Trip journals are trip specific blogs. That is a blog about a specific trip that I've taken. I have them ordered first item first which is backward from a typical blog because it makes it easier to read about the trip from start to finish. Granted that also makes it more difficult to read the latest news when I'm on vacation because the most recent entry (the last one) will be last. But, since most people don't actually get around to reading the Trip Journal until after I'm back I think that will be ok.
Also there's a ton of them missing, this article will explain why.
Last year we spent a week in Provence because our Paris apartment wasn't available when we needed it. We got an adequate apartment in Avignon because it and Arles were the cities that Rick Steves told us to stay in. We chose Avignon because it was larger and less “gritty” according to him. My daughter's boss however said she liked Nimes best and we probably should have listened to her as we'd find out later it was our favorite.
As a repeat from last year our Paris apartment wasn't ready again so we decided to introduce my mother to Europe with a week in Nimes in the Languedoc region. It feels like Provence though as it's right on the border and no more than a 30 minute train ride from the most popular Provencal cities. Since we'd spent a day there we familiar with the layout of the city and found a house fairly near the train station and the center of town.
The house had two bedrooms, a large kitchen, a back yard with patio and bbq and a large front room. The most impressive characteristic though was the beautiful tiled floors that stayed cool all day long in the very hot summers of southern France. Coming from Seattle where the summer temps rarely break 25 degrees Celsius (77 F) we immediately had to acclimate to 34-37 degrees (93-99 F). Having a cold tiled floor helped out a lot as did brilliant metal shutters.
Sometimes while traveling you see something and wonder why we don't have the same thing back home and metal shutters are one of those things. Metal shutters are a lot like having garage doors on your windows. Too much heat or light? Just flip the switch and down comes the shutters which have holes in them to let light in. At the very last minute they flip over and all light is gone. Not only do they keep out the heat but they'll make room pitch black in a hurry. In the morning we'd close the eastern shutters and in the evening the western shutters. At noon all windows were open to let the breeze flow through. They're brilliant to be honest. I'm not sure they offset not having screens on the windows as we would in the states. Screenless windows are a strange European oddity. We asked our French friend why they never have screens on the windows and he replied “Screens? What are screens?”. After explaining that they keep the bugs out he told us they just didn't open the windows. Problem solved. So they get awesome metal shutters and we get screens. I'd like to know why we can't have both.
When it came time to purchase plane tickets we went through the usual process – check every city pair we can think of between the Pacific Northwest and Europe such as Portland to London, Portland to Paris, Portland to Brussels, Seattle to London, Seattle to Paris and so on. I generally check Portland, Seattle and Vancouver BC for departing flights and London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Frankfurt, Barcelona and many others for my destination. Skyscanner.net is a godsend for this task as you can leave the destination open or even narrow it to a country and it will show you the cheapest flights. You can even have it show you the cheapest flight in a month range. What we ended up with was Vancouver BC to Paris France for $716 round trip in the middle of peak travel season. That is the second cheapest flight to Europe that I've ever purchased. The cheapest flight from Seattle was $500 more. Unfortunately the Vancouver flight was on Airtransat which we flew last year to Amsterdam and vowed to never again fly them. It seems everyone can be bought and our price was $500.
Naturally flying out of another city isn't free. We booked Amtrak Cascades train tickets from Seattle to Vancouver BC for $20 each way and we had to pay for the Vancouver Sky Train to get us to the airport so our total savings was $445 per person – still worth the trouble.
I might want to add that my mother has never flown before and I convinced her to sit in one spot at 40,000 ft for 10 hrs the first time out. She was a trooper with the flight but took a bit longer to get used to airport security and even remarking at some point that it was amazing anyone flew.
The arrival in Vancouver has gotten slower as they now de-board the train a couple of cars at a time to stand in line for immigration. The idea that there's a border between the US and Canada is insane to begin with but to take an hour to go through immigration shows how amateur we as a country is.
I've been spending virtually every summer in Europe for 11 years. When I started traveling we were four people - myself and my three young kids ages 7, 8 and 12. I've added a couple of people to my family with my significant other and her 14 year old daughter bringing us to six travelers. In the last couple of years two of my children have grown up and moved out with my oldest living in Paris full time which dropped us back to a family of four. The combination of having fewer travelers, an amazing exchange rate, and a killer deal on peak season plane tickets left us with a bit of room in our budget for someone else – my 75 year old mother.
Now I should tell you that my mother hasn't traveled much unless you call a quick drive from Washington to Illinois traveling. I suppose we shouldn't forget that one trip to Las Vegas in the early 1960's either – still no major travels. Several years ago I took her across the border to Vancouver British Columbia and she loved it. Vancouver seemed so... foreign to her. There were French speaking people, the money looked different and the metric system.
