Just twelve months after Twelve Years as a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture, I found the presence of a headless Josephine remarkable in a park where children play and palms wave.
I had come to Martinique by ferry from St. Lucia, where I was visiting. Darkness was already descending as I cleared customs in Fort-de-France, capital of Martinique, département of France in a chain of jewels parting the calm Caribbean from the restless Atlantic.
Wrapped in a tepid breeze I steadied my luggage along Rue de la Liberté into the swell of a crowd, lights flashing, music booming, cars parading, motorcycles revving, sandals glittering, headbands swaying, and hot grease sizzling.
Maneuvering through knots of party makers, I found a small inn across from the landmark La Savane Park. I rang the street buzzer. “You just experienced pre-Carnival,” said the inn keeper. “People here get happy Sunday nights.”
Maneuvering through knots of party makers, I found the Bayfront Hotel ($100/night), an inn across from the landmark La Savane Park. I rang the street buzzer. Serge greeted me. “You just experienced pre-Carnival,” he said. “People here get happy Sunday nights.” He led me to my room, basic but clean on an upper floor accessed by tight-twisting stairs.
The next morning, after a continental breakfast of toast and good coffee, I found the street serene and already swept, a contrast to the rambunctious gathering the night before. I wandered into La Savane Park, 12 ½ acres of open grass, checkered walkways and food stands.
Not too far in, an eerie seclusion surrounded a decapitated statue, half-hidden in shade, bearing blood-colored paint splashed down the marble. This was a defaced rendition of the Empress Josephine, daughter of a local plantation owner, who two-and-a-half centuries ago married Napoleon Bonaparte.
Stories conflict as to what happened, but records seem to agree that her head disappeared — sawed off at the neck – more than 20 years ago. Some locals expressed displeasure with a statue that perpetuates European domination; one source described the disfigurement as a symbolic “beheading.”
“It’s very simple,” said a Martinique native, a trendily-dressed retired teacher I met on the ferry. “People don’t like her. They blame her for Napoleon bringing slavery back to Martinique for her family’s sugar plantation after he abolished it. The government tried to repair her, but they stopped trying.”
Martinique’s population, comprised largely of descendants of African slaves mixed with native people and East Indian laborers, exudes a vibrant French-creole culture, even as the damaged statue remains in public view. This seemed extraordinary, perhaps reflecting a subtle undercurrent, sensed but not seen. “Whites” from France are regarded by some as outsiders even as they occupy visible positions.
Most tourists are French. English is not spoken widely. On a cliff past the park, a fort still used by the French military cuts a picturesque shape against the sky over sparkling water.
The roads are tidy. Colonial structures bear tropical touches such as light-filtering windows, wood and stone open spaces, sloping rooftops to catch the Trade Winds, verandas, covered porticos, and tile floors. The Schoelcher Library, shown at the 1889 Paris World Fair before being dismantled and transported here, hosts an immense collection from floor to ceiling.
Though travel books advise renting a car (public transportation is sparse), I relied on a small, efficiently-run ferry which crosses the bay towards Les Trois-Îlets and beaches Pointe du Bout, a 20-minute ride (approximately $10 round trip, Euros only), and the adjoining Anse Mitan. Boarding was informal, seating inside and out. When not filled with tourists, the ferry transferred young men in shorts or tailored denims, and women stylish in scarves and flowered sandals. One ticket collector warmly removed earphones from a sleeping teen who awoke to produce his ticket.
Upon reaching the beach, a hub of shops, hotels, restaurants, and car rental companies awaited, anchored by La Pagerie Hotel, with open air lobby, waving bougainvillea, and a flower-scented restroom that evokes amenity. Streets led to finely sanded beaches along clear, turquoise water. Hidden enclaves of Europeans dipped in what seemed like private ocean baths.
After checking out hotels – filled with French tourists — I found the small Auberge L’Anse Mitan, built in 1935. A piece of coral held the door open to let in the breeze. The “lobby” was a living room, occupied by daughter-and-widow of the original owner and filled with rattan chairs and heavy dark-stained table. Side rooms, which obviously once knew glory, held plastic fruit, pebbled tables, Xmas lights, and a chambered nautilus.
My room was furnished with intricately-carved furniture and a refrigerator useful for cheese and fruit I bought every few days. The window slats admitted afternoon gusts, rustling the heavy, embroidered curtains.
Just steps away, the ocean offered swimming from morning to dusk. Tweeting birds created a symphony with the tide. Fish darted among the rocks. As the grills heated up, the beach took on the smell of barbecue. In the evening, as the sun fell behind the mountain, blue streaks spiraled over small waves humming their way in.
In early mornings, yachts and fishing boats chugged under rainbows cascading from Fort-de-France in the distance. At 6:40, the first ferry arrived from across the bay.
Small boats docked at the pier while fisherman plucked the daily “get” from nets, separating lobsters, throwing them into a pail, stopping only to light a cigarette. This front-row seat afforded a unique view of marine life brought to the surface.
Mid-morning took me to a baquette shop, Creperie La Savante, for wheat bread, chocolate pastry and coffee. French tourists and occasional locals passed in a panorama of thongs, cellphones, baby carriages, leashed dogs, and brimmed hats. Throughout the day, planes rumbled overhead to and from France. Stores showcased the latest French fashions. While Martinique is expensive compared to nearby St Lucia, exquisite bookmarks at Galerie de Sophen caught my eye for about $5 U.S.
World-class Martinique creole cuisine thrives on spices invoking French, African, and Asian-Indian roots. Cumin, ginger, thyme, vanilla, cinnamon, coriander, chile and curry arouse the palate. I feasted on grilled fish with basil and lime sauce, potatoes, rice, salad, fish cakes (codfish fritters, on some menus) and coconut flan I tasted in every restaurant.
Martinique offers popular beaches deeper south and the active volcano Mount Pelée in the north. While the language and lack of public transportation make navigation of a 430-square-mile island a challenge, the country feels safe and secure.
Back in Fort-de-France, I returned to La Savana Park. The crepe stand attendant slapped batter on the grill for delicious, if informal pancake dinners. Another stand offered “health” smoothies. Across the bay, Pointe du Bout twinkled in a darkening sky. Palms waved while teens played basketball. As families watched children play soccer, they shared pizzas. Nearby, deep in shadow, I discovered an old memorial to WWI, WWII, and more recent war casualties. Said my local friend the teacher, “They always sent the black boys, you know.”
At the end of the park nearest the sea, a fast Latin beat blared. Dancing began. Soon many couples joined in. Murmurs passed through the bystanders that the music represented Dominican Republic influence. Like the locals, I joined in. Josephine lost her head in this park, but I drew a thrill here, warm breeze, waving fronds, cumin alive, as I swayed to the pulse of this exquisite creole-Caribbean experience.