The Old Paris of the West and Fort-de-France

 

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The view from my AirBNB – looking out over Fort-de-France

Friday was my day in Fort-de-France, as well as the day of my Karambole tasting tour. I woke up on the early side of 6am and threw open my door, excited to see Martinique in daylight. I was not disappointed. The view from my doorway looked down onto the bay of Fort-de-France; I was perfectly perched, and could see out across the city and bay to the sea. I hopped in my car and made my way into the city, a bit braver now that there was sunlight. Driving during the day was slightly less terrifying than during the night, but only slightly. I only had to change my route once, so I definitely didn’t get as lost as I thought I would. It helps that this city is incredibly small compared to Paris or DC. It’s closer to the size of Madison, Wisconsin if nothing else. I kept my fingers crossed for a parking space, and was lucky to find one right on the pier side, not even having to parallel park. I was rather early for meeting up with my tour guide, so I got out to explore a bit and find breakfast.

I should always just expect that my first meals in a foreign country are going to be an learning experience. The city still seemed to be sleeping, but I found a little pastry shop. My brain had absolutely not shifted to French mode, so I ordered a cup of coffee and naturally got a tiny espresso. The French don’t really do coffee to go… I drank it in two sips, munched on a raisin pastry and moved on.

 

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I’ll keep my head, thanks

I walked around a bit and stumbled upon the headless statue of Josephine in La Savane Park. The locals here don’t like her much – hence the missing head. They blame her for bringing back slavery to Martinique after it was abolished the first time. Her head was knocked off twice, so now the replacement stays in a museum. I suppose she had enough admirers (including myself) so I don’t feel too bad for her.

I walked to the hotel designated as the meeting place and met Chrystalle, our guide. We picked up a mother and daughter pair, Americans Anne-Marie and Maris, a French-Canadian couple (Sylvie and Jean-Claude), and two Hungarians (Gertrude and someone who’s name I don’t remember but was decidedly Germanic, like Hans or something). Anne-Marie and Maris were talkative and seemed excited to find another English speaker. Sylvie and Jean-Claude were gently sweet and more than obliging to take pictures for me. Gertrude and “Hans” had a bit of a language barrier, though I did discover that Gertrude was 81! I’ll admit I couldn’t believe that given how adventurous she was.

Chrystalle filled the time driving in between stops with stories of the history and culture of the island. We were on the Pile et Face tour, that took us north of the city. Our first stop was a church built in the likeness of Sacre-Coeur in Paris, to my surprise. It was built following the eruption of Mont Pelee in 1902, since the people believed the eruption was punishment for their sins and the church was their penance. It offered beautiful views of the capital city and bay, and inside it was a simple sanctuary with older ladies methodically cleaning the altar. I offered a candle prayer, then met up with the group again for a tasting of banana wine and banana and guava pastries. We hit the road and continued up (and down and side to side on the crazy mountain road) past the Jardin de Balata – a botanical garden to which I’d return on my last day. Our next stop was a river in the rainforest. Legend says mermaids live in the rivers in Martinique, not the ocean. We ate some traditional bread and drank some Creole-style hot chocolate as we walked about.

I was in awe of the rainforest. So lush, bursting with birdsong, the vines reaching down from impossibly high tree limbs. Some old stone steps led straight up into the mountain and I wished I could take a hike and follow them up – my first clue that maybe hiking was going to be prevalent on this trip.

Continuing with the water theme, we stopped at the waterfall Saut Gendarme. Steep steps led down from the road and across a stream to the waterfall. The water was cold and clear, and several of us took off our shoes to wade in the pool made by the crashing falls. The temperature of the water contrasted sharply with the humid, hot air. Chrystalle gave us some candied papaya to chew on as we waded, and as some light rain began we piled back in the van and approached St. Pierre, the old Paris of the West.

