Originally created 02/24/02

Easy does it



NEW ORLEANS - Like Paris, London and Rome, New Orleans is one of the world's great walking cities. You can see a lot for free, or a mere picayune, the name of the Spanish coin worth 6 1/4 cents that the local daily, the Times-Picayune, proudly boasts on its masthead.

The "City That Care Forgot," as local boosters like to call this picturesque metropolis located on a 1/2 -mile-wide bend of the Mississippi River, throbs to a Dixieland beat with a kinetic energy that has little to do with industry, manufacturing or the high-tech information age. The natives seem to be as hell-bent on a good time as the tourists, and come sundown it's often hard to tell them apart.

Even after the Mardi Gras floats have been stored in their warehouses and the Jazz Festival is a fond memory, these streets are alive at any hour with music and merriment and mayhem. And yet, thanks to the city's amazingly efficient sanitation crews, the beer cups disappear by dawn. Then the shop owners and dwellers in those tidy, tiny houses come out to hose down the pavements.

Walkers can smell the flowers growing in the lush fenced courtyards and on those lacy iron balconies and hear the steamboats and freighters sounding the melancholy horns that called local waif Louis Armstrong upriver to greatness.

For walking the walk and strutting down Rampart Street as a bus named Desire goes by, choose a hotel or a bed-and-breakfast in the French Quarter, that flag-shaped remnant of history-filled yesteryears that lies north of Canal Street, in the shadow of the downtown steel and glass skyscrapers.

Gratefully, some years ago concerned citizens formed a Vieux Carre Commission that cried hands-off to the developers and expressway builders, preserved what they could of a unique architectural past, and successfully encouraged new hotels and businesses to restore and imitate the best of what had fallen to the wrecking ball.

The roughly mile-square Vieux Carre, the old quadrangle or landing, lies between Canal and Esplanade heading away from the skyscrapers and, going east, between North Rampart and the river. The straight and narrow streets in between are often named for saints in one direction and for French royalty in the other.

All offer different cultural, artistic and gnoshing delights: antique shops, art galleries, a voodoo museum, elegant restaurants such as Antoine's and Arnaud's, strip clubs and jazz joints along Bourbon Street (named for kings not for booze), stately antebellum mansions such as the Beauregard house, a lovely old convent and handsome courthouse, and lurking behind wrought-iron gates startlingly beautiful patios and gardens framed by banana trees.

Jazz lovers flock nightly to Preservation Hall, a living monument to classic Dixieland.

For souvenir hunters, a trendy shopping mall inhabits the old Jackson Brewery, an open-air market in an old wharf that displays pralines, yams, strong chicory coffee and other Louisiana products. Shops offer curios that include hand-crafted Mardi Gras masks, T-shirts with X-rated shibboleths, stuffed alligators and gris-gris, the dust collected from tombstones for Creole witchcraft rites.

For the lonely and the thirsty there are Irish bars, oyster bars, crawfish bars, gay bars, piano bars and bars with pool tables, balcony bars to view the eclectic passing parade, landmark bars such as Pat O'Brien's with its tall hurricane drinks and flaming courtyard fountain, and quaint bars such as the Old Absinthe House, where over a glass or two Andrew Jackson and pirate Jean Lafitte planned the Battle of New Orleans.

The centerpiece of all this, not exactly located in the center, is the lovingly restored St. Louis Cathedral, named for a French king who became a saint and blessed more recently by a Polish pope who loves Dixieland jazz and was welcomed to the city by the Olympia funeral band pumping out When the Saints Go Marching In. Tourists abroad on foot can encounter a brass band accompanying a funeral - playing it slow and sad on the way to the graveyard and a jazzy up-tempo on the way back.