Last year we attempted to take my mother to Europe but she refused due to her age (75) and the fact that she's not as mobile as she once was. I think there were other factors too – you don't just go from wanting to travel your whole life to getting on an airplane for 10 hrs specially when you'd never flown before. That's right – NEVER. However, I bought her a non-refundable ticket this year and paid to get her passport application turned in. Once that was done I continued to update her on my progress in planning the trip and things started getting real.
Plane tickets out of Seattle to anywhere in Europe were $1300 but we could leave Vancouver BC for $716. Multiply that by 5 and you have a month's rent in Paris paid for just by flying out of a different airport. This meant we'd have to take the Amtrak Cascades train to Canada and possibly stay the night on our return trip. It also meant we were leaving on June 23rd and not returning until August 28th – a 10 week adventure. This doesn't bother me much as I've only had one trip in which I wanted to come home. That trip ended with 4 cases of Montezuma's Revenge, a heart attack, three ambulances, one cardiologist, a hotel doctor, on case of fainting at the airport curb, two days holed up in a hotel trying to hold toast down, three blocked bank cards and an airline that told us to get a new passport at the embassy before they could allow us on the plane. THAT trip I wanted to come home from and in fact, we came home early which is the only time I've ever done that. My perfect trip is a one-way ticket so I was more than willing to book a 10 week vacation.
My original master plan was to spend one month in Paris and a second month in Croatia with a few days in between to travel to where my mother's side of the family came from – Thornbury England. Whenever you travel you can save money by staying in one spot for a longer period of time. Usually you can get weekly or monthly rates on apartments that save a ton of money. However, due to the late acquisition of funding for the trip the apartment pickings were slim and the Paris apartment we wanted was only available for 3 weeks which meant we'd fly into Paris and have a week to blow before getting into our apartment. Our options were to rent another apartment for a week in Paris... or go somewhere else. One week rentals in Paris are more expensive then renting for a month so I had to budget $125 per day for accommodations for that week. For contrast we were paying about $85 per day for the other 3 weeks. As we dug through the remaining apartments in Paris that we could fit into our budget we came to the realization that we didn't like any of them so we considered our options. The previous year we stayed in Provence for a week and toured Avignon, Arles, Nimes and Orange. Out of those four cities Nimes was by far our favorite. A quick search for apartments there yielded a whole house for $68/night not far from the historic center! One week's rent in Nimes plus five return tickets on France's high speed train brought our daily cost to $120 which fit into our budget. Nimes is a town of about 150,000 people so it would be a more gentle introduction to Europe for my mother as well. Paris can be a bit overwhelming at times.
We had a short list of things we didn't get to do like going to the St. Louis Cathedral and picking up souvenirs for kids back at home. I also wanted to try a beignet at another restaurant because I wasn't willing to give up on the idea. The ones we had at the oh so famous Cafe Beignet were pretty bad. I have a hard time believing the little desserts that people rave about were just fry bread with sugar on them.
But first, breakfast at the Ruby Slipper. I've mentioned before that I'm not much of an American breakfast type of person but I'm starting to get a bit attached to this place. I had the Eggs Blackstone and Kris had the Chicken St Charles Benedict which she loved.
After breakfast we were off to the Cathedral to see if it was any more interesting than any other church we've seen. It's painted white with gold trim inside which is a bit nicer than the normal concrete blocks. As far as churches go it's nice I suppose but I have some issues with gold laden churches in cities with poor folks which I won't get into here.
We strolled the normal tourist shops to pick up the obligatory t-shirts and spied a Beignet shop that's only open on the weekends. We saw it earlier in the week in the Jackson Brewery building but it never seemed to be open so we figured it was closed for business. Come Saturday it was open and doing a brisk business so we stopped in. It pays sometimes to be relentless as these Beignets were what I expected them to be - light and delightful. Sorry I was in a hurry and didn't take photos. Now that we'd found decent Beignet's it was time to head to the airport and say goodbye to the Big Easy and more specifically the Frenchman Hotel and Balcony Music Club where we spent several nights listening to music.
We decided to start our last full day in New Orleans off right - by going to the Ruby Slipper! I'm not really a breakfast person but this place has really caught my attention. Since coming to New Orleans I'd been looking for Cochon de lait which is how I found the Ruby Slipper. Today I decided to try a decidedly French concoction - Bananas Foster Pain Perdu which was French-bread based topped with rum-flambéed bananas & raisins, with applewood-smoked bacon. Sounds delicious doesn't it? Well, it was good but far too sweet for me to be having for breakfast. There really wasn't anything wrong with it but it was a bit much and sent my blood sugar soaring so I don't even have photos of it. Still The Ruby Slipper is the best place for breakfast and I'm glad we found it after a bit of work.
