La Citadelle

La Citadelle
Cap-Haitien, Haiti.- The sun rises slowly over the bay in Cap-Haitien casting a soft golden light over the town as the car trundles laboriously along potholed streets. All around us the city begins to stir, vendors appear on the street corners and groups of schoolchildren, books in hand, shield their eyes against the glare as they walk. Soon we are outside the city and cruising smoothly along empty roads, the mountains looming up ahead enticingly. We are on our way to visit two of Haiti’s most famous sites, the ruined palace of Sans Souci and the fabled Citadelle la Ferriére, both of which are situated in the hills outside Cap-Haitien.

Before long we pull into a small parking lot in the village of Milot and catch our first glimpse of Sans Souci. It sits atop a bluff, halfway up a densely forested valley, an opulent yet anachronistic image of grandeur from another age. The place is nearly empty but for a handful of children doing their homework amongst the ruins. We take our time to explore the intricate series of archways and passages that still stand and marvel at what must once have been a truly spectacular building. Sadly it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1842, only 29 years after it was completed.

After a while it is time to move on and we take the car on up the mountain along a series of sharp switchbacks affording beautiful glimpses of the valley below us. Five minutes later we reach the end of the road – from here we travel by foot.

The cobbled path leads steeply upwards along the flank of the mountain through groves of banana trees and areas of thick jungle. Wild flowers dot the verges and as we gain in altitude we are rewarded with a truly stunning panorama. Endless ranges of mountains stretch away to the horizon, the emerald green of the nearby slopes melts away gradually into the deep indigo of the distant peaks. Small wooden huts are dotted along the sides of the path and their inhabitants wave to us as we pass. Before long we begin to catch glimpses of the fortress through the trees, perched high up above us on the summit. Even after so many years of neglect and disuse it remains a proud structure. Defiance seems to radiate from its towering walls and batteries of rusting canons.

Eventually we make it to the top and after a quick break to catch our breath and admire the view we enter by a large wooden door. Inside the fortress is a labyrinthine maze of tunnels and passages along which we slowly make our way, past vast piles of cannon balls and artillery, installed by King Henri Christophe to repel a French attack that never materialised. He had the Citadelle constructed in the early nineteenth century as a means of defending the regions around Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti. Reputedly when finished in 1820 the fortress held enough supplies to sustain 5,000 defenders for one year. Its walls are 40 metres high and in total it occupies an area of some 10,000 meters square.

From the dark interior chambers of this monstrous construction we ascend several flights of stone steps before emerging onto the outer walls which offer the chance to get some perspective on the layout of the fort. On all sides the views are spectacular. We gaze down over the mountains to the coastal plains, Cap-Haitien and beyond it the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. It is said that on a clear day you can see all the way to Cuba, some 90 miles away. A pair of eagles soar effortlessly on the thermals rising from the valley floor. They float up past us until they are mere specks against the puffy cotton-wool clouds that dot the sky.

Up here an all-pervading silence dominates. Without a breath of wind, and with few if any people for miles around, it is eerily quiet – a sensation of post-apocalyptic serenity greets the visitor as they bathe in the solitude of this once-bustling fortress. The sun is strong, even up here at over 3,000 feet. It warms the great yellow stones of the castle walls and adds to the sense of lethargy that overwhelms us in this beautiful place.

Sadly it is soon time to leave and we retrace our steps down the mountain, every now and then looking back over our shoulders as the Citadelle fades into the distance. It truly is a special place and it is easy to understand why Haitians have described it as the eighth wonder of the world.

But while the lack of tourists visiting the site makes for a wonderfully peaceful visit, it is also reflective of the fragile state of the Haitian tourism industry and the wider state of deprivation in the country. With 70% percent of the population living on less than two dollars per day Haitians are in dire need of foreign assistance as they fight to drag their country out of poverty. And what better way to do your bit than to spend a few dollars visiting this magnificent symbol of Haitian national pride and achievement.

NOTE: Mr. Trenchard toured several areas of Haiti with the assistance of the Mission of the United Nations for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH).

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