Sightseeing in a capital city being renovated

1043 Reviews

Star Travel Rating

2/5

Review type

Things to do

Location

Date of travel

January, 2024

Product name

Sightseeing in Porto Novo

Product country

Benin

Product city

Porto Novo

Travelled with

Couple

Reasons for trip

Culture/Sightseeing

Sightseeing in Benin’s capital, Porto-Novo, was disappointing. The President, Patrice Talon, has launched a ‘Benin Revealed’ programme designed to promote beach and cultural tourism, but it is still work in progress, and both the Musée da Silva and the Ethnographic Museum were closed for renovation.

Although the Royal Palace Musée Honmé was open, it hadn’t escaped the President’s eye as it was surrounded by building work. Whilst we had our own tour guide and a city guide, a French-speaking palace guide was mandatory, and our visit took double the time.
Through an intricately carved wooden door we found a scale model of the palace, and family trees explaining the longest-lived royal dynasty in sub-Saharan Africa. This ended with King Toffa in 1976, when the palace was signed over to the French in return for protection. We toured the courtyards of the Queen, King and Queen Mother each with their own stories of royal life. Behind closed doors were the bodies of previous kings and a room where kings defeated in battle, had to commit suicide to preserve their honour. There were lots of steep steps and low doorways designed to ensure bowing, and the combination of both was lethal. Unfortunately, photographs were not allowed inside, and we had to be content with snapping statues in the courtyard at the end of our tour.

The stunning tower Iya Abi Mesan, or Temple of Abessan, was made from red ochre sand and surrounded by nine heads. Abessan is a nine-headed deity, considered the Queen of the Yoruba people, and according to legend, three warriors were hunting when Abessan and her nine heads appeared to them at this spot. They took this as a sign to set down their roots and the city of Porto-Novo was born.

Continuing through the town on foot, it was hard to miss local houses which had been bricked on the outside and mosaic pictures applied – there were so many of them it was amazing, and we assumed it was part of the Benin Revealed project, although it wasn’t clear.

A short drive took us to the elegant Great Mosque, built between 1912 and 1925, whose decorated façade was in stark contrast to the adjacent rather ugly 1970s era mosque. Unfortunately we were not allowed in either.

Voodoo and Benin are synonymous, and we passed the beautiful hay-stack shaped Temple des Zangbeto – Zangbeto are known as Voodoo guardians who act as a police and security force within the community. Unfortunately, as we are not initiated into the voodoo religion, we were again not allowed to enter.

A brass statue of a comedian Baba Yabo (1925 – 1985) outside Siege National de theatre Populaire could not be missed. Having Googled him later, we discovered he revolutionized the world of theatre in Benin with his unique comedy style and storytelling. He had not escaped the Presidential buff, as in archive photos he was verdigris rather than the shiny gold of today.

The market had nothing particularly unusual, and as it was a Sunday, it was relatively quiet.

The final stop was Jardin des Plantes et de las Nature, with the botanical gardens being divided into several sections. The first had a sacred Iroko tree whose V shaped branch was used to hold criminals whilst their heads were chopped off. Other sections were devoted to medicinal plants, and although a pond contained a few fish, the site was relatively unremarkable, although shady and peaceful in the heat.

Whilst this was a pleasant day, we left somewhat confused and disappointed that so many places were closed or impacted by renovation. A visit in five years’ time is likely to be a completely different experience.

Helen Jackson

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