The temptation to visit Grand Bassam right at the beginning of the journey through Ivory Coast had been great, but leaving it for last turned out to be a good thing. After leaving my stuff in a seaside hotel, I walked the sandy road running parallel to the beach, first towards the west, then east. It is a string of restaurants and hotels and, near the intersection with the road leading to the bridge and mainland Ivory Coast, with street vendors and artist trying to sell their wares like nowhere else before in the country. A different feel, certainly. But when I leave the tourist traps behind, I enter the true colonial area of Grand Bassam, also known as the Quartier Francais, or French neighbourhood. After the capital was shifted to Bingerville in 1896, Grand Bassam declined, until only squatters lived in the grand buildings until the former capital was revived in the 1970s. Still, by far most people live across the Lagune Ebrié, and the streets in this old part of town are virtually empty. My first goal is to see the Maison Ganamet in the northeast of town. Like almost all colonial buildings, it is in ruins, parts of the walls gone, and trees growing through the open windows with roots clinging to the walls that must have been white, once upon a time.
The building is a curious mix of classical European styles and Eastern touches. Mister Ganamet was a wealthy Lebanese businessman who commissioned the house. From here, I walk further east, past a curious tower with a chicken on top, eventually turning into one of the narrow sandy streets towards the south, towards the ocean. Boys playing soccer, girls running around, women chatting and men playing card games, all saluting me: it is a lively neighbourhood. I walk the beach back towards the west, where the sun will be setting later on, and turn inland to have a closer look at several other colonial buildings. The next morning, I do a morning walk in the colonial district, starting at the Governor's Palace, which currently houses the Museum of Costumes, and has a grand entrance with two circular staircases leading to a veranda. Opposite the palace, I find the heavily ruined Palais de Justice, currently under repair (and I wonder whether it can be repaired at all). A little further on is the old Post Office, with the mail boxes still open but obviously not in use anymore. There is a monument, a defiant Marianne in brass, to those who died in the yellow fever epidemic that killed many Bassamois.
After walking to the other side of the lagoon to see the old lighthouse, now closed, lunch, and some relax time on the beach, I continue to explore the colonial town in the late afternoon. There are so many more buildings: the classy BCA building on a corner, with beautiful doors, other buildings with verandas and balconies, several ones occupied by squatters or workshops for artists. I find a monument for Treich-Laplène, the French explorer and first governor of Ivory Coast, who died at the early age of 30 of kidney failure, when he was trying to fight malaria with quinine - it reminds me of my own malaria. Walking the streets of Grand Bassam, I can feel the history seep out of every wall, and blow through every square, but I also wonder if these remarkable buildings will be preserved, or even restored? I cannot deny that their current dilapidated state has its charm, but time and climate are merciless here. I have seen what happens if you leave buildings rot too long in Sassandra, a few hundred kilometres to the west. Let's hope that the rich history and appeal of Grand Bassam will be preserved for generations to come.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Grand Bassam (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Grand Bassam.
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