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Things to Know about Mardi Gras before ANY New Orleans Trip

If you’ve taken a French class in the U.S.A., you’ve probably heard of Mardi Gras. It’s most known for being a celebration of “fat Tuesday,” the day before Lent starts, and it’s popularly celebrated in New Orleans. As I took French throughout school and participated in French club in college, I did the King Cake every year and would tell others that there’s a crazy festival down in New Orleans each year to celebrate the day. I went to New Orleans in January because I wanted to avoid the Mardi Gras festivities, as it’s just not really my thing.

Everything I thought I knew about Mardi Gras? Wrong, and definitely not enough. Even going in January, I was still able to see some Mardi Gras festivities. And it’s not something they do for tourism – it’s a huge part of the culture. It really hit home that Mardi Gras is very misunderstood and there’s so much more to this cultural event.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

PS – if you want to get to the point, you can scroll down to “Mardi Gras Today.” The rest is a historical background.

Mardi Gras in Europe

Mardi Gras in New Orleans
The Fight between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Public domain.

A Background on Christianity: If you’re not familiar with the Christian custom of Lent, it’s the 46-day period before Easter Sunday, and thus always begins on a Wednesday. Lent is the period designated to commemorate Jesus’ 40-day-long journey in the desert. Christians give up things like meat, eggs, and sweets for this period of time, though a lot of people today choose one “vice” and give it up for Lent. The 6 other days are Sundays, which are like “cheat days.”
You’ve probably heard the song “The 12 Days of Christmas,” because Christmas traditionally lasts 12 days starting on December 25th. This period is called Advent and ends on January 6, which is Epiphany or Twelfth Night.

The Origins of Mardi Gras: Mardi Gras, translated to “Fat Tuesday,” is the day before Lent starts. It’s also called Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday, but those have more of a religious connotation. It makes sense that hundreds of years ago, people would come up with the idea of indulging in all the food and fun activities that they would be giving up for 40 days. This was done with lavish parties and was celebrated in many European cultures. Like many other holidays, this one called for masked costumes.

(It’s worth noting, however, that Epiphany, also called King’s Day, is celebrated more in Europe now and Mardi Gras is relatively unheard of outside of Canada and the U.S.A. They also celebrate Shrove/Pancake Tuesday but it’s a religious tradition that isn’t as rowdy.)

Coming to the New World

Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, a French-Canadian explorer, landed in what would be around present-day Empire, Louisiana, on March 2, 1699. It was actually the day before Mardi Gras so he and his men named the area “Pointe du Mardi Gras.” The next day, they had a small party to celebrate the holiday – what some would consider America’s first Mardi Gras.

This is where the story gets a bit more interesting. Today, many would think that modern Mardi Gras was planted and grew in Louisiana, but that’s actually not the case. Mr. Bienville actually got up and migrated to modern-day Mobile, Alabama. By 1703, there was a small settlement there, but they were able to celebrate a proper Mardi Gras. The tradition has not been broken to this day.

The next year, they established a secret society, like a “krewe”, called Masque de la Mobile. In 1711, the town had the first Mardi Gras parade and the secret societies and parades got more elaborate from then on.

With that in mind, let’s switch back to New Orleans, which was established in 1718 by Mr. Bienville. (He did a lot back then.) The 1740s brought Mardi Gras Balls to Louisiana, but they were still following the model of excessive parties. In 1763, the Spaniards took control of New Orleans, and Mardi Gras was banned. However there are still some records of Mardi Gras festivities under Spanish rule. The tradition must have at least been underground because when Louisiana became a U.S. state in 1812, Mardi Gras was back up and running. Fifty years of oppression couldn’t stop this centuries-old tradition.

The New Orleans locals began with parades as well, but they were more processions of horses and performers rather than the float-filled parades we see there today. But by the mid-19th century, Mardi Gras in New Orleans had become a wreck. While it was still celebrated every year, the parties were known to get too rough and became synonymous with violence. The locals felt they had to choose between one of their favourite customs and feeling safe.

