Cayenne, for which the pepper was named (not vice versa), is the capital city of French Guiana. It's not particularly large, ~120,000 people, but it's Guayane's “big smoke”. Located on the Atlantic at the mouth of the Cayenne River, the city has a mottled history. First colonized in 1604 by the French, the Portuguese destroyed the original settlement, but the French returned in 1643, only to be beaten back by the local AmerIndians. A permanent French settlement was established in 1664. Constant territorial conflicts had the city controlled by the French, Dutch and English over the years, until it was finally returned to the French in 1814. It was part of the French penal colony from 1854 until 1938, although the penal colony legacy is less tangible here than in other areas.
Our hotel overlooked the Place des Palmistes a central park on Avenue General de Gaulle, the city's main street. Dozens of palm trees swayed in the light breeze. We were in the heart of Cayenne close to the market, the restaurants and most of what we wanted to see...all accessible on foot.
We were up early to check out the Saturday morning market. It was hot and humid as we walked around the corner from the hotel and down two blocks. The city streets are narrow and crowded. Old Creole buildings show their age and lack of maintenance. It reminded us of New Orleans architecture in the French Quarter … fancy wrought iron balconies, full shuttered windows, bright colors. But these houses were very faded, tired, dilapidated.
Place du Coq (Rooster Square) was busy with people milling around and chatting. Homeless men or drunks slept midst the market buzz. Next door was the marché.
This market was particularly lively. Butchers, lined up next to each other, were on one side of the large market hall. Further down, food stalls with 3-4 stools lined up at their counters, offered everything from fresh fruit smoothies to fried fish to shots of local “rhum agricole” (rum). The stalls were all along the interior perimeter of the market hall and all seemed busy.
We decided this was our best opportunity to try Soupe Pho for which the local Asian population (especially Hmong and Vietnamese) are known. We shared a bowl. It came with a separate bowl of fresh lettuce, basil and cilantro leaves, lime wedges, and thinly sliced Scotch bonnet peppers. A myriad of oils and sauces were on the table. The soup was delicious, but as we slurped down the long rice noodles, we were obviously not following standard protocol. A well-meaning cook came around to our table and showed us how to tear the fresh leaves to add to the soup, add fish oil and lime and stir it all up. She cautioned us about the peppers. David tried a rather large bite of pepper and admitted she was right.
The center aisles of the market were devoted to local crafts and souvenirs. All the cheap stuff that you see everywhere (mugs, keychains, ashtrays, shot glasses … all things marked Guayane) overflowed on tables or hung from above. There were, however, some items that showed pride in workmanship. I especially liked the dresses and clothing fashioned from the locally favored, bright-colored plaid fabrics.
Most of the fruits and vegs vendors were outside the main hall, sitting under umbrellas, offering piles of brightly colored fresh produce for sale. Trade was brisk. The temperature rose from hot and humid to absolutely stifling. A street busker caught our attention. A particularly agile contortionist, tied himself in a knot on top of a narrow tower of cans and remained in situ for God knows how long. He deserved a few pence. He was still all pretzeled-up when we left the marketplace.
We headed to the Office de Tourisme, but it was closed. Figures … Saturday mid-morning, why would it be open? We walked past the Place Victor Schoelcher, an anti-slavery activist credited with freeing the slaves in French Guiana (hence the reason the colony needed prison-labor).
As we walked by, the local tourist train which previous cruisers had dubbed “the lame train” passed by. No doubt about it … very lame looking. We were doing better on foot.
Next stop was the Musée Departemental Franconie. We walked past the Hotel de Ville (city hall), built by the Jesuits in 1890 and very well preserved.
The museum only offered limited Saturday hours. The sign on a huge, old building read Conseil General and in faded, barely legible letters below “Musee Departemental”. We had to ask if it was the right place. It was. We paid our €3/each.
We were impressed with the 12' long black caiman that greeted us just across from the ticket desk. The jarred snake specimens weren't as appealing and the taxidermied local fauna and birdlife were tired.
A special air-conditioned room was dedicated to insects and other creepy crawlers. The coolness alone drew us to the room and kept us there awhile. South America is particularly rich in butterfly species as evidenced by the huge display. We pulled out drawer after drawer of pinned specimens, part of someone's lifelong collection.
Tarantulas, though preserved, had the hairs on my arms standing at alert. Learning how tarantulas mate was probably not on my bucket list, but now I know.
Upstairs was dedicated to local Bushi Nengue culture, penal colony history and general history about Cayenne. It was mostly paintings and artwork and all informational placards were in French. We muddled through.
The best part of the museum actually, was the view of our hotel from its front steps.
The day was hot, our room had A/C and we were ready for an afternoon siesta and looking forward to a romantic French dinner. More to come...stay tuned.
And no...we didn't forget … Happy Hallowe'en!
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