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Côte D’ivoire’s Colonial Capital

Restoring Grand-Bassam to its charming past.

The father of Ivorian independence was a strong believer in what he called “the march of progress.” In just 20 years, between the early 1960s and the early 1980s, Félix Houphouët-Boigny turned Côte d’Ivoire from a rural colonial backwater into a thriving modern nation of highways, airports and deluxe hotels. And yet this tidal wave of modernity didn’t drown every aspect of Côte d’Ivoire’s colonial heritage, as a visit to the beguilingly beautiful town of Grand-Bassam reveals.

Bassam — as it’s nicknamed — is a 30-minute drive from Abidjan, the capital city of Côte d’Ivoire. The road between the two winds through both traditional wood-hut villages and more recently built slums, out of which rise the crosses of storefront churches and the crescent moons of cupboard-sized mosques.

And tucked on the outskirts of this vibrant town is Le Quartier Colonial, a charming assortment of French colonial buildings erected between the 1890s and the 1930s. Joining its network of floral boulevards are statuesque banana and papaya trees. The sweeping balconies, hipped roofs and paper-white stucco walls evoke movies such as the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind. Neatly tended flowerbeds also add color to expansive backyards and driveways. While a handful of these properties are owned by wealthy businesspeople, most lie vacant and put off a somewhat ghostly vibe.

From time to time this restful, old-world scene is disturbed by the buzz of contemporary life. A truck so jam-packed that some passengers cling to the roof might wheeze down one of the boulevards. Outside the old courthouse, Rastafarians in pink hats occasionally hard-sell toy giraffes and fresh coconuts. (An unequivocal but polite “Non, merci” usually wards them off.) And yet the quaintness of history prevails.

Blessed with an outstanding natural harbor, Grand-Bassam began life as a trading post in the late 15th century, established by the first French explorers to West Africa. It was not until 1842 that the French struck a deal with Attékéblé, a tribal leader and merchant, to set up a protectorate in the region with Bassam as its capital. Building began then on the old courthouse, post office and mansions located in the colonial quarter.

When a yellow fever epidemic hit Bassam in the mid-1890s, the French were forced to relocate their capital to Bingerville. The development of Grand-Bassam continued, however, and people from Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Africa migrated there throughout the next 70 years.

Nowadays, some of the buildings look timeworn — a tile missing here, a lick of paint needed there — but help is at hand. After an application was made by the Côte d’Ivoire government in 2008, UNESCO deemed Bassam a location worthy of preservation due to its historical significance, inventive town planning and incorporation of buildings belonging to the N’zima tribe. Bassam officially became a World Heritage Site in 2012.

UNESCO has tasked the Ivorian government with spending US$1.3 million over four years on conservation, including repairs to the façades and other features of specific buildings.

But preserving the site’s authenticity isn’t just about construction work. UNESCO requires measures to be taken against coastal erosion and water and traffic pollution. The location’s biodiversity must also be defended. As Grand-Bassam Mayor Georges Philippe Ezaley says, “Even the ancient mango tree on the roadside cannot be cut down.”

Le Quartier Colonial is on course to become a fascinating, 1.1-square-kilometer open-air museum by 2016. Were President Houphouët-Boigny alive today, the man who appreciated tradition as much as innovation would no doubt be thrilled by Grand-Bassam’s “march of progress” to the past.

Tom Sykes' journalism has appeared in the London Times, London Telegraph, New African, Philippines Free Press and many other publications around the globe. Having lived and worked in India, the Philippines and Malaysia, he is currently based in the south of England and is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Portsmouth.