Day six of our tour of Haiti arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.
An early start this morning for our transfer to Aérogare Guy Malary (the domestic airport) for the short flight to Cap-Haïtien. Even at this early hour (we leave the hotel at 06:15), there is quite a lot of traffic on the streets of Port au Prince, with many more people walking to work. One young lad jumps on the ladder at the back of our van to catch a free ride for a while, then knocks on the roof when he wants to be let off.
There is not much action at the airport – we are supposed to be meeting an American guy called Kyle here, who is joining us for the day. Meanwhile we hang around, eating the packed breakfast provided by the hotel.
Kyle eventually turns up – his driver took him to the international airport rather than the domestic one, so he had to grab a taxi to bring him here. To add insult to injury, his flight ticket has been cancelled, so he is put on standby. Kyle is very laid back about it all, and we keep our fingers crossed as we watch people arrive in the waiting room. His luck is in - fortunately not all the booked passengers turn up and Kyle is on the flight!
It's only a small plane, and I sit right at the front with a good view of the cockpit. When the pilot arrives, I ask him if he is able to fly over the Citadelle for me to take some photos, and he promises to try.
My view is restricted by the engine, but I still get a reasonable good look out over the spreading metropolis that is Port au Prince as we take off.
The urban sprawl soon gives way to mountains as we head north.
It's only a 30 minute or so flight, and about half way through, the captain beckons me to come forward into the cockpit just as the imposing Citadelle la Fèrriere comes into view, perched spectacularly atop a craggy peak.
As we pass the fortress, the pilot dips his wing so that we all get a good view, even through the side windows with the engine in the way.
What a star!
From Cap-Haïtien airport we are whisked to Milot, where we meet with Maurice, our local guide.
Sans Souci palace was constructed in 1806 for King Henri Christophe to concentrate all administrative functions of the monarchy around the royal residence. The gates were allocated according to rank – only the king could enter through the middle gates, and the soldiers used the door on the right.
The building you can see with a domed roof, is a catholic church.
Originally decorated in European style, the palace was looted after the king's death in 1820 and later suffered damage during the earthquake of 1842 before gradually turning into the ruins you see today.
Christophe had this palace built (along with his fortress which we will be visiting after this) for three reasons:
1. to defend the country from the French
2. to defend his kingdom from enemies from the south (Haiti was divided in two at that time)
3. to show the world what a great nation Haiti was and what it was capable of
When Napoleon sent two spies to Haiti to report back on how the palace was organised for a possible raid, Christophe tricked them into believing that he had an enormous army. The French envoy stood in this very position at the top of the stairs (below), while Christophe's soldiers marched down the steps opposite.
Christophe's entire troupe of one thousand soldiers paraded down the stairs, then snuck around the back and up into the palace, changed into another set of uniforms and filed down those steps again (and again and again...); thus giving the French spies the impression that Haiti had a ten thousand-strong army!
Christophe greatly admired Napoleon. So much so, that he had his portrait hanging in one of his galleries. When news reached him that Napoleon had been captured alive, Christophe tore down the picture, tearing it to pieces with the words: “Great men should never survive!”
Later, suffering from illness and fearing a coup, Christophe committed suicide in 1820, aged 53. The deed was done in this very room (below), using the silver pistol we saw in the museum on our first day in Port au Prince.
Fearing attacks from the French as well as the southerners, security was strict at the palace. The guards in the sentry box would stop any visitors, and if they were unable to show the right ID, it was straight to the dungeons. Fortunately Maurice doesn't exercise the same defence policy!
The palace complex also includes the Queen's apartments,
her pool and fountain,
and a printing press. Christophe's philosophy was that all children should receive a decent education.
Having been here before the palace was built, the authorities are now trying to keep this 300 year old star apple tree alive. It was known as the Justice Tree, because the king used to sit under its branches, handing out judgement to his people.
Kyle turns out to be quite the mountain goat, and he climbs a crumbling old wall for a better view of the palace from above.
We take our photos from the safety of terra firma.
Citadelle la Ferrière
From Sans Souci Palace, we continue up the hill to Citadelle la Ferrière.
This is the number one tourist attraction in Haiti, and the most common way to reach the towering heights of the fortress, is on horse back.
