The sun never sets on the Tricoleur
The head of tourism for St Pierre, Martinique, pauses in his tour of the fomer capital city, largely levelled thanks to the eruption of Mt Pele, a nearby volcano, in 1902. We are going up the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – or Rue de Ciel, so-called because there was a religious seminary at the top of the flight of stone steps. “And a lot of prostitutes too,” he jokes, “for a different type of heaven.”
We continue past a ruined psychiatric hospital and a ruined architectural school.St-Pierre was, by all accounts, a pretty sophisticated place. “Le Petit Paris” it was called. Clearly, Martinique spends a lot of its time looking 4000 km across the Atlantic for its influences.Take its recent spate of unrest, caused largely by untenable price rises and expressed largely in strikes across the island. “Why did you decide to sort everything out by striking this February?” I ask my guide.
A genial Martinique-born West Indian, he shrugs, while considering the 5-week strike which paralysed the country and allegedly caused the cancellation of 100,000 holidays. “Because we are French,” he eventually offers. “It’s how we French deal with things.”
It is a pretty extraordinary place, Martinique. Palm trees, kilometer after kilometer of banana plantations and emerald-green fields of sugar cane swaying in the Caribbean breeze… and then… you have gendarmes, boulangeries and Mr Bricolage. Yes, they are French here, and this is part of Europe, as the continuous signs “Funded by the European Community” on brand new buildings attest.
Everyone drives a Renault, Citroen or Peugot, and shops at Carrefour or Galeries Lafayette. Well, those who can afford it, do. Prices here are 40% higher than in France, because – as with the other French overseas departements, – everything is imported, from the Liebherr diggers carving up the (immaculate) roads, to the Citroen Berlingos and the stuff in the Conforama furniture shop.
Driving along the dual carriageway which rings the island, and observing all the shopping opportunities which pop up on the roadside amid the bougainvillea, it is as if France has franchised herself out – simply earmarked the things she wants to export, and popped them, along with industrial quantities of Danone yoghurt, onto the next freight ship to Fort de France.
Except the trouble is that France isn’t franchisable. Not really. Not in the sense that Macdonald’s, or Body Shop, or Les Mis is. The whole point about France, and why it is the most popular tourist destination on the globe, is because of its uncomplicated and uncompromising singularity.
Those unrepeatable petit grocery stores, the divine boulangeries, the bistro that no-one else has discovered…and so on and so forth. I mean, where else can you find the Eiffel Tower, I ask the kids? “Las Vegas”, they solemnly reply. God, they are spoilt. Anyway, this is why I am not particularly moved to find an outlet of a Paul boulangerie here, as if Martinique was just another platform of the Gare du Nord.
The things which are fantastic about Martinique are the things particular to this island – giant moths, French Caribbean rock concerts by the water’s edge, Gospel choirs in the foyer of our hotel, hot showers of rain, the rum degustation at the Clement Distillery, coconut milk, the giant memorial statue to the slaves at Anse Caffard and the fried fish at the open-air market. Alright, boules (as seen in this pic) are a pretty good import, I’ll accept. Particularly when they are played just yards from a beach which is yet another dead-ringer for a Bounty ad…