San Juan, Puerto Rico (USA) 2022
“It was a dark and stormy night . . . .” How many works of fiction start like that? Well, this isn’t a work of fiction and it was morning rather than night when we sailed into San Juan’s harbor on December 17, but the rest of that phrase applied. We got up early in the hope of seeing the sail in past the fort of El Morro that is supposed to be a good one. But the captain double-crossed us by arriving about a half hour before the scheduled time. So we missed it, getting out on deck only after we were well into the harbor. It was pretty dark still and rainy and overcast, so we probably wouldn’t have seen much anyway (those grapes were probably sour anyway, right?).
We have been to San Juan a few times, most recently on the 2018 world cruise. On that occasion we were docked right by the old town, where you could step off the ship and walk into town. You can see that visit, and read more about San Juan, here:
This time we were docked quite a distance away so that we had to take a shuttle bus to get into town. Here is what it looked like from there.
It rained off and on for most of the morning and a lot of passengers decided to spend the day on the ship. But not us! Carrying our umbrellas we ran through the rain to the shuttle bus and boarded for the lengthy trip into old town. The old town is built on a fairly steep hill up from the waterfront and the shuttle dropped us off in Columbus Square, a little way up. We walked around that delightful neighborhood for awhile, uncharacteristically gray from rain and overcast, and had to run for cover several times.
We walked over to the Parque de las Palomas (Park of the Pigeons). The park sits on top of the old city walls where it was originally built in the second half of the 18th century as a gun emplacement. Its name comes from all the pigeons that can usually be seen here (but not on the rainy day we visited) and the fact that part of this park is the only place were it is legal to feed pigeons in San Juan. The park was closed for renovation in 2015 and after being damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 it did not reopen until May of 2022, about 7 months before we arrived. A brick and stone wall lining the city side of the park has holes, like a dovecote, where the pigeons hang out. There are some old gnarled looking trees, colorful decorations and a killer view of the bay over the top of the city wall that must be even more spectacular when the sun is out. There were pigeons in residence but nothing like the huge crowds of birds that can be seen here on nice days when local folks are out spreading corn meal for them to eat. An arch was above the walkway in the park with a blue sign next to it: “Please do not feed the birds beyond this point.”
Leaving the park we headed up to the top of the hill where we walked along the cobblestone street past the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (the city’s namesake) to the statue of the conquistador Ponce de Leon, who founded the city in the early 16th century. The statue is in a park next to a church called Iglesia de San Jose, built shortly after the city was founded, where Ponce de Leon’s body was interred for almost 300 years before being moved to the cathedral.
Finally getting our bearings we realized that El Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the fort we primarily wanted to visit today, was actually in the opposite direction. So we walked back along the soggy streets a good way until we finally spotted it.
San Juan was a very valuable city for the Spanish, known as the “key to the Antilles.” So they built several fortifications to defend it from attack. The two largest forts in old San Juan are Fort San Cristobal, built in the 16th and 17th centuries, and El Morro, first constructed in 1540. We explored San Cristobal when we were last here in 2018 so this time we decided to visit El Morro, which we had once visited many years ago.
El Morro is built on an imposing spot, on a high rocky promontory (which is what el morro means) at the entrance to the bay. It was originally just a round tower with four cannon, but by the end of the 18th century it looked pretty much as it does today. It held off repeated attacks by the British and Dutch and in 1898 the Americans attacked the fort three times, but took over only after Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the US at the end of the Spanish American War. It was transferred from the military to the National Park Service in 1961 and restored mostly to its appearance during Spanish rule.
We entered through the front gate passing what used to be a moat and were given a booklet with our free admission. Admission to this fort is $10 for each adult, but if you have a National Parks Service Senior Pass it is free, so we saved $20. We learned about this on our last visit to Puerto Rico when we had to pay full admission to Fort San Cristobal because we had left our Senior passes at home, forgetting that the last stop on our world cruise was actually in the United States where that pass would be honored. I guess we are not yet too old to learn a new trick.
We walked around the main courtyard and looked at the museum exhibits inside the rooms there. Then we climbed up to the top of the walls, which are some 18 feet thick. At the corners of the walls are turrets called garitas that were used as sentry posts and sea watchtowers. From the walls was a nice view of the city beyond the large grassy open space in front of the fort. This open space had been a defensive feature, providing a vast area without shelter that any enemy attacking by land would have to cross under heavy fire from the fort. When the American military occupied the fort after the Spanish American war they built recreation facilities there, including a baseball field and a golf course.
