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The Zydeco-Cajun Prairie Byway in southwestern Louisiana is a culinary, cultural and scenic adventure brimming with festivals and fun.
By Vera Marie Badertscher

What ya’ll doing sittin’ back here in a corner while we’re out here havin’ all the fun?”

Above: The Rendez Vous des Cajuns show is presented each Saturday night in Eunice. Louisiana Office of Tourism photo

Below: A couple fishing at Chico State Park near Turkey Creek. Vera Marie Badertscher photo

The gray-haired lady in a purple-flowered dress leans in close so we can hear her over the lively romp of violin, accordion and guitar. Waitresses at D.I.’s restaurant near Basile, La., pass by juggling towers of crawfish trays. Our new friend, who has been coming here every Saturday for 13 years, glows from the exertion of dancing to the music of Howard Noel Jr. and Cajun Boogie.

My husband and I happened upon D.I.’s while exploring the Zydeco-Cajun Prairie Byway, a series of drives that loop through three southwestern Louisiana parishes: Acadia, Evangeline and St. Landry.

However, the town of Lafayette is a good place to begin this journey. And the Acadian Cultural Center (501 Fisher Road) that sits along a bayou just past the Lafayette airport gives a good introduction to the culture we will experience.

“Look at these photos,” the ranger said. “You will notice that they all seem to show people eating or having a party. That’s a pretty accurate picture of what we do,” he said with a grin.

Actually, the exhibits show hard-working Cajuns fishing, hunting, rounding up cattle, building houses and making music.

Near the cultural center, Vermilionville (300 Fisher Road), a Cajun/Creole folklife park, vividly re-creates an early Acadian settlement with a collection of restored and reconstructed buildings. In a recently acquired Cajun cottage, we visit a volunteer in period dress who demonstrates the arts of spinning and weaving. Outdoors, a man in coveralls harvests the Spanish moss that settlers used to stabilize the mud walls of the early Cajun homes.

The byway begins

Armed with historical context, we head for Crowley, the seat of Acadia Parish and a good place to pick up the byway. At the tourism office, exit 82 on Interstate 10, we load up on maps and tips.

The Zydeco-Cajun Prairie Byway is a gumbo of looping routes, with Crowley and Rayne at the southern end and Turkey Creek at the northern tip. A good map can be found online, www.louisiana travel.com/outdoors. Even with five days to wander, we will not cover every mile of the byway.

Crowley has several historic structures, including the old Ford Building, now serving as the city hall and museum. Other historic buildings, like the Rice Theater, dot downtown, and a variety of Victorian, Cajun and antebellum homes fill the residential areas. The tourism office provides a map for a walking or driving tour.

As we drive north on state Route 35 past the town of Rayne, we arrive at Church Point. Here, musicians congregate at the Friday night Cajun Jam at the American Legion Hall, Post 225. Anyone in town can point the way. A generation ago, musicians played at home parties, but happily for travelers, the parties have moved to public venues.

This cheerful sound can be found most any day in any town. You may even be serenaded by the owners at Le Vieux Moulin, a gift shop in an historic building that sits off Route 35 at the town’s entrance.

In an even smaller nearby town, Richard, we find accordion maker Elton Doucet, who explains his hobby of making fine musical instruments. The small German-style accordions with buttons instead of keys are in great demand here.

Mudbugs and music

It is hard to leave the friendly people in any of these towns, but the byway is waiting, so after an overnight in Crowley, we head north on state Route 13. In the shallow fields, farmers drive a strange boat with wheels and a large paddlewheel in back. These homemade contraptions are used to maneuver through the shallow water and gather the crawfish. When crawfish season is over and the mudbugs burrow back into the mud, rice is planted in the same fields. Occasional higher ground, more like real prairie, provides grazing for beef cattle, tended by cowboys on horses.

“With the high grass and shallow water, four-wheel drives would not work,” the ranger at the Acadian Cultural Center explained.

The Eunice Chamber of Commerce, Eunice Depot museum and the Cajun Music Hall of Fame stand between the railroad tracks and Route 13 in Eunice. Developer C. C. Duson laid out this neat town in 1894 and named it for his wife.

At the Cajun Music Hall of Fame (240 C.C. Duson St.), Dorothy Pitre tells the stories of legendary musical pioneers. Acadians brought French folk music with them. When they adopted the small accordions of German immigrants, the bands took their present form–a fiddle, a guitar, an accordion and a triangle.