We planned to visit the City Park today so we walked from the Ruby Slipper in Faubourg Marigny to Canal street to catch the streetcar to the park. I had originally planned on eating breakfast early, going to the park and getting back in time to have lunch at Mike's Po'boys near Canal street because we'd heard they serve a Cochon de Lait Po'boy and we were still trying to find a Po'boy we liked. However, we got out the door a bit late and it was clear that we were eating lunch somewhere near the park and Mike's would have to wait.
The Canal Street Streetcar took us north through the city then east terminating at the City Park. The park was really the last item on our bucket list of things to see. It's massive and includes a singing tree, sculpture park, mini railroad, art museum, carousels, botanical gardens, a lake or two and much more. What we were really hoping it had was shade as the temp had been steadily climbing along with the humidity. We nearly went to the New Orleans Museum of Art because it was cool inside. However, the idea of spending yet more time looking at photos of soldiers in the civil war persuaded us to brave the heat and head to the sculpture park. That and the art museum personnel telling us that the admissions man at the sculpture park had water bottles for cheap.
The sculpture park was interesting and they had a Rodin there although I nearly missed it. The mini railroad and mini New Orleans was in bad shape due to Hurricane Sandy which put most of the city park under water. We found shade in the botanical gardens and many types of plants too. Overall the botanical gardens were very nice but the highlight of the entire day was the singing tree. People hung massive chimes in the tree of various lengths. I think the shortest were about 18 inches or so. The longest were about 3 ft and as the wind blew the tree sang. The large chimes held their deep bass ring for quite some time and the other chimes added to the cacophony. We sat under the tree for about half an hour just listening to the sounds. I attempted to take a video but unfortunately I wasn't that successful.
Since we were too far away to go to Mike's Po'Boys for lunch we checked the guidebook for suggestions. We'd been kicking the dead horse of New Orleans traditional food for far too long so we went to Cafe Degas - a French restaurant down Esplanade Ave. Cafe Degas is an unassuming place but with an unexpected charm. It's amazing sometimes what people can do with next to nothing. I swear the kitchen was a converted closet and half the restaurant was actually clear plastic draped over some PVC. The food however, was very good. We had a duck leg, escargot and foie gras. Mostly traditional French food and all was good.
From there we walked past a cemetery. Scratch that, we attempted to walk past it and it sucked Kris in. I had to follow to make sure she made it out alive. Ahem. I think we've seen more dead people in New Orleans than living people and even then the jury is out on some of the living I've seen. Although the streetcar is my preferred way of getting around New Orleans it didn't really make sense to walk back up to the City Park and catch it to within a mile of our hotel room when there was a bus running straight down Esplanade Ave to our hotel so we hopped the next available bus. I had heard great things about the grand old houses on Esplanade Ave which served a the Millionaires row for the Creole folks much like St Charles Ave did for the Americans. Thank you to all the slaves and indentured servants that built these beautiful houses for the rich bastards who owned you. I also wanted to know what the area between the Treme and City Park was like because the day before we were going to walk up Esplanade Ave and a man in the local convenience store told us not to because we'd be robbed. Not one to ignore advice from the locals we backtracked the way we'd come. However, after riding the bus through that area I now know the guy was full of BS. That area was no different than any other area we'd been in thus far. I'm sure things happen but we're not exactly talking about Los Angeles here. Next time I'll rent bicycles and just ride all the way up Esplanade Ave like our guidebook recommended.
For our last dinner in New Orleans we decided to eat at Mona's again. The guy who owns it was happy we'd returned so I ordered his simmered goat which was decent but not sure it was all he hyped it up to be. He seemed very proud of it though.
Upon exiting Mona's we make a quick pass through all the music joints on Frenchman Street. While en route we heard music, very loud music. This music was in the street and was loud enough that people were exiting the clubs to hear it. As we got nearer we saw a group of young black kids playing instruments and drums on the street and doing a very good job of it. It was largely one rolling marching band song with horns and drums. If we closed our eyes it didn't take any stretch of imagination to picture African slaves pounding drums and dancing in Congo square during the Sunday market. New Orleans is a product of it's past in many ways.
Tomorrow is our last day here. Even now I'm not sure what to think of the place. I'll try to put my thoughts together later.
