Last week, I traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana to research my next novel. If you haven’t been to NOLA yet, put it on your bucket list. It’s one of my favorite cities in the country. It’s known for it’s unique history, rich culture, jazz music, Mardi Gras, Creole food and of course, Bourbon Street – a string of bars where beads fly from balconies, parades dance down the sidewalk and you can even carry your drinks outside. Crazy, I know.
The two times I’d been to New Orleans prior to this were for my 21st and 22nd birthdays. So as I am sure you can imagine, it was a very different experience than this one which was primarily educational. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. My inner nerd had the time of her life.
Between the ample research I’d done beforehand and some input from friends and family, I had one hell of an itinerary planned out. So to share some of the fun facts I learned along the way – and so I don’t forget one day when I want to look back – let me walk you through my trip.
NOTE: I have a bunch of fabulous videos from this trip including live jazz, second lines, voodoo ceremonies and feeding alligators. But apparently, my version of WordPress doesn’t allow me to post videos. If you are interested, let me know and I would be happy to share!
The flight from Dallas to New Orleans is an easy hour and a half, and I landed around 12:30 – just in time for lunch at the famed Muriel’s in Jackson Square. Why is it so famous? Well, it’s haunted of course. (You’ll quickly learn that pretty much every building in NOLA has some sketchy person or event in its history.)
Back in 1788, Pierre “Antoine” Jourdan was known for his elaborate parties… and his gambling problem. When he gambled away his home, he hung himself in his upstairs study. Now he hangs around the restaurant (see what I did there?), and the staff sets a special table for him and a ghostly friend each evening.
The rest of the afternoon was spent getting to know the history of the city. Like most European cities, New Orleans was built around the city square. Now, Jackson Square is a gathering place for tourists, palm readers, artists, musicians and lots of homeless people.
It’s bordered on one side by the St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo and the Presbytere – which have both been converted into museums. The Cabildo focuses mainly on the beginnings, Battle of New Orleans, Plantation era and culture of the city. It walks us through all eight different Louisiana flags and the history behind them, gives us a glimpse into slave life, and explains how current traditions like Mardi Gras began.
But these aren’t the city’s only museums. There are several more that focus on more specific sectors of New Orleans history. The Pharmacy Museum – a short walk from Jackson Square – details medicine, surgery and healing in the 1800s. The Voodoo Museum walks you through the migration from Haiti, introduces you to the queen Marie Laveau and explains a few of the more common practices and figures.
From there, I headed over to Bywater, the neighborhood directly east where I was told my main character would most likely live. It was November 1st – otherwise known as the Day of the Dead – and I was able to attend the Fet Gede Ceremony at the New Orleans Healing Center. An arts market, happy hour, a potluck dinner and some of the most gorgeous altars… It was truly the whole Voodoo experience.
Sallie Ann Glassman – one of the cities major priestesses – presided over the ceremony, and her shop (Island of Salvation Botanica) is right next door. Here you can find candles, herbs, tokens, soaps… All the ingredients you need for a spell or even just a healing ritual to enhance your life.
The ceremony was… Well, it was something else. I was told to dress in white, black and purple and to bring an offering to Gede, the spirit of death and fertility. Apparently he likes cigars and rum. The ceremony itself consisted of lots of singing, dancing, writing on the ground, holy water and (you guessed it) possessions.
To kick things off on my second day, I took a quick ride north to the Garden District for my first tour with Two Chicks Walking. I highly recommend these ladies. They keep their tours purposefully small and intimate, and the guides really know their stuff. It was truly the best way for me to learn what I needed to know.
The Garden District used to be one large plantation, but it was divided into New Orleans’ first bedroom community in 1833 for American businessmen. To this day, it still remains the most affluent neighborhood. It’s full of statement architecture – because Americans always have to make a statement about how much better they are doing than anyone else – with large galleries and verandas, Greek and Italian columns, iron fences and multiple floors.
Folks like Sandra Bullock and the Manning family live there now, but it’s long been a neighborhood for celebrities. The Buckner Mansion – where the cotton king of New Orleans used to live – is over twenty thousand square feet with a dependency wing for kitchen staff and a garçonnière for their teenage sons. It was also used as Madame Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies in American Horror Story.
