Renovated French Market retains funky feel

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From evil-looking voodoo dolls to fine art and alligator-on-a-stick, you can find New Orleans treasures, treats and oddities at the French Market on the edge of the city's historical French Quarter. And now that the market's $5 million renovation is complete, you can shop in the shade beneath sturdy, green metal roofs that have finally given the flea market area the look of permanence.

Even before the market area was damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there had been talk of sprucing up what is certainly one of New Orleans' favorite tourist draws. But once the storm mangled the market, city leaders weren't left with many choices if they wanted to keep the oldest public market in the U.S. open.

And they did. Renovations began in earnest last year, and the result is a cleaner, modern market that's still funky and fun.

"The market is much better organized now, and the rest rooms are very clean," said vendor Linda Hmidouche, who has been selling voodoo dolls, belts and Mardi Gras masks in the market since 1991. As for business, "it's better," she said, but still not back to what it was before Katrina.

"We know it will take some time for New Orleans and its people to recover," said Hmidouche. "We're here for the long run."

So is Amy Mayo of Carnival Candles. Mayo has been selling colorful scented candles in the market for 10 years.

What she is looking forward to is the return of more convention business. "That's when we make the most money," Mayo said. "We need more people downtown, and conventions are what bring them."

The last of the vendors to return were the farmers. (The Farmers Market officially reopens June 13-15 to coincide with the Creole Tomato Festival at the French Market.) Charles Napoli, president of the French Market Corp., which manages the market, said returning as much produce to the market as possible was necessary to kick-start the area's vibrant produce economy.

The market, which opened in 1791, begins at the fabled Cafe du Monde on Decatur Street near Jackson Square and continues for about five blocks. You can sample New Orleans' famous cuisines at restaurants and stalls along the way. You can hunt for souvenirs in the market shops as well as in the flea market area until the market ends at Barracks Street.

It's a souvenir shop, arts-and-crafts market and farmers market all rolled into one. And it's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Visit www.frenchmarket.org.

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