NATCHITOCHES, La., September 12, 2012 – The first thing you should know about Natchitoches is how to pronounce it: /na’-ka-tosh/. I told a friend from Louisiana that I was going to visit /na-chi-to’-ches/. He rolled his eyes and muttered “Yankee,” setting me straight on the pronunciation.
You should also know that Natchitoche, settled in 1714, is the oldest city in the Louisiana Purchase. If you’re from Athens or Rome you might have dust under your bed older than that, but you won’t find many cities older between the Sierra Madre and the Appalachians.
It’s old enough to have some character without crushing you under the weight of its venerability.
Due to a change in the course of the Red River, Natchitoches was cut off from river traffic and became a backwater town. That turned out to be a good thing. When Union soldiers marched through Louisiana, they bypassed Natchitoches, leaving the old town intact.
Yes, there’s a WalMart and a Dairy Queen, but they were built on former cotton fields, not on the ruins of fine old homes.
Today the historic center of town stretches down Front Street along the Cane River Lake.
The old city sports some fine old Louisiana architecture, cobblestone streets and ornate iron-work railings, exuding the charm that made it a perfect setting for the film, “Steel Magnolias.”
And that brings me to the third thing you should know about Natchitoches: The people here are warm and friendly and wouldn’t dream of firing shotguns in the middle of town, not even to scare away birds. The only loud bangs you’ll hear come from fireworks at the Christmas festival.
October to May is the ideal time to visit. The summer is frankly brutal, but when the weather cools, the place becomes an outstanding weekend getaway. In October you can enjoy the antique car show when Front Street is lined with old cars and closed to all but foot traffic.
In November the NSU Rowing Club hosts an annual rowing marathon, one of the few in the nation that allows crews to row the entire distance without turning.
In March and April the trees bloom, filling the town with color (and dogwood pollen – allergy sufferers, beware.)
There are fall and spring home tours, an autumn farmers’ market, a crafts fair at Melrose Plantation, and various street festivals, like the Natchitoches meat pie festival, but Natchitoches really puts its best foot forward for the Christmas Festival of Lights.
Front Street and the banks of the Cane River turn into a Christmas wonderland in December. The lights go on the weekend after Thanksgiving. The city is nice to visit just for the lights, but the first Saturday of December is the day of the big show. There are two Christmas parades that day, one for children and one for big children.
Street vendors sell jewelry, candy, funnel cakes, alligator-on-a-stick, gumbo, po-boys, and any kind of light-producing toy that kids can wear, wave or throw. If you find the street food and crowds just too much to handle, you can duck into an Italian restaurant or a sushi bar right there on Front Street to take a break from all the fun.
When the sun goes down, the lights go off and the entire crowd settles down on the banks of the Cane River. And then Natchitoches puts on a fireworks show. It’s not the largest fireworks show I’ve ever seen, nor the most spectacular, but it’s beautiful for the setting and long enough to sate anyone’s appetite for fireworks.
When the show is over you can march back to your car and drive to Shreveport or Alexandria (both about an hour away), but if you planned ahead of time you can stay at a local B&B. The historic district is full of them, many of them in beautifully restored old homes.
A few are run much like mini-hotel chains without live-in owners and with boring food, but others are wonderful examples of what a B&B should be. Come back later for a story on some of the good ones.
I’ll also tell you about some more interesting places to shop than WalMart and more interesting places to eat than Dairy Queen.
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