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Saut Gendarme

The landscape in Martinique is incredibly varied for such a small island. Here in the north, the ‘pitons’ left behind by the volcanoes tower over you to impossible heights. They are covered in the richest shades of green, and on some of the smaller ones, colorful houses sit precariously on their slopes like dropped gemstones. The valleys cut deep, and white plumes of smoke drift gently up through the trees as some of the locals prepare their noon meal, usually of smoked chicken. The clouds cast shadows over the forests and create shades of blue mixed in as they float by on the sea breezes. Chrystalle gave us more of the history of Mont Pelee as we soaked it all in. Mont Pelee is not the type of volcano to have slow lava flows – it erupts in an explosion of ash and rock and gas, killing those in the vicinity almost instantly. Although it gives warning signs in advance, the government administrators of Martinique in 1902 did not want to reschedule a legislative election at the time and refused to let people evacuate. On the morning of the 1902 eruption, the governor sent a chilling telegram declaring the island completely safe. Two hours later, he and his family and 30,000 others died within seven minutes of the explosion. The seas surrounding the island boiled, and ships and houses caught fire. The air was thick and choked everyone as they tried to breathe. St. Pierre, the Paris of the West, was destroyed, and to this day has not fully recovered.

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Hands down the best fruit juice I ever had, and a bit of sunscreen on my nose

St. Pierre is still a gem worth visiting today, however. It is perched right on the deep blue sea in the shadow of the volcano. My tour group and I visited the ruins of the theater and prison, the latter of which supposedly housed one sole survivor of the eruption, since he was so locked up. By the time we were exploring the ruins, the midday heat was sweltering and reflected up off the burnt Italian marble of the theater floor into our reddening faces. Chrystalle bought us all fresh-pressed exotic fruit juices, and it was unlike any juice I’d ever tasted. The fruits at the juicers were enormous, thanks to the fertile soil of the volcano. Grapefruits as large as my head – I’m not exaggerating. We followed that up with some pork pastries and washed it all down with Punch Coco, a delightfully creamy rum drink that I immediately fell in love with and made me regret I had no checked bag to take some home in.

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What is up with the ditches?! As if driving wasn’t scary enough!

To make that regret worse, our next stop was the Depaz rum distillery. The plantation sat up on a hill looking out over the landscape and coastline. Once we stepped out of the van, we were awash in the sweet scent of rum. We walked up past fields of sugarcane to the big Creole style house, though unfortunately we’d long past the office to purchase tickets to go inside. I love Creole style mansions – they look so beautiful and formal yet integrated into the landscape, with nothing but shutters for windows and flowers and palm trees outlining the foundations.I can only imagine what it would be like to live in such a place – I admit, I’m tempted.

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Call me captivated – Depaz Distillery, Martinique

I walked back down the hill and through a water collection exhibit and peeked into the distillery itself, but there wasn’t too much to see from the tiny doorway. Especially compared to Habitation Clement, which I’d see later. I did some tastings in the gift shop, and a man swooped in to give me a taste of the most delicious golden rum I’ve ever tasted. It was smooth and slid down my throat like butter, though I could not find him again to ask which variety it was. He had disappeared into crowd as quickly as my little tasting cup was emptied.

Soon our tour was off to the final stop – a quiet beach right off the roadside, with a tasting of a Martinique beer. The beach was devoid of other people, a common theme of the island I would find. Maris convinced me to have a dip in the water, and I’m glad she did. We swam in the shadow of the volcano, and the water was impossibly clear and calm. It’s a delight to leap into the ocean without fear of sharks or jellyfish, or even sharp rocks. I suppose that’s another reason this is paradise. After a short time, we climbed out, dried off, and got back into the van to head back to the capital city. I loved how my skin tasted of salt long after I’d left the water – I felt like a creature of the sea.

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Swimming in the shadow of Mont Pelee, the volcano

We arrived back in Fort-de-France and it was time to part ways. Having issue with my credit card payment, I had to pay with all my cash, so Ann-Marie and Maris walked with me to find an ATM, bless them. I had no desire to be completely devoid of cash. We passed a market that was just about to close, and finally made it to the centre commercial (mall) where I was able to get some euros from a bank. Sensing their impatience, I said my good byes and pulled out my walking tour, finally truly alone in the city.

