Martinique St Pierre 14:44.4N 61:10.6W
Alan Franklin/Lynne Gane
Tue 3 Feb 2015 15:21
3rd February 2015
It is surprising what a difference a days sail can make. The northern coast of the island looks much the same as the southern part of Dominica, steeply incised forested valleys stretching their toes toward the sea like so many tree roots. Rising above them is the volcano of Mt Pelee, swathed in a verdant cloak and cloud. We reached St Pierre, in NW Martinique around 5pm on Friday 30/01/15. From first glances the town seems more European than Caribbean with just a hint of colonial France. The street names and signage, the cars, the cafes and boulangerie,the infra structure, all cry France, unlike Antigua and Dominica where physical vestiges of colonial rule are disappearing. Martinique is still part of France and uses the Euro. With anticipation of a different cultural experience we went ashore to clear in on Saturday morning.
The new town, once the former capital of the island, has been rebuilt in and on the remains of the last, destroyed by a volcanic eruption of 1902. Flows of ash, mud, rock and superheated gases, wiped out over 29,000 of the locals. The once grand baroque churches, theatre, the stone warehouses and shops, the prison, mental and medical hospitals, the plantations, offices and homes, the ships at anchor in the harbour, were all wiped from this place. Of some notoriety, one of the few to survive the inferno was a solitary confinement prisoner in a stone cell. We walked the ruins and the old stone cobbled streets in the hot afternoon sun, amongst the abandoned and sometimes burnt out cars on the back streets, alleys of roaming and indignant chickens, and stray dogs who would be your friend for life if you fed them.
So today’s St Pierre is no longer the capital, a place of mixed fortunes. Ruins and derelict homes stand beside the inhabited, not quite the third world of parts of Dominica and Antigua, but the look of falling into disrepair we have seen in other towns of the Caribbean. The Saturday market was interesting, local fruits, (small sweet bananas, pineapples, citrus fruits), vegetables (mostly sweet potatoes, taro, cassava, plantain, callalou, salads, onions) herbs and a joy, huge bunches of watercress and perhaps more interesting fresh nutmeg and cloves. Fish, locally caught tuna type fish, could have been Marlin or Wahoo, Mahi Mahi, and brightly coloured small fish. The supermarket praised in Doyle's guide was a disappointment with empty shelving, more Dutch cheese than French, very little fresh meat and nondescript bakery, but a decent wines and spirit department. We had better luck at the boulangerie!
The locals stare at the ‘etrangers’ there are no words of welcome, as we experienced in Dominica. The lady in the tourist office, responsible for clearing us in was only as helpful as she needed to be and not a mite more. There was no pretence at speaking anything other than French and of course thats what we expected, but no assistance offered for our meagre and poor French either!
How does the saying go, ‘mad dogs and English men go out in the mid-day sun…’ well we went for a walk to a canal built in about 1760 by slaves, to supply irrigation water to the plantations and yes it was mid-day! The sun was exhaustingly hot, the roads mostly uphill and we walked much further than we anticipated, nearly 2 hours before we reached the canal. We passed lovely houses perched on the hills over looking the West coast, much of the lower less steep slopes are in cultivation, mainly bananas, sugar cane and vegetables. The canal is a narrow water channel, not the barge width we would imagine, much more like the levadas of Madeira. The stone retaining wall some 18” wide was the path with occasional passing places where the bank was wider. The canal wound its way around the side of a steep hill, the unguarded drop many tens of metres. You watch your feet constantly, and don't think of the drop! The journey through the tropical forest and the views were truly splendid as the valley narrow and forested pitons and mountain tops crowded our view. Humming birds, bananaquits dart through the tree flowers. Under the forest canopy the shade and cooling breezes provide much needed relief from the sun and a sign at the beginning of the trail promised a cafe after 1 hour. Sure enough as the accessible trail petered out, we could hear the clink of glasses. Never has a beer been more welcome! The walk was fascinating and well worth the effort but the thought of walking 3 hours back just wasn’t on the agenda, so I asked the waitress whether we could get a taxi back to St Pierre, no way but she asked another walking couple who had a car parked nearby whether they could give us a lift. With great kindness, and halting conversation in franglais, they deposited us back on the waterfront, we were so grateful!
Yesterday we sailed further south to the Fort de France Bay, passing the coast line, towns and villages of houses, apartment blocks and industries, had much more the look and feel of a European culture. Fort De France is the capital and from some distance away certainly looks the part. We have anchored in the sleepy little bay within the sound, of Trois Islets. It is a pleasant sleepy town, some services with internet above the bibliotheque, open limited hours. No wifi cafes though, and even when you do find a wifi place the signal can be so erratic as to make communications difficult.
We came across a church parade at dusk, a charming procession of singing people holding candles in paper shades in a celebration of ’The Light’. The church walls and steps were surrounded with candles too and they conducted some service on the steps. The town had turned out in their ’Sunday Best’ for this community event to be followed by a BBQ in the square.
Have you come across a beer from Belgium called Bisson, innocently Alan ordered one at the waterfront bar, 12.5% proof and 500ml, like drinking 2/3’s of a bottle of wine, wow never come across a beer that strong! Our return to the dingy was down a slippery ladder to a bobbing target, never easy and not one you want to attempt after a Bisson.
We hope to move on again today and hire a car to see the mountains and volcanoes, perhaps visit a rum distillery while we await a part thats being shipped from Antigua.
All our best,
Lynne and Alan