On June 26, 2009, Cidade Velha (the old city), originally Ribeira Grande, was granted status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This title was granted for the city’s role as the first European established city in the tropics. During the height of its reign as capital, Cidade Velha played an integral role in the transatlantic trade. Its fame now is perhaps overshadowed by its infamy as its establishment enabled amplification of the transatlantic slave trade. People were brought from continental West Africa to Ribeira Grande for preparation for slavery. They were used in the then lush fruit and sugar cane plantations deep in the ribeira (river bed) and shipped off to Europe and the Americas until slavery was abolished in Brazil. From the few existing records, it is estimated that more than 28,000 slaves passed through Cape Verde between 1601-1700. The pelourinho (pillory), a monument to the cruelty of slavery and the punishment of slaves, still stands in the town’s central square, now surrounded by West African vendors hawking cheap, mass produced wares.
Over the past few years the historical significance of the city and the idea of tourism have taken grasp. Just recently Proimtur, a tour company run jointly by the Cape Verdean government and the Spanish Cooperation, has taken responsibility for the historic sites, a restaurant and small bed & breakfast gently hidden from the bustle a few moments walk into the ribeira.
If going by foot, it is a good idea to start at the fort and head down. Take the right turn before the descent to the city to arrive at Foraleza Real de São Filipe. Built between 1587 and 1593, the fort continues to stand watch over Cidade Velha and Ribeira Grande today. King Filipe I of Portugal ordered its construction after repeated pirate attacks, the most notable was Sir Francis Drake who took the city twice in 1578 and 1585. João Nunes of Portugal and Filipe Terzio of Italy worked together to design and build the Renaissance style structure. The walls jut out in a slightly stellar formation to allow for a full range of visibility and are slightly angled for durability in the case of cannon attacks. Despite the efforts, Cidade Velha continued to be attacked and was finally defeated in 1712 when Jacques Cassard attacked the city from behind, coming over land from Praia.
A small tourist shop is built into the hillside opposite the fort where you can pay your small entrance fee (300$ – 500$), watch a video about the history of Cidade Velha, have a cold drink and test your Portuguese and Spanish skills on the bilingual information plaques. There are a few limited souvenirs in the underground shop, and many more in the city below.
From above, the ribeira appears as a vibrant green scar cut through the dusty brown landscape. Climate change and increasing drought have stopped the once flowing river, but water still trickles down the far end leaving a small pool where it is not uncommon to find women bathing and washing mountains of laundry.
On the opposite side of the fort, there is a path that leads down into the city. From here, you will be able to see the ruins of the Cathedral. The once ambitious project of Frei Francisco da Cruz, bishop for the Diocese of West Africa began around 1556, but was suspended during the 1590’s for almost a century. It was not completed until 1699 through the enthusiasm of Bishop Vitoriano and the over 150 years of toil and labor were brought down after just 13 years when Jacques Cassard conquered the city. Not much is left but jagged remnants of the thick walls, the faded tomb and doorways that lead to nowhere.
As you head down the road into the center of the city, it is not unlikely that some houses you pass will have been constructed with the broken pieces of the Cathedral walls. As you walk toward the ribeira, you will pass the pelourinho in the central praça where a few kiosks have been set up along the road and the two restaurants are set back along the coast. There is a little beach protected by a rock outcropping where it is possible to swim, watch the fishermen come in with the catch of the day and often find children caught up in a game of soccer.
As you leave the shop, turn left to head into the ribeira via Rua Banana, one of the oldest European built streets in Sub-Saharan West Africa. Continue along the path and follow the signs to the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário, the church of Our Lady of the Rosary, patron saint of the blacks of Cidade Velha. Built in 1495, it is one of the oldest buildings in Cidade Velha. Nearby, the Convento de São Francisco was built around 1640 and, despite attempts in 1712 during the Cassard invasion to destroy the monastery and educational center, the remains that stand today are a credit to its quality of construction.
If you continue into the heart of the ribeira, you will pass Pousada Nacional de São Pedro. Where the trees thin, the path forks and climbs a hill to the right where the sugar cane is transformed into the national drink of choice, grogue (sugarcane rum). The factory of Fortaleza grogue is open to visitors, though there is no formal tour. You will be able to smell the cooking sugar cane as you climb the hill. A pile of crushed sugar cane towers over the little hut where barrels of the potent liquid are stored. Across the way, a fire is kept burning to steam the liquid. Inside, drops of grogue pour constantly from the narrow pipes. If you are feeling adventurous, take a sip!
Beyond the factory, the path continues on through the mango and banana trees. The occasional Baobab tree stands head and shoulders above the rest and a series of dykes leave algae filled pools. Water becomes more abundant the further you travel until you reach the pool at the end where water trickles from the massive rock wall. At a casual pace, you can reach the end of the ribeira in about an hour.
To experience all the historic sites, Proimtur (tel. 267.1618, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.proimtur.com) offers tours that begin at the fort and head down into the ribeira to the hidden historic underbelly of the city. Call in advance for a guaranteed guide. Groups are limited to 5 or 6 for 500$/person (250$ for Cape Verdeans).
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