Down in New Orleans they like to say that theirs is the most un-American city in the US, and as soon as you arrive, you get the sense that they might just be right.
The air smells of the tropics. The rhythm of the streets is an exotic combination of Afro-Caribbean, jazz and blues. And from the French Quarter to the Garden District, the look of the city is Europe melded with Gone With the Wind. It’s all a little dizzying. Even as your head is spinning, though, everyone around you accommodates by moving just a little slower. Like all tropical ports, New Orleans has its own languid pace — one that’s in keeping with its sultry climate. The playwright Tennessee Williams wrote about ‘those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans, when an hour isn’t just an hour but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands, and who knows what to do with it?’
The city’s heritage is that of a former French territory handed to the Spanish on a silver platter, then purchased by the U.S. for a song. And it is that, along with its location in deepest plantation country (and thus its position on the losing side of the American Civil War), as well as its lazy approach to things like business and modern life, which create its extraordinary appearance of tattered grandeur.
The city’s beauty and timelessness can be breathtaking. The lacy wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter create delicate art above your head, and as you wander through the streets below, your shoulders are brushed by impossibly long tendrils of bougainvillea and ivy. It’s just that kind of a place.
But that is only part of the story. The other part is New Orleans’s notorious decadence. This is the true city that never sleeps. Bars here stay open around the clock, and the city’s most famous event is a week-long ode to the Greek god Bacchus — Mardi Gras. Every year, exactly seven weeks before Easter, the city shuts down for a non-stop party. The mayor hands the keys of the city over to drunken revellers, and a series of bizarrely glorious night parades herald the start of each evening’s celebrations.
Then, in the spring, as flowers the size of dinner plates droop heavily over the cobblestones, the streets fill again, this time with musicians from around the world, as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, better known as Jazz Fest, fills three weekends in April and May with non-stop music.
Everything slows down in the summer, as it becomes nearly too hot and humid to move. But, for many, this is the best time to see the city — the time of year when it is truly in its element. In the summer, the long hot nights lead to endless sweltering days, and you understand why people say, ‘Nothing would feel better right now than a hurricane,’ and they mean the tall, rum punch drink that was invented here, not the weather phenomenon. Or do they? This is New Orleans after all.
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