By Richard Varr
The quaint town of St. Martinville, just a 25-minute drive from Lafayette, is at the historical heart of Louisiana’s lively French Cajun and Creole culture. With shaded squares and waterfront areas along Bayou Teche, St. Martinville is where French Acadian refugees first landed to their new home in 1764.
Highlights include the Acadian Memorial, with its 12’ by 30’ mural, “The Arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana.” It’s a massive artwork based on the true-life stories of some of the Acadians expelled from Nova Scotia by the British. The Evangeline Oak, the most photographed tree in the world, marks the spot of an Acadian heroine reunited with her lover as depicted in Longfellow’s 1847 poem Evangeline.
Other historical highlights include St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church where who is believed to be Longfellow’s real life heroine, Emmeline LaBiche, is supposedly buried in a tomb topped with an impressive Evangeline statue, although some locals will tell you the tomb is empty.
“Longfellow was writing this because he championed these people who had come to America. He wrote the story of the Acadians – factual information of their deportation,” explains my tour guide. “He wrote a legend of a story he had heard of separation during the deportation. The poem is about separation and it’s a way of telling the Americans of these people that came here and keep that story alive.”
“So for us to have this memorial here, people come from all over the world and not just think that Cajuns are fun loving with their music and that their food is wonderful,” continues the guide. “But they can know the history and the story. It’s crucial because we were among the first North American settlers.”
Other St. Martinville attractions include the Museum of the Acadian Memorial, showcasing more on the Acadian’s arrival, while the African American Museum highlights the history and arrival of Africans to Louisiana in the mid 1700s.