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krisek Grand-Bassam - A travel report by Krys
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Grand-Bassam,  Cote d'Ivoire - flag Cote d'Ivoire
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krisek's travel reports

Former Ivorian capital boasting giant waves.

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Although it might have seen better days, Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast\'s former capital seems to have been built specifically for retreat and relaxing. It\'s probably its numerous bars, restaurants and hotels overlooking the ocean that leave this impression.

Quiet avenue in the French Quarter
Quiet avenue in the French Quarter
Grand-Bassam once was the capital of French colonies in West Africa. Only for few years, though. A breakout of yellow fever ended its status. This brief period however meant that some great buildings have been erected in the town, flamboyant villas, hospital, courts, palaces and the Cathedral of the Holy Hear in Grand-Bassam (Cathedrale Sacre Coeur de Grand-Bassam). In 2012, UNESCO listed the town as a World Heritage Site.

My original plan was to stay in Grand-Bassam only for one day, as a stopover on the way to Abidjan and eventually to Yamoussoukro. And as soon as I arrived, I did not want to leave. But my African son definitely wanted to go and see Abidjan. This was his first trip overseas ever and he had heard legends about the glamour of the Ivorian largest city. And he had most definitely some shopping in mind ;) Well, I did not mind that. This boy, who never met his biological father and whose mother passed away a few years back deserved a proper vacation and a bit of attention. Up to the age of 13 he had not been to school, that is until he met me. And up until April 2013, now at the age of 21, he had had no idea what a hug was and what hugs were for. And that is, of course, until he met me.

So, we spent the original first day in Grand-Bassam on doing nothing (except for small shopping for beach clappers, and Bermuda shorts) but chilling, eating seafood and sipping cold Ivorian lager. We did some basic sightseeing, too. But after having travelled all the way from Cape Coast in Ghana, some 340km, it was a good idea to slow down and rest.

The next day, we headed for Abidjan. It was too late to cancel the hotel reservation in Abidjan, and Isaac could not wait to see the glittering skyscrapers. But we were back in Grand-Bassam the day after, as we decided not to travel all the way to Yamoussoukro, swapping the day for beachlife, splashing in a swimming pool, giant wave watching and catching the Atlantic breeze.

Favourite spots:
The French Quarter
The French Quarter
The leafy avenue running parallel to the coastline offering a few examples of colonial architecture was definitely my favourite part of the town. It reminded me a little of Gisenyi of Rwanda, where similar avenue runs alongside the shores of the Lake Kivu. It provided a lot of shade, glimpses of old mansions and a good number of bars and restaurants on the ocean side. (Almost all, if not all in fact, of those places had accommodation options to go with the food and drink.) At the of the avenue, there was a small meadow or a field or let's just call it the English style: 'the green', where a few very well kept and gorgeous looking horses had their meals giving the green a close haircut. Almost a surreal picture to take home.

What's really great:
Colonial French Quarter
Colonial French Quarter
The safety record was Grand-Bassam's key quality. I was entering Côte d'Ivoire amidst slightly contradicting information regarding the trouble in the country. When I asked at the Ivorian embassy in London whether the problems were over and whether it was safe, the response I got was: "not a 100%" But they did try to sell me a full escort service at the same time, so I took it with a tiny pinch of salt. (One of my friends was in Abidjan at the time of trouble and be told me that the situation was never as bad as it was being reported by the media.)

At the Ghanaian-Ivorian border the guards told me the country was safe. But 3 minutes later a taxi driver told me that the troubles were not finished, not completely. And yet, Grand-Bassam looked very relaxed, locals seemed happy and welcoming, and I don't think I have seen a policeman in the streets! It was safe to walk about at night, both at the beach and along the avenues and little alleys.

The old town of Grand-Bassam
The old town of Grand-Bassam
In terms of sights, there were not any prominent objects. The brief capital status of the city did not guarantee an establishment of stable population and Grand-Bassam was deserted very quickly. To this day, the old Palace of Justice and the Hospital are now empty shells left to the mercy of weather and vegetation. Fortunately, many grand villas and palaces still remain and looks like they are occupied and kept in decent condition. The cathedral was fully operational and although it must have seen better days, it looked solid. The town itself and its layout is the main sight. UNESCO states that "Grand-Bassam constitutes an outstanding example of rational colonial town planning, with its specialised quarters in an overall urban network in which vegetation has an important role. The colonial architecture is characterised by a sober and functional style, using principles of hygiene adapted to a tropical location."

