Back in Nawlins.

Today I went off on a New Orleans Food Walking Tour. Apparently they do these things in cities all over the world, so I thought I’d give it a go. I was hoping for lots of local info and culture to explain where the various origins of the food came from that has given New Orleans its distinctive cuisine… and of course all the local history. 

 So this post is a bit of a mish-mash of food, culture, history and local stories. Sorry about that. New Orleans was founded in 1718 by some French dude called Jean Baptise la Moyne Sieur de Bienville. It changed from French control to Spanish then French again before being sold to the United States in 1803.

 Our guide, Philippe, is a retired chef, who was originally from New York but left the Big Apple to join the navy as a teenager, and has basically spent his life working in and around the restaurants and kitchens of New Orleans since his 20s. The first place we stopped was Roux Royal, which is a great little kicthenware shop but is also a coffee shop that is famous for their coffee and King Cake. King Cake is a french white bun style pastry that has been traditionally served after 12th Night (6th January) right up until Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), for centuries. The food here often has a very Catholic influence to what is eaten when – particularly when it comes to Carnivale which is the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. A King Cake was frosted bun cake that people would get together to share and in it would be a tiny coin or token, and if your piece of cake held the coin, then you would be ‘King for the Day’, and have good luck and a blessed day. Nowadays, sharing a King Cake will have a tiny baby token in it, and if you’re at the office, the King for the Day will need to bring the next King Cake. Or if you’re at a party, the King will need to host the next party. πŸ™‚ It’s a way of making the good times and good food last – ‘Laissez le bon temps rouler’ as they say…

Next we went for a wander down Pirates Alley, so named because famous privateers, Pierre Lefitte and Jean Lefitte, who had a mandate from the settlement to confiscate enemy ships during the 1800s and sell the goods they confiscated for profit. It sounds like the Lefitte brothers got a little overzealous and started raiding any old ship and they were selling all the confiscated goods, which often including slaves without passing on the due portion to the settlement authorities. Eventually the powers that be, switched on that they weren’t getting their fair share and they wanted to stop the Lefittes, so Pierre was jailed in the court house at the end of Pirates Alley. 

However, the authorities found themselves in the need of a few accomplished pirates, and they needed them to help defend the harbour and they were taken out of jail, put in ships to fight the Battle of Chalmette and the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, which was a serious of engagements fought between December 24th, 1814 and January 8th 1815 (which was all still part of the War of 1812… of overture fame), between the American combatants, commanded by Major General Andrew Jackson, and the invading British Army who he managed to keep out. (Or something like that, Philippe must have talked about six hours worth in the four hours he had us – but I’ll bet there’s a hundred books on this stuff.)  

Anyway, Pirates Alley leads onto Jackson Square and the St Louis Cathedral. Jackson Square – obviously named for the aforementioned Major General is a popular tourist spot now and a lovely garden in the middle of the French Quarter. The St Louis Cathedral that stands nearby is the fourth incarnation of this famous Catholic cathedral, the first two were apparently destroyed by fires, and the third was destroyed by a hurricane.  The area around Jackson Square, or the Plaza Armas, is really well known now for it’s thriving local artists colony. Legend has it (ie: according to Philippe), that confederate widows would bring their drawings to town, and hang them on the fence, to try and sell their works to make money to keep their families afloat after losing their husbands, and this was the start of the tradition of local art being made and sold around Jackson Square.

  

 In the 1800s, the New Orleans settlement – it was a settlement not a full-on colony, which basically means, that as far as Europe was concerned, its primary function was to send goods back to Europe. It was an outpost to strip local resources to send to European markets and the wellbeing, government and overall social structure here didn’t matter very much at all. Europe didn’t care whether the settlement thrived independently – all it was concerned about was getting the resources they required.

So in lieu of a ‘proper’ governement the authorities in New Orleans developed a sort of half arsed code of law called the Code Noir… The Black Code. The rules were pretty simple and some not a little bit bizzare:

– First and foremost, ‘No Jews Allowed’ – this remained right up until the late 1800s when Jews who were living in New Orleans as quietly as possible were acknowledged.

– Also, no ‘barbarian’ Protestants allowed. Apparently Protestants only thought about work and money, and not God and they worked their servants like slaves (this is confusing, didn’t they all had slaves?!)… and the authorities believed they should be ‘left up in Alabama where they belonged’.

– No one could purchase a person if they had a family. If they bought the woman or the man, they had to buy the whole family, including children… yeah, this was the fine upstanding Catholic way of selling humans as property, so long as we are family minded about it – it’s all good. 

– Everyone had Sunday’s off as per Church traditions, and religious instruction was provided for everyone. (However, most people would use the time to make things to try and sell to make their own money – selling coffees, feathered fans, etc because…) 

– A magistrate could put a price on you, so you could save up and try to buy your freedom. Marie Laveau, the famous Voodoo Queen, bought her freedom by hairdressing on her Sundays off. Ms Laveau was a smart cookie, and obviously a good listener – beacuse then, as now, women gossiped to their hair dressers, and Marie used the information to her advantage when selling her Voodoo services… she knew all the towns secrets but had people believing that she knew things magically. 

– When slaves came to market, the women were sold first… no idea why, but I’m hoping it’s not just because the men wanted to get their hands on them.

– In 1723, no woman of African blood was allowed to wear a hat so they wore headscarves. The edict was designed to keep African women in their place because they were not bound by Christian or Catholic precepts, so the African women were able to flirt and interact with men, and were therefore considered loose and dangerous.

– then there was the ‘plaΓ§age’ system which was a was a recognized extralegal system in French and Spanish slave colonies, like New Orleans, where ethnic European men entered into what was effectively a common law or ‘left handed’ (mariage de la main gauche) marriage with a woman of colour – African, Native American and mixed-race descent. Mulatto women were half white, half black, Quadroon women were 3/4 white and Octaroon women were only 1/8 black… all of these women could be sold/”placed with” men in these common law marriages. Octaroon women were highly prized as they were as closed to being white as you could get, while still being property. :/ These arrangements were instituted with contracts and negotiations – many Creole men preferred a mixed marriage, because if anything happened to the situation, he could throw away his common law wife and have nothing to lose. If he married a Creole woman and the marriage went sour, he would lose his house and his children and most of his money. This delightful system flourished throughout the French and Spanish colonial periods, reaching its peak around 1769 -1803. Nice huh. 

Anyway – back to the food. Originally the non-colony/settlement was populated primarily with soldiers, then as is usual, swiftly followed by camp followers, pickpockets, prostitutes and then the Church. πŸ™‚ The men in the early settlement would eat pretty much anything – cornmeal mush every day until the day they
died, but the women they bought with them, were not happy eating cornmeal mush at all.   