The gray tower visible over the top of the fort’s walls is a lighthouse. It was first built in 1846, making it the oldest lighthouse in Puerto Rico, but it became unusable after American naval bombardment in May of 1898 during the Spanish American War. The Americans had it up and running less than a year later but in 1905 it developed a dangerous crack and had to be replaced with the current tower. When we visited the lighthouse was closed and fenced off, perhaps for more repair and renovation.
On the ocean side of the fort was a triangular extension on a lower level that once contained cannon emplacements (I’m pretty sure each of the circular markings was for one cannon). This must have been a formidable barrier for any hostile ship trying to turn this corner to enter the bay. The surf was vigorous on the rocky promontory and there was a long island with palm trees in the distance.
We left the fort and headed back into town to find somewhere for a late lunch. Because of the intermittent rain we wanted to eat and, more importantly, sit down inside. We ended up having two generous plates full of delicious empanadas at a small place called La Danza. We were seated at a nice table in an open doorway on a side street, which was blocked off for some reason and guarded by police. With the rain outside not quite hitting our table it was a very pleasant place to eat and relax after a lot of walking on wet and uneven surfaces.
Then, a bonus! looking across the side street from our seats in the open door we spotted a sign on the wall for Anita’s gelato place. Jeremy, our cruise and travel director, had raved about this gelato place during his port talk so we decided to have dessert there. And boy was Jeremy right! We have had gelato in a lot of cities around the world but this was certainly one of the best. Not only was the gelato really good but they dished it out very generously. Only in New Zealand can we recall them packing more gelato into a single scoop. Its fun to watch them keep adding more after your cup or cone already looks more than full. We have never seen anything like that in the US before.
It turned out we had inadvertently come full circle. At the end of the street our restaurant was on we saw the Capilla del Cristo, a small chapel built in the 18th century. Legend has it that during a horse race one rider lost control and went over the wall. A bystander invoked the deity to save him and although the horse died the rider lived. This chapel was reputedly built as a monument to this miracle. The chapel is only open one day a week and it wasn’t the day we were there, so we weren’t able to see the inside. But the left side of the chapel in the picture below is also one side of the Parque de las Palomas we had visited in the morning and a number of the park’s denizens were perched on top under a dull gray sky. We walked on toward the shuttle bus stop, stopping for a while in a small park full of flowers where we talked to our daughter on the phone (easy since this was in the US). The bus was waiting when we arrived and took us back to the ship.
Thus ended our voyage around Africa, since San Juan was our last port before disembarking in Ft Lauderdale on December 20. It was a fascinating and eye opening journey with many new and different areas and peoples to see and meet. It had its downside (particularly the time in quarantine) but overall it was well worth doing, with many experiences we will long remember.
But before we leave it should be recalled that one of the downsides to this trip was the timing, getting us home (after a two day drive) on December 22, just two nights before Christmas Eve, with no time to prepare our usual family activities. The ship’s crew began decorating the ship for Christmas shortly before we left the continent of Africa, however. There were decorations all over, but Christmas Central was in the atrium with a large display that took about four days for them to complete. And when we arrived home we still had the best part of the Christmas season, spending several days with our family and watching our usual Christmas fare together on TV, primarily that old Christmas favorite the original Star Wars trilogy on Christmas day. So we will leave this episode of the blog and the entire voyage with a few Christmas pictures from the ship’s atrium.
Mindelo, Cabo Verde 2022
The morning of December 11 dawned for us in Porto Grande Bay in Mindelo, another city in Cabo Verde. Founded in 1793 by the Portuguese, the town was named Mindelo in 1838 to commemorate a successful military landing near Porto during the Portuguese Liberal War. Its population is around 70,000, accounting for most of the population of the island of São Vicente. As a long voyage starts coming to an end one begins to tire of long excursions (particularly on a bus) so unless there is something we really want to see we tend toward just walking around the port city on our own. We had never been to Mindelo so this seemed a good plan here, a relaxing walk around the town. We set out on the shuttle bus with our friends Robert and Bill to get a feel for the city.
