Charming Cap-Haitien in the north of Haiti is not only a good basis for visiting the Citadelle and Sans Souci, but also a charming place in its own right.
In the North of the country is Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haitien, in colonial times known as Cap Francais or the Paris of the Antilles (and also briefly known as Cap Henry, after the self-crowned Roi Christophe, who came to power shortly after Haiti’s independence from France in 1804). Today little reminds of the Paris feeling, although the town does have a certain charm, with its old houses, its tall painted wooden doors, and its balconies, no matter how run-down. The large iron market in the centre is perhaps the filthiest spot I have visited in Haiti, yet is such an interesting place, and so colourful on market days (which is every day except Sunday). The ‘marche de carbon’, the charcoal market outside town, is a lot less colourful, and frightening if you realise that all this has been derived from what must be about the last few trees in a country where deforestation affects 95% of the land surface, which results in wholesale erosion of top soil, never to be fit for agriculture again.
Twenty kilometres outside Cap-Haitien, near the town of Milot, is the Citadelle, Haiti’s most renowned historical landmark. The Citadelle is an enormous castle built in the 1820s to defend the royal family, the above-mentioned Roi Christophe and his entourage, from a possible French invasion. The castle is built on a steep hill, overlooking the coastal plains, and reputedly cost the lives of some 20,000 ‘construction workers’ at the time (who, I bet, did not receive wages, despite slavery having been abolished in newly independent Haiti). It is loaded with old canons and associated huge piles of metal projectiles, and is one of the weirdest buildings I have ever visited, totally misplaced. And it is still in perfect shape, never having seen any actual battle at all.
Less remains from the palace Sans Souci, at the bottom of the Citadelle, which served as the royal court in these days, complete with frock coats and fancy ladies dresses, imitating the very power that they had just expelled. Much of the building, including the roof, has collapsed in an earthquake in 1842, leaving many of the stairs and courtyards exposed to the elements. With little tourist infrastructure to speak of, one needs to fear for the future of this Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Citadelle is not the only fort in the North, there are quite a few more, although less impressive, and often less well preserved. In Fort Liberte, some kilometres eastwards along the coast, is another fort, located on a peninsula and looking out over the water. Another great place to visit, and totally abandoned.
next: the beaches