  

  

  

  The women eventually got organised and rounded on the Governor, demanding better supplies and better food in what was known as the Iron Pot Revolution or the Culinary Insurrection because no one had started trying to figure out how to cook with the local ingredients that were available to them. Eventually a woman named Madame Langlois, who was the Governor’s own head cook, was sent to the local Indians to learn what and how they cooked. She learned how to make all sorts of things, like squirrel stuffed with pecans (not sure if this was a significant example?!)… and eventually she became known as the Mother of Creole Cooking when she opened the worlds first ever Cooking School, called the Langlois Cooking School and started teaching other women how to cook with local foods. 

New Orleans has ended up with a lot of influences – the French brought pastries, the Italian bought breads, salamis and antipasto, there were also lots of Southern influences, but primarily the introduction of rice altered Creole cooking forever. The rice came from Madagascar, and only rich people could afford to eat the polished rice – but eventually industrialisation increased availability of rice. Early on, New Orleans solved their having to import rice problem by kidnapping indigenous Africans who knew how to grow rice, and they bought them back to the settlement and made them grow rice here. They bought their thick rice stews with them – Gumbos. Gumbo refers to any rice stew that is thickened with fillet or jaja or roux (oil and flower) and it basically has anything in it you can think of.

 We tried some local gumbo while down in the French Markets – this one was a filΓ© gumbo so thickened with okra powder rather than flour or cornstarch. It was loaded with sausage, shrimp, spices and all good things. A little on the spicy side, but very tasty and very filling. Given that gumbo can have pretty much anything in it – it is very much a personal taste thing, so anyone claiming to have the ‘Best Gumbo’, is full of shit. It became a staple early on in the settlement, in part because the sanitation was not great and no meat or fish was not allowed to be kept over night to be sold the following day. Two very clever women (who just happened to be married to local butchers and local fishmongers) would get all the left over fish or meat and make meals for their cafes to be sold the next day. Gumbo can be cooked for hours, so that was how they got around the sanitation law. The fishmonger’s wife would cook her gumbo overnight for her cafe the next day, and the butcher’s wife would spend her nights boiling brisket to be used in sandwiches in her cafe the following day.
Poboys are another New Orleans food institution and they came about by a pair of creative cafe owners called the Marten Brothers who were in the sandwich making business. They went to the local bakers who had primarily been making French style bread loaves (you know rounded loaves) and asked for them to make bread With flat end loaves, because they were throwing out too much bread in the tips of the loaf. The baker was only too happy to accommodate – less dough for the same cost, and the Brothers got their flat end loaves that maximised their sandwich system. Anyway, around this time, there was a mass of striking transit workers, and in the absence of any social welfare network back then (yeah, because the US has a great social welfare network now!), any one who went on strike basically failed to get paid, and that meant they were going hungry. The Marten Brothers, in solidarity with the transit workers, had agreed to make sandwiches for the striking transit workers, and apparently you could hear them calling out in their cafe ‘here comes another poor boy’ to rustle up the kitchen to make them a sandwich – which somehow resulted in the long sandwiches being called a ‘poboy’ sandwich forever more.  

  We tried a really nice boiled brisket poboy sandwich with horseradish and relish, a bit of lettuce and tomato at a place called Tujacques Restaurant and Bar. Washed down with a lovely Pims Cup cockatil too, it was really good. Their brisket was fantastic.

 We walked quite aways around the French Quarter looking at the lovely predominantly Spanish style buildings (mostly Spanish because the original French buildings had mostly been destroyed in various fires), some of which have been around since the 1700s and Philippe explained the basic precepts which influenced how houses were designed at the time. 

   Most of the houses are connected row houses, and are tall and deep into the block, this was largely because property taxes were calculated by how wide the amount of footpath (the banques) a building used up, so people kept their street frontage narrow and compact. But mostly these houses ran three stories high and went way back towards the streets behind. Most buildings had a mercantile level on the street level – for shops and merchants etc, and then upstairs would be those famous New Orleans stanchioned galleries or cantilevered balconies which were frontages for the entertainment salons for the ladies of the house. Towards the back of those rooms would be the dining rooms, and other living rooms, occasionally house slave housing. Up on the third floor was the master bedrooms in the back and bedrooms for any young ladies of the family would right in the front – usually only with access through the master bedrooms so there was no possibility of sneaking out and ruining one’s reputation! Young men, at about the age of 13-15 years old would be heaved out of the house to a ‘garconniere’ – a building for ‘boys to be boys’, by all accounts, and get the uncivilised roughians to take their teenage selves out of the house. So behind these frontages would be a courtyard of sorts, which sometimes would lead to a kitchen, sometimes a stable and usually the remaining slave quarters… many of these tall narrow house had a long corridor that they called a ‘whistling room’, and servants when they came from the kitchens to the main house, to serve dinners, would have to whistle while they carried in foods to prove that they weren’t eating their masters dinners on the way in from the kitchen!  

Nowadays, all buildlings in the area have to comply with strict heritage standards as the French Quarter is protected by the Department of the Interior . Even if you’re building a parking garage, it has to have the correct heritage look about it, including the exterior period gaslights which are still prevalent throughout the District. The gaslights are what gives a lot of the French Quarter it’s charm after dark (Bourbon Street excluded it’s somewhat full of neon), and they are kept both for historical accuracy and also because apparently they are a cheaper lighting alternative to using electricity to light the city. 

   

  We went through the Bevolo Gaslight workshops where they are making traditional gaslights that people can buy for their homes or gardens using traditional techniques and these things are made to last 300 years. We met some of the tradesmen making gaslights and in a bearded hipster kinda way, you could tell he was a very proficient and passionate metalworker who could have been doing any number of trades, but chose to make traditional gaslights because it’s cool. πŸ™‚  

  The oldest building in the French Quarter is the Old Ursuline Convent, (not to be confused with the new Ursuline Convent?!), which was built in 1727 and had the unenviable task of protecting the virtue of all those who lived in the settlement – especially of course, the young white women. While there is still a lot of French influence in the architecture, there is also a considerable Spanish influence to the way homes were built during the settlement period. The Spanish bought with them santitation services, in the form of actual drains and sewerage – no small feat given that most of New Orleans’ older areas were built on reclaimed land on the soft alluvial soul from the constantly overflowing Mississippi River. At the time, cypress logs and cotton bales were used to stabilise the ground before building in the French Quarter. In some areas when bridge building was necessary, engineers would end up drilling down up to 70′ before they hit bedrock suitable for building bridges on. So the whole French Quarter is not so stable which is what leads to the uneven pavements and cobbles everywhere. I’m surprised they’ve kept the stone sidewalks, with Americans being as notoriously litigious as they are – every other person is looking up and around the place like gawking tourists, rather than watching where they are walking, so people tripping and falling is quite common. 

