Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou (or Ouaga), lies in the centre heart of the country, standing at the crossroads of several ancient trade routes. It’s more a large country town than a metropolis; the core central area is easily covered on foot. There’s not a great deal to see, or visit, in Ouagadougou but what it lacks in epic monuments and grand buildings it makes up for in wide, shady boulevards, a relaxed atmosphere and friendly people.
Home to the Bobo people, Bobo-Dioulasso is another African laid-back, friendly city. It’s smaller and easier to negotiate than Ouagadougou but has the same airy boulevards, tree-lined streets and thriving market places.
Highlights include the Musée Provincial du Houët, housed in a Sudanese-style building, it has two sets of exhibitions: one showcasing modern African art, batik, and sculpture and the other exhibiting traditional art of the region. For a touch of French class, check out the Centre Culturel Français Henri Matisse. It’s got shady trees, magazines, and comfy chairs; everything you need for a time-out from travelling. The most impressive of Bobo’s buildings is the Grande Mosqué. It’s built out of mud in traditional Sudanese style, and for an exorbitant price the caretaker will take you on a guided tour; less if you just want to see the inside which is the most interesting section anyway. The old Kibidwé district is full of artisans (mostly potters and blacksmiths) and is well worth exploring.
Benin’s capital in everything but name, Cotonou thrived after the abolition of slavery, growing as Beninese, Togolese and Nigerian expatriates returned to the region. Cotonou means ‘mouth of the river of death’ in Fon – a reference to the role the Dahomeyan Kingdom played in the exportation of slaves. Cotonou’s attractions include some fairly good beaches only a few miles from the centre of town, several good nightclubs and craft centres. It is also one of the best places in West Africa to eat.
Just north of Cotonou is Ganvié, a town of 12,000 inhabitants who live in bamboo huts on stilts several miles from land on Lake Nokoué. In the 18th century, the Tofinu people built the village as protection against the aggression of the Fon and Dahomey kingdoms; religious custom forbade warriors from venturing into water. Now, houses, restaurants, shops and even a hotel are built 2m (6ft) above the water. Very early or at dusk are the best times to visit Ganvié.
The voodoo centre of Benin, and the next most popular destination to Cotonou, Ouidah was the only sea port in Benin until 1908. A major cultural and historical destination, Ouidah features theMuseé d’Histoire d’Ouidah (also called the Voodoo Museum), various other museums and temples, a park known as the Sacred Forest and the sacred, symbolic and historical Route des Esclave (the Route of the Slaves). This 2.5mile road from the town to the fabulous beach features fetishes, statues and small villages along the route the slaves took to the ships. Ouidah is 25miles from Cotonou, on the main road to Togo. Taxis leave from Autogare Jonquet in Cotonou and cost about half a US dollar.
By Jess Halliday