Ah, you know it's going to be a good day when you start with a good breakfast. After consulting Yelp yet again we hoofed it north to the Ruby Slipper for breakfast. I'm going to go ahead and give you the address because I enjoyed it so much - 2001 Burgundy street in Faubourg Marigny (Corner of Burgundy and Touro streets). The Ruby Slipper is housed in an old bank building and boy do they know how to do breakfast. I've been wanting to try the famed Cochon de lait (suckling pig) that I've heard so much about and they have an item called Eggs Cochon which is a pair of poached eggs over apple-braised pork debris and an open-faced buttermilk biscuit, finished with Hollandaise. Two biscuits come on a plate and my only complaints about the dish are that I probably only needed one and it was a bit pricey. However, don't let the latter steer you away because this breakfast may be the only good food you get so pony up, it's worth it. Kris had the Eggs Blackstone which is a pair of poached eggs over applewood-smoked bacon, grilled tomato and an open-faced buttermilk biscuit, finished with Hollandaise and served with fresh fruit. This was equally good and I highly recommend it.
The Faubourg Marigny was one of the first "suburbs" added to the city and today remains the district that's still largely colonial but not crazy like the French quarter. The houses are of a different style than the French quarter and include more of the "shotgun house" style aptly named because you could fire a shotgun from the front to the rear with out hitting anything.
Just north of Faubourg Marigny is the Tremé district made famous by the T.V. show by the same name. It's known for it's racial mix, housing projects and modern brass bands. Historically it was where the free people of color held their markets and dance lines. Specifically they did this at "Congo Square" named for the Congolese people who made up the most recent imports from Africa. The slave folks were in charge of buying the days goods for the plantations as well as selling goods. Quite often the square was used for African dancing as well. The percentage of free people of color reached 20% before New Orleans was purchased by the U.S. In Spanish Luisiana slaves were never barred from purchasing their own freedom if they had enough money on hand and many did. Sunday was a free day where slaves were allowed to partake in capitalism and they got to keep half the money. A lot of this exchange of money happened at Congo Square in the Tremé.
We started walking north on Esplanade Ave to see all the fabulous French houses on this grand boulevard when we decided to drop into a local convenience store for water. The Russian sounding man behind the counter asked us if we weren't from around there as if he already knew the answer. He then proceeded to tell us not to walk up Esplanade because it wasn't safe. He then told us not to walk east or west either and that we should go back the way we came for a few blocks then walk west. According to him people come in all the time crying because the got robbed. We followed directions and went back the way we came a couple of blocks then headed toward what used to be Congo Square. Along the way we wandered through yet another Saint Louis cemetery (#2) wondering out loud who it's residents were. In the way back we found the protestant section. This was a breakthrough in social integration because at this time it was common practice NOT to let protestants in the cemeteries at all. I suppose being at the back of the cemetery was better than not being allowed in at all.
Congo Square no longer exists and it's last musical performances probably happened some time between the time the U.S. took over and the civil war. However, the area has been made into a park in honor of Louis Armstrong. Kris went there yesterday and wanted to take me back so we wandered the park, took photos and sat on a bench and watched a young black girl sing and dance for her friends. It took no stretch of imagination to close our eyes and picture that we were in another time.
Louis Armstrong park was nice if underutilized, the projects ended up not being very scary at all and along the way toward Canal street we stopped and admired the line of statuary social liberators like Benito Jaurez and Simon Bolivar. Reaching Canal street we decided to go to the Cabildo which was the center of the Spanish Municipal Government. Now it's the Louisiana state history museum and one of the items on my "must see" list.
Having just read The Accidental City and The World that Made New Orleans, two books with very different takes on New Orleans history I found very little in the Cabildo that was new to me. However, it was really nice reading summaries of historical events along with photos and/or items from that period inside the actual building that much of it happened in. I highly recommend the Cabildo if you're into history. That and it's a great place to be if it's raining outside.
In one last ditch attempt to find good local cuisine (I know, beating a dead horse) I asked my fellow Facebookers what they recommended. Most pointed out the restaurant in the "Not New Orleans food but pretending to be" category like the Commanders Palace and Kpaul. One suggestion said that we just HAD to have boiled bay shrimp. So after wandering around a bit and looking at Yelp reviews and menus we settled on the Original Pierre Maspero's. It seems there's another Pierre Maspero's but this one's the REAL one or something. This is the historic home of the Original Pierre Maspero’s Slave Exchange. Yes they sold humans here and proudly so it appears. There are plaques on the wall announcing that it was a slave market, it's in the menu, on their website and just about everywhere else. There's probably graffiti on the bathroom walls too but I didn't look. It felt just a tad odd that so much was made of a horrific past.
We ordered the very popular Shrimp Pistolettes which were bay shrimp in little boats smothered in cheese sauce. They were overly cheesy and not that appealing either. Kris ordered the Crab Cake Maspero and Bay Shrimp and Grits. The crab cakes were actually very nice, probably the best I've ever had anywhere. They were light and fluffy with just the right amount of crab flavor. The bay shrimp were OK. They were tender and tasted like shrimp. In a blind taste test nobody would know the difference between these and any other properly prepared shrimp so I wasn't exactly bowled over by them. The cheesy grits were about as good as they sound. Bland granules in a cheap cheese sauce. I ate part of them and left the rest. NOW I think we're done with local food. I hope.
