The capital, Castries is splendidly set on a natural harbour against a background of mountains. It used to be guarded by the great fortress of Morne Fortune (Fort Charlotte and Derrière Fort). There is a spectacular view from the road just below Morne Fortune where the town appears as a kaleidoscope of red, blues, white and green and it promises much.
However, it can be a disappointment as close to the town is thoroughly modern but the bustle of its safe streets more than compensates.The city centre is very crowded when cruise ships come in.
The town was originally situated by Vigie and known as Carenage (the dock to the west of Pointe Seraphine is still referred to as Petit Carenage). An area of disease and defensively vulnerable, it was moved in 1768 and renamed Castries after the Minister of the French Navy and the Colonies, Marechal de Castries.
Largely rebuilt after being destroyed by four major fires, the last in 1948, the commercial centre and government offices are built of concrete. Only the buildings to the south of Derek Walcott Square and behind Brazil Street were saved. Here you will see late 19th and early 20th century wooden buildings built in French style with three storeys, their gingerbread fretwork balconies overhanging the pavement. Rain restaurant (now closed), 1885, is a fine example. The other area which survived was the market on the north side of Jeremie Street. Built entirely of iron in 1894, it was conceived by Mr Augier, member of the Town Board, to enhance the appearance of the town and also provide a sheltered place where fruit and produce could be sold hygienically. A new market has been built next door to house the many fruit sellers and their huge selection on the ground floor, while on the first floor and in an arcade opposite are vendors of T-shirts, crafts, spices, basket work, leeches and hot pepper sauce who have been relocated from the streets outside. Further along Jeremie Street on the waterfront is a new shopping centre with duty-free shops: La Place Carenage, almost opposite Pointe Seraphine. For a small fee a water taxi can enable you to shop at both. Good restaurant upstairs at Carenage. The tallest building in the city is the seven-storey Financial Centre at the corner of Jeremie and Bridge Streets, with a joyous sculpture by Ricky George.
Castries used to be twinned with Taipei but now it has close relations with mainland China and there are plans to build a sports stadium, a four-lane highway from Vieux Fort to Castries and other projects with Chinese investment. Work has started on a carpark by the market and government buildings for 362 cars, with a cinema, day care centre, etc.
Derek Walcott Square was the site of the Place D’Armes in 1768 when the town transferred from Vigie. Renamed Promenade Square, it then became Columbus Square in 1893. In 1993 it was renamed in honour of Derek Walcott, the poet (see page 811). It was the original site of the courthouse and the market. The library is on its west side. The giant Saman tree is about 400 years old. On its east side lies the Cathedral which bursts into colour inside. Suffused with yellow light, the side altars are often covered with flowers while votive candles placed in red, green and yellow jars give a fairy tale effect. The ceiling, supported by delicate iron arches and braces is decorated with large panelled portraits of the apostles. Above the central altar with its four carved screens, the apse ceiling has paintings of five female saints with St Lucy in the centre. The walls have murals by Dunstan St Omer, probably the most famous of St Lucia’s artists (see Culture). They are of the stations of the cross and are unusual in that the people in the paintings are black. The figures in his murals in rural churches are of local people.
As you wander around the town, note the Place Jean Bapiste Bideau (a sea captain who dedicated his life to freedom and heroically saved the life of Simón Bolívar) and the mural on Manoel Street by the St Lucia Banana Growers Association building. It was painted in 1991 by Dunstan St Omer and two of his sons and depicts scenes of St Lucian life: banana boats, tourism, 18th-century sea battles, the king and queen of the flower festivals and Carib Indians.
Most Ministries have moved into new Government Buildings on John Compton Highway on the waterfront. Some offices are still scattered all over town, but a fourth building is under construction for them.
On the outskirts of Castries is Pointe Seraphine, a duty-free complex, near the port. From Castries take the John Compton Highway north towards Vigie airport and branch off just past the new fish market. All of the goods are priced in US dollars and it consists largely of chic boutiques. The tourist board head office is here, and there is an information desk serving the cruise ship passengers. 0800-1630 Mon-Fri. There are plenty of people who will ‘mind your car’ here. Ignore them. The rather curious pyramid-shaped building is the Alliance Française, the French cultural centre built in conjunction with the St Lucia Ministry of Education.
If you continue on the John Compton Highway past the sports complex, turn left at the roundabout to go to the airport, you are sandwiched between the runway on your left and the beautiful Vigie beach on your right. There is a small war cemetery here commemorating those from the British West Indies regiment who lost their lives and a new monument and resting place dedicated to the St Lucian women who also served. You can drive around Vigie point. After the airport, go straight ahead past the French Embassy. The Archaeological and Historical Society and St Lucia National Trust are located here. Continue around the peninsula and on the descent, there is a turn to the lighthouse for lovely views. There is much evidence of the military past with some of the decrepit buildings still in use at the highly rated secondary school for boys, St Mary’s College.
Just south of Castries you can walk (unfortunately only on the main road, allow about one hour each way) or drive to the Governor’s Mansion with its curious metalwork crown, at the top of Mount Morne. From here carry on to Fort Charlotte, the old Morne Fortune fortress (now Sir Arthur Lewis Community College). You will pass the Apostles’ battery (1888) and Provost’s redoubt (1782). Each has spectacular views, but the best is from the Inniskilling Monument at the far side of the college (just beyond the old Combermere barracks) where you get an excellent view of the town, coast, mountains and Martinique. It was here in 1796 that General Moore launched an attack on the French. The steep slopes give some idea of how fierce the two days of fighting must have been. As a rare honour, the 27th Inniskillings Regiment were allowed to fly their regimental flag for one hour after they took the fortress before the Union Jack was raised. The college is in good condition having been carefully restored in 1968. Sir Arthur Lewis, Nobel Laureate in Economics, is buried in the grounds of the Community College which bears his name. The site is just in front of the steps leading to the Inniskilling Monument.
On returning to Castries, branch left at the Governor’s mansion to visit La Toc point with its luxury Sandals hotel. Take the road to the hotel through its beautiful gardens and take the path to the right of the security gate if you want to visit the beach. Further on is the road leading to Bagshaws studio. Down a long leafy drive, you can buy attractive silkscreen clothes and household linens and visit the printshop to watch the screen printing process. Mon-Fri 0830-1600, Sat 0830-1200. Carry your return ticket for a discount. Close to Bagshaws is La Toc Battery, the best restored military fort, visited mostly by cruise ship visitors. For information call Alice Bagshaw, T4526039, or inquire at the shop.