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Mardi Gras in New Orleans finally ticked off my bucket list!

Mardi Gras nails

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!

Mardi Gras postcard Laissez les bons temps rouler

The motto of Mardi Gras is ‘Laissez les bons temps rouler’ (Let the good times roll) and that was certainly the case.

Mardi Gras door decoration

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.

Mardi Gras Prince Conti postcard

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.

New Orleans 1968

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!

Mardi Gras breakfast

How about this for a breakfast, chosen from a very comprehensive menu at Café Conti and accompanied by jazz in the background?

Mardi Gras Cafe du Monde postcard

Sampling the famous doughnuts (beignets) at Café du Monde was also a must.

Mardi Gras beignets

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!

Mardi Gras Richard and David with menu

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.

Mardi Gras petits fours

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…

Mardi Gras Jackson Square David and Maggie

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.

Mardi Gras Louis Armstrong statue

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.

Mardi Gras Louis Armstrong Park

We also made our way up to Louis Armstrong Park and through to Saint Louis Number One cemetery.

Mardi Gras cemetery2

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.

Mardi Gras Nicholas Cage tomb

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.

Mardi Gras voodoo museum

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.

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum Virgin Mary altar

Originally from West Africa and arriving in Louisiana in 1719 with the first slaves, voodoo soon became entwined with Catholicism.

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum skull

However sinister voodoo may appear, practitioners are keen to point out that their spells are rarely intended to do any harm.

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum dolls

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.

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum offerings2

Many voodoo practitioners and visitors leave small personal objects on the altars, some VERY personal. I spotted a lone tampon – unused – in one collection!

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum Rougarou

There are plenty of alligators in the Louisiana swamps.

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum priestess painting

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.

New Orleans Voodoo Doll

The voodoo doll I bought, made of swamp moss and complete with instructions and sharp pin, may come in handy one day.

Mardi Gras Zulu crowd

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.

Mardi Gras Zulu Krewe member and fan

Fans were queuing up to meet and follow their favourite Zulu characters.

Mardi Gras Orpheus float2

However, the parades were what we’d mostly come to see and we certainly weren’t disappointed.

Mardi Gras Orpheus float 3

I can well believe that it takes a whole year to decorate all the floats.

Mardi Gras Orpheus float

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.

Mardi Gras Orpheus Slope Dad receiving beads

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.

Mardi Gras David waiting for beads

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.

Mardi Gras trio in beads

Back at the hotel, we were quite dazzled by all our shiny beads and the collection continued to grow!

Mardi Gras beads and doubloons

Our suitcases only just made it when they were weighed at the Louis Armstrong Airport on our way home via Atlanta.

Mardi Gras extras

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.

Mardi Gras mask

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 - Make the first comment on this story

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