Congo-Brazzaville (2018): Cocktails and dreams

The Republic of the Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville or simply the Congo) is an African country located on the western coast of Central Africa. It has Gabon to the west, Cameroon and Central African Republic to the north, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (also known as Congo-Kinshasa, to separate it from Congo-Brazzaville) to the south. The small Angolan exclave of Cabinda also borders to the south right by the coast, leaving the larger neighbouring Congo-Kinshasa with hardly any coastline at all.

  • Official language: French (other national languages: Kituba and Lingala)
  • Capital: Brazzaville
  • Population: ca 5,24 million (2018)
  • Currency: XAF (Central African CFA franc)
  • Time zone: UTC +1 
  • Electricity: Plug type C + E (230 V, 50 Hz) 
  • Driving: Right hand side

Top 10 things to do and see in Brazzaville (Congo)

  • Go by canoe up the Congo River, re-living Marlow’s journey in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. EPIC!
  • Have a walk around Basilisque Sainte Anne – an amazing piece of architecture, built in the 1940’s. It has a gorgeous turquoise roof, with  see-through roof tiles along its ridge, which makes the inside of the church fill with an amazing natural light. The design of the church is inspired by spear heads, which you can clearly see as you walk around inside.
  • Have dinner at Mami Wata’s at sunset. This lovely restaurant and bar sits on stilts, right on the Congo River overlooking Congo Kinshasa, has great food and super nice staff. It’s not the cheapest, but definitely worth the money!
  • Spend a couple of hours at Les Rapides, a few kilometres southwest of town. Not only is it pretty cool sitting watching the churning rapids; thousands of cubic metres of thick dark water making its way around, over and past large rocks and boulders, but most bizarre of all are the kids and young adults playing around doing backflips into the churning water, popping up dozens of metres further down the river.  They’ve learned to navigate the water and know where it is “safe” to go. I preferred staying on dry land, in one of the restaurants, having something to eat and drink (though service could be improved). Les Rapids is a bit of a tourist trap, but it is pretty cool to see!
  • Go to the local handicraft market Marché Plateau Central Ville, just a kilometre west of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza Memorial. It’s quite nice just walking around even if you don’t want to buy anything. If you decide to buy something… bargain, bargain, bargain! And make sure that it is the souvenir you picked out that goes into the shopping bag!
  • Have a beer or five at the bar street west of the stream Mfoa at night and listen to the local musicians. Make sure to take a taxi back to your hotel. Walking around at night by yourself as a tourist is not recommended.
  • Pay for a day at the pool at the Radisson Hotel. The view over the river is stunning and the infinite pools are pretty nice too… If you are lucky, no one is using the top suite and you can ask the staff if it is possible to go up and check out the view from up there!
  • Have a stroll along the promenade by the river from Mami Wata’s to the roundabout at Case DeGaule. There are no shelters from the sun so you might want to do it early in the morning or later in the evening.
  • Visit the memorial of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the person who’s name the city bares. It has a small but interesting exhibit, though you cannot get to the tomb downstairs. Beware that the parking attendants might try to charge you as you walk in, but there is no entry fee.
  • The Nabemba Tower – a 106 metre high funky looking skyscraper in the centre of town. Also known as the Elf Tower from having been built on borrowed money from the French oil company Elf Aquitaine. You won’t miss it as it is the tallest building in the whole of Congo. However, it is not the prettiest – looking more like an empty toilet roll than a building that somehow was voted to be among the 10 most beautiful buildings in Africa 2016…

Enjoy the food and coffee in this French-inspired town. There are plenty of great restaurants and coffee places in town, take your pick. Most of them are pretty good as far as I experienced. Top picks are:

  • La Mandarine (a fantastic coffee shop/bakery with an infinite choice of croissants, pain au chocolate, cakes, etc as well as proper coffee right in the centre of town).
  • O Sympatique (lush salads, good steaks and succulent fish in a relaxed setting, despite being pretty much right on the road).
  • Mami Wata’s (massive plates of grilled fish, fresh sea food and salads and good wine, sometimes with live entertainment like musicians or contortionists (!) – all overlooking the Congo River).
  • An Italian restaurant, two blocks from Mikhail’s Hotel, that has amazing food and really good wine. The restaurant feels genuine and is located in a large, walled-in property on a calm back street, away from traffic and noise, and has a lovely out-door garden to sit in. Perfect for those warm evenings after sunset.
  • Boulangerie de la Paix is in the same building as Hotel de la Paix. It’s a simple bakery and coffee shop but the pain-au-chocolate is to die for! If you want coffee with milk make sure you don’t ask for a café au lait (you will get hot milk with Nescafé coffee powder). Just ask for coffee and just a little bit of milk on the side… that worked wonders. The coffee in this country is super good too!