 Anyway, the Spanish also brought the first fire service and the first actual fire insurance to New Orleans… home owners could pay the fire service a premium and a black plaque would be hung over the door of your house – in the event of a fire, your home would get saved first! 
Fire was a huge concern with all these timber buildings and reliance on candles and gas light, so New Orleans has had more then their share of big fires, one in particular in 1788 was traced back to one, Vincente Nunias. Being a good Catholic, Nunias had lit his candles for Good Friday and placed them in his parlour, which is fine, but being a good Creole and loving his food, he promptly turned around and went out for lunch leaving his Good Friday candles burning. Apparently the wind came straight up the Rue de Chartres and his curtains were set alight, starting a fire that burned down some 158 buildings. And that wasn’t the only time something similar had happened. Other fires that took out up to 200 buildings had happened as well.

Our next stop was The Spice and Tea Exchange which smelled amazing before we even got anywhere near the place. Years ago when Columbus was sailing the ocean blue and exploring Central America, he travelled around and in his travels, he gave back to Europe – tomatoes, chilis, corn, avocados, bananas, turkeys, and what’s that other shit? Oh yeah, chocolate. But at the time, one of the most desired spices in Europe was nutmeg, and by the pound it was more expensive than gold. No idea why, I personally don’t find nutmeg all that appealing. Anyway, the British owned a little island colony in the Caribbean that provided nutmeg back to Europe and the Dutch had none, so the Dutch keep looking for islands in the region where they could grow more nutmeg. In the end, they offered the British a trade for their nutmeg island. They swapped their island further north, called New Amsterdam, for the little nutmeg island, which is how New York came to be a British owned colony instead of Ducth (apparently… take these historical gobbets with a grain of salt, as I can’t be bothered researching to corroborate it). The Spice and Tea Exchange was full of so many amazing spices, everything smelled amazing – I would have bought it all home if I could.

   

  

  

  

 Instead I was remarkably restrained and only bought home a few little ounces of spices, salts and sugar.
It turns out, New Orleaners have a strange sense of direction – it seems they’re not just left and right impaired at times, they are also a little direction impaired. There is no ‘north’, ‘south’, ‘east’ and ‘west’ they tend to talk of going ‘upriver’ or ‘downriver’ and things are ‘lakeside’ or ‘riverside’ which is possibly part of how come visitors find it hard to get themselves oriented quickly. You ask for directions to the French Market and you might get told to head ‘down river towards Joanie on the Cornie’… which means, head south east until you get to the statue of Joan of Arc that Charles de Gaulle gave New Orleans in the 1960s, even though she has little or nothing to do with New Orleans the city, other than the fact that she was called the Maid of Orleans in the 1400s. πŸ™‚  

  The French markets are located in a space that was originally a designated market meeting place of the local Native American groups As time went on, Canal Street was considered a ‘neutral ground’ between the Creole on the French Quarter side of the city and those heathen American Protestants on the other side, and so it remains a place of commerce and produce today.  

    
We stopped in the French Markets to try some muffaletta sandwiches – which is basically an Italian style sandwich consisting of antipasta… salami, pastrami, cheese, bell peppers, and olive salsa all on a toasted pressed sandwich. Absolutely delicious! Followed by a traditional praline so sweet it took two days to eat it. 

   
 Many immigrants were encouraged to come to America in the with the promise that the streets were ‘paved with gold’, and that there was wealth and prosperity for all to be had in the new world. In the early 1800s over 12,000 to 15,000 German and Irish immigrants died building the canals – as it turns out they had no tolerance for yellow fever and would fall over dead while doing their work only to be buried where they fell. The recruiting drive moved further into the Mediterranean to find people more used to this sort of climate and the Sicilian people fared much better at surviving here and integrating into American communities. They bought with them all their olives, salamis, pastramis and antipastos, which were in turn saw the creation of the famous muffeletta sandwiches – which is effectively antipasto on bread. Absolutely delicious, and I’m not normally one for bell peppers or olives! Like most things you can get great muffeletta sandwiches, but Philippe also warned us that many are not so fresh and the ingredients will have been stored in oil making for an oily sandwich.  

  A bit further on and we found a mural of Rose Nicaud – another slave who worked her Sundays to buy her freedom, not hair dressing, but this time by selling coffee. In the early 1800s, Rose became the very first coffee vendor in New Orleans, providing a new service to the French Market vendors, other workers and shoppers. She had a portable cart which she pushed through the market on Sundays, selling “cafe noir” or “cafe au lait”, and was quickly a huge success. Rose probably had to give the bulk of her earnings to her owner, but she saved her small portions up until she had enough to buy her freedom. Rose eventually had a permanent cafe in the French Market not far from the Cafe du Monde. 

        
Cafe du Monde must be THE most famous cafe in New Orleans, potentially even the most famous in the entire country. Known primarily for their French beignets, the lines are often out the door as people come to try their famous donuts. The secret apparently is their yeast dough… when most people attempt to make beignet, they use baking powder not yeast. In fact the boxes of ‘Official Cafe du Monde Beignet Mix’ that you can buy in every cooking/souvenir shop in the French Quarter has baking powder in it, not yeast like they use in the shop – so it will sink in the oil when you cook it at home, rather than float on the oil like the ones in the shop do. Our guide Philippe didn’t bother to hide his distaste for Cafe du Monde though. He claims that it was once a GREAT cafe, with the best beignets in town… but now due to the sheer bulk of people they are serving every day they have resorted to putting cornstarch in with the powdered sugar that gets sprinkled on top of the hot fresh donuts. The reason for the cornstarch is that it stays white – pure powdered sugar when put on top of a fresh beignet will just melt and disappear which means this gives them a bit more time to get their beignets from the kitchen to the customer. 

  Philippe, our resident beignet snob recommends instead a place called, ‘Morning Call, (56 Dreyfous Drive, New Orleans) which apparently is one of the only cafes in town making their beignet in the traditional manner and, as a bonus, they have their powdered sugar in a shaker on the table so you can apply it yourself – naturally with no cornstarch! The things you learn. Personally, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the beignets at Cafe du Monde – unless you count being way too sweet for me, as a problem.

Our last stop was a place called Sucre, and I think you can imagine what they were selling here – gelato, truffles, and a myriad of multicoloured macaroons. The smell of the shop would probably be enough to send some into a diabetic coma – and I thought the spice shop was heavy in the air. It was all so very beautifully presented and pretty. We each tried a salted caramel macaroon and some unknown (but thankfully not too chocolately) gelato, before heading on our way again.

