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Senegal: Ile de Gorée

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Ile de Gorée | Senegal | Africa

[Visited: January 1988, January 1989, October 2013]

When Dakar was on my travel plans, I looked forward to going back to Ile de Gorée. It had been around 25 years since my last visit, and I had good memories on the small island off the coast of Dakar. I had some old pictures, but most of the images where in my mind. So, when I arrived at the harbour of Dakar where the boat to the island leaves from, I was excited - but I also had a feeling of hesitation. Sometimes, it is not good to go back to places where you have good memories; you might be in for a disappointment. Nothing stays the same, and some places change for the worst. For starters, the modern and clean terminal building the boat leaves from, looked totally unfamiliar, and un-African. I had to leave my bag behind, bought a return ticket, and waited inside the air-conditioned hall where I even found a wifi signal. The boat leaves regularly, and I did not have to wait long before the doors opened. When I approached the boat, I had my first déjà-vu: it was still the same boat I had used decades earlier. I made sure I was near the bow of the boat, which left almost precisely on time, and full with day-trippers, both foreigners and Senegalese. Immediately after leaving the harbour, Ile de Gorée was visible straight ahead of us - and close by.

Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Looking out over the bay of Gorée Island from the citadel on the north side of the island

It took only twenty minutes to reach the island. With a memory of empty, sandy streets and beaches, the sight of the small beaches full of people was a small shock. I walked off the pier, past the crowds, and once I reached one of the small sandy alleys, I found them almost empty. I quickly dumped my bag, and was off exploring the island. I headed to the northern tip first, walking through narrow streets with houses painted in shades of orange, and green shutters. The lane leading to the small citadel Fort d'Estrées is lined by palm trees. Inside, I found a small museum about the history of Gorée island, as well as Senegal, colonialism, and slave trade. One of the first places in Africa to be colonized by European powers, it was held by Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. The Dutch named it Goeree, from Goede Reede, or Good Anchorage, and the name stuck. Over the centuries, several fortresses were built across the small island. From the roof of the citadel, I had great views towards Dakar, and the small bay of Gorée island and Le Castel, the highest point on the south tip of the island. I headed to the House of Slaves, walking through the crowds again. This museum turned out to be much more popular; it was fully packed. Here, I found the infamous Door of No Return, where slaves left the island for their journey to the New World on the other side of the Atlantic. The role of Gorée island for the slave trade was less prominent than once thought, which does not make the small museum more confronting.

Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): The contours of Gorée Island seen from a distance

After leaving the museum and the crowds behind, I criss-crossed the streets of the island on my way to Castel, the highest point on the southern side of Gorée. I passed a small square with big trees, with the St. Charles church, from which singing was emanating. When I reached the western side of the island, the contours of Dakar Plateau appeared on the horizon, and when I turned around, I could see one of the oldest stone mosques of Senegal at the foot of the cliffs of Le Castel. A short climb took me to the plateau on top of the island. Here, I found the Monument Gorée-Almadies, dedicated to the African diaspora; it resembles a tall sail. All around, I found artists and galleries, most of them housed in one of the bunkers built during World War II. Apart from being a good viewpoint on the island, Le Castel is also the most strategic location, and a good defense of the city of Dakar. After waiting for sunset, I descended to the village with its brightly painted houses, had a nice fish dinner in the bay which was now almost deserted: all the day trippers were gone, and Gorée was the quiet, peaceful island I remembered. The next morning, when I walked up to Le Castel again for sunrise, I noticed dark clouds in the east, and within half an hour, a storm raged over the small island. The boat had serious problems docking on the pier, which almost completely disappeared in the ferocious waves. It was a totally different view of Gorée, one I had not seen before. While waiting for the boat, I asked myself how the island had changed, and my conclusion was that, yes, it had changed a lot, but also, that it had somehow managed to retain its character. The question on my mind, when we sailed off to Dakar again, was: when will I return to this little island?

Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): The Memorial Gorée-Almadies, on top of le Castel, dedicated to the African diaspora
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Afternoon light on wall with door of a restaurant on Gorée island
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Cliffs on the southern side of Gorée island at the foot of Le Castel
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Brightly painted house on Gorée island with tree growing against its wall
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Statue outside the Slave House with couple breaking their chains
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Typical scene on Gorée island: colourful houses on sandy street
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Palm trees welcoming the visitor to the Fort d'Estrées citadel, housing the history museum
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): The walls of the Fort d'Estrées citadel, housing the museum of the history of Senegal
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): House of Slaves on Gorée Island
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Mosque under Le Castle in the late afternoon
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Small square with trees and St. Charles church in the late afternoon
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Afternoon light on wall and window shutters
Picture of Ile de Gorée (Senegal): Rusty optical rangefinder on bunker turned into an art gallery on top of the island

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