New Orleans: Where every building tells a story

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The French Quarter of the city was moulded by its history of piracy, slavery, royalty – and ghosts

New Orleans is famed for its Mardi Gras but Bourbon Street is pretty wild most nights of the year in a bead-flinging, butt-wiggling "Show us what ya got!" kind of way. It's pretty wild during the day too, with live jazz and mass alcohol consumption in the streets. It can make it difficult to squeeze down the streets of the French Quarter in search of Reverend Zombie's Voodoo Shop or Panda Bear Bondage, when a guy dressed as a giant green hand grenade is handing out free samples of the city's most powerful signature beverage, the "Tropical Isle Hand Grenade".

But the French Quarter Festival, which starts on 12 April, is a more representative event, featuring as many as 800 local musicians. Here a very different kind of New Orleans emerges, historical and full of colourful anecdotes from a time when ladies in bikinis most definitely did not stand on Bourbon Street. For this is New Orleans' oldest neighbourhood, founded in 1718 and known as the Vieux Carré (the old square).

It's best to start your exploration of the quarter outside Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop at 941 Bourbon Street (001 504 593 9761; lafittesblacksmith shop.com) which, like so much of the Big Easy is now a bar with a wonderfully bad piano and dubious drinks. It looks like it's about to fall down, but in fact it's been there since before 1772, when this low-rise property first changed hands. French pirates Jean and Pierre Lafitte are supposed to have lived here.

Leaving the bar, walk south down Bourbon Street and turn right into Royal Street. Look out for the cast-iron fence that surrounds number 915, a New Orleans landmark and testimony to the 19th-century wealth of this city.

Constructed in 1834, this palisade is more famous than the hotel it protects because it was cast – and then painted – to look like a forest of cornstalks. Enter the gates and pause for a drink at the Cornstalk Hotel (001 504 523 1515; cornstalkhotel.com) where they'll tell you that writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, a guest here, visited the nearby slave markets and was moved to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. This may be a touch of embroidery, Harriet's brother Charles having written to her about the slave market.

On the other side of the street stand the three Miltenberger Houses about which there is no historical doubt. In 1838 Widow Miltenberger commissioned numbers 900, 906 and 910 as a block of houses wrapped around by graceful balconies on two floors. Mrs Miltenberger's favourite granddaughter Alice is a New Orleans heroine. Not only did she become a duchess on marrying the Duke de Richelieu in 1875, but after his death she became the second wife of Albert I of Monaco and thereby the nearest thing to royalty you'll find in the French Quarter.

History is jumbled up in this part of the quarter. Cross the junction of Royal Street and Dumaine Street and you lurch further back in time. Today Papier e Plume (001 504 988 7265; papierplume.com), an upmarket stationery shop, stands on this corner. But in 1814 a young boy called Charles Gayerré stood on the balcony of 842 Royal Street to watch General Andrew Jackson lead his troops out to fight the besieging British army. Gayerré would go on to become the great 19th-century historian of Louisiana, recording this and many more events.

Turning round and heading back east down Royal Street, you pass the pretty house of 19th-century architect James Gallier Jr at number 1132 (001 504 525 5661; hgghh.org) with its delicate apple-green balcony. Almost next door at 1140 is the LaLaurie House, the most notorious building in the Quarter. In the 1830s Mrs Delphine LaLaurie dazzled New Orleans with her parties, but she was suspected of brutally mistreating her slaves.

When a fire broke out in 1834, rescuers found seven slaves chained up by neck and leg in a smoke-filled room. Delphine had meanwhile escaped to France where she later died. Her body was returned in secrecy to New Orleans, but ghost tours of the city claim you can still hear screams emanating from the LaLaurie House late at night.

In 2007 it was bought by Nicolas Cage for $3.45m (£2.3m). The actor said he liked the idea of owning the "Most Haunted House in America", although he no longer owns the property.

Turning south down Governor Nicholls Street and right into Chartres Street, the neighbourhood becomes increasingly residential and indeed reverential. At 618 Governor Nicholls, Saint Francesca Cabrini (the first US citizen to be canonised) kept a school for orphans in the 1890s and at number 1100 stands one of the city's oldest buildings, the serene, box-hedged Ursuline Convent dating from 1752.

This was the first nunnery in the state of Louisiana and remains the oldest continually-operated Catholic school in the United States, an extreme contrast to the cheerful, lager-swilling decadence party street two blocks to the north.

Fresh Cuts

 

The Degas House (001 504 821 5009; degashouse.com) is a new B&B just outside the French Quarter on Esplanade Avenue.

Edgar Degas stayed here in 1872 with his mother's Creole family. He produced 18 paintings while in New Orleans, many of them clearly sat for in this gracious two-storey building. Doubles start at $159 (£99), including breakfast.

Borgne (001 1 504 613 3860; borgnerestaurant.com) is the new hotel dining sensation just outside the French Quarter in the recently restored Hyatt on Loyola Avenue. Expect coastal Louisiana cuisine: oyster stew, gumbo and devilled crab.

Travel essentials

Getting there

No airline flies direct from the UK to New Orleans; American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) flies from Heathrow to New Orleans via Dallas-Fort Worth from £510 return. A wide range of alternative routes are available on US carriers via their hubs.

HolidayAutos (0871 472 5229; holidayautos.co.uk) offer a week's car hire from £216.

Staying there

Hotel Monteleone, French Quarter (001 504 523 3341; hotelmonteleone.com). Doubles start at $204 (£128), without breakfast.

More information

New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau: 01689 825207/0800 652 8251; neworleanscvb.com

 

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