We finished the evening with a very pleasant walk along the Mississippi river bank.
Today may be a bit food oriented because well, we ate a couple of good meals and then spent time at a convention... That's what we did. Actually who am I kidding? All of my posts have to do with food.
I spent the morning getting ready for my presentation and so we decided to go to Mona's Cafe (Lebonese) for an early lunch then head over to the Hyat. We both had Gyro/Sharma sandwiches which were very nice. It's nice to have flavor in our food.
With breakfast/lunch out of the way we made our way to the Hyatt for Linuxcon. Kris joined me to listen to Linus Torvalds speak and then disappeared until later to listen to me speak. The rest of the Linuxcon crew joined a parade from the Hyat to the House of Blues with floats and police blockades too. New Orleans will do anything for a parade. Kris and I considered going along but then decided that after spending 5 days in a crazy city we could use some solitude so we headed west. We ran into a benefit to help raise money for food at the Lafayette Square. From there we caught the St Charles Streetcar and intended on riding it to the very end - we were going uptown.
When we stayed in the Garden District we saw quite a few old houses on our self guided tour but I'd recommend anyone interested in the old mansions to board the St Charles Streetcar and ride it at least until it makes a sharp right turn and just hang their head out the window to view many many old houses. Our ride was interrupted at Napoleon Avenue due to work being done on the streetcar line so the transit company put us on a bus and we rode to the end of the line on Carrollton Street. We were headed to a restaurant called Boucherie which is a French/New Orleans fusion restaurant that gets great reviews. At this point we're fairly convinced that the local food has humble beginnings and doesn't end any better so we're packing it in and eating anything that tastes great. The Commander's Palace/Kpaul/Cochon type of restaurants make great food even if they're really not that southern.
We arrive at Bouchon and it's about a million degrees out and the humidity is high enough that fish are sprouting wings. The very nice but formal young man at Bouchon informs us that he could get us an outside table within the hour but inside was booked for the night. Um, thanks but we'll check around first before committing to eating in the depths of hell. On the way to Bouchon we passed another Lebanese place called Lebonon's Cafe which was very laid back and inviting so we went in.
We ordered Kibby which was very nice and set the stage for our meal. Kris had the Chicken Shwarma and I did combination Kebab which were both fantastic. The hummus... I must mention the hummus as it was fabulous. It seems like you can't mess up something like hummus but Lebonon's Cafe showed us that you can raise the bar and raise it they did. Very smooth and wonderful flavor. Another great non-New Orleans meal.
Having eaten way too much Lebanese food we chose to retrace the bus route with our feet until we could pick up our trolley again and we nearly made it before hopping a bus. A good day indeed.
Due to spending a night attempting to sleep while Frenchmen Street music found it's way through our hotel window we got started a bit late. Even though the Rose Nicuad had a nice story we weren't exactly thrilled with the idea of eating another Egg McMuffin clone (but twice the price) so we went west down Decatur street to see what we could find. Cafe Envie had good reviews and they made sandwiches. I had a panini that was so hard you could barely eat it... Still looking for a great breakfast spot.
We were also looking for a good lunch spot and New Orleans cuisine was starting to wear on us. Kris said no more Po'Boys or else. I was fine with that and was missing food with a good flavor punch so we went to Mona's Cafe, a Lebanese place near our hotel. For whatever reason Lebanese food seems to be a big hit in the big easy. Maybe because grits really aren't that good... Both of us had Shwarama sandwiches (think Gyro but with flavor) and loved them. It seems we will be getting more acquainted with Mona's in the future.
The conference was a bit slow so I spent most of my time just preparing for my presentation the next day. Kris went off to do some shopping for us. Our hotel had a swimming pool and my pants had no belt. She planned on taking care of both concerns on Canal street. Shopping took her clear out to Walmart on Magazine street and she was still unsuccessful. Apparently even though it's a million degrees here nobody seems to need a swim suit. She headed back toward the Central Business District and I started walking to Cochon Butcher- a restaurant that may just save southern cooking. The meetup was a bit more nerve racking than you'd expect because Kris got tired of waiting for the bus and decided to walk the mile or so to Cochon Butcher. A short way from Walmart the neighborhood started looking rough. In this day getting lost is pretty hard to do because most people have cell phones with GPS. That is if they don't have a dead battery. The last message I got from Kris was that she'd meet me there and then silence. I walked to Cochon Butcher and waited, then another message saying she had caught a bus anyway and was getting off at Magazine and Joseph street so I walked toward the bus stop a couple of blocks away and ran into her about halfway there.
