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Saints and Haints in New Orleans

The candlelit table is set for dinner, with a piece of bread and a glass of wine awaiting the guest. A framed reserved card is displayed. However, the table at Muriel’s on Chartres Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter sits unused and undisturbed — as far as we know — night after night.

The table is for Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, who lost the building, then his home, in an 1814 poker game and committed suicide on the second floor the night before he was to vacate the premises. According to some, he still hasn’t left.

“It is the only restaurant that a table is set for spirits,” said Denise Augustine, a guide for Historic New Orleans Tours. Many people believe that New Orleans is a spirited city in more ways than one, and Jourdan is not alone.

“New Orleans is one of the most haunted cities in the world,” said Augustine.

We were on a haunted French Quarter tour with stops at hotels, restaurants, jazz clubs and houses and stories of the spirits that supposedly abide there. The animated Augustine provided interesting and entertaining anecdotes about not only spirits but also the history and culture of New Orleans.

“We lead a slower life, a slower pace of lifestyle,” she said.

And that’s the best way to experience New Orleans. It’s not called the Big Easy without reason. You need to absorb the city’s distinctive and fascinating culture slowly as you discover its music, food and history.

Although walking is the best way to experience New Orleans, there are several other ways to get around the city, whether you use them simply as transportation, as an experience in themselves or as a combination of both.

There are hop-on/hop-off double-decker buses, carriage rides through the French Quarter, cruises on the Mississippi River aboard the riverboat Natchez, the city’s famous streetcars and the newest addition, bicycle-powered pedicabs, introduced three years ago.


Walk the Walk

The epicenter for a visit to New Orleans is the French Quarter, the oldest part of the city, which stretches out from the Mississippi River between Esplanade Avenue and Canal Street.

I have always enjoyed leisurely strolling its streets to look at delicate and ornate iron rails on second- and third-floor balconies and blooming flower baskets hanging from porch ceilings of brick Creole town houses, brightly colored Creole cottages and the distinctive shotgun houses.

The French Quarter’s most famous — or infamous, depending on your point of view — street is Bourbon Street. Although Bourbon Street’s bawdy reputation is deserved for its burlesque clubs and all-night partying, there are also luxurious hotels and fine restaurants along its 13-block length.

Just one block away, Royal Street is a stark contrast, a refined stretch of quality antique stores, and high-end art galleries and world-class restaurants. You may even encounter impromptu concerts or performers in the middle of the street, portions of which are closed to vehicular traffic during the day.

Another great way to experience New Orleans’ famous music is to walk along a two-block stretch of Frenchmen Street, just outside the French Quarter. Unlike the neon of Bourbon Street, only wooden signs designate the dozen or so clubs where a variety of music, from jazz to Latin, from blues to reggae, can be heard, often for free.

A stroll around Jackson Square lets you peruse artwork leaning against its iron fences and talk to the artists or get your portrait drawn.

A pleasant hike is along the Mississippi on the Moon Walk through Woldenberg Riverfront Park to the Aquarium of the Americas. Stop along the way to sit on a bench and watch the large container ships moving up the river toward the port of New Orleans.


Mule Power

Another leisurely way to see the French Quarter, learn about its history and have a memorable experience is on a mule-drawn carriage ride; the rides begin on Decatur Street in front of Jackson Square and the iconic St. Louis Cathedral.

“This is where the city started; it is where we became part of the United States,” said Ron Ademës as he urged his mule, Moon, forward.

Ademës explained that mules are used to pull the carriages instead of horses because they can work better in the subtropical heat and humidity and “they are smarter, stronger and more sure-footed.”

As Moon pulled us through the narrow streets, Ademës gave a history lesson of the city, founded by the French in 1718, and background on the French Quarter’s distinctive architecture, which has more of a Spanish influence than a French one.

Most of the current buildings were built after two devastating fires in the late 18th century destroyed most of the original French structures. At the time, New Orleans was under Spanish control.

Either before or after a carriage ride, you can sample the New Orleans tradition of beignets and cafe au lait across the street under the green awnings of Cafe Du Monde, where it has been since 1862. You can only get three beignets — square, French-style doughnuts covered with powdered sugar — orange juice and a cup of dark-roast coffee there.

Although most visitors usually eat beignets in the morning, Augustine explained that many New Orleans residents prefer them late at night after an evening on the town. No problem: Cafe Du Monde is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Cafe Du Monde is in the 300-year-old French Market, considered the oldest public market in the country, where many open-air stalls offer a wide range of unusual arts, crafts and food. A jazz group was playing at the Market Cafe when we stopped for refreshments.

The French Market is one of several stops for the red double-decker buses of City Sightseeing New Orleans, whose guides provide commentary as you ride around the city. The upper deck provides a different perspective as you peer over the walls of the city’s famous above-ground cemeteries and pass within inches of the limbs of large oaks in the Garden District, some still festooned with Mardi Gras beads.

All-day passes allow you to hop on and off; buses are generally at each stop every 30 minutes. We rode a bus from the French Market through the Treme neighborhood and past St Louis Cemetery No. 1 through the Central Business District to the Garden District, where we got off for lunch and to explore the boutiques along Magazine Street.

The buses also make a stop at Mardi Gras World, where you can tour Blain Kern Studios and see how they build huge floats for Mardi Gras and other parades around the world.