        
Over macaroons and gelato, Philippe told us how everyone in New Orleans has a hustle – their entire goal when dealing with the tourist is to ‘get ’em drunk early, and rip ’em off’. Quick easy access to strong cocktails is only where it starts, and the authorities totally turn a blind eye to people walking around stumbling drunk with huge Hurricane cocktails at 4pm. But getting drunk leaves you vulnerable. A guy will come up to you and say “I bet you $10 I can guess how many birthdays you’ve had”, to which a drunk tourist will go, “Yeah ok”. He’ll reply that you’ve had one birthday and the rest have been anniversaries… and the tricked tourist will suddenly find that the prankster has three friends standing nearby to make sure the bet is honoured. Or it’ll be “I bet I know where you got them shoes”, which comes with a banal follow up of: “They is on your feet, in New Orleans” and the same closing in of cohorts. There are so many variations of this sort of bullshit to help lighten tourists wallets. That is of course if they don’t just lift it while you’re distracted that it. It’s not worse, or even that different, to the ‘Buddhist’ in Times Square offering you a blessing on a piece of paper and then trying to charge you $20 for it once you take it and he’s blessed you. It’s one of those things, when you travel, there is always someone looking to take advantage of you. 

There are loads of beggars here, just like New York, only they’re laying around pretending to be drunk and asking for very specific amounts – “Do you have $1.60 so I can take a bus home?” But when you offer them a 1 Day Jazzy Card (bus ticket) they are like, “Ah, don’t worry about it”, and rapidly moving onto the next passer-by. You can feel it in the air, New Orleans doesn’t feel as ‘safe’ to walk around by yourself at night, like London or Tokyo does. Everywhere there’s a hustler and everywhere you go, you’re keeping a tight eye on your belongings and your personal safety… let’s just say it has that Las Vegas kinda feel about it. πŸ™‚ 
Anyway, we had a fascinating tour of the Quarter – it is impossible to capture all the anecdotes and cultural tidbits that we picked up. We went through Fencing Alley, where the fencing masters all lived and used their court yards to teach young men how to duel. 

 Duels would be held in the Alley upon matters of honour of course, until the drawing of first blood, as this was quite the acceptable way to resolve manly disputes. The duelling masters however started to run into trouble when people realised they could duel with pistols. Of course pistol duelling had a tendency to be far more deadly and couldn’t be conducted in the back alley between the Rue Royale and Rue Chartres, so they would take their pistol duels out of town to meet in the Oak Alleys… until duelling with guns become outlawed. Strange that… start killing one another with guns and we will make some laws against it (shame that never truly caught on). 

 We also went by the Pierre Mastero which is now a restaurant and bar but was originally one of the largest slave exchanges in New Orleans. We also stopped by Jamie Hayes Gallery – Jamie is a colour blind local New Orleans artist who used to sell his drawings and paintings on the fence around Jackson Square, but whose work is so in demand he now has his own gallery. I love his sense of fun, and the local flavour to his work. 

      

It was a great day out with lots of yummies to sample and lots of interesting history, and there’s no way I needed dinner after all this!  

The High Line and Radio City and the Pope, Oh my!

Another gorgeous day in NYC. It’s barely 27C withe clear skies and a light breeze and I thought I’d go check out the High Line this morning, seeing that it is one of the few things that appear to be open before 10am. Yeah, for all they call it ‘the city that never sleeps’, this place feels like nothing is open until the day is half gone.

  
Anyway, took a bus down town and went to check out the High Line Park. Even though most of the flowers are no longer in bloom as autumn approaches here, I have to say the whole thing is very impressive. A lovely green haven above the meat packing district full of trees and shrugs, grasses and flowers; benches to rest on and even places to grab a coffee or a bite to eat – all elevated over the busy city streets below. Such a wonderful concept – a 2.5 km long park that has been built on an elevated section of a disused Central Railway spur of the West Side Line. Apparently inspired by a similar garden project in Paris somewhere, it is obvious that a lot of people have put a lot of work into making it such a fabulously useful community space. 

  
You can get up to the High Line in about ten different places between and many of the access points even have elevators so it is completely accessible. I had a lovely walk through the greenery of the park this morning – it has pretty water features, spaces for laying on timber decks and reading or having your morning coffee and browsing the internet… I can imagine that in a place where no one has a back yard, it would be a very inviting place to come read a book or meet up with friends and hang out. Fantastic.
On my way back, I was looking for a Post Office, and ostensibly heading towards the Rockefeller Centre PO when I accidentally stumbled onto a tour of Radio City. I say ‘accidentally’, because I wasn’t planning on doing this today – actually, I wasn’t planning on doing it at all, but I was back from the High Line walk much sooner than expected, and when I saw the 11am tour lined up to go in, I thought, ‘what the hell’.

  
Now the only thing I knew about Radio City is that it is the largest theatre in the world – that’s it. And the only reason I knew that much even? It was a trivia question while we were on the cruise ship. The place just wasn’t on my radar for some reason. I acknowledge that I had heard of it before, but unlike many of the American’s on the tour who grew up watching Radio City TV shows and attending concerts, I knew absolutely nothing about the place.
So, Michael the Tour Guide, what did I actually learn?   
Originally J.D Rockefeller, who owned the land known in 1929 as the less than savoury, ‘Speak Easy Belt’ was planning on building a grand opera house in an attempt to gentrify the area, however the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression put the kybosh on that plan. Nevertheless, Rockefeller decided to build a large complex of buildings on the property that would leave a lasting impact on the city’s architectural and cultural landscape. His plan was to create enormous and superior buildings that would attract commercial tenants even though the city was full of vacant rental spaces due to the Depression. It was ambitious and quite the gamble, and it came to stand as a reprieve from the financial woes of man and became an edifice of future optimism. He hired 75,000 men to build the Rockefeller Centre and the Radio City Music Hall. 
The Radio City Music Hall was to be one of the piece de resistance building in the complex and invitations to tender were sent far and wide for applicants to tender for the project. One relatively unknown designer, a Mr Donald Deskey sent in his tender, that he had apparently spent his last $5,000 on for the work and models to be able to adequately communicate his vision for the building. Fortunately for him, his gamble paid off and he won the job. Deskey chose an understate elegance and grandeur over glitzy excess (I’d love to know what some of the other ideas looked like) and his design included more than 30 separate spaces – the theatre itself, eight lounges, smoking rooms with individual themes and motifs. And he gave the building an over all theme meant as a tribute to “human achievement in art, science and industry”. Art was intrinsic to the actual design of the building, and he hired fine artists to create murals, design wall coverings and sculpture; engaged textile designers to custom design draperies and carpets, and many other craftsmen to complete wood panelling, ceramics, and lighting and chandeliers. The entire building is done in a fabulous Art Deco style that is just as stylish today as it was then. 

   

  

  The Grand Foyer is 60′ high and truly awe inspiring…. and I absolutely loved the Ezra Winter mural in the foyer (I was unaware of it but apparently I have also seen works by Ezra Winter at the Library of Congress in Washington and possibly several other Washington civic buildings as well). Ruth Reeves designed the uunique carpet which depicts a multitude of musical instruments. Oh and apparently ‘America’s Got Talent’ is filmed here – though why we needed to be reminded of that so much I do not know (thank you little girl in the tour group). 
   