This is when the city of Mobile comes back into play. In 1857, a group of young men in a society called the Mistick Krewe of Comus came from Mobile and put on a proper parade – one with “tableaux cars,” or floats. They also brought flambeaux, or flaming torches with multiple wicks, that are still a staple of Mardi Gras.

The year 1872 introduced the “king of carnival,” or “Rex,” and his job was to preside over the parade. His job is also to pay for the party – or more specifically, the cake, because who can pay for an entire Mardi Gras parade? This is also when the three colours of Mardi Gras were introduced – purple, green and gold. They’re said to symbolise justice, faith and power respectively, but it’s also said that someone at some time just liked the colours.

And so the modern-day Mardi Gras was born.

Mardi Gras Today

Mardi Gras isn’t just a parade people put on each year; it’s a culture, and a process. There are different krewes, which are like socities or clubs, that have themes and come together to coordinate what each parade and possibly ball is going to be like. The costumes are a really important part, and one can tell from the amount of work that goes into the costumes – both in design and in making them lightweight.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans Mardi Gras in New Orleans

The floats are also very important and so are throws, which are like party favors that get thrown out to the crowd. If you’re in the crowd, you’re supposed to yell, “Throw me something, mister!” and you’ll get some throws. These are traditionally known to be plastic beads and coins, though they can also be things like small toys and stuffed animals. There’s also some tradition that women show their boobs for throws, which is more in line of what we think of when we think of Mardi Gras. The krewes on floats are kept masked and anonymous.

Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture

The Krewes also have Mardi Gras balls, which are of course very formal. However these are all by invite only.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Beads can be found everywhere in New Orleans.

Another important aspect of Mardi Gras is the King Cake. If you’ve been to Europe for Epiphany, you may have seen another type of King Cake, but despite the name they’re actually very different. Mardi Gras King Cake is shaped kind of like a crude bundt cake and it’s cinnamon flavoured. It’s often filled with other flavours such as raspberry or lemon. It’s topped with purple, green and gold icing and a plastic baby. Whoever finds the baby in their cake is the next King of Carnival!

It is said that the baby represents baby Jesus but the actual origins of this tradition are less symbolic. Someone somewhere just liked porcelain babies and put them into the cake. You may also notice that babies are outside of the cake now, which is obviously to prevent possible choking. However this is also to ensure that the person who gets the baby doesn’t slip it into his pocket and lie about not getting it.

(PS – You can get some delicious vegan King Cake at Meals from the Heart or Breads on Oak.)

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

But there’s still more that’s not very known. For one, Mardi Gras is also celebrated all throughout during festival season, which is January 6th until Mardi Gras. So if you go to New Orleans during this time, you can see some parades and parade practices. There’s also handy apps to help you! If you look up WWL Mardi Gras Parade Tracker or WDSU Parade Tracker on your app store, these are both free apps that allow you to see parades and parade practices.

Mardi Gras can also be very child-friendly. Nudity isn’t allowed in certain parts of the parade, and you can simply ask a local for advice on where to go if you have children.

Mardi Gras isn’t just limited to New Orelans, either. Several other cities and towns celebrate this festivity, such as the birthplace of modern Mardi Gras, Mobile. Rural areas of Louisiana also celebrate it in a different way, called the Courir de Mardi Gras, which is a horse run and a chicken catch. Though New Orleans is most famous for this festivity, it’s by far not the only place to celebrate it.

If you’d like to learn more about this very historic and large holiday, you can go to Mardi Gras World, which is the most popular museum highlighting floats of Mardi Gras. A less expensive alternative (or addition) is the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture, which has a beautiful collection of costumes and does great docent tours. They also have a selection of costumes that you can dress up in.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Mardi Gras is so much more than getting drunk, throwing beads, and eating cake. My trip to New Orleans gave me so much more knowledge on the extensive history of this holiday as well as how important it is to local culture. It really can’t be ignored if you want to visit New Orleans, because the two go hand in hand.

