What makes a place unforgettable? Its essence, the manner in which it touched you, or the fact that it was never meant to be on the itinerary in the first place. Abidjan, a sprawling, green and beautiful city on the Ebrie lagoon in Cote d'Ivoire, became unforgettable for these and many other reasons.
Maybe, as some of you read this, you would need to locate the city on a map — Abidjan is a coastal city on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Ivory Coast in West Africa.
Once the capital of Ivory Coast, it is today its second-largest city. Before landing there, I never knew that it is often called the ‘Paris of West Africa'. It might not have the lyrical beauty and majestic buildings of Paris, but Abidjan is no doubt a beautiful city. Built around the 100-km-long lagoon, the city resides on many converging peninsulas, connected by bridges.
The broad Ebrie lagoon is breathtaking, if you ignore the murky patches. The lagoon connects to the Atlantic Ocean through the Virdi Canal, making Abidjan a busy port. It is today a bustling cosmopolitan city with six-lane highways, considered a cultural hub of West Africa.
There are echoes of Paris because everyone speaks French. Although it is hot and humid, being close to the equator, most people dress in formal Western wear.
However, as in other parts of Africa, women can often be seen in traditional African dress with interesting headgear, lending bursts of colour to the most unexpected places. Le Plateau, the main business district of the city, is a canvas of glass skyscrapers that glisten in the sunshine, and reflect colourful lights at night in the lagoon.
As one criss-crosses the city, the St. Paul's Cathedral catches the eye. Imposing with a towering statue of the Pope giving benediction at its entrance, it cannot be missed. There is an altar in the open vast expanse that surrounds the Cathedral. Inside, the modern building has beautiful glass paintings. When we visited, the main altar area was under repair, yet a sense of calm and serenity prevailed.
Just outside the Cathedral, on a roundabout, is a breathtaking, larger-than-life sculpture of two elephants entwined. Elephants are a common motif in the city, and even the national football team of Ivory Coast is called ‘Elephants'. Ivory was traded from this part of the world in large quantities in earlier times, giving the country its name. Today, it is the largest producer of cocoa on the globe.
A resort town
A drive to Grand Bassam, 40 km from Abidjan, is a must. Feel the splash of the Atlantic and touch the pulse of the locals. This old city was the French colonial capital from 1893 to 1899; today it is a resort town. On Sundays, hordes of people descend on the beaches to relax. ‘La Playa', a Spanish restaurant, offers a fabulous plate of something akin to a seafood biryani. The ocean gurgles nearby, while one can summon a hawker to drink fresh tender coconut water or buy African handicrafts during the meal.
Abidjan is a great place to buy African handicrafts, including masks, walking sticks, fabric and traditional African robes. The colours and patterns are a kaleidoscope, and even if you don't want to shop, it is fascinating to simply look. Food is another fabulous item on the agenda in Abidjan. There is a substantial expat population as it is the headquarters of the African Development Bank, and has a large UN presence.
Restaurants offering all the cuisines of the world are available in plenty. For authentic Indian food, head to ‘Delhi Durbar' and for Chinese to ‘Le Beijing'. For delicious African jolef rice and chicken, ‘331' in the Cocody district is a favourite. Cocody, a swank area was made famous by the 1965 French film “Le Gentleman de Cocody”.
If time permits, a drive to the capital city Yamoussoukro is in order. It is 240 km from Abidjan, and is famous for the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. It is today the largest basilica in the world, leaving behind even St. Peter's Basilica in Rome from which its architecture is inspired. Northeast of Abidjan is also the National Park that boasts some good game. Within Abidjan, there is a Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art and a National Library that are worth a visit.
The unforeseen stop at Abidjan was a discovery. Of a place, its pulse, its people and its spirit. That is why it became unforgettable, because embracing the unexpected is what journeys are all about.