la Louisiane.
If I mention that Sucré on Conti Street is probably the New Orleans equivalent of Bettys, my Yorkshire friends will know exactly what I mean and not be surprised that the price of a plate of petits fours in the restaurant made us blanch. However…
With limited time and many attractions closed down for Mardi Gras week, we confined ourselves mainly to the French Quarter but still found plenty to see without getting parade fatigue. (Every morning, afternoon and evening featured different ones, all listed in The Times-Picayune.) The area is quite compact and it was easy to walk down to Jackson Square.
From there, it’s a short walk to the ferry across the Mississippi to the neighbourhood of Algiers on the West Bank. It’s the second oldest part of New Orleans and has a separate small town feel. The statue of Louis Armstrong, very similar to the one in the airport named after him, dominates the skyline.
We also made our way up to Louis Armstrong Park and through to Saint Louis Number One cemetery.
The high water table in the area makes it necessary to build tombs above ground. Some are well maintained, others in a state of disrepair and the most frequently visited that of Marie Laveau, the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
We also saw the giant pyramid tomb bought by Nicholas Cage to house his own remains when the time comes. Apparently some of his fans already kiss it. We didn’t.
The Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street, although small, is well worth a visit. The staff know what they’re talking about and the items in the gift shop are authentic. This contrasts sharply with a lot of kitsch to be found elsewhere.
Originally from West Africa and arriving in Louisiana in 1719 with the first slaves, voodoo soon became entwined with Catholicism.
However sinister voodoo may appear, practitioners are keen to point out that their spells are rarely intended to do any harm.
Dolls such as these are designed to be used for Gris-Gris (magic) when a picture of the target, hair, nail clippings or a piece of clothing are is attached to them.
Many voodoo practitioners and visitors leave small personal objects on the altars, some VERY personal. I spotted a lone tampon – unused – in one collection!
There are plenty of alligators in the Louisiana swamps.
A priestess is called a Queen and the sight of one dancing round with a python held over her head must be impressive. From the early 19th century, Voodoo dances in Congo Square (now Louis Armstrong Park) were a regular Sunday event.
The voodoo doll I bought, made of swamp moss and complete with instructions and sharp pin, may come in handy one day.
The Zulu crewe held a huge and completely free music festival in Woldenberg Park on the eve of Mardi Gras itself. 60% of the people of New Orleans are black (with 30% white and 10% ‘other’) and I think most of them were there that afternoon.
Fans were queuing up to meet and follow their favourite Zulu characters.
However, the parades were what we’d mostly come to see and we certainly weren’t disappointed.
I can well believe that it takes a whole year to decorate all the floats.
A helpful taxi driver told us that they’re financed by big business, members of the various ‘krewes’ paying their dues and those keen to ride on them contributing large amounts for the privilege.
Not wishing to be crushed by the crowds, we’d booked places in the grandstand outside the Lafayette Hotel on Saint Charles Avenue for three of them – Bacchus, Proteus & Orpheus and Zulu. Each had very many floats, interspersed with marching bands, and went on for hours.
Watching the techniques employed by some families afforded us considerable amusement. Many had stepladders with boxes on top, the better to see the parade and grab as many ‘throws’ as possible. (No wonder they’re generally known as ‘greed beads’.) The gentleman in the photo, his beer cooler safely stashed below the step ladder, had his family team fully deployed to pass any they caught up to him. Incidentally, the curtain to the left is there to preserve the modesty of anyone in the grandstand wishing to use the portaloo behind.
I can’t claim superiority and deny that we weren’t out for our fair share. The evenings were quite chilly, by the way, something we hadn’t really bargained for.
Back at the hotel, we were quite dazzled by all our shiny beads and the collection continued to grow!
Our suitcases only just made it when they were weighed at the Louis Armstrong Airport on our way home via Atlanta.
Colourful beads are, of course, the main ‘throws’, but I was also pleased with these extra items, particularly one of the much coveted drained and hand painted coconuts from the Zulu crewe. The ball came courtesy of Mr Dorian Rawles, Zulu Mayor 2016.
Who could resist coming away with a Mardi Gras mask? Well, I couldn’t.
Now, we just need to get over the jet lag!
12 February, 2016