The French Quarter is New Orlean's gem and drawcard and we'd booked ourselves a hotel right in the heart of the Quarter, the Hotel St Marie on the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon Sts. The French Quarter was spared the horrendous damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2006 because the first French settlers, who arrived here in 1718, chose to site their township on the highest point beside the Mississippi River. In fact most of the surrounding area was swampland. Building was only possible thanks to modern landfill and land reclaimation schemes. As these new districts were situated on unstable soil and were below sea level, massive dykes and levies were required to keep the sea at bay. When these failed in 2006, largely through long-term neglect, the entire city was swept away. And when we say entire city, we litterally mean the entire city, from the CBD to the slums of the 9th Ward, from ancient wooden shanty towns that still barely had running water and electricity, to multi-million dollar mansions; they were all innundated. As the disaster covered all segments of society it has helped pull the community together, however, a large proportion of New Orlean's population has still not returned - they have nothing to come back to.
The name - French Quarter - is something of a misnomer. The district was the site of the original French settlement, but that was burnt down and destroyed centuries ago. The current French Quarter is a Spanish construction from the late 18th century. France established their second North American colony in the far south of the continent (the first being in Canada), but few settlers could be found willing to risk their health and life living in the hot, tropical south. So the government scoured the prisons for 'volunteers' who were forcibly married to prostitutes and then shipped off to Louisiana. Although granted pardons and lands mos of the settlers eschewed farming and followed their natural inclinations. New Orleans soon gained a reputation as a den of thieves, prostitutes and smugglers and largely supported itself by laundering the plunder of the Carribean pirates. Even the royal governors were not above running bars and brothels.
When the Seven Years War broke out between France and Britain, the French decided to safeguard their investment by transferring the Louisiana colony to Spain in 1763. It was a sensible move as Britian went on to seize France's Canadian and Caribean colonies. The Spanish did their best to tidy up New Orleans. The old ramshackle wooden town was replaced with the orderly, grid plan, brick built district we see today. They also established schools, proper port facilities, public buildings and functioning plantations. New Orleans, although still a den of smugglers and prostitutes, finally appeared to be a going concern.
After Napoleon Bonaparte seized the French throne in 1799 he demanded the return of Louisiana from Spain, but quickly realised France could do little to protect it from the British, so in 1803 he offered to sell the colony to the newly independent United States. The pricetag of the Louisiana Purchase was $15 million and more than doubled the size of the continental United States (Louisiana covered the modern states of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Arkansas, Iowa, parts of Texas and New Mexico). During the War of 1812 between the United States and Britian, Britain attempted to seize New Oleans. A young general, Andrew Jackson, cobbled together a scratch force of militia and pirates (under the pirate leader Jean Lafite) and soundly thrashed the British at the Battle of New Oreans in January 1815. None of the combatants had realised that the war had actually officially ended in December 1814! Andrew Jackson later went on to become the sixth president of the United States.
New Orleans and Louisiana went from strength to strength under the US - largely on the back of the slaves. New Orleans become the largest slave market in the US (followed by Charleston and New York) and a great export port for tobacco, sugar and cotton. All this of course came crashing down after the Civil War. In the later 19th century the French Quarter was taken over by Italian immigrants and was known as Little Italy. It remained a neglected slum right into the 20th century, dominated by the Mafia and, as always, filled with bars and brothels. Starving artists, such as Hemmingway, began to move in to French Quarter in the 20th century because it was cheap and basically anything goes. Over time the French Quarter slowly cleaned up its act and gained a reputation as a party town. The four blocks of Bourbon St is the epicentre of the French Quarter, lined with bars, strip clubs, restaurants, bars, nudie bars, fast food, more bars, gay bars, tourist shops, and bars. Every year at Spring Break tens of thousands of college kids flock to Bourbon St to drink, party and flash their tits. This sort of thing goes on every weekend but to a lesser extent. It's legal to drink in the street too and all bars serve their drinks in plastic cups so you can take them with you. Great stuff!
The first night we did Bourbon St. With all its strip clubs it is a bit of a seedy place, but almost every bar has a band performing - some play rock, some play blues, some play jazz. Both Jazz and Blues had their origin in the musical traditions of the slaves. Jazz started in the black ghettos of New Orleans in the early 20th century but quickly spread and then diversified. There are numerous different Jazz traditions and styles on display in New Orleans. Frenchman St is the best place to see local jazz bands play. We visited Frenchman St on our second night and cruised through several bars in the wee small hours.
After a big night on Bourbon St, which involved cocktails such as the Handgrenade and the Hurricane, and way too much beer, we dragged ourselves down to Coops Bar and Restaurant. It was after 11am but the whole Quarter seemed empty, sleeping off its own hangover from the night before. Coops did THE best fried chicken we'd ever tasted - it left Sylvia's in New York for dead! We did some sightseeing in the Quarter and then ventured down Royal St with its antique shops.
Although we are not fans of ghost tours we opted to take Bloody Mary's haunted pub tour. When we arrived at the rendevous, Jean Lafite's Blacksmith shop - one of the oldest surviving buildings in the Quarter and now a bar - we found that we were the only people on the tour. Hmmm, that was a worry! How would we conceal our skepticism? Anyway, it turned out to be a great tour. After we told our guide we didn't really believe in ghosts we mainly talked about New Orleans' very dubious and interesting history. We visited Storyville, the old red light district, talked about the mafia and the Kennedy assassination, Jim Garrison's persecution of the gay community (as he was secretly dating a transvestive cabaret singer), the Prohibition era, smuggling, slave trading and murder. We did talk a little bit about ghosts and hauntings and - skeptic as I am, I may have heard a ghost in one of the most haunted hotels in the city (Shelly was annoyed she didn't hear it). We also had a long chat about America's current problems, its place in the world and the health care system. It was a really good tour and a good evening.
After two days and nights of excess it was time to move on. With half a dozen cocktail yard glasses in our handluggage we hopped a flight to Vegas.