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I came to NOLA for three things 1) music 2) architecture 3) food and the amazing thing about this place is that all three are around you in abundance, so much a part of every day life, that to fill your bucket in this regard is not hard. But the thing is there’s just so much! You’re eating an amazing meal, already thinking about the next one, or what the rest of the menu was like. You find an amazing jazz bar that you want to spend all of your time in, whilst knowing that in the next two blocks are fifteen other jazz clubs all playing something different and probably just as good. It’s not a bad problem to have! But with knowing that these three key things will always be around me, I thought that it was time to start ticking off a few other things off the list.
After writing, then heading to another Marigny cafe for brunch – a cute cafe called Who Dat Coffee (their famous corn cakes, and iced tea for me) I went for the first thing of my list – a nosey around a grand old house. There’s a handful of historic homes that are open for tours, in the French Quarter and as someone who swoons over architecture, interior design, lifestyles of the rich and famous, and decorative arts, getting a glimpse behind the front door is a real joy. I didn’t know much about which one to pick, so just went for the first one I came across, which was Gallier House – though to be fair, there’s about four others in the immediate vicinity and I’d love to see them all.
Gallier House is located on Royal Street which is a main road in the French Quarter, and was the home of significant New Orleans architect James Gallier Jr. His house, whilst still very beautiful, is quite different to a lot of the more Spanish influenced architecture in the area because it was the last house on the block to be built, around 35 years after the rest. You forget how there were fashion trends back then – we just assume that everything is ‘old’ – but with the decorating, fashion, furniture and building layout – it’s all based on trends.
The tour cost $15, and I was the only one on it, which was awesome as I got to ask tons of questions and got the best view of everything. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any photos or videos of the inside, but it was gorgeous and ornate and everything you’d expect. Funnily enough, this house is considered one of the most flamboyantly decorated, however it was only (only!) an upper-middle class household.
The most fascinating aspect of the house and life back then, was how the houses got ‘dressed’ for summer. It may look like an aesthetics thing, but its totally function. It gets so hot here, and the furniture, art, and fabrics, so precious and treasured, that every measure is taken to protect them during the fucking hot summer months of June – September. Not just from heat and humidity, but from bugs, flies and human sweat.
The curtains are taken down, the carpets cut and pulled up and replaced with woven grass mats, white cloth covers are put over all of the chairs, and netting draped over the art and paintings to stop flies landing on them and discolouring them. The season was described as ‘dull’ in the newspapers as it was a social dead zone- no balls, parties, or entertaining happened in the hot summer months. Your main meal of the day was eaten at 2pm, and beyond that you just lay around napping.
The house, as I saw it yesterday, had been dressed for Summer, and it was fascinating to learn about and see.
The layout of the house was also really cool – very ergonomic. It wasn’t actually that big – two bedrooms, plus servant quarters, or slave quarters up until the Civil war. It used rainwater collection and quite a few little features that we’re seeing reappear in modern houses today. Seems they knew what they were doing.
It was a great way to spend an hour and I’ll never tire at looking at beautiful houses.
It had been raining all morning, and humidity was at 93% , so it was pretty unbearable out (the Summer dressing of the house made a lot of sense!) so I decided that the next thing to tick off was to have the official cocktail of New Orleans – the Sazerac.
If you’re going to splash out on a classic cocktail, it needs to be in an iconic setting – so I chose the revolving carousel bar. It was very busy and very touristy – but something I’m glad I went to, even just for half an hour. And it is exactly what it sounds like – a fairground carousel, set inside, with a circular bar, in lieu of horses, under the canopy. Seats at the bar itself are very limited, to probably thirty or so, but I was lucky and managed to get a seat just as I arrived, as others left. It was a a weirdly retro, elegant but surreal experience, like Mad Men meets Twin Peaks.
My style and outfits get a lot of attention and compliments here – which in case you’re not familiar, I’d describe as urban-pin up. It’s 1950’s bright skirts and dresses with petticoat, boots, bright lips, modern bold jewellery, some kind of blazer or jacket and always with big Winehouse or Kate Bush hair, whether it’s worn up or down, it’s always a big mop of black. I’m definitely retro but with my own edge added to it. Well it gets a lot of admiration and fuss here, which I’m not adverse to, and creates a lot of notable moments for me. And I say this because one happened whilst I was trying to cross the road to get to the carousel bar. The doorman saw me, yelled out “hold on hold on, look at that style, we gotta stop the traffic for you…” he jumped out into the road, waved the cars to halt, and then waved me across. So I did the only thing that was appropriate for this moment: I strutted across the road with as much glamour and swagger as I could manage (internal voice saying: don’t fall over, don’t fall over), waved at the cars, waved at the doorman and thanked him, then kept going right into the bar, like I was a movie star. I hope the car drivers were like “who the hell was that? Is she famous, she didn’t look familiar to me?”. You’re only young once, I figure.