The Portuguese discovered this island around 1460 and its discovery is attributed to Diogo Afonso, one of the explorers sponsored by Henry the Navigator. A large statue of him sits on the waterfront facing the bay. Also near the waterfront, located in a traffic circle, is a tall sculpture of an eagle on top of what looks like a tower of rocks. In 1922 the aviators Sacadura Cabral and Gago Coutinho made the first air crossing of the South Atlantic, flying in several stages (with 3 different planes) from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. The trip, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Brazil’s declaration of independence, took almost 3 months because of having to ditch and replace their plane several times on the way, Their last stops before crossing the ocean were in Mindelo and Praia, Cabo Verde. The eagle sculpture was erected on the 76th anniversary of their flight, which would have been 1998.
We visited a souvenir store in an art gallery down the way where we learned about Cabo Verde’s favorite folk singer, Cesária Évora, known as the “Barefoot Diva.” A native of Mindelo, the airport is named after her. We walked further down the street to where the library was located, according to Mary’s research. The three story building was there but it was closed up tight and it took us a while to find a small sign, not on the front. We hope it wasn’t closed for good. On the back was a building sized wall painting of Cesaria Evora (photo rather blurred but you get the idea).
The Tower of Belem was built in Lisbon in the late 16th century on the Tagus River to defend the city, and it also served as the departure and return port for Portuguese explorers. A three story replica of that tower sits on the waterfront in Mindelo. Opened in 1921, it now houses Mindelo’s sea museum and has a nice view from the top. We didn’t know about that when we visited, but here are some pictures of the outside.
The Pro-Cathedral of Our Lady of the Light was built in 1862 and is one of the oldest buildings in town. As we understand it, a pro-cathedral is a parish church that temporarily plays the role of a cathedral in a diocese that doesn’t have one. It is smaller than most actual cathedrals but was expanded in recent years so that only the facade is original.
Not far from the church was a delightful souvenir store, brightly painted inside and out, called IstanBlue. Another building had an interesting painted door and there were trees and flowers in the neighborhood as well.
Originally opened in 1874, with a second floor added in 1934, is the bright pink Palacio do Povo (People’s Palace). Originally intended to house the government if the capital of Cabo Verde was moved to Mindelo (it wasn’t), this striking building now contains a museum space.
Our last stop was at an open air market where vendors were selling clothes, crafts and souvenirs. Some were set up inside a covered area and others had their wares spread out on the ground. There were interesting items to be had and at very reasonable prices. After that we walked back to the shuttle bus stop to return to the ship. All in all we really hadn’t strayed too far from the waterfront where the bus let us off.
This being our last African port there was a sail away party on the aft deck with the very good Ocean Bar band playing rock music. It was nice out except for a very strong wind. To our left in the port was what looked like a huge rock emerging from the water to form an island called Ilheu dos Passaros. On top of the dark rock island was a white structure leading from the top to half way down. This turned out to be the Farol de D. Luis, a lighthouse. We were gone by the time the sun set so we didn’t see it lighted up but we understand that the light is right at the top of the rock with a small 15 foot tower and a white stairway down to the keeper’s house halfway down. The lighthouse was built in the early 1880’s and named for the then king of Portugal. Also to our left on top of a tall hill was the Fortim d’El Rei, a fort built in 1852 to defend the Porto Grande Bay and the city. Its military use ended in 1930 and it has since fallen into disrepair from neglect. We saw this fort from the shore in town as well.
Very near our ship on our left was the Mein Schiff Herz, a German cruise ship. We waved back & forth. We had some very nice views of the harbor and the city as we prepared to leave.
As we sailed away from Mindelo after a very nice day in our last foreign port there were some memorable vistas in the fading sunlight.
Praia, Cabo Verde 2022
December 10 found us docked across the bay from Praia, the capital of Cabo Verde (Cape Verde Islands) since 1770. It was founded by Portuguese settlers in 1615 at the location of an earlier settlement destroyed by Sir Frances Drake in 1585. We visited here in 2018 when we walked through the city and took a bus tour around this mostly dry and barren island. You can see that here:
Since we had toured the island before and had seen much of this small city of around 160,000 (about a third of the population of Cabo Verde), we decided just to take the shuttle into town and wander around on our own with some of our tablemates. We saw much we had seen before, had a beer and a bite to eat, and found the national library (our only new objective).
The Avenida 5 De Julho (date of independence in 1975) is a pedestrian street lined with trees on both sides that have been pruned to form a sort of canopy over the street. When we were here last in 2018 this was just getting started and none extended over the street but there has been notable progress since then and the street is now completely covered. It looks very nice and provides important shade to walkers. On this street we visited the Municipal Market, a covered building full of stalls on two floors. It was early so the market was not yet crowded.
