Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

St George's Day

This royal throne of kings, this sceptr'd isle
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars
This other Eden, demi-paradise
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...

These marvellous, stirring words are taken from the play 'Richard II' by England's greatest playwright William Shakespeare.

Today is also the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in 1564. So those of us who are English have two good reasons to celebrate - Happy St George's Day!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Oak Alley and Alligators

I thought I'd better finally finish the story of our trip to New Orleans! Life has been exceptionally busy recently and I just haven't had time to blog. For the last full day of our stay we booked a full day tour visiting two Plantation Houses and then spending the afternoon on a swamp boat looking for alligators. The tour bus picked us up at our hotel at 10am and we set off for our first stop at Oak Alley. We took the River Road out to Vacherie, it runs alongside the Mississipi River with the levy on one side and plantation houses on the other. Above is one of the houses we passed on the way, and it is exactly as I imagined a plantation house would look.I believe it's called Evergreen.

This is Oak Alley which gets its name from the wonderful avenue of Live Oak trees that leads up to the house - my photos of the avenue were rubbish so I have borrowed the one from the Oak Alley website.
The house was built in the Greek Revival style in 1837-1839 for Jacques Roman and was originally named Bon Sejour.The house  had several owners over the years but  by the 1920s it was very run down. In 1925 it was bought by Mr and Mrs Andrew Stewart who restored it to its original 19th century beauty.

The interior of the house has been furnished and decorated in the way it would have been between about 1820 and 1830. This is the parlour.

The dining room - the velvet covered affair over the dining table is a fan known as a shoo-fly which was operated by a young slave boy who sat on a chair in a corner of the room pulling on a strong cord.

This is the bedroom used by Josephine Stewart and remains as it was when she died in 1972, it's the only room not decorated and furnished in the style of the early 1800s.I believe that the portrait on the wall is of Josephine as a young woman.

After the house tour we had the opportunity to try the drink that is always associated with the Southern hospitality - a mint julep. It's made with bourbon, mint, sugar and water and we had the perfect place to sit and sip it - though to be honest neither Juliette nor I particularly liked it!

The darker side of the sugar plantations was of course that they used slave labour and above we see the slave quarters which lay at the back of the main house - something of a contrast to the luxury of the plantation owners lifestyle.

Life as a slave was decidedly spartan - these two photos show the two sides of the one room cabin. The Oak Alley plantation had 113 slaves including children in 1848 - 20 house slaves and 93 field slaves.

This is an original sugar kettle which was used to boil the extracted juice out of the sugar cane - apparently it went through four boilings each one in a smaller kettle than the previous one. Several of the old kettles are now used as planters.

Our next stop was the Laura Plantation house - a rare example of a Creole raised house - the house had a raised brick basement which not only helped when the Mississipi flooded but also helped to keep the house cool in the hot, sultry summers.

This was a much less grand house but it was also older dating back to 1805, it eventually stood at the centre of a sugar plantation of over 12000 acres. This is the dining room - much smaller and less opulent than Oak Alley. I have to say that our tour here was very rushed as we were apparently running late so our guide fairly sprinted round both the house and the grounds.

There were some interesting old household artefacts in the kitchen area but no time to really look at them. I liked this little display set out on an old wooden table.

Having to race round the outside areas was even more disappointing since it was really interesting and I would have loved to spend more time exploring. The photo shows one of the slave cabins - one family in each side. These were much more interesting than the ones at Oak Alley as the Oak Alley slave quarters are reconstructions whereas these are the original buildings which were still being lived in by workers until 1977.

This shows two of the slave cabins each of which had a small vegetable garden, a chicken house and/or a pig pen. Laura also had a slave infirmary so I think that perhaps the slaves here were less harshly treated than was generally the case.

The inside of one of the cabins - there were two rooms here rather than one.

There was a display of pre-Civil War photos of slaves from this plantation, again I would have liked longer to really look at these. However we had to leave for our lunch stop then on to our swamp tour. The less said about lunch the better, I will just say that I'm not used to eating at the sort of place we were taken to and judging from the faces of the others I don't think they were either!!