 This is what it looks like from Centre stage looking out over the audience…  

 The theatre itself seats 5,905 people. And they can add in an extra few hundred if they build out more seating over the orchestra pit. The curtains weigh a whopping 4000lbs (nearly two metric tonnes) and have their own huge counterweighted system to draw them. The stage itself is 144 ft across – apparently that is half the size of a football field (American football I am assuming), and it can fit 38 Rockettes dancing shoulder to shoulder… it was about this point that I kinda thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of Rockettes before, wasn’t that dancer character in Dirty Dancing who danced the merengue with Patrick Swayze supposed to have been a Rockette?’ Yep. Such is the extent of my knowledge of this enormously well known American institution. Anyway, Rockettes. There’s dancing. And there is lots of them. 

The stage is known as the ‘stage of 1000 illusions’, it has multiple moving parts that are all operated on elevators to raise and lower the stage to go between 26′ below and 13′ above the stage. The whole thing is operated on hydraulic elevators that use 20,000lbs of fluid to lift stages with 250psi pressure. Some guy named Peter Clarke designed the stage in the ’30s and it was apparently so well done, that thee US Military got in on using his technology during WWII, and the stage hydraulic system was kept under guard throughout the entire war to stop other countries from stealing the technology. In 1999 extensive renovations to the entire building were conducted at a cost of some $70 million, and the when they sent in a team of engineers to assess the state of the stage and it’s unique hydraulic systems, the engineers recommend that absolutely nothing be changed to the original 1930s system, as it was functioning beautifully and would continue to do so if maintained the same way it always had been.

  This stage has misty steam vents for genuine fog, the orchestra can be moved about on four different elevators, it has housed a 30,000 gallon swimming tank, held 16 elephants, been transformed into an ice skating rink, a basketball court, a stage for an awards ceremony. You name it – the stage managers and stage hands can recreate any new set required within a couple of hours.
   

  

Outside the threatre are is a space called the Grand Lounge where patrons enter and exit their seats and can also find the rest rooms. It has been designed to be ‘soothing and calm and quiet’, which is quite the ask with potentially 6,000 people milling about. Apparently the dark colours, soft lighting and diamond shapes that proliferate this area were believed to promote the use of quiet voices much like a library. It also has several ‘silent ushers’ in the form of large pillars that patrons need to navigate which breaks up the flow of people and allows the actual ushers to manage the crowd better – very clever, I thought.

      
Attached to the Grand Lounge is the Gentleman’s lounge – read: smoking lounge and bathroom. In the Gentleman’s Lounge is a large wall mural painted by Stuart Davis which was removed in the 60s due to the damage being done to it by the smoking. The smoking was banned and the painting was given to MoMA to attempt to restore it. It hung in MoMA until the restoration in 1999, at which point it was given back to its original position in the mens bathroom. 

        
On the other side of the Grand Lounge is the Ladies Lounge, which is brighter, softer and has 14 paintings by a leading illustrator from the New Yorker whose name I didn’t catch. There are also two rows of ‘powder tables’ complete with dresser chairs and mirrors where ladies could powder their noses. Also, very quaint, the original 1930 pedal operated hand dryers still work which was very cool.  

In it’s heyday, Radio City Music Hall was a venue for film and stage shows and would host both every single day. But in the 60s, patronage dropped considerably with the advent of television and they found themselves $1 million dollars in debt and forced to close down. By 1978, the building was condemned and was scheduled for destruction… but thankfully saved due to public protests. Radio City was rescued and given a heritage listing, but changed it’s format from being film and stage shows to being primarily a concert hall which occasionally shows films. Everyone has performed here – Meatloaf, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Tony Bennet… you name them they’ve probably had a run here.

 They occasionally still do have film showings on – the first Harry Potter film and the Lord of the Rings trilogy were played, but (and this is kinda cool) they remove the soundtrack and have a full orchestra play the film’s score. Radio City has over 2 million visitors s year now and is considered the “show place of the nation” or something like that. It’s obviously one of those things that the locals are extremely proud of but I had never really heard much about it until today (probably because it is far to modern to be of general interest to a history nerd like me).
Anyway, after checking out all these amazing things about the theatre itself, it was off to meet a genuine Rockette – the perky Becky. We all had our photo taken with Becky (and no, I didn’t buy my souvenir photo with the tall leggy Rockette chick for $21.75 + taxes), but she told us plenty of info about how the Rockette’s were formed, and how they were chosen. The girls have to be 18 years or older, be 5’6″ to 5’10”, be proficient in tap, jazz and ballet dance forms and have an ability to work well in a precision line… they match every little detail for uniformity – hand and foot movements, head and eye direction the whole lot.  

   
 The biggest gig of the year for the Rockettes is the annual Christmas Spectacular which has been running since the ’30s. The show will be preformed this year 200 times, over 8 weeks, with up to six shows a day. The girls will put in 1600 hours of rehearsal time before they even get to opening night. This year there is two casts of Rockettes of 40 girls each… most of the Rockettes come from the US, but they also have 3 Canadians at the moment, 1 Australian and a couple of Brits. 

 For each show there are 25 dressers and wardrobe staff keeping their elaborate costumes sorted as they have numerous costume changes for each show. All the costumes are designed for quick change turnarounds, and the fastest costume change required for this years show is 80 secs and involves switching 23 pieces of costume in that time frame. 

   

  

 Becky tells us that one of the hardest jobs is being a replacement dancer in case something happens to once of the main girls. With 36 girls on the line, there is always 4-5 replacements on standby called ‘swings’ who will rehearse behind everyone in the line and memorising the dance moves of nine different peoples roles in case someone drops out and they have to be thrown in at the last minute. These girls could spend years rehearsing and never actually make it onto the stage. Fascinating, aaand, not a little bit crazy.
After the accidental tour I went for a wander down towards Rockefeller Centre – big mistake! Huge! El Papa is in town and in readiness for his Holiness’ arrival, they have put up barricades on every side street off 5th Avenue to stop vehicular traffic on either side from Lexington to 6th. It’s a freaking mess out there. And to make matters worse as you get close to 5th, pedestrian access has been restricted too by the addition of 8′ tall wire mesh fences! I had to walk one block over and three up before I could get into 55th from 6th, and even then had to convince a cop that I was just wanting to get back into my apartment. The city has obviously learned a trick or two over the years – they are using large sanitation trucks filled with sand parked across each E-W street to block the end of all the barricaded streets (wonder where they learned that trick). People are accumulating everywhere hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pope — bearing in mind that this was roughly 2:30pm and his flight was due to arrive at JFK at 5:30pm, which means by the time the singing and dancing and helicopters and motorcades are all done, it was going to be well and truly 6:30pm – 7pm before he came down 5th to St Patricks. I can see why the residents and locals have got the shits with this. I only hope most of it is gone so I can get a cab out of town in the morning without too much fuss.      Empty barricaded streets… 

