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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?