New Orleans, USA
With its vampires, voodoo rituals, shadowy cemeteries and spooky tours, New Orleans is seductive, sometimes shocking and always fascinating, says Brian Johnston.
There’s a lot to like about New Orleans, whose downtown was first laid out by French colonisers in the 1720s. With pedestrian streets, fast-food chains kept at bay and not a single traffic light, this is America’s most un-American city centre. Indeed, this exquisite eighteenth-century masterpiece is one of few surviving historic city centres in the USA, full of elegant houses trimmed in ornate plasterwork. The steamy air smells of spices and jazz music sounds from bars. History is kept alive: you can browse for toy soldiers in the Civil War Store, investigate bookshops full of musty Southern novels, or inspect alarming-looking medical tools in the Historical Pharmacy Museum. Yet this isn’t just a well-preserved downtown but a vibrant area of pulsating nightlife, crowded restaurants and local residents, too.
New Orleans is full of character: decadent and debauched, indulgent and sultry, music-loving and merrymaking. Best of all, its dark side gives it an edgy appeal unlike any other city. Stores sell love potions, incense and magic gris-gris bags to ward off evil. In the Historic Voodoo Museum you’ll find ‘Fix the Boss’ powder and penis dolls to stop your man from cheating, as well as a more serious look at the voodoo culture that has so influenced this city. Later, take a look at voodoo in action at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, a busy place of rituals and altars, drumming workshops and classes on healing and the occult.
New Orleans guides from companies such as Bloody Mary’s Tours and Real New Orleans Tours regale visitors with information about local rituals, voodoo witches and the history of this strange religion. Inevitably, popular voodoo tours end up at one of the city’s many historic cemeteries, which feature prominently in local literature such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series.
Lafayette Cemetery and the three St Louis Cemeteries are worth visiting for their elaborate crypts and family mausoleums in atmospheric states of disrepair, crisscrossed with the shadows of saints, crosses and wrought-iron railings. The most visited grave is that of Marie Laveau in St Louis No 1 Cemetery. Mysterious chalk-marked Xs left by devotees decorate the headstone of this great nineteenth-century ‘voodoo queen’ of New Orleans. Supplicants often leave candles, tarot cards and Mardi Gras beads here in the hope that they’ll be favoured by the legendary voodoo practitioner.
From voodoo to vampires isn’t a big leap in New Orleans. The city has a lively interest in the occult, on top of which the success of hometown writer Anne Rice has helped promote the idea of New Orleans as the quintessential stomping-ground for vampires, bringing many vampire-hunting visitors to town. The more intense fans loiter outside the author’s former house at 1239 First Street. The mansion was designed in 1857 in the Greek revival style with later Italianate additions, and matches Mayfair House in one of the author’s best-known books The Witching Hour in just about every detail.
You’ll experience something of a vampiric atmosphere if you walk around the Garden District, another historic part of town where the architecture has been carefully preserved. Its gorgeous Italianate and Georgian-style mansions sit in lush gardens made eerie by the Spanish moss that hangs in great hanks from oak trees. The Garden District plays on its spooky architecture and novelistic reputation. Bultman’s Funeral Home is often hired out for music recitals, functions and (presumably rather sombre) board meetings. The Garden District Bookshop, where Anne Rice launches her latest blockbusters, is a former mortuary. You’ll find a good supply of Rice novels and plenty of other literature about New Orleans’ darker side.
Whether or not you’re an Anne Rice fan, the bestselling author is certainly good at writing descriptions of New Orleans that capture its seductiveness and seamy side. She helps encourage the image by undertaking book signings in coffins, and once staged her own mock funeral at Lafayette Cemetery. Many of her novels’ background locations are genuine New Orleans places. Her characters frequent two real restaurants on Bourbon Street, Galatoire’s and Desire Oyster Bar.
The home of the famous vampires Lestat and Louis (played by Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the 1994 movie Interview with a Vampire) really is Gallier House, an 1850s residence in Royal Street and now a museum full of period furniture that provides an insight into New Orleans’ social history in its heyday. During the filming of Interview the street itself was used for some scenes. At the Boyer Antiques Doll & Toy Museum on Chartres Street, the vampire Claudia (a young Kirsten Dunst) admires a doll and then sinks her fangs into the offensive shopkeeper.
The Garden District has the sort of dilapidated grandeur and historic melancholy that makes you think of Halloween. You can feel it in the gloomy cemeteries, in the haunting notes of a saxophone that spill from a honky-tonk bar, in the shadowy interiors of voodoo shops. Sit back and absorb the atmosphere: a little touch of the black magic that is New Orleans.