Anyway, the afternoon’s plan was to meet the lovely Ms KPeth over at Tiffany’s on 5th (yeah, this was before we saw the over the top security measures put in place), and then off to Times Square in search of cheap theatre tickets. We did manage to meet at the allotted time… I was a little early so got in a pick up meeting with a NYPD officer about what the expectations re: road closures, barricade removal and Pope arrival currently were – was a little surprised to hear him confess that he really had absolutely no idea and that they were ‘providing a presence’ until told to move elsewhere. Good times. Yes, so back to Tiffany & Co. There may have been a very planned purchase from one of us and a complete impulse purchase from the other, but who can resist the shinies. 
After this we made our way down to Times Square again to see if we could find some reasonably priced tickets for a show tonight. You know, last time I was in New York, I remember hating Times Square because 1) it was fucking freezing and I could not get used to the way the wind just cut through your clothes, and 2) it was so crowded with people who were pushing and shoving and jay walking and yelling and touting at you and it all seemed so very chaotic. But now I find, that it’s not so bad. The crowd can get pretty full on, but it is mostly well behaved and relatively polite.  I think I can thank my two weeks in China for giving me a new perspective on just how cheek to jowl and rude a crowd can get… Xi’an and Beijing make traversing Times Square, feel like a stroll in the English countryside.
Anyway, we managed to find some great half price tickets to go see the Jersey Boys – had to be done, we are in New York after all. The show was excellent, fantastic music, all those great familiar songs, and the cast of performers were awesome. Very different from my other recent theatre experiences, but loads of fun. Makes me wish I could take in a few more shows, but alas… tomorrow I’m moving on.

On the way back from the theatre I was pleased to see the removal of the barricades process has already started and with a bit of luck I won’t have too much trouble getting out to the airport in the morning.

All things NYC and a Little Great Wave.

Woke up stupidly early this morning and I meant annoyingly stupidly early – 4:30am – and couldn’t get back to sleep.  Which is a pain in the arse no matter where you are but when you are playing tourist in one of the largest cities in the world, it means you have about SIX HOURS to kill before anything is open.  No shops, no museums, no nothing.  Only thing I could have done was go find a Starbucks after about 7am or head to the park to go for a walk and watch all the crazy dog walkers and joggers go by. Nothing opens until 10am… Grrr!  πŸ™ 

Blargh.  Anyway… eventually it gets to be past about 9am and I decide to go out for my first New York ritual and grab a bagel with ‘just a little bit of cream cheese please’ – yes, of course he still drowned it in cream cheese  anyway, but you gotta ask, no? And then went wandering up Madison Avenue to find the New York Beretta Gallery.  If anyone was watching, a few weeks ago, I was at the Beretta Gallery in London and after screws for my 87 and was duly told they have absolutely no handguns in England, but that I would have much better luck in New York seeing I was headed this way anyway.  So I potter around, (read loiter until 10am when everything opens) and go check out the Beretta Gallery New York.

Very pretty place by the way, looks almost identical to the English one with slightly less plaid.  πŸ™‚  I get to chatting with one of the gunsmiths there in the Gun Room and am pretty much told the same thing ‘nope, we don’t have any handgun parts at all’.  WTF?  This is America (Fuck Yeah!) where all the guns are, surely they have a screw for me… but nope.  No screws.  I did have a great chat about concealed carry laws in New York and the US in general and it is nice to know that at least some people working in the industry think that the US has a problem with their attitudes to firearms.     
    

After being completely unable to get a screw in New York, I decided to walk up town along Central Park to go to the MET.  As promised back when I was in Tokyo, I was again in search of the Great Wave of Kanagawa. It was a beautiful day for a walk and the park is looking all lush and green, not all frozen and uninviting like last time I was here. 
    
Got up to the MET and have to say I don’t remember the fountain out the front, courtesy of one of the Koch Brothers… must be some sort of willful political blindness.  

I pretty much made a bee-line for the Asian Centenial Exhibition to see this elusive print, and ta-da! There it was, in the flesh, err paper so to speak.    

I know quite a lot of famous works of art that seem to suffer dreadfully from over-reproduction; the Mona Lisa comes to mind… just about everyeon you ever meet who has been to see it in the Louvre will tell you how underwhelming it is considering it is such a familiar and famous work of art.  And it precisely because we see it everywhere that finally seeing it in its original form fails to move us.  This can happen with lots of art works, though there are many really famous pieces that I have seen that do not disappoint – Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Starry Night’ or the ‘Bedroom at Arles’; the Cluny Tapestries; Kandinsky (pick an number, any number); Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’; Monet’s various waterlillies… you get the idea.  When seen in original form, these artworks still have the ability to impress and astound.

I am happy to say the Great Wave of Kanagawa has not suffered from the constant reproductions that I saw of it all over New York, Boston, Japan, China, and even London.  The print is smaller than you might expect, but it has an amazingly subtle texture that is just not evident in photographic or printed representations.    So Mr K, it is still well worth hunting.  πŸ™‚ 
    

After conning a Japanese tourist into taking my photo with the art work to prove I actually saw it!  I had a good look through the rest of the Asian Centennial Exhibit.  There were ceramic and pottery items, netsuke pieces, lacquerware, gorgeous kimono and the most stunning collection of painted Japanese screens from the Edo period – more even than I saw in any of the museums and palaces we went to in Japan.  The exhibtion closes in just a few days, so I was really quite lucky to be able to go and see it.

After a quick turn around the MET to make sure no one had moved anything or added anything amazing to the Medieval galleries, I decided I would head back down town via the Central Park Zoo… which I hadn’t been to before, but I was led to believe they have puffins, and well, you know – any port in a storm I guess.  Turned out to be not my best laid plan.
  The Central Park Zoo has obviously been there for quite a long time, I didn’t see a plaque saying when it was established, but I imagine it has been around for ages.  Unfortuantely, many of the animal enclosures evidence old zoo practices where animals are overcrowded or have enclosures too small for their natural habits to emerge.  It was not the saddest zoo I have ever visited – that distinction still rests with the Barcelona Zoo – but it definitely wasn’t a highlight either.  You can tell that there has been a lot of work put into trying to make the facilities as good as possible for the animals, but two grizzy bears stuck in a paddock barely big enough for a pair of Border Collies?  I’ not so sure those poor bears have a great life.  
  

Anyway, there were penguins, and snow monkeys, a snow leopard, sea lions, red pandas and eventually puffins – but weird looking tufted puffins, not the Atlantic puffins that they have on all the banner pictures around the zoo.  False advertising!  I am just going to have to go back to Scotland one day in the right season and do it right.    

After the zoo, I head back to my B&B and managed to relax a bit with my feet up and a Barq’s Root Beer, which I felt was heartily deserved after all that walking this morning.  At around 4:30pm it was time to head back out and meet KPeth for our first foray down to Times Square to have a poke about, find some dinner and go to a show.
  

