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krisek Porto-Novo - A travel report by Krys
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Porto-Novo,  Benin - flag Benin
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krisek's travel reports

Africa’s exemplary democracy that once spun voodoo

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Before the state of Benin, the area was ruled by the Kingdom of Dahomey, Africa’s most feared kingdom. It became infamous by selling people into slavery. Voodoo and magic flourished there and many people were sacrificed to please the king’s ancestors.


Benin's National Assembly
Benin's National Assembly
The capital of Benin appeared very small to me. I restrained myself around the centre of the town, where the majority of places of interest could be found.

A major activity at the Place de la Republique was taking place when I arrived. I spent some time watching people working. A young man asked me as I was looking at the very slow progress in decorating the square, if I was a journalist. I said that I was a photographer (not true!), and he said that he was working at Reuters news agency. Then he asked me if was going to cover the big day, the following day. He had to explain to me what he meant and then I found out about the inauguration of the new president. He offered me a tour of the Parliament, since he was also working at the National Assembly press office, and he knew a few important people.

Later, TV crews arrived. I helped out a little. As I was connecting the second camera, a guy came up to me and asked me what I was doing there. I told him. Then he asked me about my passport and showed me his secret police badge. As soon as showed it to him, he said that I had to go with him to see the Chief of the Police at the Police Headquarters. This was not easy, since my French could only make any sense in a case of emergency, and somehow I did not think this was emergency. He ordered me to jump on his motorbike and took me to the station. The Chief kept asking me questions through an interpreter about my motives of coming to Benin, about the reasons why I was staying at this specific hotel, etc. It was not pleasant at all. He eventually asked one of his staff to take me down and note my details. I still didn’t know what was going on.

I later learnt that everyone, who stayed at my hotel was screened. The hotel was overlooking the place where the new president was taking the oath. Many heads of state of the African nations were coming, many big fish, ambassadors, diplomats, and all the kings of Benin. So, it did make sense after all.

Favourite spots:
Porto Novo Royal Palace
Porto Novo Royal Palace
My favourite place in the capital was the royal palace of the king of Porto Novo. Porto Novo was a kingdom, whose first king was the brother of the first king of Dahomey. Porto Novo was a reasonably peaceful kingdom and its decline came with the French, whom the king asked for protection from the evil Kingdom of Dahomey.

The palace in Porto Novo was extensive. It was actually more impressive than the palaces in Abomey. This was probably because many of the Dahomey palaces were burnt down and did not impact my imagination as much. However, the jewel of the museum was the guide. He was superb! He spoke good English and could mime the king's behaviour and the habits of his and his wives, including the way the king walked and the wives danced. He knew a lot about the palace and the kingdom and allowed me to take photographs.

My second favourite building was the great mosque. It resembled a cathedral. It was colourful and neglected! It had fascinating facades at the front and at the back.

What's really great:
Porto Novo
Porto Novo
The town had fine examples of colonial architecture in many different places. The majority of them were thoroughly weathered but some had been restored to their full glory to house state institutions like the National Assembly (the Parliament), the First Instance Course, and the High Court, for example. If more of the grand building were renovated and the streets cleaned of rubbish, Porto Novo would be even more charming place.

Being a low profile capital made the city great. The mix of the grand colonial architecture with the wooden houses on stilts erected above the water of the lagoon right next to them was a feast to my eyes and strain on my camera’s memory cards!

And then, there were the people - friendly, without hidden agenda, open and genuine. As I walked about the city, I was hardly ever alone. Oh yeah, I wished I had spoken better French! Yet, still a few students, who wanted to practice their English found me, which kept me ever happier.

Sights:
Porto Novo, houses on stilts
Porto Novo, houses on stilts
Porto Novo, although small, has a number of sights that kept me busy for three days. The Ethnographic Museum of Porto Novo is a great complement to the Royal Palace I mentioned above. I am not a museum person myself, but this one was really interesting. Its gate along the main street was gripping already. It is a gem in the capital!