As I am adamant that there is no way I am going to subject any horse to the weight of my body, Maurice tries to organise a 'rhino' for me. I struggle with the thought of a one-horned African animal with a saddle on its back ferrying me on narrow stony paths in Haiti... especially after my last close encounter with a rhino. I am therefore very relieved to know that the 'rhino' they refer to is in fact a small motorised vehicle similar to a golf cart.
Unfortunately, however, the rhino is sick today. Looks like there will be no visit to the Citadelle for me then, as the 1.6 mile long track is notoriously steep and not something I relish the thought of attempting in this heat. I therefore give David my camera, wave him goodbye and stay behind with the horse handlers, self-appointed guides and souvenir vendors; while David mounts his horse and rides into the great unknown with Kyle, Serge and Maurice.
David has never really been at ease on a horse (he has similar memories of Peter the Plodding Pony as I do of rhinos), so I am impressed that he manages to take photos while riding!
At the top, riders alight the horses onto cannons, some of many still left around the grounds of the fort.
It is customary to buy the horse handlers a drink from the conveniently positioned vendors (above), while the horses get their own water and are left to graze as the tourists explore.
The imposing Citadelle was commissioned in 1805 by Henri Christophe - who at the time was chief administrator in the region, became the president of Northern Haiti in 1807 and declared himself king four years later.
The largest fortress in the western hemisphere, it took 20,000 men 15 years to build. Created as a protection against the French, who were expected to return after Haiti's independence to re-take their colony by force, the citadel was built to be able to accommodate 5,000 defenders - as well as general / president / King Christophe and his family - for up to a year, enabling the king to use the so-called scorched earth policy in case of attack.
The construction of the Citadelle is certainly monumental, with ten feet thick and 130 feet high walls, making it a daunting prospect for anyone to try and storm the fort.
Three of the four sides are virtually impregnable, with only the south aspect a little more exposed. To counteract this weakness, another fort was built on a small hill nearby to protect the Citadelle from any would-be invaders choosing to attack from this direction.
Not to mention the amazing artillery battery pointing in this direction.
The Citadelle was outfitted with 365 cannons of different sizes obtained from various monarchs including this British one (bottom photo).
The height of the mountaintop upon which the Citadelle resides is 950 meters, and provides an exceptional views of the surrounding landscape, something which was the main factor of the fort's position - King Christophe and his men were able to observe any ships arriving at the coast. Apparently it is even possible to see the eastern coast of Cuba (140km away) on a clear day.
Under Christophe's policies of corvée, or forced labour, the Kingdom increased its wealth by trading in sugar; but the people resented the system. Unpopular, debilitated by a stroke, and concerned about being overthrown, Christophe committed suicide in 1820, by which time the Citadelle was only 95% completed. His body is allegedly entombed within its walls, as is that of his brother-in-law (below), who died in an accidental explosion.
The fort complex included a printing shop, garment factories, a hospital, schools, a distillery, a chapel, and military barracks.
And apparently a pizza oven!
One of the more impressive features is the rainwater collection system on the roof. With a lack of underground water (the Citadelle is built directly onto the rock), the fort was constructed so that rain could be utilised to supply its inhabitants with water.
Citadelle la Ferrière was never put to the test, since the French did not come came back to reconquer Haiti; and the fort was later abandoned.
We too abandon the Citadelle and make our way to Lakou Lakay Cultural Centre for lunch. Run by Maurice (our guide) and his family, the aim of the centre is to preserve the rich cultural traditions of Haiti including folk dance as well as teaching local children to read.
There are many beautiful items for sale in his small boutique, all locally made.
In the grounds of his property grow various fruit trees, including this soursop tree. The leaves are thought to cure cancer and the juice made from the fruit cleanses the blood. We have become rather partial to this drink, so it is good to hear that it has medicinal properties too.
We are greeted by Maurice's beautiful daughter with a bowl of water and some soap; so that we can be nice and clean in preparation for tucking into the delicious spread provided: there is chicken, vegetables, fried plantain, diri djon djon (rice cooked with the juice from black mushrooms), potatoes stuffed with fish...
