Fort de France



Fort de France, Martinique, is a lovely little city, but unlike places such as Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas or Philipsburg in St. Maarten, it isn't really a tourist town.

Fort de France is a teeming, bustling capital city noted for its excellent restaurants and French fashion boutiques. Be prepared for heavy traffic and narrow, crowded streets, especially when a cruise ship is in port.

The town, which begins at the waterfront and climbs into the foothills of the Pitons, is best explored on foot, but there are many bus tours for those who prefer air-conditioned comfort.

Several sights are worth seeing in Fort de France. Place de la Savane, a recently refurbished 12-acre/5-hectare park with fountains and beautiful gardens, is the heart of the city. In the northwest corner there's a white marble statue of Marie-Rose Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie—better known as Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon I. She grew up at her family's estate near Trois-Ilets. Josephine has been blamed for reinstituting slavery on the island after it had been abolished during the French Revolution. Sometime during the 1980s, the statue's head was removed by supporters of independence from France, and it has yet to be replaced.

Around Place de la Savane are lovely colonial-style houses, shops and cafes painted pastel colors and embellished with wrought iron. A short stroll south through the park brings you back to the waterfront where, east of the park, you can see Fort St. Louis, which guards the entrance to the harbor. The first battery dates back to 1639. The present imposing stone structure was completed in 1703 and is still an active military base.

Across from La Savane on Rue de la Liberte, at the corner of Rue Perrinon, is the Bibliotheque Schoelcher, a strange conglomeration of arches and domes that was originally built for the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889. It was dismantled and shipped to the island to house the Victor Schoelcher library. (Schoelcher fought for the abolition of slavery in the islands.) The classical baroque structure across from the Schoelcher library is the Prefecture. Built in the late 1800s, it was the seat of the French administrator.

Otherwise, spend your time leisurely dining in the restaurants and walking the streets. Even if you don't care to buy, poke around the vegetable and fish markets and the various shops (pay particular attention to the Creole apothecary remedies in which tropical herbs and medicinal plants are used to create homeopathic cures for everything from the common cold to arthritis).

Just north of Fort de France on the Route de La Trace is the Jardin de Balata, one of the finest botanical gardens in the Caribbean. It's high above the sea and spread over acres/hectares of hillsides crisscrossed with paths. The 60- to 90-minute self-guided tour takes you past more than 1,000 species of palms, ferns, shrubs, trees and tropical flowers. The gingers are big, and the anthuriums and hibiscus are exquisite. (Take your camera.) The house, which overlooks the city, is filled with antiques.

On the northwestern edge of Fort de France along the banks of the Riviere Madame is the Parc Floral et Culturel, where you can see some of the flora for which the island is famous. The Parc Floral has occasional horticultural exhibits, but it's more parkland than botanical garden. (If you must choose between the two, choose Jardin de Balata.)

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