Cities and Towns in Africa
The first thing a visitor to Liberia's capital notice is that it's more orderly designed than many other African capitals. Laid out in an easy to follow grid system, getting one's barrings is relatively easy. Something which is useful as Monrovia bears many other traits of the typical African capital. It's Liberia's best place for quality meals and nightlife, good if overpriced accommodation, and the hit-and-miss national museum. Waterside Market is an epicentre for local and traditional clothes and cloths bought by the metre. Otherwise just hang around anywhere in downtown at dusk when the city centre becomes a lively, if not chaotic, clothes market – most items sold directly out of wheelbarrows.
Located smack in the middle of the lush rainforest, the paved roads and concrete buildings comes as a profound surprise on entering Zwedru. More so, as getting here takes about a day's travel on some of Liberia's worst roads. Even more in the rains. The city's relatively high levels of development seem almost contradictory to the jungle that still grows vividly throughout the town. Zwedru was dictator-cum-cannibal Samuel Doe's hometown, and he invested heavily here until he was removed from office in 1990. Once, here was even working traffic lights, but the rainforest has begun fighting back. There's nothing much in town to go out of your way for. It is, however, a necessary overnight stop for trips to or from Sapo National Park or Harper.
Antsirananna is more commonly known by its colonial name Diego Suarez. It is the largest town of Northern Madagascar and lays at the second largest bay of the world (after Rio de Janeiro). Diego feels a bit deserted when you look at the decayed and empty colonial buildings, but it is a friendly and chilled town and a good place to spend one or two days before heading to the nearby national parks. It is easy to see that it used to be quite a flourishing place but, due to some bad cyclones, several of the colonial buildings are pretty much destroyed and there seems to be a lack of money to fix them.
The area is very pretty with the bay, surrounding mountains and even a "sugar loaf" mountain in the bay. Also adding to the charm are the yellow Renault 4 taxis all over town.
Interesting to know is that his harbour town played a very important role in history and especially during WWII when several battles were fought here between France and Britain.
Lilongwe is another nondescript African capital. It's hardly a city, just a very spreadout town with different neighbourghoods, none more attractive than the others. Dirty Lilongwe River runs through town and a visit gives an grim, though interesting, insight into poverty ridden Lilongwe. The chaotic local markets are always a good place for some people watching and if you need to pick up some souvenirs, try the surprisingly big craft market outside the post office. Oddly, there is a nature sancturary right in the middle of Lilongwe, which might be worth a look if you are stranded for too many days, but else there isn't a hell of a lot to see or do in Lilongwe.
Mali's capital can be a challenge. Bamako is a necessary transport and visa stop for most travellers, but unless you thrive in hot, heavy trafficked and overcrowded cities you're not likely to enjoy it here. It's dry, dusty and dirty. Dust and car fumes will make eyes itch and the throat sore; the garbage littered streets will probably make you twitch – try breaking through the mouth. However, as the place is hard to avoid why not make the best of it? The National Museum and adjutant botanic garden are among the best in West Africa and a pleasant escape from the city's hassle. The nightlife's vivid and the music scene rival those of Dakar and Conakry – traditional music and lessons are also easily arranged. If night time drinking doesn't do the trick, many guesthouses can arrange booze cruises on the Niger. Lastly, the northern hill of Point G offers some great views of the city. Alternatively, simply stroll through the lobby of Hotel de l'Amitié like you own it, take the lift up to the 14th floor and enjoy the view from there.
Mali's third largest town is known for its artisans. Especially the pottery that is shipped to town from the surrounding villages are sought after by the rest of the country. Truthsayers claim there's something in the earth here – sceptics would retort that it's simply a matter of the clay being of a superior quality. Other treats to look for in Ségou include bogalan (mud cloth), koras (traditional Malian string instruments), and traditional medicine as the Marabouts (medicine men) of Ségou should be particularly powerful. If you happen to be around in the first week of February stop by for Le Festival sur le Niger, which focuses on the river environment and its peoples' livelihood. It features concerts, films, theatre and dance performances.
It's impossible to determine whether the ancient and crumbling houses of Old Chinguetti is rising out of the Sahara's famous dunes or being consumed by them. For centuries an important caravan stop, a home of Islamic scholars, and the most important gathering place for commencing the Hadj (holy pilgrimage to Mekka) for the desert dwellers in what is now Mauritania. During the 17th-century, more than 32,000 camels passed through the city daily! Citizens here claim that Chinguetti is the seventh most holiest city in Islam, that is, however, not a claim heard outside the city itself. However, once the sea trade of the colonial era replaced caravans, it marked the beginning of Chinguetti's demise. Today the town, founded around 1300, is Mauritania's most valued and visited historical site, with the old city's 16th-centrury mosque being its most recognizable landmark. After Chinguetti (together with three other desert towns, Ouadane, Tichit and Oualata) was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 a slow process of restoring some of the crumbling building have luckily been initiated.
In 1957, a conference of Bidan elders voted to build Mauritania's new capital on the site Nouakchott occupies today. Previous the only human presence had been a French army outpost. Today around 1 million call Nouakchott home. Calling Nouakchott a highlight of visiting Mauritania would be pushing it, to say the least. But you might very well find yourself forced to pass through at some point, so you might well make the best of it. In a country where chairs are hard to come by – the nomadic tradition of sitting, eating and socialising on mats is still predominant in most of the country – Nouakchott is the only place with something that can realistically be described as cafe life. Most interesting sight is the fish market on the beach 6 km west of town when boats return late afternoon. The city's markets are also the best stocked and finding traditional crafts, like silverware, can be an enjoyable outing. If you're desperate are the three main mosques worth a quick snapshot. Known based on who funded them there's a Moroccan mosque, a Saudi mosque and an Iranian mosque.
Port Louis is a lovely break from the otherwise easy beach life. It's noisy, crowded and run down, but it has an interesting vibe. There are dilapidated colonial buildings and palmy squares, but the only real sight is the UNESCO enlisted Aapravasi Ghat. The orderly central market is full of vegetables on ground level and textile on the first floor. For some excellent Chinese food head to the well-stocked China Town a few blocks down.
Both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a favourite hippie getaway, Chefchaouen is the best of both those worlds. Named the Blue City after its blue-rinsed buildings, this is a colourful twist that set Chefchaouen’s small medina apart from those of other old Moroccan cities frequented by tourist. It still offers the obligatory narrow, tortuous and winding lanes that are impossible not to become lost in. Just with a slight blue glow to it. The atmosphere here is also less chaotic, and there is less hassle than in other destinations favored by visitors. Tugged away in the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen is also in the middle of a vast cannabis growing area. Something that could explain the relaxed atmosphere. It certainly explains why it is a famous hippie and backpacker hangout. This brings with it a few particular scams that should be mentioned here. Expensive, but poor quality hash is sold on the street and touts will offer invitations to cannabis farms, where they eventually will pressure any "guests" to buy their products and take a commission for showing them around.