Unique open-air cinema on the site of the Musee da Silva (which I did not visit) is worth a look for the atmosphere. It would show French films mainly.

There is obviously a market in town. It is significantly smaller than the one in Cotonou (which claims it is the largest market in Africa - Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa claims the same), but it is therefore calmer and easy to navigate.

I also liked the complex of the college. The two students I met in the centre took me there to show me where they studied. It was well organised and resembled uni compounds in Europe. The buildings were grey, concrete and ugly, but their assembly was interesting.

Accommodations:
Porto Novo
Porto Novo
I stayed opposite the Place de la Republique, at the hotel Casa Danza. It was perfectly located at the heart of the capital, close to everything. Its rooms (some with air conditioning) were not terribly clean, and the bathrooms needed an extra scrub here and there, but otherwise it was a good value (CFA 15,000 (USD 30)) and safe. Its restaurant downstairs was popular amongst the locals.

I also contemplated the hotel near the lagoon, Hotel la Detente, but it was much too basic and too close to the mosquitoes. I went there for a drink though and to have a glance at the houses on stilts.

Nightlife:
Porto Novo, Ethnographic Museum
Porto Novo, Ethnographic Museum
In the night, I cruised near the Place de la Republique. Casa Danza was busy until late and a few eateries along the same street adjacent to the square. Java Promo was popular amongst the local guys, but it was closing relatively early.

Having met students, I had the opportunity to attend a student party. It looked like this was the way the young people partied. Prices of booze in the bars and restaurant were prohibitive for them. It was much cheaper for them to get beer and spirits on wholesale prices and get together in a dorm and empty the bottles there while dancing and chatting how great it is to be students.

Hangouts:
One the main avenues
One the main avenues
Porto Novo is a lovely place, full of pretty architecture, which however cries for some pavement cafes, to relax and watch people. The closest one pavement cafes was the bar and restaurant at the Casa Danza. It opened towards the main square by the National Assembly, where the main traffic passed through. It was good for relaxing and refueling between the Royal Palace and the Ethnographic Museum. And since it was also frequented by the locals, it was perfect for making friends and catching up on the gossip. I met a few students there, one of whom had a motorbike and was so keen to show me around.

Restaurants:
Porto Novo
Porto Novo
Food - the cheap and more expensive versions - can easily be found anywhere in Porto Novo. The easiest is to start around Place de la Republique (again, I know!). My favourite was the unpretentious Aux Ventes de la Mer and, slightly more expensive but really good, Casa Danza. But there was also a great restaurant right on the corner of the main square and the Avenue Victor Ballot, right by the basic Java Promo.

Other recommendations:
Porto Novo, Grande Mosque
Porto Novo, Grande Mosque
I think it is a good idea to venture outside the city. I was lucky that the students wanted to hang around with me more and insisted that I went to see their village. In the evening, they took me on a small scooter about 5 miles out of town. Their village was small and it definitely did not see many tourists. I could tell from the countless requests from the villages to take pictures of them. Even one barber asked me if I could take a photograph of him in his studio, as he pretended to shave the head of one of my new friends. I had no reason not to oblige. People were really friendly there. I noticed there were a few interesting paintings of some of the buildings. It was a pity that the darkness fell that quickly and I had to leave.

Published on Tuesday February 12th, 2008


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Wed, Mar 19 2008 - 06:01 AM rating by louis

Great report. I didn't knew to much Benin, but now is much better.

Fri, Mar 14 2008 - 03:31 PM rating by alfonsovasco

there is now and after with your appearance in Globo. thank you for making us so interesting reading globo reports. you are a great traveler and a great writer and a great adventurer. thanks to you i open globo every day.

Wed, Feb 13 2008 - 08:23 AM rating by rangutan

Another well written report, some of it quite scary!

Wed, Feb 13 2008 - 06:03 AM rating by jorgesanchez

You should write travel books about your adventures. I am sure that you would be succesful.

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