… with a special mention to the hot pickles. For many years now I have graded chillies and spicy food on a 1-10 'Grete Scale'. Since arrived in Haiti, much to Serge's surprise, I haven't found anything spicier than a 6. These chillies, however, are super HOT, and I would say they are a good 8.5 or even a 9! Pretty mind-blowing stuff!
After lunch we need to drop Kyle off at the airport for his flight back to Port au Prince. Unlike his outbound flight this morning, the check-in process goes without a hitch, and we are soon on our way across town, leaving Kyle to wait for his flight.
Cap Haïtien was an important city during the French colonial period, serving as the capital until it was moved to Port-au-Prince in 1770. Again after the revolution in 1804, Cap Haïtien became the capital of the Kingdom of Northern Haiti until 1820. The town is now a mix of a shabby and somewhat seedy port area and a much more charming 'down-town' section where brightly painted, well-kept houses mingle with dilapidated and crumbling properties.
Wherever we go, there is traffic. Always traffic. Which is one of the reasons the waterfront area looks like it does - a whole swathe of buildings have been removed to make way for a brand new freeway.
And well turned out school children. As per education policies, children are not allowed to turn up at school looking in any way unkempt. However poor the family may be, their kids always look immaculate: neatly pressed uniform, hair with half a dozen or more bows, highly polished shoes. Just like the children back home in England. Not.
Hotel Roi Christophe
At this point I must have a little whinge about my lack of linguistic abilities. OK, so I am bilingual in Norwegian and English, I speak enough German to just about hold a simple conversation, and I can order food in Spanish; so why, oh why, do I struggle so with French? Pourquoi indeed. To me the pronunciation is just totally illogical: take the word roi (meaning king) for instance. How on earth this word goes from being written roi, to being pronounced wah is beyond me. (See here for the correct pronunciation).
Anyway, back to the hotel, named after Henri Christophe, the former slave and a key leader in the Haitian Revolution, which succeeded in gaining independence from France in 1804. Christophe created a separate government in this area and in 1807, three years after the end of the revolution and independence of Haiti from the French, he was elected President of the State of Haiti, as he named that area. Alexandre Pétion was chosen as president in the South. In 1811, Christophe converted the state into a kingdom and proclaimed himself Henry I, King of Haïti.
Touted by Lonely Planet to be the most charming hotel in Cap HaÏtien, the Roi Christophe is a delightful colonial building from the 18th century. Once a palace belonging to a French governor, it now has a Spanish hacienda feel to it.
The moment we arrive I am in love with this place. So much greenery, so many little gems hidden away amongst broad leaved banana shrubs and flowering hibiscus, such as intimate seating areas and eclectic art.
There are several bar areas dotted around, although the service is more than a little slow... funnily enough, having tipped well when the first drink is brought out, the speed of the server suddenly increases rapidly.
Eventually we settle on some chairs by the pool, overlooking several large trees for some bird watching. With a drink of course.
While we haven't seen many birds here in Haiti up until this point – the Roi Christophe grounds are overrun with the endemic Hispaniolan Woodpecker!
I have never seen so many woodpeckers in any one place – everywhere we look there is another one – I count at least a dozen!
Parents flit back and forth feeding their babies, and some even seem to service two nests at once. How does that work?
They may be pretty birds, but look what they've done to the poor trees!
Also spotted in amongst the foliage is the Hispaniolan Palm Crow and the Palm Chat – both endemic to this island; the more widespread Grey Kingbird and the near-endangered Plain Pigeon.
We see what initially looks like a 'blob' (a fruit maybe?) high in a tree, and wander off to investigate. The 'blob' turns out to be a large bird, but we are really not sure exactly what it is. After further inspection, a lot of discussions, and googling on our phones, we decide it is a juvenile Yellow Crowed Night Heron.
Seeing several adults in the same tree later, including a nest, seems to confirm our suspicions.
There might not be a great variety of birds here, but there are certainly more than we have seen anywhere else in Haiti; and it's such a charming place to while away a few hours that we are almost sorry when the light fades and it's time to get ready for dinner.
Not particularly memorable, but the Griot de Porc is very tasty, albeit a little too fatty and bony for me. The fried plantains, however, are the best we've had so far on this trip!
The flan (vanilla/caramel pudding) is quite nice.
We have another couple of drinks before retiring to bed.