Have you ever been to a Mardi Gras festivity? What was it like? Posted on Thursday, February 20, 2020 in Destinations
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A Louisiana Swamp Tour

So when I was in New Orleans, I opted to take a day trip out to the swamp, because who wouldn’t?

Louisiana Swamp Tour

There are many companies to choose from, but I went with Cajun Encounters. They are located north of New Orleans, in Slidell. They and several other swamp tour companies offer convenient pick-up from your hotel or a specified location in New Orleans so you don’t have to drive. It usually doubles the price of the tour but it’s still way cheaper than renting a car just for the drive.

Louisiana Swamp Tour

When you get there and get on the boat, there are about 20 people on each boat, and the seats face the sides. I went in January and it was quite cold down in Louisiana, so I was worried we wouldn’t be seeing much wildlife, as was our tour guide. First we headed up the river to try and see some gators. Our tour guide was great, they all seemed to like to joke around, and he was able to tell us a lot about wildlife and the culture surrounding it down in the swamp. We got to see a lot of birds, including American Egrets, Blue Herons, and the rarely-seen Bald Eagle. The main attraction attraction for everyone seems to be the alligators though, because of course it is!

Louisiana Swamp Tour

Louisiana Swamp Tour

Louisiana Swamp Tour

Gators don’t come out often in the winter, but our guide advised us that they can be seen all over in the summer. The guide and the company had given us fair warning that seeing a gator would be very unlikely. However, we were lucky – we ended up seeing four of them! All were small and I just wanted to scoop them up and give those cuties a hug.

Can you see the gators below? Click on the photos to see where the gator is located!

Alligators in the Louisiana Swamp

Alligators in the Louisiana Swamp Alligators in the Louisiana Swamp

Alligators in the Louisiana Swamp

We also got to see a bunch of muskrats, which are very common in the area. They reminded me of capybaras but they’re more rabbit-sized. Our guide let us get as close as we could to all the animals while remaining on the boat, so we got to see these baby cuties and their mama up close.

Muskrats in the Louisiana Swamp

Then we got to go into the trees of the bayou. I thought it was so pretty to see Louisiana’s nature from that perspective since we actually went into the bayou, rather than just looking at it from a distance. This actually ended up being the best part. There were a few wild boars there, which the crew has lovingly named after bacon. These hogs like to come up to the boats and we got to meet those wonderful creatures. Hogs are very much like dogs, and this was so apparent in our interactions with them.

Louisiana Swamp Tour

Louisiana Swamp Tour

Louisiana Swamp Tour

But what I thought was really interesting was to see raccoons also come up to interact with us. I didn’t know they were bayou animals, but they swam, climbed trees, and came over to be a part of the action. We have raccoons here in Maryland but it’s fascinating to see them act differently, i.e., not rummaging through the trash. It was so cute!

Raccoons in the Louisiana Swamp

Raccoons in the Louisiana Swamp Raccoons in the Louisiana Swamp

After about two hours, we headed back to the main building. The only negative thing about my tour was here – I didn’t like that they sell alligator heads and claws. And from a company concerned about wildlife, that seems counter-productive to me.

However I had a great time. I got to learn about gators and how their lizard bodies work, see some animals I’d never even heard of before, and experience the joy of animal-human interaction. It’s a simple and relaxed way to spend your day but I thought it was unique and made some great memories (and friends) there on the bayou.

Boar in the Louisiana Swamp

Have you ever been on a swamp tour? What did you think? Posted on Saturday, February 15, 2020 in Destinations
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Experiencing AIRE Ancient Baths in Seville

Having a lot of Middle Eastern influences, Andalusian cities have several Turkish baths which you can go to. I like to treat myself to an expensive experience here and there so I decided that a bath and massage would be a great thing to splurge on. Also, people have taken Turkish baths for hundreds of years, so it was also like a cultural experience.

