Day had faded into dusk and dusk into dark when we reached Pirate's Alley, a narrow, cobblestone walkway in the French Quarter. Flickering gas lamps and a pale quarter-moon cast dancing shadows on the walls of the 200-year-old buildings around us.
"This garden was the site of many French duels," the guide said, motioning toward a courtyard. Our little tour group turned on cue, straining to see through the ironwork fence. "The skirmishes usually ended when a swordsman drew first blood. Occasionally the battles were to the death."
The guide's voice dropped to a harsh whisper. "People say if you come here in the early morning you'll hear the sound of sabers clashing. And sometimes you'll see a swordsman running down the alley brandishing a blade."
Welcome to New Orleans, where every day is Frightday.
Some cities lure tourists with museums, galleries and entertainment. New Orleans lures tourists with those things — and something more ethereal.
Countless tour companies offer ghostly tours like the one I took when I visited earlier this month. Almost every cabby, Gray Line tour guide and carriage driver seems to have a macabre story to share. Scary tours have become so popular that they're listed on the city's official tourist Web site.
"We're the most haunted city in the United States," said Sidney Smith of Haunted History Tours, acknowledging there's no way to prove the claim but arguing that "things happen here" all the time. "Watches stop; film won't work; people feel and hear strange things." Smith's guides shepherd tourists around the city on walking tours, telling ghost stories, visiting the town's famous aboveground cemeteries, recounting vampire-style crimes ("local cases where bodies were drained of blood") and introducing tourists to voodoo.
I turned up no ghosts or vampires on my pre-Halloween foray to this sultry southern Louisiana city, but I did manage to scare myself looking for them. Meanwhile, I fell in love with the other side of New Orleans — its architecture, food and music, and the addictive laissez les bons temps rouler (let-the-good-times-roll) attitude of residents. Eventually, I realized magic and mystery are part of the city's mystique.
"The same cultural mix that makes New Orleans interesting for its food and music makes it interesting for its cemeteries, voodoo and ghost stories," said Robert Florence, author of two books on the city's history. "After all, this is the place that invented the jazz funeral. We have a unique relationship with death."
Overcoming disadvantages New Orleans' intoxicating blend of French, Spanish and African influences gave birth to jazz — along with Creole cooking, the fanciful architecture of the French Quarter, the craziness of Mardi Gras and countless other multicultural treasures. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin calls it "the most unique city in the world," another boast that's hard to prove.
There is no debate, however, that the city has a unique past.
Carved from a vermin-filled swamp in a bend of the Mississippi River, Nouvelle-Orléans was founded by Frenchmen in 1718. Among its early residents were prostitutes, thieves and other undesirables rounded up by the French government — a colonization program with some obvious flaws. The Spanish flag flew above the city for several decades before France regained power in 1803, only to have Napoleon sell it to the United States 20 days later as part of the $15-million Louisiana Purchase.
From the beginning New Orleans was a calamity waiting to happen, sited in a bowl about 8 feet below the level of the Mississippi and surrounded on three sides by the river and Lake Pontchartrain. It has been pummeled by nearly 300 years of hurricanes and floods, which is one reason residents started burying their dead aboveground. "There was trouble the first time they had flooding and those caskets popped up out of the ground," a tour bus driver said. "They didn't like seeing Aunt Mamie and Uncle Roy floating downstream."
The cemeteries are popular, if eerie, tourist sites. They're a jumble of crumbling tombstones, tangled paths and carved marble monuments to the long dead. They're also the city's oldest outdoor museums and an important part of its heritage, said Louise Ferguson, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries, a nonprofit group that preserves and restores them.
I prowled around the city's oldest cemetery, St. Louis No. 1, with Ferguson one day. I saw simple brick and stucco tombs dating to the late 1700s and multistory 19th century marble structures large enough to hold the remains of hundreds of people.
They're called "Cities of the Dead," Ferguson said, because "they resemble cities, just on a smaller scale. They have all the architectural features of a city."
"Are there ghosts?" I asked.
"I don't know," she answered, laughing. "But there are roaches everywhere."