But my favorite houses in the Garden District were the two previously owned by author Anne Rice. And both are haunted because obviously Ms. Rice couldn’t live in a normal home. She wrote Interview with a Vampire in the Morris House where a skeleton was found during renovation, tied like a skull and crossbones. In the next, a man shot himself on the front porch to decrease the house’s value so that his family could pay their taxes. Here is where she wrote and set The Witching Hour – notice the skulls in the fence?
Bordering the Garden District is Lafayette Cemetery, the oldest municipal cemetery in New Orleans. Now there’s a big myth about the above ground tombs in Louisiana: that it provided protection from water so bodies wouldn’t float up any time it rained. That’s part of it, but the greater truth is actually that the Spanish wanted to maximize burial space because there wasn’t unlimited land for all the dead bodies in colonial times. Can you say yellow fever?
Each tomb is passed down through a family, and they are all buried together. Once a family member dies, they are placed in the tomb for one year and one day. The inside can get up to 400 degrees, and I bet you can guess what happens to the body in the meantime. Yup, it pretty much turns to dust. Then they take a long rake and push the remains off the ledge and into the deep caveau below. That’s where the saying “wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole” started.
Don’t want to be buried with your family? You can instead use one of the “society tombs” for groups of people like professions, clubs, sororities, etc.
Another cemetery fun fact: You are no longer allowed to film movies in the Catholic cemeteries, so the bulk of scenes are filmed here in Lafayette. But you can’t touch or interact with real tombs out of respect for the dead, so there is a spot reserved where production can build fake tombs to film.
Once the tour was over, I headed across the street to my favorite lunch spot for the three-course classic Creole luncheon and 25 cent martinis. They also had a fashion show going on as I ate which was super cool. The Brennan’s sure know how to do food: turtle soup, boudin stuffed quail and bread pudding soufflé… I am drooling just thinking about it.
For the rest of the afternoon, I wandered down Frenchmen – the border between the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods. It’s known for it’s jazz music, art market and slightly more colorful character. It’s also typically where the locals go for a night out, leaving Bourbon to the tourists. I stopped at Spotted Cat Music Club for a drink and to listen to some music – definitely worth adding to your itinerary next time you are there!
I also got to meet with High Priestess/Mambo Miriam Chamani at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. She combined spiritualist practices with her husband’s voodoo and herbalist traditions. Her temple offers spells and charms for those interested in the magic but also offers a place of worship for those more deeply involved.
Exhausted, I headed back home to cook and relax for the evening. I was lucky enough to stay in a cute little townhouse right in the French Quarter – thanks Corby!
My final day started early with a bus out to the Louisiana Swamp. Captain Bishop with Cajun Encounters boated us around, and I have to say, it was much more than I expected. He gave us a thorough introduction to the wildlife – alligators, osprey, bald eagles, pulldoos, apple snails, raccoons, wild rice and the famous tupelo trees. But we also learned about the historic flooding of Hurricane Katrina, the different fishing/hunting seasons and regulations, and an overall glimpse into Cajun life.
Afterward, I had lunch at Port of Call – a fantastic burger joint that serves baked potatoes instead of French fries. Best burger I’ve had in a long time, especially from a Caribbean themed dive bar.
For my second Two Chicks Walking tour of the trip, we visited Congo Square – where slaves were able to practice Voodoo and play music – and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in Tremé (just north of the French Quarter). Now you can’t visit St. Louis without a tour guide due to vandalism in the past. The main reason for this is that Marie Laveau – the historic Queen of Voodoo – is buried here. Legend says that if you draw three x’s and kiss her tomb, she will grant a wish. To my great disappointment, they painted over all of the drawings because some loser threw pink paint all over the tomb. Seriously, some people just ruin it for the rest of it.
A few other notable burials in this cemetery: Homer Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson, Bernard de Marigny, the oldest coping tomb and Nicolas Cage – who of course isn’t actually dead yet.
One of the coolest parts of my trip was my tarot reading by Patty at Glass Magick. The only thing you give Patty at the outset of your reading is your birthday so that she can determine your zodiac sign. I’m an Aries if anyone is curious.
So I didn’t prompt Patty at all, and the things she deduced about my past, my present and my personality were seriously SPOT ON. I won’t go into too much detail because it got pretty personal. But she did say I would come into contact with my soulmate in April/May and sign a big contract (publishing?!) in 2018. Sounds like it’s gonna be a good year.