By the time we arrived at Manchac Swamp it had turned really cold - too cold for alligators unfortunately. The captain of our swamp boat told us that they excavate a depression in the ground and go into a period of dormancy when the temperature falls below a certain level.

The swamp is a surprisingly beautiful and tranquil place though - at least most of the time. It wasn't very tranquil just here - this graveyard is supposedly haunted! The story is that a Voodoo Queen named Julie Brown lived in the little town of Frenier on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain - the Manchac Swamp separates Lake Pontchartrain from Lake Maurepas. Apparently she used to sit on her front porch singing a song that went ' When I die I'm going to take the whole town with me'. Well, in 1915 she did die and as she was being buried a huge hurricane swept through destroying the town of Frenier and sweeping her coffin and the 50 mourners at her funeral into the Manchac Swamp. The graveyard you see in the photo is where they are all buried in mass graves and the victims still haunt the swamp. I'm glad I didn't know that when we set off!! If you click on the photo to enlarge it you'll see the rough wooden crosses that mark the graves.

Here is one of the only two alligators that we saw - the other was a baby lying on a log and by the time I spotted it we were past so I couldn't get a photo.

A primitive camp which I gather our captain often uses. Like all the captains in this company he is a Cajun and very familiar with and knowledgeable about the wildlife in the area.

This shows very clearly the 'knees' of the cypress trees that grow in the swamp - these help to buttress and stabilize the trees in the soft muddy soil of flood prone places. On the right is the ubiquitous Spanish Moss.

I must say that the swamp itself wasn't at all as I imagined - there is much more open water than I'd expected, I thought we'd be going down narrow channels and be hemmed in by the undergrowth but it isn't like that at all.

Finally the bit that Juliette was really looking forward to - we got to hold a baby alligator! George is 3 years old and will eventually be released back into the wild. He won't be fully adult until he's about 15 years old.

My turn to hold George:) By the way I had a warm sweater on under my flannel shirt, I needed it too! This was a nice way to end what was a really great holiday, the following afternoon we flew back to Savannah and stayed overnight before flying to Washington for our overnight flight back to London. I really hope that one day I shall be able to go back to the Deep South.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Basin Street Blues

Wednesday was the day for our 4 hour Voodoo Walking Tour of New Orleans. We met our guide Tree by the Civil War cannon in the Washington Artillery Park overlooking Jackson Square. He turned out to be a brilliant guide with a deep knowledge of the history of New Orleans. Voodoo is an intrinsic part of this history, it came to New Orleans along with African slaves and also with exiles from Haiti. From 1719 to 1731, the majority of African captives came directly from what is now Benin, West Africa, bringing with them their cultural practices, languages, and religious beliefs which are rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. Their knowledge of herbs, poisons, and the ritual creation of charms and amulets, intended to protect oneself or harm others, became key elements of Louisiana Voodoo. The people from the area which is now Benin were called the Fon and their word for spirits is Vodoun.

We visited the Historic Voodoo Museum which was founded by Charles Massicot Gandolfo in 1972. His fascination with Voodoo was inspired by the stories told to him by his grandmother who claimed that her great grandfather had been raised in New Orleans by a Voodoo Queen.

The African influence is very obvious in these carved wooden figures.

I confess that I found the interior of the Museum both fascinating and unsettling. This Voodoo altar has both Roman Catholic and Voodoo aspects - the beads that are draped everywhere as offerings are Mardi Gras beads.

A sequinned banner which is symbolic of Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte, two Haitian Voodoo Loa or spirits who are connected with death.

Congo Square is in the vicinity of the area once used by the Houmas Indians, before the arrival of the French colonists, to celebrate their corn harvest. It is most famous however for being the place where the slaves and free people of colour gathered on Sundays to dance,drum,socialize and generally have a good time. It also served as a market place for these people and the slaves could sell goods and crafts here. This enabled many of them to eventually save enough money to buy their freedom.The French and Spanish slave owners had a much more relaxed attitude to their slaves than the British/United States owners did and they were allowed to keep their own beliefs and customs rather than being forced to convert to Christianity. Congo Square lies in the Tremé district of New Orleans just north of the French Quarter. To reach it you have to cross Rampart Street which is divided into North Rampart Street(which divides the Tremé and French Quarter districts)and South Rampart Street. The jazz classic South Rampart Street Parade was named after a real place!

