On Saturday we had to forgo beignets because the line stretched to more than 100 people — even for the take-out window. Instead we passed through the French Market and swung around to the Central Grocery for another item on our food list — the muffuletta. This meat-and-cheese sandwich with a zesty olive relish is enough to bring tears of joy to any foodie’s eyes, and the Central Grocery is the originator of the delicacy.
We waddled over to the tour bus depot to join our trip to the bayou near the town of Jean Lafitte. We boarded a pontoon out via the Intercoastal Waterway to the swamp in search of wildlife, primarily alligators. When we would spot one in the water, our captain tried to get them to jump out of the water by offering them marshmallows. They weren’t very lively, but that’s just as well. We enjoyed being away from the crowds and noise of the city for a few hours.
The streets were jammed with tourists, many of them hen and stag parties. We checked out the tiny branch of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park near the French Market, and unfortunately we just missed one of the free concerts put on by park rangers who double as jazz musicians on a small stage in the visitors center. But we did catch a live blues band playing nearby while we shared a plate of boiled crawfish to whet our appetites for dinner.
On our way over to BB King’s for a final night of live music, we happened upon a wedding that had just ended at St. Louis Cathedral. A smartly dressed crowd waited outside the church for the bride and groom to emerge and waved white handkerchiefs as a brass band played. The couple made their way out of the church bearing white and black umbrellas and followed the brass band leading the procession of cheering guests around the block and down St. Ann Street past our hotel. It was a rare treat.
And speaking of rare treats, the next morning was our final day for beignets and chicory coffee, so we made sure to wake up early to beat the crowd at Cafe Du Monde. Our sugar and fat craving satisfied, we checked out the local artists’ creations hanging outside the fence of Jackson Square. There truly is something for everyone’s tastes and we saw quite a few items we liked, but art purchases will have to wait for our next visit to New Orleans.
We then went to the twin Louisiana State museums flanking St. Louis Cathedral at the north end of the square. The Presbytère to the right of the church housed an excellent exhibit on Hurricane Katrina and living with hurricanes. Any fanciful thoughts of moving to New Orleans because it’s just so darn charming quickly disappear when you see what residents dealt with in 2005 and will likely have to live through again. Ironically, all the engineering work and planning to prevent flooding from the Mississippi River destroyed the area’s ability to withstand hurricane damage.
The second floor had a fantastic Mardi Gras exhibit with a vast array of historic and present-day costumes and accessories from balls and parades that take place in New Orleans.
Perhaps even more interesting is the Courir de Mardi Gras celebrated in Louisiana’s rural Cajun country. These festivities involve clown-suited guys doing stunts on horseback, chasing chickens and begging for ingredients (or simply money) to make a community gumbo.
The Cabildo to the left of the cathedral houses displays on Louisiana’s history from Native Americans, colonial life, antebellum plantations and New Orleans’ role in commerce and the slave trade up through the Civil War and Reconstruction. The theme that emerges time and time again is how immigrants from diverse cultures have shaped the area’s food, music, social traditions and live-and-let-live lifestyle. These cultures have created a gumbo in every sense of the word, in which many flavors come together to create something even more appealing to the senses.
Another exhibit gave us greater insights into the Battle of New Orleans. Most Americans who grow up outside Louisiana likely learn or remember very little about this 1815 battle that helped end, more or less, the War of 1812. If you’re like me, you probably know it mostly from the catchy tune popularized by Johnny Horton (albeit written by Jimmy Driftwood) in 1959 that starts out, “In 1814 we took a little trip… along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.”
Then we had just enough time for the Sunday jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters, at which we stuffed ourselves silly with any remaining items on our must-eat list before Matt had to catch his flight home.
Later Hector and I went for one last walk up to Armstrong Park, where we checked out exhibits at Congo Square and historic buildings that are part of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.
We ended the evening on the balcony of the French Market Restaurant with a pound of boiled crawfish and the mighty tasty Mardi Gras seasonal beer crafted by local brewery Abita before rain chased us inside. Just as well, though. New Orleans is a feast for the eyes, ears and taste buds, but three and a half days of letting the good times roll is just enough. Time to get back on the wagon and back on the road!