I stopped in Yamoussoukro, the capital city since 1983 in the center of the country, mainly to avoid the coastal road and Abidjan where most of the Ivorian population lives. But also because I had heard with interest that the artificial capital city, founded from a tiny village by the then president Félix Houphouët-Boigny near the location of his childhood, has a strange atmosphere, being oversized, at the image of the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix (the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace), the tallest in the world, and at the same time so empty.
Two weeks after my departure from Monrovia, since my legs were already grumpy from the morning, Yamoussoukro made a good stop.
The city as a whole is really oversized. Its veins are huge streets as wide as six lanes with almost no car outside of the main roads leading to Daola, Bouaké and Adibjan. Thus it is perfect for cycling. The whole life seems concentrated in the small center around the Château d’Eau, in between the lakes. Outside, there are four main sights: the presidential palace, the basilica, the Fondation Félix Houphouët-Boigny pour la Recherche de la Paix and the hotel Président, all of them way to big and impressive for the rest of the city.
While touring around those, and in order to find the best deal with the hotels (i.e. the cheapest offering wifi), I cycled 40 kilometers in the streets. It felt pleasant, which is rare for a city.
There are all kinds of hotels, from the 1-story buildings with cockroaches to high buildings with air conditioned rooms, but many are full, including my best finding at 6000 CFA + free wifi. I returned to the center to settle for a 3000 CFA per night next to an internet café. The prices are low for an African capital city (Abidjan is still THE city) and the internet speed is good. It makes me feel the real adventurous times are over: in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, finding electricity and a good paved road were something special. It is now normal, as from Ghana to Nigeria the quality of life is supposed to improve.
In the small center, as soon as the night comes, the shops close and the food vendors take possession of the street. There are as many maquis (bars with food) as stalls vending grilled fish and attiéké on a tiny wooden table on the streets. Some music here and there, TVs screening the African Cup of Basketball (the games are happening in Abidjan). The center is very lively day and night and the concentration of people is just right to feel entertained and free of movement.
I watched the semifinals game where Ivory Coast got eliminated by Angola. I can’t really say the teams are playing well after so many missed shoots in a row, but basketball is far less popular than football. By the way, facing the impossibility of finding a sticker of the Ivorian flag for my bicycle, I went for a Didier Drogba one. It’s a bit the same as his face is painted on so many walls.
After so many lunches and dinner of attiéké, the grated kassava looking like couscous , I went for a Senegalese restaurant. Not that tasty, but the riz gras of the thiéboudiene is now associated with the “come and eat!” invitations I received everyday in Senegal while cycling. I also tried the agouti for dinner, it’s very popular. I didn’t take a photo of one restaurant sign, called “Aux petits z’animo”, where anything with bones and fur and found in the bush is on the menu. Besides the kids selling a rat by the road, I have also seen in a village a kind of big spotted cat hanging by the tail.
When I showed up one morning at the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix for a visit, the lady registered my name on her book. I was the 6th name for the month of August (on the 27th), a strange thing for such a special structure, but the local visitors are many.
The mass is on Sundays, and every morning at 7am, and foreign tourists can visit outside of the service hours for 2000 CFA. The basilica is an idea from Houphouët-Boigny and it was consecrated in 1990 by Pope John Paul II.
Inside, there are 7000 seats, but 18000 persons can fit. The number increase to 200’000 if we count the space in between the arms made by 128 columns encircling the front esplanade.
The path from the basilica main entrance to the grid of the compound is one kilometer long, made of marble. The marble comes from Italy, Spain and Portugal for a total of 70000 square meters.
Its dome (90 m in diameter) is slightly lower than the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican city, but the cross on top makes it the highest (158 m) and the largest in the world.
Inside, the dome and second level of 98000 tons is supported by 60 columns, of which 12 are hollow to contain 4 elevators, staircases and a rainwater evacuation system.
Of course, the price of such a structure was criticized. The president said he financed it with his own funds. What is sure is that he donated the land, part of his coconut plantation. We can see a coconut tree and the president himself pictured close to Jesus and the Ivorian-Lebanese architect Pierre Fakhoury on one stain-glass panel inside. The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace boasts the largest surface of stain-glass panels in the world ( 7363 square meters), made in France.
There is a air conditioned system every two seats, but what amuses most the crowd are the electronic candles. If you insert a coin or a bill in the machine, it lights up a bulb in the form of a candle for an hour.
After a very interesting visit and nice views from the top of the basilica, I passed through the souvenir shop, selling beer and mass wine, to pursue my visit of Yamoussoukro.
The huge building we can see from anywhere outside Yamoussoukro is the Fondation. The Fondation Félix Houphouët-Boigny pour la Recherche de la Paix is a building open in 1997 after 10 years of construction (against 3 years for the basilica). While taking pictures of it, I was told that it can be visited, so I went for another tour.
It is where some important decisions, not only for Ivory Coast, but also for Africa, were taken. The previous week, the main amphitheater of 2000 seats hosted a CEDEAO (ECOWAS) conference. I was shown the seat where Sarkozy have once seated.
Since the presidential palace cannot be visited and well guarded for obvious reasons (even if the current president Ouattara apparently prefers to live in Abidjan rather than in Yamoussoukro), I finish my tour by cycling, still on those extra-wide empty streets, to the hotel Président. I didn’t try to get in for a coffee at the panoramic restaurant on top, but just looking at it reminded me of those tall towers that communist regimes used to build at the center of the capital cities.
All in all, Yamoussoukro has a special atmosphere that many can dislike, but I enjoyed it. And it’s perfect for bicycles. I think the city as a lot of space to grow (in terms of population) and not become a infamous bee hive as are Dakar, Conakry or Abidjan today.