We walked out the back of the market and along a small street to reach a road that ran along the edge of a cliff with an extensive view across a valley containing another part of the city. We walked to the right and passed a wall with some interesting graffiti.
Mary had located the national library on a map, but it turned out to be in the valley, a long walk down old stone steps that had been brightly painted in rainbow colors. So we walked back across the town and walked down these stairs. Robert, Mary and I walked all the way down to the library while the others waited on the stairs about half way to the top. The library turned out to be closed (hopefully not permanently), so we weren’t able to see the inside.
Having trudged back to the top we explored for a while. The Palace of the Presidency of the Republic was built in 1894 as the residence of the Portuguese governor. After independence in 1975 it became the presidential palace. It is a fairly stolid looking building though not unattractive and has an excellent garden to one side (the guard made me stop taking pictures after I got this one).
We stopped by the large 1956 monument to Diogo Gomes, one of the men who discovered this island in 1460. It stands near a corner of the plateau that houses the center of the city and from the walls here we could see in two directions. To the left we could see Zaandam docked across the bay. To the right we looked over the beach of Gamboa and an island to the left not too far from shore called Santa Maria Island. This island was the first stop on Charles Darwin’s 1832 voyage on the Beagle, and where he made his first geological observations. It is now connected to the shore by a bridge about the length of a US football field. In the distance on a jetty you can see between the island and the shore is the Farol de Dona Maria Pio, a lighthouse built in 1881 on the southernmost tip of the island. It was named after the Portuguese queen at that time. Its tower is octagonal and is about 60 feet tall.
The large green square at the center of the city is called Praca Alexandre Albuguerque, named after a Portuguese governor of Cabo Verde. Along its side is the Pro-catedral Nossa Senhora d Graca (Pro-Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace). It opened in 1902 and is the seat of the Catholic Diocese of the island that dates back to 1533. Facing the square on another side is the Quartel Jaime Mota, which opened in 1826 as a military barracks. The current building dates back to 1872 and has been modified since. Jaime Mota was a Cape Verdean revolutionary killed by the Portuguese before independence, after which this building was named for him. It is unclear to us whether today it is used by the military or the police.
It was a hot day and we had done a lot of walking so we stopped at a place called Esplanada Morabeza in the square for a beer and a bite to eat. It had a shaded outdoor patio to relax on. We had a Strela beer and also ordered hamburgers. The beer was cold and good but the hamburgers were all but inedible. People who know Rick will realize how unusual it is for him to leave most of a hamburger on the plate, so you know it wasn’t good.
On our way back to the shuttle stop we passed the Supremo Tribunal de Justica (Supreme Court of Justice of Cabo Verde). It was established after independence in 1975 and has changed names since then but is till the highest court in Cabo Verde.
Back on the ship at dinner we had a modest celebration of a significant event. Three quarters of a century ago, on this date, Rick was born. Wow, three quarters of a century! Who could imagine that someone who looks so young could be so old? As usual on birthdays the restaurant staff brought us a small birthday cake and sang the Indonesian birthday song. A good time was had by all.
Dakar, Senegal 2022
On December 8 we were in Dakar, Senegal. We were supposed to be in Banjul, Gambia, but were informed a few days earlier that the stop had been changed because tidal conditions in Gambia, where we would have to sail up a river to the port, would not permit more than a brief stop there. We previously visited Dakar in 2018 and if you want to read more about this area you can see it here:
As you can read in that post, in 2018 the stop in Dakar was problematic, mainly because passengers were harassed in town and some crew members were robbed of their phones (as far as we know none of this happened during this visit). We had a bus tour of the highlights of Dakar on that visit along with a very interesting morning on Goree island. So we decided to spend this visit at the Bandia nature reserve visiting a variety of African animals.
Located about 40 miles south of Dakar, Bandia has some 2500 acres, soon to be expanded to 8500 we read in 2018 and again this year, of natural habitat surrounded by a fence. Since it was established in 1997 they have been bringing back many native species that had gone extinct in this area over the last several hundred years from hunting and the loss of habitat due to encroaching human settlement. We rode in safari vehicles through the reserve’s dirt roads with a guide to help spot animals and tell us about them (although her English was a little hard to understand). We left early in the morning, passing the Dakar railroad station on the way out, then boarded the safari vehicles, open but with a bright green canopy on top, and set out into the woods.