A not so brief summary of a brief trip to the Congo

Friday, 26 January 2018 – G&Ts and Guardians of the Galaxy

It’s 02.45 in the morning. My alarm goes off and I get up stumbling drowsily into my clothes, eyes half shut. I pack the last of my things, lock the door behind me and wander down the glistening wet streets of Gothenburg towards the tram stop. The tram soon comes gliding over the hill, its two headlights glowing like fiery dragon eyes in the pitch-black winter night. Well down at the Central Station, I catch a bus to the airport where I buy the biggest coffee I can get my hands on and gulp it down, while waiting for my travel buddy Anders.

This wasn’t one of my ordinary backpacking trips. It was more of a luxury trip as far as I was concerned. A long weekend in Congo with pre-booked hotels, airport lounges, nice dinners and affordable outings – because the flight didn’t cost anything (!). Hardly something that normally falls within my budget, but I was super lucky. A trip acquired on my buddy’s frequent flyer card – 2-4-1 to Brazzaville solely on bonus points – yes please!

Well checked in, we headed for the Menzies lounge for some Gammeldansk, Carlsberg and some crisps. Only while travelling (and when you get it free) will you find drinking alcohol at 5 AM a good idea – or possibly at the end of a very long night. Only now, after a bucket of coffee and a shot of rather strong alcohol, my eyes were starting to open properly.

As we landed at Charles-de-Gaulle it was getting lighter but the Parisian grey sky lay heavy above us. The one thing that stood out was the main terminal building, which was on big French flag, in bright blue, white and red LED lights, reminding you of where you just landed, in case you were not sure. After an extremely long taxing time and a bus transfer on top of that, it was time for the Air France lounge, which provided us with champagne, bacon and pancakes while waiting for our next flight. “Second breakfastses” are never wrong!

On our next flight, Anders stretches out on three empty seats and tells me to wake him up for lunch. I rarely sleep on flights. Laying down didn’t even cross my mind. Flying is too much fun! I watched recently released movies like Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Transformers – the last Knight and Despicable M3, drank G&T’s and ate great food.

As we were closing in on Congo, evening fell and the sky went blood red before it quickly disappeared behind dark, heavy clouds. It was soon pitch black, and I started spotting streetlights from Brazzaville underneath, first small spread-out specks of orange, like glowing sparks escaping from a roaring fire. They became more frequent and soon started to form strings and patterns, like DNA – how it goes from a single dot to form strings, connecting to become spirals, a multitude of spirals form larger patterns and finally, it forms a thing, or a being, something living.

Suddenly, a very clear line stood out, a line between light and dark, between the known and unknown, where the thing – the city, the landmass and the country – ended. I realized we had just flown over the impenetrable jungles of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and at this very moment, I was looking at a line so sharp and a darkness so overpowering, that it couldn’t be anything else but the river. I was ecstatic! The Congo River… We were here. Where Marlow’s real journey started and ended; where he found out how far a person can really go, how much a mind can take; where he was bordering between light and dark, good and evil, sanity and insanity…!

Finally back on African ground – Hello Congo-Brazzaville!

The warm and sticky air gives me a loving hug and holds me tight as I walk off the plane. The strong, almost acrid, but familiar smell of damp carpets and air-conditioning hits my nostrils hard and I suck it in deep into my lungs. I fill every corner and hold my breath for a couple of seconds. Happiness! Oh, the joy of heat and humidity! Just the thought of soon being able to walk around in t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops makes me giddy. Sometimes, I seriously wonder if I wasn’t born on the wrong continent… Sweden, with its Vikings, snow and long cold winters… It’s never really been my cup of tea. I was 13 when I set my bare feet on a really warm sandy beach for the first time. It’s a feeling I never want to be without again…

Unfortunately, the happiness soon changed into nervousness as the first line we queued up in was the health-check line, and I realized I had managed to pack my yellow fever card in my check-in luggage. Idiot. With my poor French and obvious distress, the sturdy nurse somehow took pity on me, gave me a menacing look and made me promise to come back with the card when I had picked up my bag. Thankful, I continued through the passport control and then picked up my bags. By this time, however, it was clear that going back to the yellow fever lady wasn’t an option. There were too many checkpoints with armed guards and a French vocabulary that stretched as far as ordering a beer or two. Instead, we sneaked out into the arrival hall and took out some Central African Franc (the machine only took Visa; (1000 XAF = 15 SEK)).

