Cruises are a good way to explore the world superficially. A few hours on dry land is only long enough to sniff the atmosphere.
When my friend Jenny and I took a Caribbean cruise in 2011 my priority at our first port of call, Fort de France on the French island of Martinique, was to buy a pair of jeans, having omitted to pack any informal trousers.
My French is limited. I now know that you should ask for le jean. Les jeans is apparently permissible, but you may get more than you bargained for.
Once that mission was accomplished Jenny and I wandered around Fort de France and drank mojito at Le Foyaal (now apparently closed): https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147328-d1567683-Reviews-Le_Foyaal-Fort_de_France_Arrondissement_of_Fort_de_France_Martinique.html.
I intended to follow the cruise spirit and simply idle away my days in tropical luxury, but my history antennae twitched when we passed the Cathedrale de Saint-Louis (1895), which looked for all the world like a British Commissioners’ Church but in Roman-Byzantine style, tricked out in tan and brown decoration with a tower and spire 186 feet high.
The building was being renovated, so we couldn’t go inside. I simply photographed the exterior and looked it up later.
In fact, it’s an interesting and significant building, the seventh on the site since 1657. The sixth church was destroyed in the great fire of Fort de France on June 22nd 1890, and a temporary repair-job was swept away by a cyclone the following year.
After this latest in a succession of natural disasters, the Archdiocese resolved to build an iron-framed structure that would resist hurricanes, storms and earthquakes.
The design of St Louis’ Cathedral is by Pierre-Henri Picq (1833-1911), who had worked alongside the ubiquitous Gustav Eiffel (1832-1923) in France. Picq built the Palais du Chili [Chile Pavilion] for the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle for which Eiffel’s great tower was the landmark.
Both men used their knowledge of iron construction to construct public buildings abroad. Eiffel, for instance, is responsible for the General Post Office (1886-1891) in Saigon, Vietnam.
Judging by photographs, the interior of Picq’s St Louis’ Cathedral [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Louis_Cathedral,_Fort-de-France#/media/File:Cath%C3%A9drale_de_Fort_de_France_-_Int%C3%A9rieur.jpg], is glorious – light, colourful and unmistakably iron rather than masonry.
Despite its iron construction, an earthquake in 1953 destabilised the tower so that the spire had to be dismantled. A replacement spire was installed in a restoration programme of 1976-9.
Since the cathedral was designated a historic monument in 1990, successive restoration programmes have taken place.
Picq also designed the Bibliothèque Schœlcher [Schœlcher Library] (1893), commemorating Victor Schœlcher (1804-1893), the French abolitionist writer and Martinique politician. The Library is recognisably by the same hand, in an eclectic Byzantine style, making use of an iron frame, glass, tiles and mosaic.
Another of Picq’s buildings in Fort de France is the Magasin du Printemps (1901).
You don’t see much of a place when you arrive on a cruise ship. The way to know anywhere is to stay there, and in most places there are interesting buildings to look out for.
If I ever find my way back to Martinique, I now know what else there is to see.