The Central Business District and the Warehouse districts are much more modern than the French Quarter or Garden District. The CBD was built mostly in the last 50 years and the Warehouse district about 50 years before then. Just visualize in your mind a lot of old brick warehouses built about 1900 and you'd be spot on. To be honest the Warehouse district looked a bit Seattlish but without the hills.
We arrived at Cochone Butcher (Pig Butcher). Oddly enough this is the backside of a much more formal restaurant called Cochone but it gets better reviews than it's more formal cousin. Cochone looked good but Yelpers raved about Cochone Butcher so we walked on by Cochone, turned the corner and ended up at a small lunch counter style eatery with a case of various sausages and cut meats in it. Cochone Butcher focuses on pork sandwiches and other types of sliced meat. I came here for a Cochone de Lait sandwich - one made from baby suckling pig. Cruel I know, but very tasty. Kris had a more northern BBQ pulled pork sandwich that was wonderful. If I lived in New Orleans I'd eat here regularly. Oh, and there wasn't any grits or seafood gumbo in sight.
From here we took the Riverfront Streetcar back to Frenchmen Street. We met a gal who was shaparoning 12 or so Chinese kids on a cultural exchange and talked a bit about Louisiana and the craziness of it all.
Early to bed so we can be early to rise. Tomorrow we really need to find a good breakfast place. There's one in Marigny by the name of The Ruby Slipper that's supposed to be good and not too far of a walk.
New Orleans is divided into different districts and each have different character, for instance the French Quarter is known for lots of tourists and partying. The Garden District is known for grand old American mansions, the Treme is known for poor black folks, the Central Business District known for modern hotels and tall buildings and closer to the river the Warehouse district full of old 20th century warehouses turned restaurants and hotels. There are a lot more "suburbs" as they once were called. These would include Faubourg Lafayette, Faubourg Livaudis, Faubourg Marigny and many more. These Faubourgs used to be the suburbs to downtown New Orleans which at that point was only the French Quarter (curiously enough built by the Spanish). The Irish moved to the Irish Channel, the Germans moved to the German coast, the Americans moved to the Garden District etc... While in New Orleans we wanted to sample abit so we moved to Faubourg Marigny with it's famed Frenchmen Street known for having many live music venues.
I haven't mentioned how expensive hotels are in New Orleans. You'd be hard pressed to find a dive for under $100/night and a reasonable hotel (no cockroaches etc) will probably run you $120/night Sunday through Thursday. However, once the weekend comes that hotel price doubles to around $240/night. Staying in the Garden district over the weekend helped because the prices don't jump as high there. Our room a the Prytania park was fairly large with the bed in the loft, a living room, fridge and microwave. Our room at the Frenchmen hotel was just that -a room. It had space for a bed and a small ensuite bathroom. Don't get me wrong it was cute all painted in purple but it was small. We wanted it for it's location right ON Frenchmen street among the clubs. Other perks were it's small swimming pool in the courtyard where we could escape from the heat. However on the day we arrived the office door was blocked due to some repainting so we had to walk through the parking structure, climb some stairs and find our way to the back door. The stairs to our room were also blocked so we had to go around back to climb stairs to the upper outdoor walkway. No big deal really but then the electricity didn't work either. This is $150 a night folks.
We ate breakfast at the Cafe Rose Nicuad (not the restaurant pictured in the Marigny gallery below) down the street which was named after Rose Nicuad the first coffee seller in New Orleans in the early 1800s. At the time she was a slave and sold coffee in the French Market to the French people from a cart. Later she earned enough money to buy her own freedom which was allowed then. Cafe Rose Nicuad had many kinds of eggs, a few wraps and coffee. It wasn't fancy but it got us by. Since it was the first day of the conference we headed that direction on the Cable cars and found that the line that goes from the French Market all the way to the Hyat Regency only ran on the weekend. For the rest of the week you have to take the Riverfront Streetcar to Canal street, walk a block and catch the RIGHT streetcar from there to the Hyat Regency. If you catch the wrong one you'll end up at the City Park. The transfer from the Riverfront Streetcar to the right Canal Street streetcar ended up taking 30 minutes which defeats the purpose of doing it since I can walk from Canal Street to Frenchmen street in 30 minutes.
New Orleans relies a lot on their street cars and they seem to be an important part of their transit system. To be clear New Orleans has the longest continually running street car in America. When the St. Charles line started in 1833 it had to be pulled by horses and later was powered by steam engines. The other street car lines (Riverfront and Canal Street) have modern air conditioned street cars that are quiet and have electronic controls. However, the one I enjoyed the most was the St. Charles streetcar which carries the most people and uses ancient streetcars. Due to not having air conditioning they drive around with all the windows open including the drivers windshield. The driver operates several levers that we decided were for acceleration and brakes but it seemed to be more of an art to drive than a science. He was constantly pumping on one lever, rotating another etc. just to keep it moving at the right speed. It was all great fun. Headways were about 7 minutes for the St. Charles line which were great. You really didn't have to wait very long before a streetcar came down the tracks. I will have to say the St Charles cars were very noisy though, enough so that it was difficult having a conversation when it was at full speed. Still it was my favorite though.
