Cape Verde’s Oldest Settlement – Cidade Velha
Having taken the “Fast Ferry” (don’t take it if you can help it) from Brava to Fogo, and then to Santiago, we had the opportunity to visit Cidade Velha, while waiting for our flight out to São Vicente. Cape Verde’s oldest settlement, Cidade Velha, is a UNESCO heritage site on the southern coast of Santiago, a short drive from the capital Praia. The town has a colourful and tortured history, having been both an important port for slave trading and an essential stop for Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, as they went on quests which eventually led to the age of European colonisation.
Now, Cidade Velha is a bustling town that thrives primarily on the tourist trade. It’s not very big, and can be experienced in half a day, which was what we did while waiting for our flight to São Vicente. There are four areas, or sites of interest, here. They are the Fort Real de São Filipe, which looks over the downtown area of Cidade Velha, the Nossa Senhora do Rosário church, the Pillory monument and the Rue des Bananas.
The Fort Real de São Filipe, completed in 1593, was one of the strongest in its time, built at the peak of Europe’s Age of Discovery. It served as an effective defense against challenges to Portuguese hegemony, and was built in response to the sacking of Cidade Vehla in 1585, by England’s Sir Francis Drake. For almost two centuries, Cidade Vehla was a place of concentrated wealth and one of great geostrategic importance. Walking around the thick, high walls of the fort, this fact is strikingly apparent.
The church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário is along the slopes of the town, a short drive down from the fort. The oldest colonial church in the world, it is unfortunately, practically in ruins. Nevertheless, it is still possible to imagine its original layout and make out the different additions to the church that have been added over the centuries.
In the town center itself, stands the Pillory monument, a testament to Cape Verde’s dark history and key role in the slave trade. I found it difficult to reconcile the look of this non-nondescript, white marble pillar, to the terrible practices of the past, which it represented.
Today it stands fenced off, as if in a museum, surrounded by Cape Verdean craftsmen and hawkers selling trinkets to tourists.
It was here we met a few young Cape Verdean boys playing a very exciting game of foosball. They were more than happy to have us take their picture, and talk about their favourite football players.
At the eastern edge of the town is the Rue des Bananas (the Banana Street). This was a small, charming, winding street lined with stone houses packed in side by side. It was right out of a storybook, with the houses sporting colourful roofs and windows, curtained by beautifully patterned fabrics.
Women sat outside the houses making crafts and jewllery for sale. Further down the street, we encountered a pig pen with adorable, small, spotted piglets.
We also spotted a couple of cute Bed and Breakfast places and wondered that it must be quite an experience to be able to stay in them, in such a place so rich in history and close to nature.