Cruising the Crescent City

By SABRA STAFFORD

In a city steeped in musical history and the inspiration behind such hits as “The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals and “Walking to New Orleans” by Fats Domino, the tune being hummed by locals this year is Happy Birthday, as the Big Easy officially turns 300.

New Orleans is a city woven into the fabric of American history like no other city in the country. Long before America became known as the melting pot of the world, New Orleans was a swirling vibration of cultures and ethnicities mingling together under the sweltering sun on the delta of the Mississippi River.

The city is celebrating its tricentennial with festivals lauding the art, music, culture and food that all represent New Orleans. But even if visitors can’t make it to one of the festivities marking the tricentennial there are plenty of options to explore the city’s rich history and in New Orleans there’s a party to be found each and every day.

In 1718, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the governor of French Louisiana, founded the city of Nouvelle-Orlèans on a crescent swath of high ground above the Mississippi River. The city began to develop around a central square district called Vieux Carrè (Old Square). The area is now known as the French Quarter, which is the heart and soul of the city.

There are so many sights to explore in the French Quarter alone, but here are six destinations that will give any traveler an authentic New Orleans experience.

JACKSON SQUARE

This town square has played an important role in New Orleans and America’s history. Originally named the Place d’Armes, the site was used as a public square, military parade ground and open-air market. It was later renamed after Andrew Jackson for his decisive victory in the Battle of New Orleans. The square features a prominent equestrian state of Jackson that was erected in 1856.

Within Jackson Square is The Cabildo. Built between 1795 to 1799, it has had multiple uses, from the governor’s mansion to city hall and was the site of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In 1853, it was the headquarters of the Louisiana State Supreme Court and was the site of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1892 — the doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal.”

It has been a museum since 1908, housing artifacts significant to Louisiana culture and history, including Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask.

Catholicism played a heavy role in the shaping of New Orleans and this is reflected in the grandeur of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. It is the home of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans and the oldest cathedral in the United States. At the rear of the cathedral is a large statue of Christ with his arms raised, which when lit from below at night casts an imposing shadow onto the cathedral.

Bookending two sides of Jackson Square is the Pontalba Buildings, which was built in the 1840s. The first floors of each of the buildings have a variety of shops and eateries to explore, while the upper levels are apartments, which happen to be the oldest continuously rented apartments in North America.

Jackson square is also one of the locations of Café Du Monde, which serves up renowned beignets and chicory coffee that are essential for an authentic New Orleans experience.

OLD URSULINE CONVENT

This convent not only is integral to New Orleans’ religious life, but also the lore of vampires that is prevalent in the city. The convent was founded in 1726 by nuns who came with the mission of operating a hospital and educating the young girls and women who were flocking to New Orleans in search of husbands.

The legend of vampires and the convent started with the arrival of the “casket girls.” These girls were specially selected by French royalty to travel across the sea and marry some of the more gentrified settlers. The origins of the girls is debatable, with some stories claiming they came from the upper class, while others say they were recruited from orphanages, but where viewed as virtuous. When they arrived in New Orleans they gained the moniker of “casket girls” because they came toting wooden chests that were called casquettes. Whether it was coincidence or some other worldly reason, there was a sharp increase in the mortality rate in New Orleans around the time the girls arrived, particularly among infants. It didn’t help matters that the girls were extremely pale and some were seen coughing up blood, which was more likely due to the long sea voyage and tuberculosis.

The chests, which were supposedly holding the trousseaus the girls would use once they married, were found to be completely empty. The story goes that the chests were taken to the third floor of the convent and that access was barred except to a few Vatican officials. Even the shutters were said to have been sealed shut with nails blessed by the pope.

Residents tell tales of the shutters flying open seemingly of the own volition and they are quick to recount the deaths of two paranormal investigators in the 1970s. The two men had camped outside the wrought iron gates of the morning and were found the next day with almost all of their blood drained from their bodies. The validity of these deaths is hard to prove because the only findings are in direct connection to the lore of Old Ursuline Convent.

LALAURIE MANSION

Referred to as one of the most haunted places in the country, this mansion and the woman of the house — Marie Delphine LaLaurie — have a sinister past of murder and torture.

The mansion was built in 1832 for LaLaurie, her third husband and her two daughters. There also were attached quarters for the enslaved black servants. The treatment of the enslaved people by LaLaurie and her husband was considered horrendous even by the standards of those days. In one account, LaLaurie chased a young girl around the mansion because she had snagged her hair while combing it. The child, so frightened by LaLaurie and her whip, jumped from the second story balcony, causing a fatal injury.

The villainous activities at the LaLaurie Mansion came to public light in 1834 when a fire ignited in the kitchen. The firefighters found an enslaved woman chained to the stove who said she started the fire as a suicide because she was scared of being moved upstairs where the LaLauries kept a torture room. The woman’s story was recounted in the newspapers and the next day community members demanded the torture room be opened to them for inspection. When the LaLauries refused, the group broke down the doors and found a gruesome site. The enslaved men and women had been mutilated, some of them missing limbs, and others emaciated and forced to wear spiked iron collars around their necks.

The enslaved people were taken from the home and as word spread of the conditions and angry mob formed and descended upon the residence, wreaking it and forcing the family to flee.

LaLaurie is said to have made it to France and reportedly died in Paris, but rumors persisted that she returned to New Orleans. A fictionalized version of LaLaurie was portrayed by Kathy Bates in the 2013 “American Horror Story: Coven” television show.

ANTOINE’S RESTAURANT

When looking to experience French-Creole cuisine, it’s hard to find a better spot than Antoine’s Restaurant to fit the bill. Built in 1840, this is the oldest fine dining establishment in New Orleans and the oldest restaurant in the country that has been owned and operated by the same family.

The restaurant features 14 dining rooms each uniquely decorated and showcasing some of the history of the restaurant and the city. The restaurant has been heavily involved in the Mardi Gras celebrations, with three of the private rooms named after Carnival krewes — Rex, Proteus, and 12th Night Revelers. (A krewe is an organization that hosts a parade or ball for the Carnival season).

Antoine’s is where Oysters Rockefeller were first created. Jules Alciatore, the son of Antoine Alciatore the founder of the restaurant, created the dish because of an escargot shortage and an abundance of oysters in the region. He named them after John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in the country, because the sauce was so rich. The sauce recipe, though reimagined by others, remains a secret only known to Antoine’s.

LAFITTE’S BLACKSMITH SHOP

This Creole cottage was built sometime between 1722 and 1732. It is believed to have been an actual blacksmith shop at some point, but always was more of a front for pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte for some of his more scrupulous enterprises. Lafitte’s skills as a smuggler would prove useful when he helped defend New Orleans in the War of 1812.

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, located on the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip streets, is now a popular bar in the French Quarter and is one of the oldest structures still standing in the city.

MAISON BOURBON

New Orleans is considered the cradle of jazz music and Maison Bourbon is dedicated to preserving the history and traditions of this musical genre.

Maison Bourbon is one of the Bourbon Street’s oldest live jazz clubs and has seen many notable jazz musicians call this club home. Playing both traditional and Dixieland jazz, the club continues to be a popular destination for jazz enthusiasts.

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