After a quick cat nap, I ventured back out into the quarter to some of the more famed and fancy bars. Carousel Bar is literally built like a carousel, spinning very slowly, and the Sazerac Bar is located in The Roosevelt. That’s where they allegedly invented the Sazerac. Now bourbon/whiskey is not usually my friend, but I couldn’t resist. And it was so worth it.
I headed to Felix’s for dinner. Now let me give you an insider tip. It’s right across the street from Acme, but there’s no line. And it is just as good! I gorged myself – yes, I was the lone girl stuffing herself with oysters and French fries.
And because it’s my favorite – regardless of the touristy-ness – I stopped by Pat ‘O Brien’s piano bar, my favorite bar in the world.
I could’ve easily stayed for another hour, but I had a tour to get to. My final tour of the trip – put on by Voodoo Bone Lady and hosted by the wonderful Michael – took us by a few of the most haunted places in New Orleans. And for a city with so many hauntings, these had to be seriously scary to be deemed the “most haunted.” The first New Orleans citizens were basically a bunch of convicts and prostitutes shipped in from French. So are you really surprised about the seedy history?
We started at the Cabildo (yes, the museum I visited on Day 1) where Jean Lafitte and his Buccaneers were imprisoned before being released by Andrew Jackson for the Battle of New Orleans. Here we were actually interrupted by a second line parade which was awesome to see – usually they take place on Sundays, so I had thought I was going to miss out.
Next was the Ursuline Convent – oldest building in New Orleans – which is way creepier at night than in the daytime, but that might have been our tour guide whispering about the casket girls. These girls were sent to NOLA to be brides, but they arrived sick from their two month boat ride from Europe. The convent took them in to heal them, but they never returned. Some say they died, some say they were married off to plantation owners or returned to Europe. But others say they transitioned into vampires and were locked in the attic, the shutters nailed shut by 300 Pope-blessed nails per window. I don’t typically buy into vampire stories… But why so many nails?
We also stopped by Madame LaLaurie’s old mansion. You may recognize the name from one of the main characters of American Horror Story’s Coven. But she was real too and famous for the horrific experiments and torture she performed on her slaves. If it wasn’t haunted enough by the slaves who died there, a young ghost named Leah is said to consistently throw herself out the window over and over again to escape. The house was eventually turned into a girls’ school until they started to suffocate in their sleep. Even Nicolas Cage – who owned the house for a few years until the IRS took it away – wouldn’t sleep there, instead parading to the opposite of the street each night.
At this point we stopped at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop for a much needed cocktail break. It’s one of the oldest bars in America and the perfect place for a hurricane. Lafitte also used to the boil the eyes of his enemies or mutinous crew members. So there’s that.
From there, we stopped at the Bourbon Orleans hotel which is said to have hosted the most beautiful ballroom in all of NOLA and some of the most extravagant parties. Here is where the majority of quadroon balls were hosted – parties used to auction off courtesans (most were of half or quarter black descent) as mistresses. It was then sold to the first black sisterhood of nuns who took in children with yellow fever. There’s apparently a ghost dancer in the ballroom, a Confederate soldier on the 6th floor, a young girl who plays with a red ball on the 4th floor and a nun who cries herself to sleep. Needless to say, I won’t be staying there next time I go. Or… Maybe I will.
Our last stop of the store was Voodoo Bone Lady’s shop which was slightly self-serving but I get it. We got a good history of voodoo which I had mostly learned at this point, but with a few new and interesting details thrown in.
Did you know that while witchdoctors preached the existence of zombies, they usually just injected the victim with puffer fish venom which made them appear dead for three days and then slowed down their motor skills? Fun fact.
I got to meet the Voodoo Bone Lady herself which was awesome, and Michael recommended a French Quarter speakeasy for vampires. Yes, vampires. Real ones.
It’s above a normal jazz bar called Fritzel’s and requires a special password. No, I am not going to tell you what it is. But this was probably the coolest part of my trip. It’s one of the only places that makes their own absinthe, and the bartenders were real, honest-to-goodness vampires. One was a sanguine – your normal blood sucker – and the other was a psivampire who feeds off people’s energy.
I recommend every single person to do their research, find the password and go here. It was the perfect way to end my final night.
So as you can probably tell, I learned a ton and had a blast! I hoped you’re as excited as I am for book #3!