The Pope is going to be here on Friday, which is awesome and people seem excited that he is coming – here he is in his official bobble headed goodness with his best buddies – Batman, Iron Man and Superman.  Go Francis, you’re the Man!  I do wonder though… how does the Pope feel about being turned into a bobble head???   

In keeping with my Asian Centennial theme from earlier today, we ended up at a sushi restaurant for dinner called ‘Black Rice Sushi’ over near 45th and 9th.  I had the terriyaki salmon and tempura vegetables to celebrate finally seeing the Great Wave and the food there was really lovely – shame about the hipster mason jug drink glasses though… you’re a Japanese restaurant, don’t do that.    
 

Then after dinner onto the show!  Originally we had tickets to see Gigi, but they closed their run down early and we had to choose something else.  Being a bit of a fan of the medieval period, Shakespeare and high brow wit, I suggested we go check out ‘Something Rotten’, which turned out to be a fabulous move.

The performance was awesome fun.  From the moment the cutrains went up to the standing ovation at the end of the show, it was a riotous gallop through all things Renaissance, Shakespeare and musical theatre.  There were just as many outlandish codpieces as I had expected, just as many double entendre jokes and some very impressive costuming goign on – those chorus women were wearing their corsets and stomachers, yet still had an impressive range of movement going on.  The characters were well written and the threatre in-jokes were hilarious, though I am certain I must have missed some of them.  It was a lot of fun, and seeing it on Broadway with such a quality cast was a real treat.  My favourite charcters were Thomas Nostradamus, who was highly entertaining, and the rock star style Will ‘Power’ Shakespeare, who seemed to be channeling Tim Curry.  Just fabulous.  I would highly recommend going to see this show and shelling out for some good seats, it was totally worth it. 

 

And after all that… I’m really quite exhausted (not to mention my pain levels are through the roof). Good thing nothing opens in this town until 10am tomorrow, hey?  πŸ˜‰ 

  

The Arctic Princess

We have found it rather odd cruising the North Sea, the North Atlantic… all the way up into the Arctic Circle, on the incongruously named, Caribbean Princess. And while our beautiful ship is very well equipped with many desirable and luxurious features, we feel it has been a little lacking for this particular itinerary, and so we have given over to a small flight of fantasy and designed ourselves a different ship – a better ship – more aligned to the icy cold conditions in the Arctic, better designed to chase the Northern Lights and more in keeping with the Baltic and the Arctic theme.

We give you the Arctic Princess!*Β 

*pictured here in AlaskaΒ  πŸ˜‰

The foremost attraction of the Arctic Princess will be its unique Dark Skies Deck. Perfect for viewing the Northern Lights; the Dark Skies Deck will be outfitted with muted glow-in-the-dark strip lighting at floor level for safety, while not creating any light pollution to reduce opportunities for seeing aurorae. Also fully equipped with heated deck chairs, cosy blankets and a spiked hot chocolate fountain, the Dark Skies Deck will be the perfect place to wrap up against the cold and while away the hours hoping to catch a glimpse of the magical Northern Lights.

The Arctic Princess wants her passengers to maximise their opportunities to experience this unique phenomena while at sea, so has a purpose built Opt In Wake Up Service for a recorded announcement from the bridge and officers of the watch, that will let passengers know when the aurorae are clearly visible so they can rug up and make their way to the Dark Skies Desk to enjoy the show. Additional ‘Opt In’ alerts will also be available for whales, dolphins and other wildlife sightings and for special scenic cruising viewing opportunities.

All decks on the Arctic Princess will be outfitted with observation deck type telescopes that passengers can use to scan the horizon for icebergs, swimming polar bears, whales, dolphin pods or even other cruise ships.

In another new innovation, the Arctic Princess will introduce the ’66Β° North’ ice bar, complete with all your favourite cold weather cocktails, fluffy parkas, and carved ice luge for lay back shots of the distinctive Icelandic schnapps, Brennavin… or for the not so brave, local vodkas sourced from the Baltic. The ceiling for this unique bar will have simulated aurora lighting effects to dazzle patrons while they enjoy the cool dark interior of the ’66Β° North’ ice bar.Β 
The Arctic Princess’s outdoor friendly design will see Princess favourite, Movies Under the Stars, being played under a retractable observatory roof to cut down on the biting Arctic winds, as well as being simultaneously shown in one of the indoor facilities, such as Club Fusion or the Explorers lounge – that’s right, not just NFL games, movies being shown concurrently indoors as well.

Further, to make the Arctic Princess even more outdoor friendly on her icy itinerary, all pools will be heated and feature retractable observatory style roofs so that passengers can enjoy swimming under the beautiful blue skies as we traverse the Atlantic.

The Fine Art Auctions onboard will be transformed from the normal Park West pieces of art to unique works of art sourced from the Baltic, Alaska and Iceland’s unusually prolific and thriving art community. Imagine taking home a hauntingly beautiful landscape painted by one of Isafjjodur’s premier artists, or a sculpture created from the unique lava rocks found in Reykjavik’s scenic Golden Circle. A truly unique opportunity to take home a special souvenir to commemorate your once in a lifetime trip to the remote northern parts of the world.

Last but not least, the Arctic Princess will spend most of her time doing Baltic, Alaskan and trans-Atlantic voyages taking in the beautiful sights of Nova Scotia, Iceland (with o’night stops in Reykjavik – one day to see the scenery, one day to see the town and the history), ports in Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetlands and Norway, Denmark and well, basically anywhere you might once have seen Vikings. Β Her itineraries will continue through the winter months to maximise opportunities for seeing the Northern Lights.

There’s only one problem… the Arctic Princess – well, apparently she already exists, and she is a bloody ugly Norwegian LNG tanker. πŸ™

Oh well, it was a nice flight of fancy while it lasted.Β 

The Halifax and the HUGE Explosion

We were greeted by a glorious day – about 20 degrees, clear blue skies, slight breeze from the south and free wifi! Yes, that most desirable of modern travel commodities. πŸ™‚ Travellers loitering around outside port terminals, visitors centres, libraries, and even restaurants, bludging their free wifi have overtaken the plethora of smokers that used to loiter in such places. πŸ™‚ It’s amazing to see 30 or 40 people all standing around staring at their devices intently as they try to catch up with family or upload their latest travel pictures to Facebook. An inherently modern phenomena that I have a strong suspicion is here to stay with us for quite a while.

   

  

 Anyway, I had decided I would head down to Halifax Boardwalk towards the Maritime Museum today in search of Titanic history. Halifax was the nearest town to where the ill fated Titanic sunk in April 1914, and as such became an integral part of the story. The rescue efforts were co-ordinated from here, and victims and survivors alike, were all bought to Halifax. Many of the victims were buried in the local cemeteries and their headstones tell the more intimate stories of the disaster. 

