Fort-de-France was originally built around the Fort St-Louis in the 17th century. The settlement’s first name was Fort-Royal and its inhabitants are still called Foyalais. From 1681 it was the headquarters of the Royal Governor although St-Pierre was the commercial capital and seat of the bishop.
It became the capital of the island in 1902 when St-Pierre was completely obliterated by the eruption of Montagne Pelée. Fort-de-France was entirely destroyed by fire 11 years previously and there are no buildings left that existed before then. The city of today consists of a bustling, crowded centre bordered by the waterfront and the sprawling suburbs which extend into the surrounding hills and plateaux. The bars, restaurants, and shops give a French atmosphere quite unlike that of other Caribbean cities. Traffic is very dense and street parking is almost impossible. Park near la Savane (3F per hour). Most people live in the suburbs and even the discos are out of the old town centre, which is deserted at weekends after Saturday midday. The port of Fort-de-France is situated to the east of the town centre, where the Baie du Carenage houses the naval base, yacht club, cargo ships and sometimes luxury cruise liners.
The impressive Fort St-Louis still functions as a military base. Built in Vauban style, it dominates the waterfront. Once inside beware the low ceiling arches said to have been designed to foil the invading English who were generally taller than the French at that time. Wonderful views from the top. At the Gate there is a visual display and gift shop. Identification is required when you buy the ticket. Parts of the fort are off-limits. Excellent, informative guided tours (English, Spanish, French), every half hour, 0900-1530 Mon-Fri, 1000-1500 Sat, 1 hr, 25F, by Les Amis du Fort-St-Louis. T605459. Adjacent to the fort is La Savane, the old parade ground, now a park of 5 ha planted with palms, tamarinds, and other tropical trees and shrubs. The park contains statues of two famous figures from the island’s past: Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc, the leader of the first French settlers on Martinique; and Empress Josephine (now beheaded), first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte, who was born on the island.
The Bibliothèque Schoelcher is situated on the corner of Rue Victor Sévère and Rue de la Liberté, just across the road from the Savane. Schoelcher (1804-1893) devoted his life to the abolition of slavery. He gave his library to Martinique but most was burned in the fire. The building to house the collection was commissioned, but not built, before the fire. It was designed by Henry Picq, a French architect married to a woman from Martinique. The Eiffel engineering company constructed it in iron, shipped it to the island and it opened in 1893. On the exterior you can see the names of freedom campaigners, including John Brown, of the USA, William Wilberforce, of the UK and Toussaint Louverture, of Haiti. Today it still functions as a library and regularly holds exhibitions. 0830-1730, Mon-Thu, 0830-1200, Fri-Sat. T702667.
Just along the Rue de la Liberté towards the seafront is the Musée Départemental d’Archéologie Précolombienne. It contains relics of the Arawak and Carib Indians: pottery, statuettes, bones, reconstructions of villages, maps, et cetera. Worth a visit. 0900-1300, 1430-1700 Mon-Fri, 0900-1200 Sat. 5F, children 10F. T715705.
In the centre of town, in the Square of Père Labat, Rue Schoelcher, there is a second chance to see the architecture of Henri Picq with the Cathedral of St-Louis which towers above the Fort-de-France skyline. This, too, is mainly of iron, in a romanesque-byzantine style. The arms of past bishops, in stained glass, give colour to the choir.
Newly opened in 1999, but in a beautiful creole villa dating back to 1887, was the Musée Régional d’Histoire et d’Ethnographie de la Martinique on Boulevard Générale de Gaulle, opposite the Atrium Theatre. It is strong on the origins, customs and traditions of the people of Martinique. 20F, children 5F, T728187, F637411.
The Parc Floral et Culturel (also called Galerie de Géologie et de Botanie or Exotarium) is a shady park containing two galleries, one of which concentrates on the geology of the island, the other on the flora, and mid-19th century wooden barracks now housing 11 workshops for local artisans. Almost 2,800 species of plants have been identified in Martinique and the Parc Floral has a very good selection. 0900-1230 Mon-Fri , 1430-1730, closed Sat, Sun. 12F adults, 3F children. T706841.
Next to the Parc Floral are a feature of Fort-de-France not to be missed, the markets. The fishmarket is by the Madame River, facing the Place José Martí, where fishermen unload from their small boats or gommiers. Close by is one of several markets selling fruit, vegetables and flowers as well as exotic spices. The markets hum with activity from 0500 to sunset, but are best on Friday and Saturday. A fresh green coconut hacked open with a machete, makes a refreshing drink for about 7F.