L'Etoile du Sud main building and pool
L'Etoile du Sud main building and pool
The first night I spent in fabulously colonial and rather chick hotel L'Etoile du Sud****, which charged CFA50,000 for great rooms with massive beds (at least super king size) and balconies, all of which faced the ocean and overlooked the hotel main grounds, including the pool. It was clean and the air-conditioning worked very well. The rooms had separate bathrooms and separate toilets. Some personnel spoke basic English, but the staff in the restaurant could learn a few better manners and attention to guests.

The second night I spent in the La Playa***, which charged CFA55,000 for a rather dark suite with good space otherwise. But no view. There, the personnel spoke no English. But they were very attentive, polite, welcoming and smiled a lot. The value for money regarding the accommodation was doubtful, but the restaurant was excellent, and according to Isaac, the pool was fantastic. The rooms were clean but the bathrooms were a bit small and the towels seemed old and worn out.

Stretch of the beach with beach bars
Stretch of the beach with beach bars
In search for a night bar at the beach, I found La Playa, a few hundred yards west from Etoile du Sud hotel. Their sodas were 1000CFA, local lager 1500, imported lager 2000, fruit juices 1500, digestives 3500, whiskies 3000, shots 3000, wines 14000-15000. There was not much action anywhere in Grand-Bassam and I saw only a few people at La Playa, as well. Perhaps more action was going on in the new town across the lagoon. The French Quarter was not necessarily jumping at night. This was strange as there was definitely a lot of potential. So many bars right on the beach...

Pool at the La Playa beach bar and restaurant
Pool at the La Playa beach bar and restaurant
The beach and its numerous bars were Grand-Bassam's main hanging out locations. The beach was nice but the ocean kept tossing tons of rubbish on it, so in parts it was not very clean at all. Also, night tides consumed about 80% of the sand band meaning that those who wanted to lay down, had to be mindful of the rather powerful waves twice a day. And yet, the beach was full of local folk taking on bodysurfing and playing in the sand. They created the atmosphere positively horizontal. Good for them! Very good indeed.

The bars overlooking the beach and the wave spectacle were perfect alternative. Most of them came with swimming pools and had tables with parasols. They offered ice-cold drinks, and most had ice cubes that were safe to non-African stomachs.

Local eatery opposite L'Etoile du Sud hotel
Local eatery opposite L'Etoile du Sud hotel
Upon arrival, the beachfront hotel restaurant was already closed for lunch, so one of the waiters led me to an inconspicuous place opposite L'Etoile du Sud, serving terrible shrimps and rather tasty chicken. The portions were large and a meal for two there cost as much as a single, if a bit funky, dish at one of the beachfront spots (c.CFA12,000). It had no closed building but rather wooden parasol that provided for the main seating room in a large shaded area. Although there were no walls, little breeze managed to penetrate the dining space, so the place got rather hot. There were no fans. The service was terribly slow and French was essential to order anything to eat or to drink. The spot was very popular with locals, who hung out at the beach nearby, and the drinks were being served ice-cold.

Grand-Bassam has loads of restuarants, most of them at the beach, adjacent to the hotels. I spotted one pizzeria across the main church, as well.

Other recommendations:
Old Grand-Bassam
Old Grand-Bassam
A private taxi to Abidjan, 45km away, was CFA10,000 (£12) with some negotiating. A private taxi to the border with Ghana, 140km away, was CFA30,000 (£38) to CFA40,000 (£51) depending on negotiation skills. If you are not travelling alone, then this is not a bad deal at all.

Grand-Bassam is now much larger compared to the times under the French rule, when it was the capital. The most attractive part is called Quartier Francaise. Most business, including banks with perfectly working ATMs, were located on the other side if the bridge over the lagoon.

Published on Saturday May 11th, 2013

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