The absence of large predators is clear from the relaxed way the animals stand around, mostly eating, and from the fact that monkeys and birds can be seen walking around on the ground. We have read that there are some lions and hyenas here but they are kept in separate fenced areas so they can’t bother (by which we mean eat) the other animals. We did not see them.
We don’t know the names of all the animals we saw but will do our best. Our first encounter was with a Green Vervet Monkey, which seem to be plentiful in the reserve. They have black faces with orange, white and black fur, with very long tails. They are found as far afield as the Caribbean, where we saw one once in Barbados.
We saw several kinds of antelope. The Roan Antelope is striking for its black and white face and curved horns, resembling an Oryx with shorter horns. The Eland has straight horns and a clear beige face. We saw a group of them in some woods. Impalas were also there. We had seen them in herds during our 2018 South Africa safari, but here it looked like just a family group. In South Africa they provide food for the big cats and other predators, but there was none of that here.
We stopped near a lake where some birds were standing on the shore. We don’t have identifications but the tall one may be a heron.
We saw some Patas monkeys on the ground and sitting on logs. These are ground dwelling monkeys and they are the world’s fastest primates, able to run more than 30 miles per hour. I guess that comes in handy if you want to stay alive while living on the ground, although there doesn’t seem to be any danger in this area.
We came upon what turned out to be a young buffalo, sans horns, hurrying through the grass looking like some kind of strange dog or pig from a distance. Then it caught up to its mother who was grazing in the grass, which gave away its identification. If you look closely there is an Oxpicker bird perched on the mother’s side, just above and to the right of the calf. These little birds (6 or 7 inches) spend their time on the hide of buffalo, giraffes, rhinos and other large animals in Africa where they dine on ticks and other insects (as well as the animal’s blood sometimes if there is a sore spot). Most of the large animals don’t seem to mind them; perhaps they are happy to have their parasites removed.
Several giraffes were munching on some trees. And a couple of zebras were lazing in the grass. This is what you see when you do a game drive in the middle of the day, since most wild animals take it easy then and are more active in the evening and the early morning.
A couple of showy types of bird were around too. We saw two Western Red-Billed Hornbills sitting on a branch. Elsewhere on the ground we saw what is probably a Long-tailed Glossy Starling. It’s back was a shiny metallic looking blue-green and it had round yellow eyes that looked a little freaky. A startling starling!
Speaking of birds, we saw two ostriches, both males (black and white feathers). Ostriches are the biggest birds on Earth and the fastest two legged runners, peaking at about 40 miles per hour. Each of the ones we saw was by itself. With their large bodies and tiny heads they looked like something out of the movie Yellow Submarine.
Bandia Reserve has a large number of Beobab trees scattered throughout. These large trees can live a thousand years or more and have very fat trunks with a lot of water in them. They stood out from other trees during our drive because they were very white and mostly leafless (in addition to being big). Near the end of our drive we stopped by a particularly large one and our guide explained that inside this living thousand year old tree is where the indigenous people of the area bury their Griots when they die. Griots are African storytellers who preserve the local history through oral performance, with or without instrumental accompaniment. This is similar to Homer, the somewhat legendary blind troubadour of ancient Greece credited with authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey even though he would not have been able to read or write. Griots are prominent people in their societies, often important advisors to the local headmen. Our guide told us that after several generations the local people decided to stop burying their griots in this tree, but then they were hit by several years of drought. This convinced them to resume the practice, after which the drought ended. On the other side of the tree from where we were parked there is apparently a large hole in the bottom of the tree with a metal fence, behind which can be seen a couple of skulls.
After our drive was finished we walked to the outdoor cafeteria. We passed a fenced area on the way in which were several giant tortoises. The cafeteria has a view down to a lake that is full of crocodiles. Happily, they weren’t too close and the overlook was well beyond their reach.
So ends the good part of this excursion. It was a nice drive and we saw quite a few animals, considering the time spent and the time of day. But of course this was nothing like the 4 day safari we had in South Africa in 2018. Still, it was our only opportunity to drive into the woods to visit animals in their natural habitat, so we were happy to have done it.