I chose to go to AIRE Ancient Baths in Seville as I was based in that city. So what was the experience like?

First off, all of AIRE’s locations (they do have one in NYC and Chicago) look beautiful. The one in Seville is advertised as being a “historic building” but that’s the extent they tell you. It probably wasn’t a bath hundreds of years ago. Nonetheless, it’s easily accessible and is situated in a pretty building.

The staff throughout was very nice and they do offer a selection of different services. I opted for the ancient baths plus a 15 minute massage. You can get longer massages, treatments with different products, a wine bath, rooftop bath access, etc. I did add on a glass of cava and chocolate truffles. The website does a good job describing what comes with each service and it’s easy to book online.

After you check in, there’s a waiting area where you can enjoy some warm tea and cold water. I hadn’t had the mint tea before so I don’t know how it compares in quality, but I enjoyed it. They then call you back and you can take a shower in a normal shower and change your clothes. Unlike other Turkish baths, AIRE is coed and all customers need to wear a swimsuit (you can bring your own or get one from them) and swim shoes, which they provide. They give you a towel and robe, and you can put your belongings in a locker.

AIRE Ancient Baths Seville
The waiting area.

After your shower, you can go down to the baths. I thought it would be like a funhouse, where you have a clear-cut path. However this was not the case. They tell you to start in the basement at the salt bath, but you’re actually free to roam the place as you’d like.

The salt bath was really relaxing. Warm water with the salt felt rejuvenating, and there’s music in this small, candle-lit space. A lot of people like to use this opportunity to float in the baths. I honestly had a hard time leaving. However, I suspected that my robe and towel would get taken; they did. So I wandered through the rest of the baths without drying myself off.

After that bath, you go upstairs and there’s another sitting area in a marble-like room. You can also get some mint tea here. This is where I got my cava and chocolates. I thought it would be nice to relax in the tub, drinking my cava, but it makes sense that you’re not allowed to take it into the baths. You drink and eat only in the sitting areas.

There are two more baths off of this sitting area, and I don’t know which one you’re supposed to go to next. I opted for the jet bath. This was a warm water bath with several alcoves where you can lie down and turn on the water jets. It’s not clear in the photo because the alcoves are all underwater. This was also really nice, and the room was much brighter. Who doesn’t love the jets?

AIRE Ancient Baths Seville
Image copyright AIRE

The next room is the most beautiful: the red room. The pool here is, again, warm water. Nothing special, even though the decoration is superb. At the other end of the pool are the hot and cool pools, which are both quite small. The hot one is really hot – which I found super relaxing. The cold pool is freezing cold, which is supposed to be good for your circulation I believe. You can switch between the three pools as you like. I personally liked sitting in the hot pool.

AIRE Ancient Baths Seville
Image copyright AIRE

If you get a massage for your experience, they will come find you and bring you up to their very dimly lit massage room. They have a bunch of selections for your massage but I opted for the standard experience. It’s a full body massage and is a one-size-fits-all. I get massages at work and they focus on my tense points. Since this was a generic massage, I didn’t feel the same tension release as I like to. However they do offer more personalised massage experiences if you have areas you want to focus on.

Overall, I thought it was a great experience. I will never, ever complain about warm baths by candlelight. I had a great experience with AIRE specifically. However, it was not a super “authentic” experience. Most Turkish baths have you without a bathing suit, bathing only with members of your own sex. I *may* have been quite happy to have had a bathing suit, especially for a first-time experience. However I’m not completely sure AIRE works in the traditional way. Some other blogs and experiences I’ve read say that there’s a specific order and time spent in each bath. With AIRE, you get free roam of the place. Was is relaxing and luxurious? Yes! Will I tell everyone that I’ve been to a Turkish bath? No, because I’m not sure I have.

I hope you found my review helpful in making a decision, or maybe as inspiration. You can book AIRE online if you’re so inclined, and if you do, I hope you have a great time!

Posted on Sunday, February 9, 2020 in Destinations
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