My Gabriel Knight New Orleans Tour
Despite having traveled to quite a large percentage of the U.S., up until this year, I had never been to New Orleans.
Heck, I’m not even sure if I’ve been to Louisiana. Some part of my brain says that maybe? my mother and I? drove to Florida one time? (from our home in Dallas), but don’t ask me to swear to that. Even if it’s true, driving through Louisiana on my way to somewhere else hardly counts as visiting the place. And certainly I’d never set foot in New Orleans.
So when this year’s World Fantasy Convention rolled around, scheduled to take place in the Big Easy, Alyc and I decided we’d take a few extra days there and do some proper sightseeing. (They’d never been to New Orleans, either.) Some parts of the city’s appeal are wasted on us — jazz music, for example, or in my case, any food that even has a passing acquaintance with spiciness — but that still left plenty to eat and do.
When it came to deciding what to see and do, though . . . okay, here’s the truth. 90% of what I know about New Orleans comes from Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. Which, yes, is ridiculous. But also, if you have only two days to spend in a city you’ve never visited before, there are worse guiding schemes than “what’s the stuff that shows up in a video game I loved from thirty years ago?”
We did have more guidance than that, mind you, in the form of a local friend. On Day One he took us out to Lake Ponchartrain and the Mardi Gras fountain there, talking about the history and politics of the different krewes. We then went to the Greenwood Cemetery, where I added to my growing stock of cemetery photos (though the recent ones have not yet been added to that gallery). He had to leave us after that, but since he’d driven us through City Park on the way there, Alyc and I decided to wander back and visit the sculpture garden there. Which was nice, but for my money the real gem of that side jaunt was the bayou in the park itself: where we first encountered it, the water could be mistaken for a perfectly flat lawn, so overgrown was it with plant life. Further on we saw what we presume was an actual alligator (we weren’t about to throw anything to see if it was alive or a sculpture) with a bunch of turtles sunning along its back, and later on a whole flock of various waterbirds.
Alyc and I both wanted to do a ghost tour of the Quarter, not just for the ghost stories, but because those things are often entertaining sources of local history. (Alyc studied them back in grad school.) Most of them are on foot, but we opted for a mule-drawn carriage ride, reasoning — very correctly — that by nine p.m. that night, we’d want to sit down rather than walk more, even if it was pricier that way. After dinner with another local friend (one I hadn’t seen in, yikes, fourteen years), we headed over to find our carriage.
I thought at first that Alyc was wrong: that instead of mules, the carriages were drawn by horses. Then I looked properly at the ears. Turns out the mules this company uses are crosses between Mammoth jacks — the largest breed of donkey there is — and draft horses like Belgians and Percherons. They’re HUGE. Ours was named Big Frieda (or Frida? I’m not sure of the spelling), with Stef as her driver, and Alyc and I agreed afterward that the banter as Stef coaxed Big Frieda into cooperation was worth a whole chunk of the ticket price on its own. Along with, y’know, getting to sit as we rattled around the Quarter, dodging the pedestrian tours and the drunks on Bourbon Street.
Day Two was where things went full Gabriel Knight. We started out with a scheduled tour in St. Louis Cemetery #1, the one where Marie Laveau is buried — complete with markings on the side of her tomb, despite the best efforts of cemetery staff to prevent that sort of thing. Then it was south into the Quarter, me stopping frequently to get various shots of the balconies with their cascading flowers and greenery, to Napoleon House. After lunch there, we wanted to visit a pharmaceutical museum just a few doors down that has nothing to do with the game but looked interesting to me; sadly, it was closed on Mondays. Instead we continued on into Jackson Square (where there were no bands playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but I sang it to myself for nostalgia’s sake), into the cathedral (no dead bodies in the pews, fortunately), and to a nearby voodoo museum, where no snakes tried to kill me. I did, however, buy a “Christmas ornament” there, continuing the family tradition of decorating our trees with whatever we can hang on a branch. In this case, that’s a snake pendant. 😉 We finished out the day with a jaunt to the Garden District; I can’t recall whether the game says that’s where the Gedde house stands, but I did at least get to see a selection of suitably lovely old mansions. I think the only major game-related marks I missed were Tulane University and the bayou itself; we would have needed another day for a proper sightseeing visit out there.
So what did I think of New Orleans?
Well, we picked a good time to visit. In early November, the heat isn’t quite as brutal, and by then the Halloween crowds are gone. It might be interesting to come back some time for Mardi Gras, but only if I can make good enough arrangements for where to stay and where to watch the parades from, because I don’t have it in me to wade through spilled beer to the knee just to get some good photos. The Quarter is indeed damned photogenic on its own, though: one of our local friends quoted to us the Tennessee Williams line about how “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” There’s some truth to that, in terms of distinctive architecture (though I’ll defend Boston as being fairly recognizable, too).
Alyc and I also had discussions about the ways in which the Quarter reminds us of the Old Island in the Rook and Rose books, what with sitting in a river delta, being in many ways shabby and run-down, but also still holding some important official sites; we passed the Louisiana Supreme Court on our way to Napoleon House. In some cities the historic district is all but depopulated, given over to tourism and hotels or other forms of business, but the Quarter is very much still lived in.
The food, I will admit, is a bit wasted on me. Not only do I not cope well with spiciness, but these days I live in another, very different food mecca; by the time my week there was done, I was really craving something green. But beignets are indeed delicious — I’ve had beignets here in California, but it’s different getting them from their homeland — and even though I’m not a coffee drinker, I did enjoy dunking them in Alyc’s cafe au lait. Even had some chicory coffee, for which my opinion was that it’s pretty much like regular coffee: in both cases I don’t want to drink it unless it’s so heavily doctored with milk and sugar that it’s barely the original product anymore. 😛 Amusingly, I managed to snag a Lucky Dog at the airport on my way out, adding one more last-minute tick mark to my game nostalgia.
I am very glad we took the extra time. For a couple of days at WFC, I had this vague, dissatisfied feeling about the trip: sure, I was in New Orleans, but despite venturing out of the hotel for meals, it didn’t really feel like I’d gone anywhere. The con was in the Central Business District, which is much more generic in its atmosphere. Once we had the chance to really commit to sightseeing, though, I got a dose of what I’ve been lacking since the pandemic began: the experience of going somewhere new, somewhere different, feeding my brain with sights and sounds it’s never tasted before.
I have really, really missed that.