Some bands today add drums or even an electronic keyboard, but those additions, as well as amplified string instruments, can cause arguments about what is authentic French Cajun.

Zydeco arose from blending Caribbean and black African music and rhythms. Zydeco bands rifled kitchen cupboards and added spoons and a washboard fitted over the chest like armor. Players use anything handy, like a can opener, to strum a rhythm.

In the 1950s, when local bands started playing early rock music, an Englishman dubbed it Swamp Pop, and a third style was born. Any of these styles may be played by any band, but always with audience participation. This is tap-your-toes, get-out-of-your chair-and-dance music.
But for Cajun music pilgrims, the near holy shrine is Fred’s Lounge in Mamou. Pure joy reigns at Fred’s Lounge on Saturday morning, a humble bar on the main street of Mamou, that opens only one day a week. Mamou is straight north of Eunice on Route 13. The walls of the small wooden building bulge as it fills with music and good times. Ville Platte radio station KVPI broadcasts the show, along with news, in French.

From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, bikers from New Orleans and vacationers from as far away as Minnesota, Israel and Belgium join local farmers in their plaid shirts and Levis. The bar stools are full, but most people stand gathered around the band and dance floor. Few sit at tables. A sign indicates the rowdy joy of the place. “Please do not stand on the cigarette machine, jukebox or bar. Thank you, Fred.” Fred is gone, but his legacy remains.

Coming out into the quiet street is as disorienting as emerging from a dark movie theater after a matinee.

Back in Eunice, more out-of-towners than locals will be at the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve Cajun Prairie Cultural Center (250 W. Park) for cooking and music demonstrations on Saturday afternoon. To complete the day, we line up outside the Liberty Center for the Performing Arts (200 W. Park), where each Saturday night in the auditorium of the restored 1924 Liberty Theater, the National Park Service hosts the Rendez Vous des Cajuns, which is heard on Lafayette’s National Public Radio station KRVS. Most of the program is in French and a few couples twirl in front of the stage, while the audience taps toes and claps.
natural wonders

After a night in Eunice, we head north on Route 13 toward Turkey Creek. North of Mamou, the flat lands of the southern part of the drive give way to gentle hills and piney woods. Southeast of Turkey Creek, just off state Route 3042, Chicot State Park and the Louisiana State Arboretum slow our heart rate. Here another kind of musician takes over. High trills and repeated melodies accompany our walk along the trail at the arboretum. There are enough trails to keep birders or a family busy for a week, and many people camp out at the nearby Chicot Lake, combining their fishing and bike-riding activities with a visit to the arboretum.

From this respite, the road heads south on Route 3042 to Ville Platte, a town packed with plantation-style homes shaded by massive live oaks and studded with brilliant azaleas. The seat of government for Evangeline Parish shows off its history in the Maison Jean Marie Laran Museum (619 W. Main St.) and prairie plants in the Native Plant Heritage Garden, a community centerpiece located on East Main Street.

Two historic towns on the byway’s eastern edge round out the trip. Pretty tree-shaded Washington, located off state Route 103, dates from 1770 and was Louisiana’s second-largest port in the 1820s. To perpetuate the sense of time standing still, the only restaurant in town occupies a beautifully preserved steamboat warehouse beside quiet Bayou Courtableau.

Most people head to Washington for its many antique shops. True to its lost-in-time atmosphere, there are no motel chains here, but some charming bed-and-breakfast inns.

Just south of Washington, Opelousas, which dates to 1720, is known as the Zydeco capital. The Original Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival is held annually on the Saturday before Labor Day just outside Opelousas in Plaisance.

To explore the towns, music and food of authentic Cajun country, follow the Zydeco-Cajun Prairie Byway for an adventure to remember.

Vera Marie Badertscher is a contributor from Tucson, Ariz.

Jul/Aug 2006 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information, contact:

Acadia Parish Tourist Commission, call 1-877-783-2109, or visit the Web site www.acadiatourism.org;

Evangeline Parish Tourism Commission, call (337) 363-1878, or visit www.evangelinetourism.com;

The St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission, call 1-877-948-8004 or click on www.cajuntravel.com.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

 

 

 

 


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