But on gaining entrance to the museum, I became more engrossed in the Halifax Explosion of 1917, a tragedy that I had never even heard of before and which had undoubtedly had an even greater impact on Halifax than the Titanic disaster just a few years before. The Halifax Explosion was a unprecedented maritime explosion that occurred in the early morning of December 6th, 1917. The SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship fully loaded with explosives intended as WWI supplies, collided with the Norwegian shhip called the SS Imo, in an area called the Narrows – which is a small strait that connects the Harbour of Halifax to the Bedford Basin. From the accounts at the museum, approximately 2,000 people were killed by the explosion, in fires, collapsed buildings and by flying debris, and another 9,000 were estimated to have been injured in the blast, the tallies for which were exacerbated by onlookers coming out to stand in the streets and watch the enormous fire.

  The SS Mont-Blanc was deployed by the French government to carry an explosive cargo from New York to Bordeaux via Halifax. At roughly 8:45am, she collided at slow speed, approximately one knot (about 1 to 1.5 miles per hour) with the empty Norweigan cargo ship, the SS Imo which was headed from Belgium to New York to pick up cargo. Both ships were navigating the harbour – one inbound, one outbound, and both attempting to avoid submarine defences – and each sounding their horns to indicate the other should give way. The SS Mont-Blanc had the right of way and so was convinced the SS Imo would divert given the SS Imo was on the wrong side of the channel, but this stand off of who should yield resulted in both ships merely slowing their engines until the Captains realised they were going to collide – at which point the SS Mont-Blanc veered hard a port, and the SS Imo blasted three times and threw their engines in reverse. But it was too late. As the steel hulls of the ships collided, barrels of benzol fell over, cracking open and sparks flew igniting a fire on the French ship which rapidly spread out of control. Given the nature of the ship’s cargo, the order to abandon ship was given immediately. Approximately 20 minutes later, at 9:04am, the Mont-Blanc exploded with an hitherto unforeseen force, with the ships hull being thrown an estimated 300 meters into the air. The blast was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons and the bombing of Hiroshima in WWII. It is estimated that the energy equivalent of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT was released.  

  Nearly every structures within a one kilometre radius was obliterated, including the entire district Richmond. The force of the blast demonished buildings, threw vessels aground, snapped trees like they were twigs, bent iron rails, and carried debris from the Mont-Blanc for over 4 kilometres – the twisted remains of a cannon from the Mont-Blanc was found 5.6 kilometres away! The city proper was also hit hard, with barely a single window in the entire city surviving the concussion of the air pressure wave that followed the explosion On the other side of the harbour in the district of Dartmouth, there was also widespread damage from the force of the blast and a tsunami that swept through the harbour completely wiped out a population Native American peoples, the Mi’Kmaq, that had lived in the area for generations.

  The loss of life could have been much worse, and the ability to respond with relief efforts could have been much hampered, were it not for the actions of a quick thinking Richmond railway station worker named Vincent Coleman. Coleman was only a few hundred meters from the Pier 6 where the burning Mont Blanc was drifting ashore in flames. Warned of her explosive cargo, he returned to his telegraph to stop all incoming trains. Coleman himself, was killed by the explosion but his message, “Hold up the trains. Munitions ship on fire and making for Pier 6. Goodbye boys.”, was heard by every station from Halifax to Truro which alerted the Canadian government to the disaster and very quickly enabled six relief trains with firefighters, and medical help to be dispatched from Nova Scotia and Halifax.

  Relief efforts began immediately after the explosion, and hospitals quickly became full. The same mortuary that handled the victims of the Titanic disaster just a few years before had to once again implement their system of identifying mass casualties. Rescue trains began arriving from throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, but were apparently impeded by a snow storm. The immediate construction of temporary shelters also began soon after the disaster to house the many surviving people who were left homeless. Entire families were killed in an instant. 

Amazingly, all but one of the Mont-Blanc’s crew survived, with only one poor fellow being killed by flying debris in the explosion and a judicial inquiry into the disaster found that the Captain, the Pilot of the Mont-Blanc were totally responsible for the safety of it’s cargo and was therefore considered to be at fault for the disaster, even though the Imo was on the wrong side of the channel and had refused to yield. This verdict was largely put down to a general bias against the French at the time. The Captain and the pilot, along with the Royal Canadian Navy Harbour master were all put up on charges of manslaughter, but a later appeals and trials determined that both vessels were to blame and the charges against the three men were dropped.

It’s a morbidly fascinating aspect of local history, and the Maritime Museum has many artefacts and accounts of from the people who lived through this tragic event.

After such an interesting yet somewhat disturbing morning, I met up with KPeth for lunch and we opted for a meal at Murphy’s on the waterfront to try some local delicacies. The menu was somewhat overwhelming as we wanted to try a bit of everything – it all sounded so good, we felt they should have a taster platter of some sort, so in the absence of same, we had to create our own, and we tried the local crab cakes with relish, the bacon wrapped scallops with blueberries and currants, and a cheesy lobster tip served with tortilla chips, all washed down with some local cocktails. I tried a drink called the Black Sparrow (1.5 oz Jamaican rum, 0.5 oz of Jaegermeister and topped up with root beer!) which was actually really nice.

    We sat out on the Murphy’s waterfront patio, and marvelled at the gorgeous harbour before us and squealed like excited schoolgirls about the amazing places we had just been visiting. All up a very pleasant way to spend lunch in Halifax. After a little spot of shopping, it was back to the ship for me via Amos Pewter, where I picked up some pewter sand dollars that I had promised myself I would not buy!   

   

 As we sailed out of Halifax Harbour an errie mist seemed to be hanging around the habour entrance, and we stood on the very forward viewing area of Deck 15, which is literally above the brigde to watch us sail out.   It wasn’t long efore the fog horn was being sounded every minute or so.  I’ve never seen such fog, visibility was down to about 50m or less, which is just not far enough for such a huge ship IMHO.  We could see sailing boats occasionally emerging from the mist in front of us that would tack away very sensibly. No doubt they were having as much trouble seeing us, as we were seeing them. I eventually went indoors – driven inside by my now wet jumper and hair, while KPeth stayed out a bit longer to take some more misty photos as we sailed out of the harbour.  When she eventually came back in, she told me that at one stage, she could hear voices yelling in the fog and  she though ‘Surely not’, but suddenly emerging from the mist was a small sail boat that obviously hadn’t seen us soon enough and it was rapidly trying to tack out of our way, she snapped a shot of the sail boat which shows the ship in the bottom corner of the picture – I’m no expert, but it seems to me they had quite a close call.  The fog horns went for ages as we sailed out and I was extremely grateful that these modern ships have all the technological whizzbangs known to man, to help them navigate

Halifax is another place on my list of towns I would definitely go and visit again – seeing I have now visited Canada twice, perhaps one day I will drag that Canadian husband of mine, back to Canada to road trip across the country, starting in the west and making our way across to the east coast. What say you, Mr K?