My final thing to tick off for the day was to venture down to Cafe du Monde for the iconic New Orleans food- a Beignet. I’d heard so many stories about the endless lines and waits to get into this place so had been putting it off until a weekday, when I knew it’d be quieter. And it paid off – the place is very huge and service super fast, so turnover was high.
Beignet’s, if you’re not aware, are French donuts – little pillows, of hot fried dough, dusted in about 2cm of icing sugar. Apart from beverages, it’s the only thing Cafe Du Monde sells. A single serving is a very generous three beignets, and sets you back a very modest $2.95. So with a coffee, $6 gets you the most fantastic afternoon tea ever.
The place is teaming with tourists, but locals go there too, as it really is an iconic place and the Beignets like nothing else anywhere, I liked the energy and mad pace of the place.
And the Beignets? Divine. Just as I’d heard and expected. Hot, soft, voluptuous, and very fresh. Heavenly. My only word of caution is that the powdered sugar is very messy so it pays to bring wet wipes and shove a napkin down your front! The shops around the cafe have big signs on the door that scream ‘NO BEIGNETS INSIDE’ as the sugar gets everywhere.
And with that, having reached late afternoon, I was satisfied that I’d ticked off three iconic things in my day, so now I could return to my main obsession – the jazz. So I pedalled back across to Frenchman Street (pausing and pulling over on my journey to admire houses, always stopping to swoon at the houses), parked up outside the Spotted Cat, where I knew I’d end up, and went exploring again.
The music here is in sets – an artist plays for a few hours- divided into hour long (or so) sets. One drink per set plus tips is the general rule, for those places not charging cover (most don’t which is so fantastic, but makes it infuriating when you see tourists not tipping the artists). So a set is a good measure of time for exploring and keeps you moving – a set per venue until you find something that really grabs your heart.
I started at the Mason for a trio of double bass, guitar and saxophone. Then headed down the road, and my ears were drawn to some amazing funk coming from behind a wall – it led me into a beautiful, leafy courtyard at a bar called Rare Form. The sun had come out and the heat dropped a few degrees, so it was the perfect sunset spot. The trio playing were incredible – another trio of guitar, keyboard and drums. The guy on drums, was form NYC, seemed really young but he was hypnotising to watch. It was like he was filled with some kind of otherworldly spirit. The film whiplash was my introduction to jazz drumming and how it could be a solo instrument, when I’d always seen it just being a beat at the back. And the drummers I’m seeing here are taking this idea to a whole new level. I could just watch a good jazz drummer play solo for hours.
After that, I ducked into what I’d heard was a great hot dog place on Frenchman called Dat Dog – and it was. It’s a bar / hot dog diner. Just hot dogs and fries and a big, cheap bar. Like everywhere here, I love how casual it all is. I got a Chicago dog and it was perfection,
And then it was time to return to my favourite spot, the Spotted Cat, to round out my night. Not before getting a poem written for me by one of the typewriter boys on Frenchman Street, it seemed rude not to.
Spotted Cat didn’t disappoint. Dominick Grillo and the Frenchman Street Al Stars were playing – saxophone, vocals, bass, drums and piano. I loved having the addition of the piano which I haven’t seen so much. What is great, is that they’ll play something kinda well trodden like ‘when you’re smiling’ or ‘pennies from heaven’ but then in the middle will be this totally bonkers and mind blowing drum or piano solo that is so far removed from the song you know and transports you to another place. The place filled up really quick after I arrived.
I love watching locals and how it’s a true community of musicians here. Music isn’t something put on for tourists, to sell a brand, though Frenchman is full of tourists – music just born into everyone, and is a way of life. I love it and makes me so passionate about learning about more music and learning to play instruments. During a set, other musicians will pop their heads in, and give a wave to the band. They’ll watch for a bit, or observe from through the window. Cheer them on, then keep on going to their next gig.
And on that note, I took myself off on my bike, through the dark and the painted houses, a flashing lightning filled sky chasing me on my journey back to Spain Street. The air still and hot, breathing it all in, with jazz in my veins and beauty all around me.