Byline: Chrissie Iley
WE'RE having breakfast at Brennan's, a big old family restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I'm supping turtle soup and taking the odd sip from a brandy milk punch, the restaurant's cure for a hangover (in my case caused by too many Hurricane cocktails the night before).
Once I get over the fact that the soup has been made with 'hand-reared turtles', I decide it's one of the greatest things I've ever put in my mouth. Rich, intense, light and all-enveloping, and with a tragic heritage. It's a sort of a metaphor for the city itself.
Breakfast is a two-hour affair. Eggs with gargantuan lumps of crab follow, and then bananas sauteed in butter, sugar and rum are flambeed at the table.
By the time I head out for a day of antiquehunting and a visit to the bug museum, where you go into rooms filled with giant butterflies, I can hardly move. The bathroom attendant at the restaurant, an ancient black lady dressed in a crisp white nurse's uniform, sighed: 'This is New Orleans. You'll never be hungry and you'll never be lonely.' And that seemed to be very true.
New Orleans was almost wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but, through the kindness of others and its own strength, the city has been able to rebuild - and a big part of its rehabilitation has been the determination of its musicians to get it back to normality. The city that was built on blues and jazz has rediscovered its mojo thanks to bands such as The Soul Rebels. Some of the band's members had their homes wiped out by the storm, losing everything. Somehow they have emerged stronger - so much so that they starred at the London Jazz Festival last month.
Every Thursday, The Soul Rebels play at Le Bon Temps Roule club on Magazine Street, and the place is packed. Their music is a mixture of traditions, from jazz to hip-hop: a fusion of everything in their life that's inspired them, or hurt them.
Trumpeter Julian Omari Gosin, who is 26, drives me through the city down to the 9th Ward, where there was catastrophic flooding. It has been rebuilt with solar-powered, energysaving housing courtesy of Brad Pitt, who helped with the finance and the architecture. The homes are stark in shape, pink, yellow and blue in colour, and have none of the fancy French colonial influence to be found in the rest of the city.
SOME of the best examples of that colonial style are, unsurprisingly, in the French Quarter, where you'll find those famous giant New Orleans houses that look like wedding cakes. 'These were slave houses,' says Julian, in a matter-of-fact way, meaning that these were the homes owned by the rich whites who had black slaves.
For a city that was built on slavery, it's weird that no one these days seems much concerned about race or class. Brad can walk through the city with Angelina without being tracked by paparazzi. Nobody worries about status.
People care about being alive. It's a paradox because the city is also famous for its association with death.
You walk the same streets where Interview With A Vampire was shot. You can buy a voodoo doll at the many voodoo emporiums. And this is a city where the dead are buried in crypts above ground because the water table is so high - and it's as if they walk around with you in the streets.
But despite the links with death, no one seems to wish you ill. Even the bums have a certain charm. They've seen it all. They accept their fate. They may be homeless but they can be philosophical. Not that you see bums in the French Quarter: instead you get fortune-tellers and old ladies who live for the price of a voodoo spell. The main streets in the French Quarter are Bourbon Street, Royal Street, Decatur Street and Frenchmen Street. They are elegant streets, filled with elegant, old-fashioned restaurants and antique stores.
On Royal Street there are many ornate French colonial-style …