We were picked up by a driver from our pre-booked Hotel de la Paix. Brazzaville turned out to be quite small. The airport was only a few kilometres from the city centre and it only took 15 minutes to Avenue de la Paix and the Pole-Pole area. Since the hotel prices are quite steep in Congo, me and Anders had decided to share room, but couldn’t stop giggling when we had checked in and saw the room. Not only did the room just have the one bed (though it was rather big), but also, the view from the bed was a giant window – not overlooking the street, not the backside of the hotel, nor the inside corridor, but looking into the oversized bathroom, including the toilet and the shower…

I started my stay in Brazzaville by pulling down the curtains between the bathroom and the bedroom, so we didn’t have to see each other pee… then we went up to the roof terrace and had our first beer in Congo. Before going to sleep, we spent an hour up there acclimatising to the heat while listening to the latest Congolese MTV hits. I soon concluded that it wasn’t really my kind of music but couldn’t help marvelling at the blingy clothing the singers and dancers had, their bold dance moves and at the surprisingly tacky Christmas and New Year’s décor that still adorned the pillars, windows, walls and ceilings of the hotel restaurant. Bonne année et Bonne nuit!

Saturday, 27 January 2018 – Lessons learned and dreams come true!

We got up early and went down to our very own sweet-smelling bakery, right next door to the hotel. Even here, the walls were decorated with tacky new-year garlands but I had the best freshly made pain au chocolate ever – it literally melted in my mouth – and a pot of coffee. Lesson number one, do not order café au lait in Brazzaville. This will get you a pot of hot milk with a tiny sachet of Nescafé powder coffee. Instead, order black coffee and a side of milk. Then you get the real stuff.

Lessoned learned, we went for a walk. We wandered past the bustling Pole-Pole market, where people were selling fruit and veg, knickers and hats, pots and pans, and anything else you could possibly need. The main street was paved, but most side streets weren’t. The buildings along the streets were mostly one or two stories high, plain and square facades, and made of concrete, even though some were brightly painted and some had bold brand advertising on the walls. It was surprisingly clean on the streets and even though the pavements could be narrow, cracked or strangely placed, there were pretty much everywhere we went.

We rocked up to Basilisque Sainte-Anne-du-Congo (Wikipedia in FR here and Congo Living (EN) here). Finished in 1943, it stood majestic and bright turquoise as a stark contrast to the rather dusty street we had just come down. Next to the grey Maison Commune, a not so exciting Evangelical church and a bland round-about-statue it really stood out. Walking into it, we met a group of amazingly dressed women that really reminded us we were in Africa – they wore beautiful dresses in bright colours, big patterns, extravagantly sown, with matching headdresses. The inside of the catholic church was amazing, cool and serene, with lovely stained glass windows along the sides, the walls rising steeply up towards the ceiling in a beautiful pointed arch inspired by spear arrowheads from northern Congo. Along the very top of the ceiling, the green tiles were replaced by glass tiles, to let in a lovely natural light.

We continued down a cool, tree-lined avenue into the centre of town. We crossed streets, saw people sweeping the streets, passed people reading the newspaper strung up along the wall for everyone to read, some yelling and trying to get people into buses, booksellers displaying all their books on stands, crêpe sellers rolling around their food carts and green taxis everywhere. We came across a monument, l’Esprit des Pharaons, and behind it, an arch of painted tiles depicting the horrendous slave history of Congo – a bizarre 55 000 000 slaves were “exported” to the Americas from Africa according to a plaque, many of whom came through here (read more about the Atlantic slave trade here) – bizarre and horrific, but enlightening and important not to forget.

I fell in love with Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness in 2009 and decided to use it for my Bachelor’s thesis, “Horror has a face: A Study on Insanity and Self-discovery in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (found below). In Conrad’s book, this fantastic river plays an integral part and since then, it’s been a dream of mine to come to Congo and ride up this mysterious and exotic monster of a river that snakes into the continent of Africa from the west, cutting it almost in half. As an FYI for you who didn’t know, the famous film Apocalypse Now is based on The Heart of Darkness, though set in Vietnam/Cambodia during the 1970s with Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin Willard, rather than the Congo Free State in the 1890s, with Captain Charlie Marlow.

