With market traders pulling along a swordfish by its beak, street vendors selling cheap watches, hair bands and brushes, jackfruit sellers, music blaring from a car stereo or a shack shop, and a lot of chat and laughter, the city has a Caribbean feel to it.
Established around the wide sweep of Ana Chaves Bay in 1493, São Tomé became the capital of the island when, according to legend, the Portuguese left their first settlement, Anambó, 30km further north. Some 50 years after São Tomé was granted city status in 1535 by the Portuguese king, João III, the cathedral and the fort of St Sebastian were built. Today, many of the old colonial buildings, with their carved wooden wraparound balconies, arched windows and balustrades, are falling down, while others have been restored in pretty bright or pastel colours.
In the streets, yellow taxis vie for space with buzzing motorbikes and mud-caked jeeps; the pavements are populated with teenagers in baseball caps, businessmen and functionaries in suits. Moneychangers chat on corners, schoolchildren in uniform mingle with street vendors sporting torn and faded election T-shirts and mothers carrying babies in a sling on their backs. Stray dogs scavenge among the rubbish on dusty streets, black kites divebomb the harbour for fish, while the citizens negotiate the broken pavements on the broad avenues leading towards trim garden villas, red-roofed white stone residences, and the occasional hulking Salazarist relic.
The sea spray crashes on to the wide boulevard of the Marginal running around the bay, past sandy inlets strewn with black rocks. A short walk out to the other side of the city towards the popular Riboque neighbourhood reveals traditional wooden houses on stilts, humble shacks with zinc roofs propping each other up, and, in between, delicately carved wooden roofs reminiscent of Swiss chalets.
What to see and do in São Tomé
Nossa Senhora da Graça Cathedral
Who would have thought that one of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest cathedrals was the Santa Sé here in São Tomé? Across from the presidential palace, Nossa Senhora da Graça (Our Lady of Grace) was built and rebuilt over the course of 400 years, from 1576 to 1958. The impressive cathedral occupies the dividing line between the business part of the city and the administrative part.
Today, the spacious interior has a beautiful frieze of simple blue-and-white tiles; one of the 200-year-old originals is kept in the sacristy, together with the valuable ivory crucifixes and silver liturgical instruments. More blue-and-white azulejos form a large fresco of the Holy Trinity above the main altar. It is said that under the altar lie the (transferred) bones of Ana de Chaves, a local noblewoman who died in 1566, giving her name to the bay just out front. The stained-glass windows are recent, as are the Stations of the Cross in bas-relief which came from Madrid, and the paintings of the Annunciation and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, from Braga in Portugal (1950s).
A must if you have any time in the city. Since 1975, the Museu Nacional has been housed in the striking cream-coloured former fort of St Sebastian, built by the Portuguese in 1576 on this strategic point to guard against the frequent French and Dutch attacks on the island.
The first room, displaying sacred art and liturgical garments, illustrates the continued presence of the church during the two centuries of decline between the sugarcane cycle in the 16th century and the beginning of the coffee/cocoa cycles in the 19th century. The niche between rooms one and two has a sandstone sculpture of the Virgin and Jesus with Sant’Ana, the island’s female patron saint.
Also on display is a collection of impressive dark-wood furniture in the Indo- Portuguese style, originating from the pharmacy at Bombaim plantation. The agriculture room, dedicated to coffee and cocoa cultivation, has a portrait of João Baptista da Silva, who introduced coffee to Príncipe in 1800. A black-and-white photograph shows Santomeans’ joy at the nationalisation of the plantations in the autumn of 1975. The turtle room has a lot of information on São Tomé and Príncipe’s marine turtles, with ping pong balls not doing such a bad job representing turtle eggs. There is also a life-size reproduction of an ambulância leatherback turtle.
Claudio Corallo Chocolate Factory
Nearly half a century of passion and care about the exact calibration of the ingredients are much in evidence here, and new flavours and new products are continually being developed. The slight, grey-haired, Italian Claudio is passionate about providing a counterpoint to ‘sick’ industrial chocolate, where the beans are roasted to cinders and buyers are brainwashed into believing good chocolate has to be black and bitter.
Fabulous in-depth tasting sessions of what has been called ‘the best chocolate in the world’, from their Terreiro Velho plantation on Príncipe are available here.
Unlike in many other African capitals, it’s clean and safe enough to hit the waves right in the city in São Tomé. Praia Lagarto (also known as Praia Maria Emilia – in practice a contiguous arc of sand that goes by two names) sits just opposite Omali Lodge between the city centre and the airport. It’s a perennially popular spot for bathers in the city, especially at weekends. It’s not the place to go for peace and quiet, but for a convenient afternoon splash and a slice of island life it’s hard to beat. There are no facilities for bathers, but the terrace restaurant at Omali Lodge is worth a stop.