Tree showed us examples of the different styles of architecture in New Orleans. This simple house is on Dumaine Street and is one of the oldest in New Orleans. It was built in 1788/89 in the French Colonial style. The family would live on the upper floor which would be safe from flooding and the wide balcony gave protection from both sun and rain.

Right next door stands this more typical Creole style house.

To the right is the home of the slave owner and his family, to the left across the courtyard are the slave quarters. I think they've now been converted to apartments and wouldn't have looked quite so smart when the slaves lived there!

Our walk then took us down towards Basin St and the St Louis Cemetery No 1 which is the oldest cemetery still in existence in New Orleans. The first burials there were in the late 1700s and all the vaults are above ground. This is because it was built on a swamp and has always been vulnerable to flooding. It is incredibly small, claustrophobic and decrepit as these photos show. Attempts are now being made to preserve and restore it but it will be a long and extremely expensive project.This site gives more information about both the cemetery and the organization that is working to preserve this and other old cemeteries in New Orleans. The famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau is supposedly buried here, we saw her tomb but there seems to be some doubt as to whether she's actually in there! For some reason I didn't take any photos in the cemetery so I've had to borrow a couple from the internet. I had a new camera and had problems with it throughout the trip hence so many poor photos.

Our last port of call was the former Southern Railway Station on Basin Street which is now a Visitor Centre. I've borrowed the black and white photo from the internet to show how it looked in the early years of the 20th century. This was the area of New Orleans where jazz first flourished. Jelly Roll Morton and many other famous jazz musicians began their careers in the clubs and bars around here. It was also the red light district of New Orleans for many years! Here's the great Ella Fitzgerald singing Basin Street Blues

By the time the tour finished it was mid afternoon so we decided to walk slowly back towards Jackson Square exploring some more of the French Quarter as we went. This is Royal Street one of the oldest streets in New Orleans dating back to the French Colonial period. We spent quite a while wandering along here, it's full of lovely antique shops and art galleries as well as being beautiful in itself with all the gorgeous Creole architecture.

Many of the old Creole buildings have the most beautiful wrought ironwork balconies. This is a section of the Upper Pontalba Building on Jackson Square. You can also see one of the old gas lamps which are all over the French Quarter, I believe they are still lit by gas rather than being converted to electricity.

The statue of General Andrew Jackson stands in the centre of the square which bears his name. As I mentioned in an earlier post he was the General who defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. He later became the seventh President of the United States serving from 1829 to 1837.

Finally another look at Royal Street. If you enlarge the photo you will see on the wall to the right the sign showing its name in Spanish - Calle Real. And have you spotted the Mardi Gras beads hanging over the gas lamp? From here we headed back to the hotel to put our feet up for an hour before getting ready for another night out on the town again:)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Way Down Yonder In New Orleans!

We arrived in New Orleans at lunchtime which gave us the whole afternoon to explore. It was immediately obvious that it was a totally different kind of city to Savannah with a much faster pace of life. To begin with we weren't sure that we were going to like it but New Orleans is a city that grows on you. Above is St Louis Cathedral which is of course in the French Quarter. A Roman Catholic church has stood on this site since 1718 but the present building dates from 1850. The church became a cathedral in 1793 and is the oldest continuously operating cathedral in the United States.

New Orleans is full of street performers so we stopped to watch one group from the plaza which overlooks Jackson Square and Decateur Street. As we watched them we heard the sound of a brass band in the distance playing 'When The Saints Go Marching In'. It got closer and closer and then we saw that it was leading a wedding party down the street - I just managed to get a couple of quick photos before they passed out of sight. If you click on the photo you'll be able to see the bride more clearly. I love her parasol. Later in the afternoon we walked down the famous Bourbon Street just so that we could say we'd been there - and what a letdown that was! It was dirty, squalid and smelt to high heaven. We'd already decided that our night time excursions would be to Frenchman Street and it was immediately obvious that we'd got that one right!

Frenchman Street is filled with clubs all with live music, in some you just had to buy a drink in others you had to buy tickets for performances. Snug Harbour was one of the latter and we saw this great jazz band there. Some of the other clubs we went in were D.B.A., The Spotted Cat (great name!) and The Three Muses. If you are ever in New Orleans go and eat at The Three Muses, the food is fabulous and its always crowded.