We got to the Hyat on the Canal Street streetcar and I checked in, picked up my many t-shirts and miscellaneous items to hang from my neck and went looking for lunch. The convention recommended the Whole Hog Barbecue in the next building and since we were in the south why not partake in the southern tradition of eating BBQ? We stood in a very cafeteria looking line reading about all the amazing awards the Whole Hog BBQ has earned and it all looked impressive. But there was no smokers in view and it all looked very.... corporate chain. The food was OK but there was a very strong flavor of liquid smoke in everything. Once we identified what was going on all we could taste was liquid smoke. Even when we walked by every day the smell of liquid smoke became overbearing.
We were slowly getting burned out by mediocre southern food so Kris started doing some research on where we could get some really good local food and decided we should meet at Coop's place on Decatur in the French Quarter. The locals raved about it so I headed there after my conference was over. I'd decided earlier that it was just easier to walk to Frenchmen street than make the trolley connection and as I proceeded toward the streetcar door I got stuck in a conversation about the very same thing with a couple of tourists from San Diego - Tony and Virginia. I think the two of them had already started drinking (as the sun had already come up and we were in New Orleans) and seemed a bit puzzled over the whole transfer to another streetcar option so I brought them with me on 1 mile walk toward Frenchman street. I honestly thought Frenchmen street was no more than half a mile but at about the half mile marker Virginia said she wasn't going to make it and Tony informed me he wasn't in that great of shape. Virginia was a short, older woman and Tony a tall, older asian man. Funny couple they were. I started doing the Columbus thing and fudging the numbers of how much further it was until I ran into Kris on her way to Coop's place to meet me. It was good that I found her as my phone was dead and I'd forgotten the name of the restaurant. I sent Tony and Virginia on down the street two more blocks to Frenchmen to listen to music as Kris and I backtracked to Coop's place.
Coop's place is one of those local establishments that has a line out the door and down the street. It's a little hole in the wall and everyone in line said it was worth the wait so we joined them. About 20 minutes later we got a seat in what turned out to be a dive bar so dark we couldn't read our menus without light from Kris's cell phone and the music was blaring at almost eardrum splitting levels. We ordered a mix of things - Seafood Gumbo, Rabbit and Sausage Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole, Red Beans and Rice and Cajun Fried Chicken. The Red Beans and Rice tasted just like it sounds - food to get you through the day but not exactly exciting and again it had some liquid smoke taste too it. I didn't like the Gumbo at all but Kris thought it was OK. Kris enjoyed the Jambalaya but my favorite was the Shrimp Creole as it had some kick to it. To me the Shrimp Creole was the only dish that I actually felt like eating though. The rest I ate and probably wouldn't go out of my way to get again. None of it was just that great.
As we were eating Tony and Virginia showed up. Seems the club down the street didn't have anything interesting going on and one of the employees recommended they go to Coop's. As we left we wished them a good trip and headed to our hotel. It didn't take us long to decide the evening wasn't over since we were now in music central so back out we went into the night to find a club with great music. That club ended up being the BMC (Balcony Music Club) which also ended up being our favorite over the rest of the week. Not only did they have no cover charge but seemed to have the best music as well. The bar served up several beers on tap but oddly enough was attached to a second bar (the Patio Bar) which had no outside access but through the BMC. Why would you make a bar with no outside door? Anyway the Patio Bar had 150 different beers on tap and only 145 of them were "Urine Beers". You know the ones that look like Urine, smells like Urine and taste like Urine. Note to self, New Orlean's German population has been assimilated and the desire for a good hearty beer seems be extinct. However the remaining 5 non-urine beers looked OK so Kris got a double chocolate stout from the UK. It didn't taste like chocolate at all but was nice and creamy and deep.
It was Smokey Greenwell's (http://www.youtube.com/user/SmokyGreenwell) Monday night Blues Jam at the BMC so various musicians signed the sheet and as the night went on they were put into the band that was playing. Unexpectedly a bit later Tony and Virginia show up and joined us at our table. They danced, the musicians played, people drank - lather, rinse and repeat. It was a good night and we bid Tony and Virginia goodbye for the last time and returned to our hotel to sleep among the sounds of music all down the street.
