Cape Verde part one: Cidade Velho, Praia and Mindelo

Many years ago, I read a travel writer’s claim that Cape Verde is the most festive country in Africa, and I put it on my list of places to go. I no longer prioritize partying, but Dakar is just a two-hour flight from the capital of Praia, and after seeing pictures of the mountains of Santa Antão, I swore I’d visit before leaving Senegal. So at the end of January, I island-hopped between Santiago (where Praia is located), São Vicente, and Santa Antão, and I was blown away nearly every step of the way. I mean this both literally and figuratively; Cape Verde is a windy country.

My first full day in Praia, I paid the equivalent of 40 Euros for a taxi driver / tour guide to take me to the UNESCO town of Cidade Velha. Founded in the late 1400’s, it was the first European colonial outpost in the tropics. First stop was a fort that protected the town from invaders. I was more taken in by this view towards the opposite direction.

Here’s the fort, overlooking the town. Over the years it fell into ruin but at some point in the recent past it was rebuilt using the original stones.

Then we drove down to the town and walked through the center. Below: the oldest urban street made by Europeans in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s called Rua de Banana.

Below is the oldest church in town (and in the colonial world). It was finished around the year 1495. There was some sort of mass field trip for the island’s youngest schoolchildren and hundreds of them converged on the church just after we arrived, shattering its silence and stillness. It made for a cute juxtaposition.

Feelings of desperation brought on by actions taken the day before, thousands of miles away, inspired this agnostic Jew to pray to a very beautiful collection of Jesuses and Mary’s, asking them to change the hearts and minds of people who could together alter the misguided trajectory of my country.

Unfortunately, I’m not digressing here. Every few hours I would remember what was going on back home and be overwhelmed by sadness and anger and panic. Which is why when I had no access to Internet on Santa Antão it came as such a welcome relief.

Below are the ruins of the first cathedral in West Africa. It was started in 1550 but construction wasn’t completed until 1700.

The town was pretty small and after an hour or so we headed back to Praia. It was like déjà vu of my Lisbon trip in April. Loads of pastel-painted buildings, bright blue sky reflecting light from the surrounding water, and a super chill vibe.

My favorite pink building, below.

And my favorite mid-century one. It houses Cape Verde’s national airline, no less.

Their market was the cleanest I’ve seen maybe anywhere.

At night I took everyone’s advice and headed for Quintal da Música, where there was a band playing traditional Cape Verdean music.

The ambience was really nice. Their party trick was to walk from the bar to your table carrying the bottle of whatever you ordered on their head.

The next day was supposed to be a beach day but honestly I was a bit underwhelmed by Praia’s beaches, especially in January. Not bad, but not great. And I have access to not bad but not great beaches year-round in Dakar.

I didn’t have enough time to get to the northern part of the island to hang out on the beautiful beach at Tarrafal. Instead I attempted to eat as much of Praia’s delicious food as possible. I did very well for myself.

First, on a friend’s recommendation, I went to a restaurant where I was supposed to order tuna on a hot stone. They bring it to your table seconds after they stick the tuna on the stone, and you flip it to your liking. I’m not so into tuna, but I was into this tuna.

I also had smoked tuna for the first time, at the amazing hotel restaurant, which also served the best ice cream I have ever had in my life. Both were so good that I returned to the restaurant just to order them two more times over the next 24 hours. But now I really am digressing…

That night, I flew to Mindelo on the island of São Vicente. I would have liked to skip it but the only way to get to my ultimate destination, Santa Antão, is to take the ferry from Mindelo.

After spending a day wandering around, though, I was glad I hadn’t gone straight from the airport to the ferry, because it is a really picturesque city that is obsessed with bright colors.

The pink van is just too much. It almost looks staged.

Above is an actual pink palace, and below is a restaurant.

Can’t leave purple out.

In fact, why not put every color on one building and call it a day.

I loved it. It was the visual equivalent of Vitamin D.

And their market was, like Praia’s, impeccable.

My hotel helped me find another taxi driver / tour guide, and he took me on an excursion that included a stop at the Bay of Cats, from which I walked along the beach to a nearby town while he picked up and dropped off someone else. (I didn’t see any cats but I saw a bunch of unleashed dogs running around.)

We returned to the city at twilight and headed for a scenic overlook.

And then I went to dinner at Chez Loutcha, which was an even lovelier experience than it normally would have been because there is another Chez Loutcha in Dakar. It opened in 1960 and is probably the oldest restaurant in town. It is certainly the most beloved. At this newer branch, the owner was doing the rounds, and she told me about how she moved back to her home country of Cape Verde 30 years ago and left the Dakar restaurant to be managed by her son. I told her he was doing a good job.

While listening to an Cesária Évora-like singer, I ate the national dish of cachupa, a delicious stew into which every type of available meat is thrown.

And then I headed back to the hotel to get to bed in time to catch a very early ferry to the island of my dreams the next morning.

Below is the really cute kiosk in the park next to the hotel. The inside has an antique wood counter and old-school urns for coffee or spirits.

P.S. Surprisingly, I spoke nothing but French the whole time I was on these two islands. There are a ton of Senegalese workers at the hotels and restaurants, and French is also the lingua franca for Cape Verdeans on these particular islands, rather than English. (There are a ton of Belgian and French visitors, but not many Americans or British. The British tend to go to two other islands that are featured in package tours departing from London.)

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5 thoughts on “Cape Verde part one: Cidade Velho, Praia and Mindelo

  1. Oh, oh you make me want to visit Cape Verde now, Ruth! Two great posts – if I never get the chance to visit I feel as if I’ve already been on a guided tour, in your pocket! Looks lovely, and fairly prosperous. I would have thought you’d have more difficulty with the language, especially outside the main towns – don’t they all speak a version of Portuguese? Or is French taught as a second language there?

    • Thank you! The standard of living in Cape Verde is definitely higher than in Senegal. And they speak Portugese Creole, but when they do speak a second language it’s usually French – even before Portugese, it seemed. That may not be the case on other islands, and it may only be the case for people who work in the service and tourism industries on the ones I visited.

      Next time you’re in Lisbon, do consider jetting over for a few days – it is such a beautiful, interesting country. (Though in my opinion Santa Antao is what makes the trip worth it so I wouldn’t go for just a few days unless you could fit that in!)

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