I wandered over to a tomb with a brass marker identifying one of its residents as Marie Laveau, the city's best-known practitioner of voodoo. It's hard to visit New Orleans without hearing stories about Voodoo Queen Laveau, who is said to have died in the late 1800s after popularizing the religion, a mixture of traditional African beliefs and Catholicism.
Dozens of hand-drawn Xs covered the front of the structure. Tour guides sometimes tell visitors to make a wish, draw three Xs, knock three times and turn three circles to make the wish come true — a ritual that's unpopular with the archdiocese of New Orleans, which owns the cemetery, and with many voodoo practitioners. I passed on trying it.
Bogus voodoo is almost as easy to find as Louisiana hot sauce. Voodoo dolls are widely available; you can find small voodoo shops throughout the French Quarter; and there's even a Voodoo Barbecue chain. Stand in one spot too long and a woman may introduce herself to you as a voodoo priestess and offer to do a reading for you. At least that's what happened to photographer Jackie McCabe one morning as she was shooting pictures for this story; she paid $5 to hear that she had a relative in the 1700s who owned a camera shop.
It's probably not the kind of thing that would happen on a tour of Disneyland. But little about New Orleans resembles the Magic Kingdom.
New Orleans is real, from the steamy off-color dives on Bourbon Street to the posh antebellum homes of the Garden District.
Residents do things their own way: They dance during funerals, party during hurricanes and bare their breasts to strangers for 25-cent sets of plastic beads. All rules are meant to be loosely interpreted.
There's no better time to see this side of the city than Mardi Gras, the spring blowout that precedes Ash Wednesday. There are dozens of parades and about 200 balls from the beginning of the Carnival season on Jan. 6 through Fat Tuesday (Feb. 24 next year). During the week preceding Lent, the city's half-million population swells to about 2 million.
It's a wild period that includes plenty of carousing and drunkenness, but visitors don't need Mardi Gras to indulge. I found a toned-down version by taking a stroll (actually, more like a jostle) down Bourbon Street. Seven blocks of strip clubs, restaurants, novelty shops and daiquiri stalls turn into a party every night. The howling crowds — and the sour odors of sweat, booze and vomit — reached a crescendo on Saturday night. I felt as though I'd fallen asleep in front of the TV and awakened in the middle of a "Girls Gone Wild" video ad.
Bourbon Street's rowdy action isn't for everyone. I met an Indiana tourist who said she had visited several times but enjoyed New Orleans only on this trip.
"I skipped Bourbon Street."
Sampling the Big Easy The city has much to offer beyond raucous bars and clubs. It is home to the new Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which I thought exceptional; the National D-Day Museum, crowded the weekend I visited with members of the Greatest Generation; and the New Orleans Museum of Art, whose fascinating "Treasures of Ancient Egypt" opened this month.
And there's the food, which is worthy of a visit by itself. The two major cooking styles — sophisticated Creole and rustic Cajun — join the rich flavors of Southern-style cooking and soul food on many menus. It's all cardiologically incorrect. But, hey, this is the Big Easy. Worry about it tomorrow.
Of course, the main draw is the French Quarter. The 90-block quarter, considered the core of New Orleans, was laid out around 1722 as the original city. As few as 2,500 full-time residents live in the quarter, but millions visit each year to sample its food, shop at its antiques stores and galleries and listen to its boisterous melodies.
Jazz is the heart and soul of the city. It drifts out of doorways and windows and explodes from street corners in the French Quarter, where groups sometimes gather to play for tourists. A longtime favorite is Preservation Hall, which fills to capacity for legendary bands that rotate nightly. The tiny hall — with rough wood floors, stained walls and bare lightbulbs — holds just 100 people, most of whom sit on the floor or stand. The surroundings didn't matter to me; the music was hot, brassy and classic. And the admission fee was only $5.
Like Preservation Hall, built as a residence in the 18th century, most French Quarter buildings have a couple of hundred years of use in their pedigrees. The architecture is a fascinating jumble of sizes, shapes and colors. Filigree wrought-iron balconies front many of the buildings, with huge ferns overhanging the street below.
The focal point of the French Quarter is Jackson Square, a manicured park that has become the signature image for the city. Looming behind it is St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the United States.