I'd been selected to speak at THE major Linux convention (Linuxcon) in New Orleans in September. I've traveled a lot as most of my readers know but for whatever reason I've never been to New Orleans. I've always wanted to go but whenever I board an airplane it's usually going overseas but now I had an excuse. To prepare I started to research a city that was part of the French empire for 45 years then part of the Spanish empire for 35 years while being briefly handed back to France before being sold to the very new United States. In addition to that it had a large immigration of German and Irish people that at one point made up 15% of the population. There were the Acadians that came from Nova Scotia after France lost Canada to the British. Those folks later became the Cajuns. The largest influence came from Africa - initially from Senegambia and then later Congo by way of Cuba and Saint Domingue (Haiti). When Haiti became the second country in the new world to gain it's independence (after the U.S.) the large French population fled to New Orleans resulting in a surge in the French culture. This time though it was a very Caribbean influenced French culture.
Take all of this plus 200 years of American culture, put it in a large pot to simmer and call it Gumbo. As you also know I'm a big foodie so I'll be discussing at length the culinary options in New Orleans as it's quite famous for it's cuisine.
I wanted to take Kris to New Orleans with me and I also wanted us to have airplane seats together. As there were no longer any adjacent seats on any reasonably priced flight we figured we'd take a chance on Southwest because at least we could make a mad dash for a couple of seats. Southwest as you may know doesn't have any seat reservation system and they're really not a budget option any longer and after going through the boarding process I wonder why they're even in business. You can weight the seat selection process by paying extra money but depending on the order paid you may end up in exactly the same category you were in previously. So there we were standing in our respective sections of our respective lines hoping that by the time we got on the plane there'd be two seats together... there wasn't. I grabbed a seat beside a 6'4" Texan who apparently thought he was carrying a couple of 14 lb bowling balls between his legs because he had to have them splayed so wide I put both of my knees in the aisle side saddle style. Later I realized he really didn't like touching another man either so every time my leg got close to his he'd move his over a bit so we weren't touching. Lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually I got the space I'd paid for and he was riding side saddle on his wife's seat. Kris sat behind me in the middle seat. I felt sorry for her the minute I saw where she was going to be sitting. These two very nice people occupying the window and aisle seats loved each other very much but they couldn't sit next to each other due to a small physics problem. The problem was they were physically too big. The seat between them was the buffer zone which amounted to a small strip of stagnant air and not much more. Kris nestled in like a thong between two very abundant butt cheeks and off we went.
Before we landed in New Orleans the pilot made an announcement that we had arrived in "New Orleans" to which some lady in the back replied "You'd think that as many times as he's flown here he'd know how to pronounce Nawlins". Perhaps he pronounces it that way because he's literate. Perhaps.
We exited the airport and walked into what felt like a very damp wool blanket that just came from the dryer. There you are humidity.... Our taxi driver was from <insert some country east of the east of the prime meridian and south of the Mediterranean> and careened around every car on the freeway. He got up to 80 mph at one point (in a 60mph zone) but we still managed to survive and arrived at Prytania Park Hotel in the Garden District near 10 pm. we planned on staying in the Garden District to get a feel for it then move to Frenchmen Street later in the week to be closer to some music and street life. We did NOT stay in the French Quarter due to the guidebooks saying it's crazy (and often repulsive, looking at you Bourbon street) and the price of hotels tripling during the weekend.
We got a suite at the Prytania Park Hotel which amounted to a loft with a very tight spiral staircase leading to our bed. Below we had a microwave and refrigerator, couch, desk and bathroom. For the price it was very nice. Most importantly it had air conditioning that ran 24/7. Coming from a green city it seemed a bit foreign to see someone run their air conditioning all day even when they weren't home but everyone did it. That and they didn't recycle which at this point I'd assumed everyone had started doing.
Being famished we asked the front desk lady where to eat. She said there's a good Japanese place a block over on St Charles street. Japanese? I came to New Orleans to have great southern food! We walked to St Charles street and asked a security guard and he again recommended the Japanese place and reiterated that it was good food. Still on a mission we went down the street to the St Charles Pub to eat some real local food. Kris got the Muffaletta (a very large round sandwich with sliced meat on it) because the people on the plane raved about them and they had been locals. I ordered the roast beef Poboy because EVERYONE that I'd met previous to flying told me to have one. The Muffaletta was comprised of mostly bread with a small amount of sliced meat. In a word, it was boring. The Poboy was a bit better but tasted strangely like a Subway sandwich with roast beef on it in a dark gravy. The gravy was pretty good but overall I was not impressed. There were no "OMG!" moments or even any "This is a damn fine sandwich" moments. It was just OK. I decided to reserve judgment until I'd tried the best Poboy places in town.
We were thankful to have air conditioning in the pub even though the local men were decked out in zoot suits with hats and everything. They didn't seem to mind the heat or the humidity. We slept great in our loft in our cute little hotel.