SAO TOME: The second smallest African state of Sao Tome and Principe punches way above its weight when it comes to natural beauty. But its unsullied beauty is matched by an equally charming colonial landscape.
Sao Tome was uninhabited till the Portuguese set foot around 1470. They overcame the remoteness of the islands by attracting settlers from Portugal. Soon they realized the commercial potential of the islands and promoted the growth of sugar cane plantations. By the middle of the 16th century, the island became Africa’s top sugar exporter. From 1522 onwards, the Portuguese crown was administering the islands.
Soon Sao Tome’s sugar economy became unsustainable due to competition from nearby countries. But the Portuguese settlers turned to cocoa and developed the plantations to make Sao Tome one of the largest producers of cocoa in the world. But in doing so, they made these islands into a slave trade hub, which is perhaps the darkest aspect of its history. Between the 1500s till Sao Tome got independence in 1975, the Portuguese left a deep imprint of their architecture and culture on these islands, which is quite visible today.
Portuguese colonial architecture
Tell-tale evidence of Portuguese architecture is what is today the Presidential Palace (Palácio Presidencial de São Tomé e Príncipe, also known as Palácio do Povo) or the official residence of the President of the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe. Built-in the 19th century, the palace housed the residence of the Governor of Portuguese Sao Tome and Principe.
This double-storied palace is a large, L-shaped mansion with a rose-pink facade and surrounded by pink concrete columns and a high iron fence with a closely guarded entrance. Its other neoclassical elements include window ornamentation, columns along the spans of the building, and a grand main staircase at the entrance.
The beautiful Nossa Senhora da Graça (Our Lady of Grace) is situated right across the Presidential Palace and is a popular spot for Sao Tomeans. The cathedral is known to be the oldest in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Another typical piece of Portuguese architecture is the square-shaped Fort Sao Sebastio, which is strikingly cream-colored. A stone carving near the gate states that it was built in 1576 as a defense primarily against the Dutch armies. Ironically, history states that the fort was occupied by the Dutch in 1641. The Portuguese managed to recapture it after 3 years.
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The fort houses the Sao Tome and Principe Museums. The Sao Tome Museum displays the fascinating saga of the decline of the sugarcane cycle of the 16th century till the origins of cocoa production. Other intriguing things are the displays of sacred art and ethnic wear. It also houses a sandstone sculpture of the Virgin and Jesus, along with the island´s female patron saint Sant’Ana.
The beach near the Fort is fierce and the waves can hit you as you stand on the edge at any time of the day.
The city centre simply oozes colonial charm. The city has still retained 16th and 17th-century Portuguese architecture. The old colonial buildings with rounded balconies and high arched windows are being used as offices, shops, pharmacies, bakeries, commercial institutions, etc.
But many of these constructs have been partially restored from the insides and colorfully dressed in bright colors on the outside.
Ambling across the endless lanes and gullies, I felt mentally transported to another period in time. The captivating old-world charm of the colonial structures of Sao Tome city accompanies you everywhere. Street vendors who have set up shop outside these buildings, go about their business quite oblivious to the history and colorful setting.
Another striking example of Portuguese architecture is an impressive building that used to house an old cocoa processing (below) two centuries ago. This building has since been refurbished and used as a convention centre.
Cute but old-looking villas dot the coastal roads of Sao Tome, which represents the relatively upscaled part of the city. Owned previously by the Portuguese settlers, today they are either owned by the elite city dwellers or converted into homestays or art galleries, or retail chocolate outlets.
This overlooked African island nation is certainly on the up on the world tourism map. One needs to look beyond the obvious natural charm of these special islands and enjoy the colonial splendour that is hidden inside its capital city.