Psychics, palm readers and tarot card interpreters hold court outside the cathedral and in other spots around town. One reader told me I had a bottle of Advil in my purse. Good guess, I thought. Maybe I just looked as though I had a headache.
Tourist landmarks abound near Jackson Square: the French Market, a complex of shops and restaurants; the Steamboat Natchez, a Mississippi River stern-wheeler; Café du Monde, where beignets — fritters coated with powdered sugar — draw hordes of tourists and locals.
Many tour companies ply this part of town, mixing folklore with fact.
"The city has a outrageous colonial past," said Florence, whose group, Historic New Orleans Tours, emphasizes the historical over the hysterical. "But there's a point where legend and documented history converge. Piracy and ghosts are part of the New Orleans gumbo."
OK, I thought with some trepidation. I'll sample that gumbo by staying in a hotel with a history.
My search took me to Cottage 4 at the Hotel Maison de Ville in the quarter. Local lore claimed the small brick house was haunted by a Confederate Army soldier and that the housekeeping staff was afraid to enter, especially at night. There also were stories about the radio inexplicably changing from classical to country music.
The cottage was beautiful, an 18th century building furnished with antiques, a four-poster bed with a lace canopy and a private patio. But I was alone — and isolated from the other guests. Would the country music-loving Johnny Reb appear? What would I do if he did?
I turned on the radio. It was set to classical music. I sat down and nervously waited with the lights blazing. At 3 a.m., I gave up and went to bed.
Maybe Johnny had a date down on Bourbon Street.
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Magical, mysterious New Orleans
From LAX, nonstop service to New Orleans is available on Southwest and United, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on America West, American, Continental, Delta and Northwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $258.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal St., New Orleans, LA 70130; (800) 535-9595 or (504) 523-3341, fax (504) 528-1019, http://www.hotelmonteleone.com . This classic hotel, the French Quarter's largest, opened in 1886 and has hosted celebrities, sports figures and literary giants. A $25-million renovation last year restored its Victorian splendor. Doubles start at $135.
Hotel Maison deVille and the Audubon Cottages, 727 Rue Toulouse, New Orleans, LA 70130; (800) 634-1600 or (504) 561-5858, fax (504) 528-9939, http://www.mdv-ac.com . Historic buildings house this lovely boutique hotel in the center of the French Quarter. Tennessee Williams completed "A Streetcar Named Desire" here. Doubles start at $245.
Renaissance Arts Hotel, 700 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, LA 70130; (504) 613-2330, fax (504) 613-2331, http://www.renaissancehotels.com . This hotel opened in August in a converted warehouse in the city's arts district. You'll need a cab to get to the French Quarter but you'll be within walking distance of some of the city's finest museums, including the new Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the National D-Day Museum. The hotel declined to provide rates, but a check of random dates on its Web site yielded prices starting at $159 a night.
WHERE TO EAT:
Camellia Grill, 626 S. Carrollton Ave.; (504) 866-9573. You'll probably have to wait in line to get into this classic New Orleans diner, in the Garden District where the St. Charles streetcar turns onto South Carrollton Avenue. But the pecan waffles, huge omelets, fat hamburgers and rich milkshakes are worth it. Counter service only. Nothing on the menu is more than $7.
K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, 416 Chartres St.; (504) 524-7394, http://www.kpauls.com . Chef Paul Prudhomme helped push Louisiana cuisine into the international spotlight; his popular French Quarter restaurant gives visitors a taste of some classics. Dinner entrees from $28.
Olivier's, 204 Decatur St.; (504) 525-7734. A nice ambience and regional specialties such as Creole rabbit or crawfish étouffée are on the menu at this friendly, family-owned restaurant in the French Quarter. Dinner entrees from $14.
Mother's, 401 Poydras St.; (504) 523-9656. This downtown dive accurately advertises "a whole lotta food" and draws out-of-town celebs and local blue collars for its big breakfasts, piled-high po' boys(subs) and biscuits with debris (thick brown gravy loaded with pieces of roast beef). Breakfasts from $4.25; po' boys from $7.50.
TO LEARN MORE:
New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., 365 Canal St., Suite 1120, New Orleans, LA 70130; (800) 584-3166, http://www.neworleansonline.com .
— Rosemary McClure