We returned to the bus at the appointed time and had to wait . . . and wait, because there are often some people who think they are entitled to take as long as they want, here to eat and shop, before joining the others at the bus. Then as we finally left the reserve one of the passengers asked the guide if he could have something to drink. They didn’t have anything (some people bring their own water if this is important to them) so the whole bus full of people pulled over at what looked like a sort of drug store and we all waited while he went inside and bought some soda. We were irritated because the last time we were here there was a great impromptu market spread out on the dock and since we had missed shopping (and everything else) in Cape Town we were hoping to do some here. But as we got back into town, already much later than advertised, the guide announced we were going to stop at a large local market at the request of a couple of passengers who wanted to shop there. This was met by a loud chorus of “No, take us to the dock” from most of the other passengers but that made no difference. The bus pulled into an alley through traffic and the guide and about three people got off the bus and went into the market while the other 40 or so people just sat on the warm bus waiting for them. After about 25 minutes (I think) they finally returned, having purchased . . . nothing.
When we finally returned to the dock we discovered that this time there was no market there! We don’t know why but this was quite disappointing for us. Before dinner we sailed away from Dakar and from the continent of Africa, heading west with only two more stops before reaching the US.
Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire 2022
We arrived at Abidjan, the economic hub and largest city in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), on the morning of December 5. While this area was probably inhabited more than 10,000 years ago the current indigenous people apparently arrived from the north sometime before the 16th century. The name of the country derives from prolific trade in ivory with Europeans during the 17th century, but by the end of the century the consequent reduction in the elephant population had pretty much killed it. The French established a protectorate in the area in 1843 and in 1893 it officially became a French colony. Independence was achieved in 1960 and for some time this was considered a model of stability among newly independent African nations. But that ended after a coup in 1999 and two civil wars between 2004 until 2011. The current administration has been in office since 2010, winning its third election in 2022. Today Cote d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans, its largest industry, although this is quite controversial because of serious allegations about widespread use of forced child labor.
Abidjan is a large modern looking city with a population of some 4.7 million people. Originally a small fishing village, it was elevated to the status of “town” in 1903 and was the capital from 1934 to 1983, before and after independence. After independence development was rapid with the population growing from 180,000 in 1960 to more than 1.25 million by 1978. In 1983 the official capital was moved to Yamoussoukro, the president’s home village, but many government agencies and foreign embassies remain in Abidjan. We had an expansive view of the city from the port located on the other side of the Ebrie Lagoon.
The city was accessible from the port via a long bridge but we did not go there. Because the cruise industry was shut down during the pandemic our cruise had been postponed several times and we had been preparing for it since 2019. We had been booked for a couple of years on a private tour here that would have taken us to Grand Bassam, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the first French colonial capital of the Cote d’Ivoire colony from 1893 to 1896. Unfortunately that tour company closed down during the pandemic (as did many others) so when we saw that HAL was offering what sounded like a similar excursion we signed up. That might have been a mistake because it turned out that HAL’s excursion company was not ready for prime time.
We set out in the morning in two buses for the fairly lengthy drive to Grand Bassam. We had seen quite a bit of poverty the day before in Ghana but it seemed to be much worse here. We passed mile after mile of one story wooden structures looking like they might fall down in a strong wind. There was a lot of trash and rocks strewn around the ground in many areas. But many of the people were busy and dressed in very colorful clothing which kept the area from being quite as sad looking as it otherwise might have been. We passed the Akwaba monument, a large white modern sculpture of two people hugging that was erected in 1989. Akwaba means “welcome” in several of the indigenous languages and this is a monument to hospitality situated near the airport. Many women were carrying loads on their heads. These are street photos taken from a moving bus, so not as high in quality as one hopes. It should also be remembered that this is only a small part of the area, where our bus happened to be driving, so other parts of Ivory Coast may be quite different.
Grand Bassam is a town of about 85,000 located on the coast east of Abidjan. Originally occupied by the Nzema people more than 500 years ago it became the primary French port in the region in the mid 19th century. It was made the capital of the French Cote d’Ivoire colony in 1893. The capital was moved in 1899 because of a yellow fever outbreak but it remained a key port until the development of Abidjan in the 1930’s. By the 1960’s the town was all but abandoned but it began to revive a decade or two later. In 2016 19 tourists were killed in a mass shooting by radical Islamists but apparently there has been no such trouble since.
