As it enters its fourth century, New Orleans remains proudly apart from the rest of the United States. Intoxicating and addictive, the product of a dizzying jumble of cultures, peoples and influences, it's a place where people dance at funerals and hold parties during hurricanes, where some of the world's finest musicians make ends meet busking on street corners, and fabulous Creole cuisine is dished up in hole-in-the-wall dives. There's a wistfulness, too, in the peeling, ice-cream-toned facades of the old French Quarter - site of the original settlement - in the filigree cast-iron balconies overgrown with lush ferns and fragrant jasmine, and in the cemeteries, or "Cities of the Dead", lined with crumbling above-ground tombs. Doubtless New Orleans' melancholy air - and perhaps its joie de vivre, too - is due to the city's perilous geography. Set largely below sea level, and exposed to the devastating storms that career through the Gulf of Mexico, the city could be washed or! blasted away in an instant.
Founded by the French in 1718 on the swampy flood plain of the lower Mississippi River, and today spreading back as far as the enormous Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans is almost entirely surrounded by water, which since its earliest days has both isolated it from the interior and connected it to the outside world. By the time the Americans bought it, in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New Orleans was a cosmopolitan city whose ethnically diverse population had mingled to create a distinctive Creole culture. In the nineteenth century its importance as a port made the city the haunt of smugglers, gamblers, prostitutes and pirates, who gave it the decadent "sin city" notoriety that it still has today. Ever since then more and more visitors, among them an inordinate number of artists, writers and sundry bohemians, have poured in to see what the fuss was about; many found themselves staying, unable to shake the place out of their system.
Given its allure New Orleans is a surprisingly small town, with its million or so residents spread across a patchwork of neighborhoods. Its compact size makes it a dream to visit; simple to get around and easy to get to know, it's one of the best places in the United States to kick back and unwind for a few days. Above all, New Orleans is less a city of major sights than of sensual pleasures. With its subtropical climate, Latin-influenced architecture and black majority population, its voodoo worshippers and its long-held carnival traditions, it is often called the northernmost Caribbean city. The pace of life is slow here, while the sybaritic vices are relished - no more so than during the many festivals, especially, of course, the world-famous carnival of Mardi Gras, when real life is put on hold as businessmen and bus-boys alike are swept along by an increasingly frenzied season of parties, street parades and masquerade balls. Whatever time of year you come, you'll slip easily into the indolent way of life, rejecting an itinerary of museum-hopping in favor of a stroll around the French Quarter, where the vibrant street life and decaying buildings provide endless feasts for the eye; a leisurely steamboat cruise on the Mississippi; or simply a long cool drink in a hidden courtyard. Perhaps the most taxing thing you'll do is head out on the slow-moving old streetcar to the residential Garden District, where dark green shrubs weighed down by fat magnolia blossoms squat in the shadow of centuries-old live oaks tangled with ragged gray streamers of Spanish moss.
Though many of the city's most lingering pleasures come after dark, when the streets fill with people eating in the hundreds of superb restaurants, drinking at its many characterful bars and enjoying a live-music scene to rival any in the world, there's a whole lot more to New Orleans - the "Big Easy", the "city that care forgot" - than its fame as a nonstop party town. Ravaged by the Civil War and since then trailing in the wake of its more dynamic Southern rivals, today New Orleans depends heavily upon the cash brought by the millions of tourists seduced by the allure of authentic jazz, fine food and free-flowing alcohol. While having enormous amounts of fun here, you're always liable to be pulled up short by the divisions between rich and poor (and, more explicitly, between white and black). Just footsteps away from the feted French Quarter and Garden District - themselves touched by decrepitude and decay - lie woefully neglected housing projects and poverty-scarred neighborhoods.
Perversely, New Orleans' second-league status, in commercial terms, has protected it from the modernization that has ripped out the old hearts of wealthier cities, and allowed it to hold on to its distinctive character. And this sense of historic continuity is not limited to architecture. From the devout celebration of Catholic saints' days and the offerings left at voodoo shrines, to the local street parades, in which umbrella-twirling dancers and blasting brass bands lead crowds of thousands through poor black neighborhoods just as they have done for several centuries, much of the city's vitality and its sheer panache comes from a heartfelt belief that what has gone before is worth keeping. The melange of cultures and races that built New Orleans still gives it its heart: not "easy", exactly, but quite unlike anywhere else in the States - or in the world....Continua