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History and Empty Beaches at Grand Bassam, Cote d’Ivoire

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

After a few days in Abidjan, I was ready to escape the city heat. The tropical humidity was nothing like the pleasant dry season weather I enjoyed in the Ethiopian highlands and my walking trips around Cote d’Ivoire’s largest city were buffered by air-conditioned breaks in the hotel room. Fortunately, a historically significant and seaside city was a quick day trip away: Grand Bassam.

Grand Bassam was the first French colonial capital of Cote d’Ivoire from 1893-96 and many of the administrative and commercial structures from that period remain. While Grand Bassam lost its capital status due to the presence of yellow fever, it remained a vital port for decades thereafter. In 2012, it was inscribed in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites due to its importance as a political and trading hub, which demonstrate its intrinsic historical and cultural value. UNESCO also cites the organized street layout as an example of rational colonial town planning.

The trip from Abidjan to Grand Bassam was simple: a few dollars for a taxi from the center to the bus “station” – a non-designated area that buses have deemed appropriate as a pick-up spot – then a $1 bush taxi for an hour heading east along the coast. The bush taxis in Cote d’Ivoire are more minivan-like than their counterparts in East Africa, which are purely minibuses. However, the attitude of “there’s always space for another person/case of fish/live chicken” has held true across sub-Saharan Africa for me. My co-passengers were all very friendly and wanted to ensure that I knew where to get off, which resulted in a slightly complicated set of conversations due to my elementary French.

The bush taxi crawled through the urban sprawl of Abidjan, which was characterized by corrugated metal shops between fruit vendors selling their products out of wheelbarrows. The scenery switched rapidly to a string of small beaches and, forty minutes later, craft stands leading into Grand Bassam. After wandering around the new part of town for ten minutes, I found the road leading to the historic sector, which led me over a lagoon.

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

As I had not seen the Atlantic Ocean in many months, I headed straight for the beach. While Grand Bassam is a popular weekend retreat for the expat community, I was there on a Friday morning and only a few beachgoers napped in the shade, enjoying a light and steady breeze.

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

After a cool-down with some sparkling water at one of the beachfront hotels, it was time to experience the architecture of Grand Bassam. The buildings that line the neat street grid are unquestionably colonial in nature: terra cotta roofs with pillars and “plantation shutters” in abundance (that is the actual term for those shutters and I find the fact that it is still in use pretty atrocious). Many of the structures are in need of repair to ensure their preservation. At the same time, the obvious decay of these former elements of colonialism does well to place them in their historical context. I also wonder if Ivorians would rather shed these elements of their country’s past.

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

As the old town is laid out in a grid, I was able to see most of Grand Bassam in an hour and also came across a small monument commemorating the centenary of the arrival of two missionaries in 1895.

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

For anyone who visits, be advised that the lunch spots are on the lagoon. While the boat below was not operational, plenty of maquis lined the water and were perfect for a big meal with serene views. If you’re interested in the cuisine of Cote d’Ivoire, you can read more here.

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

I had hoped to visit the National Museum of Costume, which I had heard is home to an interesting array of traditional masks and dress. Unfortunately, the museum staff had been on strike for over two weeks at that point and no one seemed to be picking up the work in their stead. Still, the Museum building was another impressive example of the colonial style and I would assume that its status as a tourist attraction will assist in maintaining its integrity.

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

Grand Bassam Ivory Coast Cote d'Ivoire

Overall, Grand Bassam was an ideal day trip from Abidjan. I left in the morning and was back at my hotel in the center by early afternoon, even with a police roadblock on the return that resulted in a creative route by the driver. Taking local transport meant that my costs including lunch were under $30 US, so the experience was well worth the price. Plus, who doesn’t love a few hours of tropical beach and history?

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Rachel@safari254 December 10, 2014, 10:40 am

    Great post, I’v enjoyed the virtual tour of Grand Bassam.
    “then a $1 bush taxi for an hour heading east along the coast ….” Interesting, were you charged in American dollars or is it the local currency equivalent of $1?
    Rachel@safari254 recently posted…Wildlife in my BackyardMy Profile

    • Dave December 17, 2014, 4:31 pm

      Hi Rachael! I was charged the local currency equivalent of $1 – they use the West African Franc in Cote d’Ivoire.