There are two sections of the town. The old French colonial settlement is near the coast and across a lagoon is the commercial area, built on what was originally the location of African servants’ quarters. We drove into town through the newer commercial area and crossed a bridge to reach the colonial part of town. As we approached the town we drove through the Place de la Paix where there was a large monument to the 500 (or more) women from Abidjan who staged a protest march in 1949 seeking the release of their husbands and brothers who were imprisoned in Grand Bassam for belonging to an anti-colonial party. They were stopped and beaten by French soldiers. Nobody was released from the prison.
We drove through the sometimes crowded streets and parked by an alley. We were instructed to walk down the alley where we came to the Cathedral du Sacre Coeur, the seat of the local Catholic diocese and the oldest cathedral in Cote d’Ivoire. It is modest compared to most cathedrals we have seen. A small wooden church was built on this spot in 1896 but it was deliberately burned down a few years later while combatting yellow fever. The current building opened in 1910. We milled around outside for about 20 minutes while our guides tried to negotiate our admittance but to no avail (One passenger insisted loudly that we had been barred for racial reasons, which we don’t think was true). Finally we were instructed to walk back to the bus, so we never saw the inside. Our friend Robert, however, stepped inside the front door and took some pictures before we were informed we were not welcome. While we waited in the bus for our guides to return, we saw some school children dressed in uniforms probably off to lunch.
Next we drove to the Maison des Artistes, billed in the excursion description as “a cooperative of craftsmen selling . . . paintings, masks, batik and woodwork.” Maybe we missed something here, but we didn’t see any craftsmen working or selling and the only art we saw was paintings. The gallery was not very big, the rooms were small and dim and we had to stay in line as we went through the building. On the way there we passed the municipal library, always a highlight for us.
Across the street is the National Costume Museum. This building was constructed between 1893 and 1902 and served until 1934 as the residence of the colonial governor, even after Grand Bassam was no longer the capital. In 1981 it was reopened as a museum, considered one of the notable attractions in town. We walked through the first floor, which housed about a dozen large glass cases containing mannikins wearing the dress of different indigenous peoples of the country. The excursion description said we were supposed to have a guided tour in English but that didn’t happen, and it really mattered because there were no signs in English to inform you what you were looking at. We have read since that there is more to see upstairs but there was no indication of that when we visited (at least in English) so we left after walking through the first floor, quite disappointed. Attached to one side of the building was a very well stocked craft and souvenir store.
We boarded the bus yet again for the short drive to our lunch spot. We had a very good buffet lunch, with local beer included, outside under tents near the sea shore by a hotel. We didn’t know its name, but a friend who took this excursion on a later cruise identified it as the Hotel Etoile du Sud (thanks Pete). Vendors were selling various souvenirs under a shaded structure by the beach and there was a fellow in a canoe just beyond the very active surf.
After lunch we were told to reboard the bus. After a while all the passengers and our guide moseyed aboard and we were driven . . . about one block to park again outside the costume museum. We sat there for more than half an hour while the folks from the other bus visited the museum. We have no idea why they didn’t visit it before lunch like we did or what they were doing instead, but this was really no fun at all. Why couldn’t we have visited one of the other landmarks promised in the tour description that we never did see? Or since this was the end of the tour of Grand Bassam they could have just driven us back to the dock at that point, but they said they had to wait and travel along with the other bus. Very puzzling and irritating.
We finally did drive back to Abidjan once the folks from the other bus were finished. At one point near the end of the drive a group of soldiers armed with automatic weapons directed all of the traffic off of the main road onto narrow service roads on each side. We sat there for about 15 minutes with the main road entirely empty and nothing happening. Then a single ambulance drove down the main road heading away from the city. A few minutes later we were permitted to drive on. We thought that ambulance must have been for someone pretty important! It gave us a taste of what local drivers must feel like when police accompanying one of our tour buses makes them clear the road for us. So here are some scenes we saw from the bus window, first in Grand Bassam and then during the remainder of the trip back to the dock.
In sum, Grand Bassam seems to be a worthwhile place to visit, after all it’s a UNESCO world heritage site. I imagine the private excursion here we had booked earlier would have been pretty interesting, with a small group and a knowledgeable guide well versed in English. But the folks running our excursion were unable to handle the logistics and we had very little in the way of explanation of what we were seeing. HAL’s Shore Excursion department agreed and refunded half of what we had paid for it. But they couldn’t give us back our only day to visit Cote D’Ivoire! Too bad.
We left the port before sunset, sailing a pretty good distance before we reached the open ocean. Leaving Abidjan in the distance we passed a pretty island full of palms on the way out.