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Many moods of New Orleans

October 26, 2003|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

New Orleans — New Orleans

Day had faded into dusk and dusk into dark when we reached Pirate's Alley, a narrow, cobblestone walkway in the French Quarter. Flickering gas lamps and a pale quarter-moon cast dancing shadows on the walls of the 200-year-old buildings around us.

"This garden was the site of many French duels," the guide said, motioning toward a courtyard. Our little tour group turned on cue, straining to see through the ironwork fence. "The skirmishes usually ended when a swordsman drew first blood. Occasionally the battles were to the death."

The guide's voice dropped to a harsh whisper. "People say if you come here in the early morning you'll hear the sound of sabers clashing. And sometimes you'll see a swordsman running down the alley brandishing a blade."

Welcome to New Orleans, where every day is Frightday.

Some cities lure tourists with museums, galleries and entertainment. New Orleans lures tourists with those things -- and something more ethereal.

Countless tour companies offer ghostly tours like the one I took when I visited earlier this month. Almost every cabby, Gray Line tour guide and carriage driver seems to have a macabre story to share. Scary tours have become so popular that they're listed on the city's official tourist Web site.

"We're the most haunted city in the United States," said Sidney Smith of Haunted History Tours, acknowledging there's no way to prove the claim but arguing that "things happen here" all the time. "Watches stop; film won't work; people feel and hear strange things." Smith's guides shepherd tourists around the city on walking tours, telling ghost stories, visiting the town's famous aboveground cemeteries, recounting vampire-style crimes ("local cases where bodies were drained of blood") and introducing tourists to voodoo.

I turned up no ghosts or vampires on my pre-Halloween foray to this sultry southern Louisiana city, but I did manage to scare myself looking for them. Meanwhile, I fell in love with the other side of New Orleans -- its architecture, food and music, and the addictive laissez les bons temps rouler (let-the-good-times-roll) attitude of residents. Eventually, I realized magic and mystery are part of the city's mystique.

"The same cultural mix that makes New Orleans interesting for its food and music makes it interesting for its cemeteries, voodoo and ghost stories," said Robert Florence, author of two books on the city's history. "After all, this is the place that invented the jazz funeral. We have a unique relationship with death."

Overcoming disadvantages

New Orleans' intoxicating blend of French, Spanish and African influences gave birth to jazz -- along with Creole cooking, the fanciful architecture of the French Quarter, the craziness of Mardi Gras and countless other multicultural treasures. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin calls it "the most unique city in the world," another boast that's hard to prove.

There is no debate, however, that the city has a unique past.

Carved from a vermin-filled swamp in a bend of the Mississippi River, Nouvelle-Orleans was founded by Frenchmen in 1718. Among its early residents were prostitutes, thieves and other undesirables rounded up by the French government -- a colonization program with some obvious flaws. The Spanish flag flew above the city for several decades before France regained power in 1803, only to have Napoleon sell it to the United States 20 days later as part of the $15-million Louisiana Purchase.

From the beginning New Orleans was a calamity waiting to happen, sited in a bowl about 8 feet below the level of the Mississippi and surrounded on three sides by the river and Lake Pontchartrain. It has been pummeled by nearly 300 years of hurricanes and floods, which is one reason residents started burying their dead aboveground. "There was trouble the first time they had flooding and those caskets popped up out of the ground," a tour bus driver said. "They didn't like seeing Aunt Mamie and Uncle Roy floating downstream."

The cemeteries are popular, if eerie, tourist sites. They're a jumble of crumbling tombstones, tangled paths and carved marble monuments to the long dead. They're also the city's oldest outdoor museums and an important part of its heritage, said Louise Ferguson, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries, a nonprofit group that preserves and restores them.

I prowled around the city's oldest cemetery, St. Louis No. 1, with Ferguson one day. I saw simple brick and stucco tombs dating to the late 1700s and multistory 19th century marble structures large enough to hold the remains of hundreds of people.

They're called "Cities of the Dead," Ferguson said, because "they resemble cities, just on a smaller scale. They have all the architectural features of a city."

"Are there ghosts?" I asked.

"I don't know," she answered, laughing. "But there are roaches everywhere."

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