We took off from the riverbank by Mami Wata’s restaurant, passing below its veranda that reaches out into the river, leaning heavily on big poles. We hugged the Brazzaville riverbank to the north of the river – as far away from Congo Kinshasa as possible. So, I want to remember this day – have it etched into my brain. A memory that lasts forever: I’m sitting in a canoe going up the Congo River! The sun is pelting down on my face and I stick my hand into the water, feeling the cool water running through my fingers and up around my wrist.

The first two hours, we go upstream through the brown, thickish, wide, massive body of water. Riding along the river bank was like a water vessel history lesson  – one shipwreck after another. Everything from old steamboats to fairly recent tankers, small canoes and old motorboats. It was a bizarre, but rather beautiful, display of decaying and rusty boats, some inhabited, with washing lines full of colourful clothing drying in awkward angles, and some used as daily hangouts for the local fishermen or jumping-off points for children playing in the water.

We leave Kinshasa and Brazzaville’s skylines behind us, and I am ridiculously happy. Houses become less frequent and the land turns into fields and trees, which turns into lush hills and finally thick jungle. We go through a delta of small grass-covered islands, with a few trees and surrounded by reeds. It must be heaven for birds. Weaver birds darts past us, back and forth into their little lovely droplet-shaped nests in the trees and bushes on the small flat islands, stunning kingfishers dive for food into the river, quick as anything, while white and black egrets slowly fly past or strut around picking in the shallow river islands around us.

Our boatsman had to deviate from our route every now and then to avoid flotsam and jetsam. The engine even gurgled, coughed and died a couple of times as the propeller got stuck in seaweed, reeds or some other unidentifiable stuff. It all came down the river with the strong currents, bubbling and churning past underlying rocks or piles of built-up debris. Children were playing at the water’s edge and fishermen clad only in shorts were fishing with rods or nets, standing in canoes, wading chest-deep along the riverbanks or even swimming, hoping for a good catch.

For a massive river, there were surprisingly few boats or ships around. I suppose it could partly be due to the relationship between the two countries, partly to the border running along somewhere very unspecific in the middle of the river, and partly due to the river turning into impassable cascades not far southwest of here, on its way to the ocean. It was, in any case, not very busy. We had the whole expanse to ourselves most of the time – a river several kilometres wide and almost immeasurably long.

We spluttered along, kilometre after kilometre, enjoing the scenery. We passed miles of emerald green leafy jungle, with branches reaching far out over the water’s edge and with treeroots that seemed to want to drain the river of every ounce of its water. Suddenly, we a large white wall rose on our lefte hand side, dwarfing us. I had been told about it earlier but I wasn’t sure what to expect. Massive and barren limestone cliffs, 60 metres high, that ran vertically straight out of the water – aptly called Falaises de Douvres (Cliffs of Dover) – and even though they were not as high, nor ran for as far as the original cliffs, you could definitely see the resemblance.  You could see different layers running through it – yellow in some places, pink in others. Having seen the Cliffs of Dover first hand, it felt slightly misplaced to find “part of them” here in the middle of Africa. Apparently, it is some kind of geological wonder, or at least of geological interest. Not quite why I came here, but it was interesting to see nonetheless. We turned around here and headed back – a slightly different route through the reed islands – I can’t believe I actually had the opportunity to come here and to experience this!

As I sit here, I just suck in the air; let it filter through my nostrils. Feel it filling my lungs. I can smell the dampness of the river, the murkiness of what’s underneath the surface. I can feel the wetness of the water on my fingers as they cut through the surface. I can see every surface line they create, expanding into ripples and waves behind us. I see the surface glimmering in the sun and feel the reflections of the sun playing in my face and on my body. I find myself imagining what’s beneath it right then, right there – perhaps a big silvery fish playing in the current, weeds fighting to stay put, big tree trunks tumbling along the bottom. I see the deceiving calmness of the surface, only giving away its true turbulent self in a few places, showing large ripples and big vortexes. I feel the sun on my shoulders and can smell my sun-warm skin. I feel the edges of my eyes crinkle and the skin of my lips tighten as I smile. I feel the vibrations of the engine in every fiber of my body. I feel the butterflies of excitement in my stomach and the lightness of happiness in my heart ❤

I seldom feel at complete peace with myself, and I often find myself struggling to live in the moment, but when I travel, that changes.

After the canoe trip, giddy as a sugar-rushed child, I dodged a few rather large orange headed lizards heading around the corner to Mami Wata’s for a sunset drink, before settling down in the restaruant for a yummy fish dinner. We expected the entertainment to be music, as most restaurants play music in one form or another, but no, we got ourselves a contortionist! It was almost hard concentrating on your food when a guy is skipping rope using his own arms as rope right next to you… (I’m not joking here – he actually did!).

