World at a Glance: Cidade Velha, Cabo Verde’s ancient capital

I’m back in West Africa for a few days, on the island of Santiago this time, the largest of the 10 volcanic islands that comprise Cabo Verde, ca. 600km off the coast of Dakar.

Cabo Verde is an increasingly popular destination for Europeans eager to get away from wintry climes. But as you know by now, that’s not enough for me. I mean, I love the sun and the sea as much as the next northerner, but not all the time!

So, instead of living the beach life on Sal or Boa Vista, I decided to explore the old colonial capital, Cidade Velha – ‘the old city’. Interesting history, lots of local colour, small town feel AND sun and sea. Gotta have it all!

A centre of trade between Africa and the Americas

Back in colonial times, Cidade Velha was known as Ribeira Grande, after the river that runs into the ocean just here. A river with fresh water made it a tempting proposition for medieval Europeans with medieval attitudes and expansion on their minds. No wonder this was the first place in the tropics they settled. And by ‘settled’, I mean ‘thought they had the right to just go in and take over other people’s land and lives.’

Ribeira Grande was also a natural stopping point for sea farers in those days. Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus all stopped by on their way from one continent to another. I don’t know a whole lot about the first two, but if they were anything like that last guy, my heart goes out to the locals of the time. And the pirates were no better. Francis Drake and John Hawkins tried to capture people to enslave around here. Fortunately, they failed.

Today’s Cidade Velha

It is a picturesque little town to wander about, which is what I’m doing, looking for Pelourinho. And here it is! On the main square. The only square.


The pillory – this white marble column – was raised in the early 1500s and used for sinister purposes. This is where disobedient enslaved people were punished. Thankfully, those days are long gone, but the column still stands, now as one of the oldest monuments in Cabo Verde. And there is something to be said for that 16th century craftsmanship.

On a hill above town is Fortaleza Real de São Filipe, built to defend the city from Francis D. and his ilk.

Pious as they were, those colonialists, they set up more religious buildings than anything else. ‘We need a church here in Ribeira Grande,’ said the Catholic Church. ‘A cathedral’.

Only ruins left.

Other buildings still stand, including the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. From 1495, it’s said to be the oldest colonial church in the world.

Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário

Hiking – and recent history

If you’re feeling vigorous in the tropical climate, there are three hiking trails of various lengths, starting from the Pelourinho. The shortest is the Calabaceira trail, circling the valley of the Ribeira Grande River (4 km, takes about 1.5 hours). The longest is, well, very long: A 77-km trek to Tarrafal in the northern part of the island. As an added point of interest, near Tarrafal are the remains of a concentration camp. Not from the days of slavery, but from 1936 and all the way to 1974!

It was established to incarcerate political and social prisoners of the Portuguese state prison system – opponents of Salazar, basically. Such a convenient location: stowed away from the rest of the world, unhealthy climate, mozzies buzzing, drinking water in short supply, in short, conditions ripe for disease and death. Those medieval attitudes lasted a long time.

Rua Banana

Let’s move on. To Banana Street.

We’re back in colonial times, in the oldest street built by the Portuguese in Sub-Saharan Africa. In all of the tropics, in fact.

I walk past cosy historical limestone houses, surrounded by an abundance of flowers and vegetation –

– past residents living life indoors and outdoors, and kids playing. Everyone smiling and saying olá.

My conclusion, however anecdotal and based on a mere three days on the island: Cape Verdians are friendly and easygoing, and seem to have a high degree of trust. A shopkeeper even came running after me down the street to give me change. I’ve felt completely safe at all times, no problem walking alone day or night.

That’s what happens when people have civil liberties and political rights. According to Freedom House, Cape Verde has a freedom score of 92, just one point behind the UK (100 is the most free).

On a more practical note, Cidade Velha has little restaurants overlooking the ocean, with delicious fish on offer (as well as meat, pizza, pasta, etc). I’m writing this in Old City Restaurante just now.

(Home is where the heart is, right? Or… body, in general).

PS: If the possibility of crazy Malarone dreams (or side effects of any other malaria prophylaxis), stops you from travelling in Africa, the WHO is about to declare Cabo Verde a malaria-free zone.

World at a Glance is a series of short articles here on Sophie’s World, with a single photo (hah!), portraying curious, evocative, happy, sad or wondrous, unexpected little encounters.


Cidade Velha, Historic Centre of Ribeira Grande is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.