Porto Novo was an amazing experience.
We all know that I’m a slightly weird person and that I have my ways. And I have to admit to one weakness. I love public transport.
Crazy marshrutkas in Kazakhstan or the motor taxies in Benin will always have my affection. There is something unique but also authentic about using those. You meet genuine people. You can engage yourself in conversations and observe the real life. This is always my main goal when traveling. To take part in bona fide experiences.
I decided to take a minibus to Porto Novo. Be prepared to get completely lost. There is no timetable. There are many different stations. And it is impossible to find out anything on the Internet. Get used to it. Your fancy 3G smartphone is not much of use here.
I did it the simple way. I told my zemi-john that I want to go to Porto Novo and trusted him to take me to the right Gare. When we arrived there was one mini-bus being fixed. I was told that this would be my transportation for the day. I thought lovely! At least I know it will be in ‘great’ condition after all that sophisticated maintenance work. Including a spanner and a piece of black rubber.
Porto Novo Scenario
Off we went to Porto Novo. It was one of the highlights of my trip. I was the only white person on board. I was a bigger attraction to them than they to me.
Those minibuses have a unique system of picking up passengers. They go slowly on the crossroads and have a special person to shout the destination out loud. ‘Porto Novo, Porto Novo!’ When people wave they stop. Pack the passengers with all their belongings.From fabrics, through vegetables to sandbags full of coal. They squeeze as many people as possible. At some point we were 23! Like little sardines in a can.
Restrictions are mildly enforced by the policiers here, but expect to see them on the roads. Halfway on your trip you may be transferred to another vehicle. Do not ask. Do not argue. They know what they are doing and there must be some kind of logic in that. At least to them.
Porto Novo is an administrative capital of Benin. One of the most interesting cities of the country. With numerous sights and some outstanding examples of architecture from the Portuguese period. It will charm you with its old-fashioned colonial style and lazy rhythm of the day.
I started from the Royal Palace of King Toffa. It serves as a museum and is a great way to imagine lifestyle of the kings who lived here from 1688 until the 1970s. It is neither enormous nor opulent, but it does have a lovely courtyard with many interesting sculptures. You can walk around only with a guide. I liked the fact that mine told me many interesting stories and legends. The thing which most stuck in my memory is ‘Chambre Noir’, the so-called ‘Black Room’.
It is a special room which contains only a flagon with a liquid poison. In case of lost honour the king went there to commit suicide. Quiet impressive. Such an attitude.
Another thing is that the kings were buried in the Palace. In the same rooms where the new king or queens were living and sleeping. This has its deep origins in Yoruba traditions. Yoruba people say ‘We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors’. Although it has been forbidden since colonial times.
African culture, traditions, religion and history are something everybody travelling here should take great interest in. To understand what one sees.
A great place to do so is the Museum of Ethnography. It is an amazing place where you can learn about the importance of birth, marriage, life and death in African culture. An extensive collection of Yoruba masks is simply the cherry on the cake.
Another very interesting sight is Da Silva Museum in Porto Novo. Showing what life looked like for returning Afro-Brazilians. It displays numerous exhibitions about the progression of art, culture and technology in Benin. It is a place where I took my first and last picture of white people in Africa.
I met a lovely group of young people from Belgium volunteering in a project in a village whose name I now can’t recall. I say ‘hello’ to all you marvellous people.
You can skip the Gardens of Jean Bayol. But do not miss a refreshing bottle of Coca-Cola in the stand next to the Governor’s Palace, which is inaccessible to tourists.
Yeah! Right! Same as taking pictures of the Royal Palace were prohibited. When you are nice and smile to the soldiers they will close an eye for lack of the required pass.
I know you won’t believe it but it is still not the end! Stroll around the Great Mosque. Originally built as a Brazilian-style church. A truly unique creation from an architectural point of view.
You can skip the market in the city, as a few kilometers out of Port Novo there is the Grand Marche d’Adjara. The biggest and busiest market in the whole of Benin.
It is held every fourth day. I didn’t plan it but, as usual, I was super lucky and the day of my visit was market day. Huge, hectic, loud and colourful. The only shame is that the weather wasn’t better for taking pictures.