We arrived in Louisiana with mixed emotions, we were entering the fifth state of the US in our two-week road trip and before a quick stop off in New York were due to fly back home. New Orleans was to be our last ‘real’ stopping point before our adventure was over, needless to say, the back to reality jitters had hit big time.
Entering the swampy scenery of LO is really quite something and a stark contrast to the earlier landscapes of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas which range from dry and sandy to dry and sandy with a bit of green. The first glimpse of the Mississippi really helps contextualise and emphasise the scale of our trip reminding us just how far we had come in a relatively short period of time. Before going into the details of our few days spent in The Big Easy, it’s worth noting that this two-week drive through the southern states of the US is, without doubt, one of the greatest experiences one can have travelling with two of your best buddies.
If like us you plan on travelling to New Orleans from Austin beware it’s one hell of a drive, clocking in at eight hours minus stops. Do yourselves a favour and choose a midway point to catch up on some Z’s, we chose Lafayette, briefly stopping to take in some real authentic southern hospitality at the Doubletree Hotel. If you do end up there, please say hello to Ernest, a local bartender both bemused and enthused with our English quips… “Cheers huh?!, now I like that”.
Having previously been advised against hiring a car in New Orleans (it’s just not necessary) we dropped it off at the Louis Armstrong airport and hot-footed it to our digs, The Ace Hotel in the Warehouse District. The Uber driver seems to gauge the mood of the three of us so skipped to a track on his CD compilation to lift the vibe, ‘Band On The Run’ by Macca! Famous for its scattered showers and thunderstorms it looked set to be a wet one but somehow we brought the weather with us; a blazing 27 degrees, lovely stuff.
Staying at the Ace, a hotel which also ingratiates itself into the local and southern art scene visible on the wardrobes in the guest rooms, each unique, they feature the work of 32 different artists (13 from New Orleans and a total of 26 from the South). The paintings depict natural landscapes from Louisiana that evoke the diversity of the wild Southern country that sits just outside city limits — the trees with Spanish moss, the bayou, the swamp, rural roads and winding rivers. These were inspired by the Bloomsbury Group, a group of writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists — the best known members of which included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and E.M. Forster — who often painted en plein air, depicting original interpretations of domestic life and the natural world, marrying art and daily life in new ways.
The rooftop bar at the Ace is an ideal hangout for winding down a little, a place to sit by the pool, drink a coldy and take a dip in the pool. It also makes a great vantage point for observing the cities skyscrapers. Clearly standing out from its surroundings is Yoko Ono’s full building-sized mural, reading ‘Have you seen the horizon lately?’ part of Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, a NOLA based biennale in the tradition of Venice, Kochi and Istanbul which brings together 73 artists from North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the European powers that colonised New Orleans, integrating art like easter eggs into the daily landscape of the city and addressing issues of identity, displacement and cultural hybridity within the context of the celebration of the city’s Tricentennial.
A total of 30 of the artists created work specifically for the exhibition and 10% of them hail from the New Orleans area. The project is led by Artistic Director Trevor Schoonmaker, Chief Curator of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and to bring the ambitious project to reality Schoonmaker was helped by an Artistic Director’s Council of seven international artists and curators who will contribute to the project’s publication and participate in public programming surrounding the exhibition.
Yoko Ono’s stark statement, itself open to many interpretations, is repeated three times throughout the city, on a billboard, a streetcar and in this case, adorning the outer wall of the Ogden Museum of southern art, a gallery rich with history but also a strong contemporary focus, I subsequently read that it holds the largest and most comprehensive collection of Southern art. I took a walk down on a bright Wednesday morning, and was completely blown away, it was a real education in southern art and the diverse collection highlighted many artists I was hitherto unaware of. A few of the standout works for me were Benny Andrews ‘Grandmother’s Dinner’, 1992, Patricia Kaersenhout’s ‘No Names Please!’, 2009-2017 and for the less contemporary focused Richard Clague’s ‘Trapper’s Cabin’ from 1870.
The art quarter of the city aligns the larger public art collections with smaller private galleries meaning you can really gather a broad scope of the artistic landscape of New Orleans and the surrounding area, during our visit Big Sur artist Erin Lee Gafill had a substantial amount of work, both still life and landscapes at the Laurie Reed’s fine arts on Julia street. The ever-changing nature of these smaller galleries leads to a rich and varied experience of the local art scene.
New Orleans and music go hand in hand, having a rich and diverse history of producing maestro’s Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Dr John to Lil Wayne, Master P — the list is endless. If Jazz is of interest to you it’s well worth checking out the aptly titled New Orleans Jazz Museum to soak up some musical history, it features lots of instruments and memorabilia from the usual suspects, including one of ‘Satchmo’s’ cornets. A favourite of mine was a series of excellent recordings by Washington Phillips who made his own instruments, notably his ‘box of angelic strings’. For those willing to queue there’s a concert hall within the museum which has performances most days, we decided against it as it appeared to be a sort of banal, modern attempt at some old jazz classics and not particularly authentic.
Speaking of authentic… Trying to find the cities famous gumbo joints are best done by chatting to locals, due to the dishes popularity you’ll never hear the same place twice so if gumbo is your thing, fill your boots while you can. We were told to go to Coop’s Place on Decatur Street for a classic, no-frills gumbo and jambalaya. The immediate reaction when walking into Coop’s is a little intimidating as the staff are rowdy and there’s a lot of hustle and bustle, but damn there’s a great smell on. The uneasy feeling soon alleviates as the bar-staff fall over their feet to get you seated and quench your thirst. We ordered the house specials of Seafood Gumbo and Rabbit and Sausage Jambalaya, both of these Creole staples come by the cup or by the bowl – do the right thing and go with the latter. The service meant they arrived super quickly and what’s more they were absolutely delicious, just enough spice to warm the cockles and the jambalaya was next level. A word of warning to Coop, it’s time for a bathroom upgrade!
Another notable food joint in NOLA is Mother’s Restaurant, a place established in 1938, a ‘World’s Best Baked Ham’ slogan hangs on the sign just outside and with queues forming every evening it was a must visit. Firstly, don’t let the queues put you off, they move quickly and you’re given a menu to browse while you wait. Plus you’re gonna get a big old Louisiana sized portion here so it’s a good way to get the appetite going. We went for the Baked Ham (obviously), the Jambalaya with Turnip Greens and the ‘Original Debris’ Po Boy, the latter is a Mother’s original recipe. The results are what you hope from a restaurant named Mother’s, it’s delicious home cooking which is both wholesome and tasty. The atmosphere is lively and dinner is served with a smile. That is of course unless you tip, like I did. There are multiple signs asking if customers could refrain from tipping, something which I was oblivious to and something which didn’t go down too well with the waiter.
One thing worth noting was that the city was a little quieter than normal due to us missing the huge Mardi Gras festival that happened the week prior but to us, it seemed an ideal time to see the city for what it is on a day-to-day basis. It’s impossible not to be in awe of the residential architecture as each house has a unique charm, making each street a spectacle in itself. Take the St Charles Ave tram from Broadway all the way around and jump off at the Erato stop, be sure to wander around here to experience the neighbourhoods aesthetics. If the weather is perky, walk back the way you came and stop off at Slice Pizza, huge delicious pizza and top tunes to match.
Without the people there would be no New Orleans, the local residents are very proud of their city — and rightly so. The enthusiasm is infectious and they know how to tell a story so whatever you do. If you take a cab or you sit at a bar do yourself a favour and engage with the people of the city, they epitomise everything NOLA has to offer. You never know, they may even let you into a few secrets about what goes down after hours.