I made my way back to La Savane, the park that I’d designated as my starting point. I paused briefly for a quick sandwich and guava juice at a local cafe, and was eaten alive by mosquitoes despite my bug spray. So much for Zika protection. My first real stop was Fort St. Louis, a historic, active military fort overlooking the bay. I was intrigued by its imposing silhouette. This fort was the site of several battles, and even housed France’s gold reserves during WW2, protected by the Americans. I walked up to the booth in La Savane to get tickets, and the ticket seller asked how many in my group. “Um, just one?” I answered uncertainly in French. He gave me a disbelieving and pitying look, and informed me that the minimum group for tours was, in fact, two. The trials of traveling alone. I sulked a bit, rallied, and soldiered on.

 

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Found my better twin at the Musee Ethnographie!

I stopped into the Schoelcher Library that looked out onto La Savane, then La Musee Departmental, which included exhibits on the history of the island and it’s people. The St. Louis Cathedral, my next stop, was being restored, and I was too chicken to enter the side door at the front near the altar, or I just didn’t care enough to. I made my final trek to the Musee Ethnographie, probably my favorite stop of the tour. Although not allowed to take pictures, I took quite a few, since no one was watching and that’s my highest form of rebellion. I did feel slightly guilty as the gentleman at the counter had let me in for free, but once I saw the first exhibit of historical figure dolls made of banana leaves and vegetation (including Queen Elizabeth), reservations were out the shuttered window. I walked through reproduction Creole rooms, studied Martinique traditional clothing styles and headdresses, and ogled some exquisite golden jewelry that may or may not have belonged to prostitutes, I couldn’t tell.

It was still relatively early when I left the museum, but the sun was beginning to set, and the nerves that came with being alone in a foreign city at night began to set in. I needed to eat before I went home, but in the French style, most of the restaurants wouldn’t open until 7pm for dinner. I was at a loss, lonely, and unsure of myself. I meandered back to La Savane and sat at the root of a towering palm tree, half wishing for a coconut to fall on my head just for the story. I called home, as one is wont to do in these situations, and my mother suggested I find groceries to prevent this annoyance in the future. Not a bad idea.

That led to the conundrum though – where on earth do people buy groceries in Martinique? I couldn’t remember seeing one grocery store. I wandered aimlessly for a bit, and was confronted by a local man. He seemed keen so I gave my usual lie that I was visiting my father who worked for the university. He was nice enough and pointed me in the direction of a grocery store, right back in the same centre commercial that had the bank. I bought some guava pastries (if you can’t tell, I fell quickly in love with guava), bread, bananas, cheese, salami, caramels, and of course, chocolate. Groceries in tow, I headed back to sit on the pier to wait for my chosen, top-rated, and affordable restaurant to open.

Children played in the park on the dockside, and I watched friends meet up for the evening. Several couples hopped in their dinghies roped to the pier and rowed out to their yachts out in the harbor for the night. This was probably the most alive I’d seen the city – it usually just seemed so closed off. As 7pm approached I walked towards my chosen restaurant. Most shops were shuttered and closed, and the streets were almost empty and dark. It was so unlike an evening in an American city or Paris – it made me slightly uncomfortable. I walked past my restaurant twice in the hopes that it would open, but alas, it never did, and I’ll never know why. I walked back to the pier and went to the Black Pearl, a touristy restaurant near my parked car that was open. I ate marlin and rice, with a passion fruit ice cream for dessert. As the restaurant began to fill up a bit more, I quickly paid and left, making my way home.

Honestly, I can’t say that I enjoyed the capital city overmuch that afternoon. After Paris, this city felt so tiny, and the museums just an afterthought. I didn’t come to Martinique to see the city and its museums anyways, but I figured I might as well see the capital once and what it had to offer. I’m glad that I did, but it felt so lonely, even with people around. It was like a twilight zone version of Paris; simultaneously touristy and empty, making me very uneasy. I’m glad I didn’t devote more than an afternoon to it.

I arrived back to my AirBNB and took a shower in the tiny shower area. I fell asleep to the sounds of the island forests with sweat on my brows.

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