  • Dorothée December 10, 2014, 12:54 pm

    Hi Dave

    This looks like a pretty little adventure. I love that there aren’t many people around, great atmosphere. The pics are all lovely, and I especially like the ones of the abandoned houses.
    Dorothée recently posted…Visit Saxon Switzerland National Park in GermanyMy Profile

    • Dave December 17, 2014, 4:31 pm

      Thanks, Doro! The lack of people certainly added to the experience and I’m glad you enjoyed the photos.

  • Stephen & Jess December 12, 2014, 11:12 am

    Excellent write up Dave I felt very intrigued the whole way through. To be honest I had not previously heard of this place before your article and I certainly want to make sure I have time to visit it when I make it past the area.
    Stephen & Jess recently posted…12 OF THE WEIRDEST HOTEL ROOMS YOU CAN ACTUALLY STAY ATMy Profile

    • Dave December 17, 2014, 6:55 pm

      Thanks, guys! There are a lot of undiscovered spots in Africa, so hope you have the chance to experience some of them soon.

  • Christine December 12, 2014, 11:31 am

    Looks beautiful! I love your writing, Dave. Its such a great blend of personal narrative, helpful concrete information and lovely descriptions. I can’t wait till we can make it to Africa someday!
    Christine recently posted…Our Favorite Black and White Travel PhotosMy Profile

    • Dave December 17, 2014, 7:01 pm

      Thank you, Christine – there’s always so much to tell and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m excited for you guys to make it to this part of the world!

  • Veronika @ travelgeekery.com December 12, 2014, 5:18 pm

    Wow, I feel like if I was there with you! :) Thanks for describing it so well. It does sound like a great day trip, the combination of beach time and some history is really intriguing. Looking forward to reading more posts from Cote d’Ivoire!
    Veronika @ travelgeekery.com recently posted…Winter in Prague: The Most Magical SeasonMy Profile

    • Dave December 17, 2014, 8:09 pm

      Thanks, Veronika! Cote d’Ivoire is a little off the beaten travel path and I love exploring those types of places.

  • Jessica @She Dreams of Travel December 13, 2014, 2:28 am

    Wow! What a great day trip and for less than $30 USD you really can’t beat that! I think it’s really interesting that the old colonial homes that you photographed look similar to some of the larger homes I’ve seen while visiting Haiti. I guess it’s not too surprising though since they were both colonies of France at one point.
    Jessica @She Dreams of Travel recently posted…Looking Back On One Year Of BloggingMy Profile

    • Dave December 17, 2014, 9:02 pm

      That’s a really interesting observation – they may even date from around the same time. Hope to see them some day!

  • Pola (Jetting Around) December 14, 2014, 2:11 am

    This is a part of the world that I only know from books and travel blogs… Great photos, they show me the kind of beaches I like: made for walking and pondering the surroundings. And there’s something sad and nostalgic about the houses.
    Pola (Jetting Around) recently posted…Interview with travel photographer and writer Lola Akinmade Åkerström: ‘Expats are keen observers’My Profile

    • Dave December 17, 2014, 9:04 pm

      The houses really do evoke quite a few emotions and were worth the trip. Too bad I didn’t have more time for the beaches on this trip, but I like the mix of scenery and history.

  • Stephen & Jess December 19, 2014, 6:13 am

    Wow this place looks like it is rich and full of culture. Some great photographs you snapped and also some interesting stories shared. Great perspective on it all!
    Stephen & Jess recently posted…SKYDIVING OVER THE PALM, DUBAIMy Profile

  • Sumit Surai December 20, 2014, 1:24 am

    I love small places like these with interesting architecture. Were all those buildings abandoned?
    Sumit Surai recently posted…Traveling With Kids – How To Make The Vacations MemorableMy Profile

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