Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast

Photo: Ministère de la Culture et de la Francophonie du Côte d’Ivoire

New Orleans and Québec City. Hanoi and Hội An. Luang Prabang and Vientiane. You have a thing for French Colonial architecture. You love the pastel colors and the high ceilings, the wide porches and the wrought-iron balconies. At times, it may be hard to grapple with the history that goes along with them, but the buildings themselves are lovely and picturesque.

Though you’re most familiar with the cities in Asia and North America, French Colonial architecture is found all around the world. The French began colonizing North America in the early 17th century. They expanded to Africa and Asia shortly thereafter. Many of the Asian cities have been restored and protected in the last few decades. Africa has only recently realized the importance of preserving these historic spots.

Grand-Bassam, along the Gulf of Guinea, is one of those places. The French built the city, around the fishing village of N’zima, as the first capital of the Ivory Coast in 1893. It only lasted a few years. When yellow fever spread in 1896, it was abandoned. Bingerville was turned into the capital. Nearby Abidjan took over as the area’s major seaport. While Grand-Bassam became a ghost town and was forgotten for nearly a century.

Today Grand-Bassam is being revitalized. Tourists started returning to Ancien Bassam, the former French settlement along the southern side of the Ébrié Lagoon, in the 1970s. Locals, looking to escape city life in Abidjan, descend on the golden-sand beaches on the weekends. Plus UNESCO named the historic center a World Heritage Site in 2012 due to its late 19th- and early 20th-century colonial architecture. After being neglected and inhabited by squatters for decades, the buildings were in rough shape. But the faded facades, the arched galleries, the sagging verandas, and the overgrown gardens are still charming.

When you arrive in Grand-Bassam, you cross Pont de la Victoire, a bridge over the Ébrié Lagoon, from Nouveau Bassam, the former African servants’ quarters turned main commercial center, to Ancien Bassam. The Palais de Justice, the Cathédral Sacré-Cœur, and the Musée National du Costume, in the former governor’s palace, are among your first stops. The Monument aux Morts, which commemorates the victims of the yellow fever epidemic, and Mairie, the town hall that acts as your directional marker as you wander, are after that. But it isn’t the grand buildings that fascinate you the most. You find yourself stopping and staring at the smaller houses on the quieter streets. For brief moments, you truly feel like you’ve stepped way back in time.


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