Since we only had three full days in New Orleans we decided that we needed to have a plan rather than just ambling around. Both of us came up with things we wanted to do and one of mine was to sail on a paddle steamer on the Mississipi River. This the Natchez, she is one of only two steam-powered stern wheelers still sailing on the Mississipi so on Tuesday morning we made our way down to Toulouse St Wharf and bought our tickets for the 2 hour Jazz Cruise.

This is the paddle wheel churning away, it was quite exciting to be able to get so close to it.

As we sailed down the river we were given a commentary about the places we were passing, this obelisk marks the scene of the Battle of New Orleans where I regret to say that the British were soundly beaten by the Americans led by General Andrew Jackson in the final battle of the Revolutionary War! I believe that the site is about 6 miles out of New Orleans at a place called Chalmette.

Sadly the sail down the Mississipi while interesting is definitely not filled with pretty scenery, it's a heavily industrial landscape as this photo shows.This is an oil refinery I think and we also passed the Domino Sugar Refinery which has been there for over 100 years but isn't an especially inspiring subject for a photograph! The Port of New Orleans and The Port of South Louisiana combine to make one of the largest port systems in the world handling both cargo and passenger traffic.
The Mississipi is 2,320 miles long, the fourth longest and the tenth widest river in the world. The river's name is a derivation of Misiziibi the name given to the river by the First Nations people who lived alongside it. Misiziibi means Great River.

This is the engine room of the Natchez - not being of a mechanical turn of mind I don't find this all that exciting but possibly some of my readers will find it interesting:)

As we approached the Wharf at the end of our trip we got a good view of the Jax Brewery buildings which now contains shops and restaurants.

Our next stop was Juliette's choice, we spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the Aquarium. Inside was a good place to be and we were glad we'd been on the river in the morning as the temperature really started to drop later in the day and it was cold for the rest of our stay.

I think these jellyfish are beautiful though I've no idea what kind they are.

I liked this albino alligator, I think he looks rather sweet and friendly but I wouldn't be volunteering to join him in his enclosure to test my theory:)

This was the best bit of all - we were there when they fed the stingrays and you could pay extra and go and feed them if you felt brave. We did! You had to pick up a small fish and put it flat on your hand in the water and the stingrays just kind of vacuumed it up. It was a really fun experience.

Our final visit of the day was also Juliette's choice and I wasn't that bothered beforehand but the Mardi Gras Museum turned out to be fascinating. It's in a huge warehouse and they give you a guided tour beginning with dressing up in distinctly unflattering costumes and, even less flattering in my case, hats. They were one size fits all and 'all' obviously included some very large people! We were shown a 15 minute video explaining the history of Mardi Gras and showing past parades and were then taken through into the area where floats and figures from past Mardi Gras parades are kept. Even more interesting was that this is where they were working on the floats for 2014. The whole thing is a year round process, as soon as one Mardi Gras is over preparations begin for the next year.

This head of Medusa destined for a 2014 float was waiting its turn to be painted.

Designs for some of the floats for 2014. Something that I didn't realise is that Mardi Gras isn't just one big parade on one day. It lasts over two weeks and there are parades in many different areas of New Orleans often four or five on any one day.

Floats from last year, components of floats are often re-used, some of them are absolutely enormous. It must be fun to see one of the parades for real.

I was quite surprised to find this gentleman in the Mardi Gras Museum! It wasn't the first time I'd seen Winston Churchill in New Orleans either. Every night when we walked to the trolley stop to go down to Frenchman Street we passed a statue of him in the middle of the traffic circle on Poydras Street.

This is one of the areas where they are making the figures for the floats, some are carved out of blocks of styrofoam, some made from fibreglass and others from papier mache. It's quite incredible really.

There are artists working on the painting of the completed items - here a huge crown which looks as though it's been left to dry and some urns which are awaiting their turn.

Not sure whether these are past or future but it does give an idea of the scale of some of the pieces. It was the end of a busy but really enjoyable day. Next we're off on a Voodoo Tour!