We took a taxi to a part of town close to Poto-Poto, that had a kind of bar street. We first took a couple of beers at a place called Red Café, that had a big pink (?) neon sign, a cold metally feel to it indoors, but also had an wooden, and rather OK outside seating. Anders pointed out that he felt it was “a perfectly adequate alternative to Ölrepubliken a Saturday night” (“ett fullgott alternativ till Ölrepubliken en lördagkväll”). Considering we didn’t expect anything at all coming here, this was way above our expectations. After a couple of beers, we crossed the street to the nightclub Le Palacio. The place was rather kitchy and very nightclubby, and very empty. However, after a Savannah or two, it started filling up and soon I was dancing away quite happily on a full dancefloor, strobe lights flashing and music blaring out of the speakers. The toilets could certainly have been more reasonable – utterly disgusting – and I’m not too picky, so it says a lot. All in all, the bar scene in Congo Brazzavill certainly was an interesting experience, if nothing else.

Sunday, 29 January 2018  – River Rapids and football

By now, coffee and pain-au-chocolate at the nearest boulangerie had become a routine. We then packed our bags and went for a walk to Mikhael’s Hotel and checked in here instead. They had much nicer rooms – especially no window between the bathroom and the bedroom – and a lovely pool and a we wanted a bit of luxury on our last day/night before heading back home.

After a cold one, we continued our sightseeing tour by foot and headed north to Catedral Sacre Coeur, down south past the nice neighbourhoods and the embassies, through a kind of Celebrity park, with random busts of everone from Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln and Bob Marley to Mohammed Ali. We ended up back down by the Viaduct. From here we took a taxi to the Rapids via the big town market – bustling with people and full of colours, merchandise, dust and smells.

A tourist trap indeed, but Les Rapides were definitely worth spending some time at, for sure! Although the restaurant is run down and quite simple (and most likely a bit too busy some times a day and some days of the week), sitting down by a (plastic) table right by the wild river’s edge, having a cold beer in the sun, while looking out over to rainforest of Congo-Kinshasa and listening to the neverending rush of water from the rapids, it’s worth a couple of hours just that. Add some greenery, beautiful frangipani flowers, lizards and laughter from all the children and it makes it very agreeble. Apart from the restaurant, the rapids are also a spot for many people to wash off and wash their clothing in the calmer part along the river banks. However, the biggest spectacle was watching the many youths jumping into the waters and navigating through the bulging monster waves, underwater currents and massive rocks – more under water than above it it seemed. it was truly astonishing and jaw-dropping.

After a few hours in the sun and perhaps a bit too hydrated, we took a taxi back to the hotel and went to a side street parallel to the hotel and found an absolutely lovely restaurant that had a small back garden with a few white-clothed tables and chairs. I ordered a hell of a schnitzel (it turned out) and Anders a pasta, and we shared a bottle of white wine. Absolutely fantastic. Just wish I remembered the name of the restaurant!

Next was Chicha bar, next door to the hotel, with a decent roof terrace. Here, we had a G&T, watched Congo vs. Libya in the African football qualifiers and listened to songs like “Baby, if you give it to me, I’ll give it to you” by Busta Rhymes and Mariah Carey (2002). Nostalgia galore, haha.

Monday, 30 January 2018 – Handicraft and pool hang

We started the day with a walk to the well-known and renowned Mandarin Café in the centre of town. We had a thick, strong coffee and pain-au-chocolate (and croissant). We took a taxi to Institute Francais where they had a mosquito net exhibition and some handicraft work displayed. Continued in taxi to Case De Gaulle, a monument set in a roundabout by the river,  just around the corner from the French embassy. There was also a nice little place decorated with mosaic in different patterns, pointing out different cities around the world and how far it was to them from this particular point. From here, it was a lovely stroll across the stunning bridge Le Viaduct (it also has a beautiful light-display at night).  It is closed from traffic, only to be used by the president, who’s palace is just up the road. From the bridge, you had a bird’s eye view of farmers working small, fertile plots of land under the bridge and fishermen fishing in the clearly polluted estuary – standing among reeds, plastic bottles, an office chair and other debris. Damn that plastic and damn pollution!

Kinshasa seems closer from here compared to further east of town. It feels almost like you could swim across, though watching the currents at the river rapids yesterday and feeling the pull under our canoe when we rode up the river, I quickly put that idea to the back of my mind. From Mami Wata’s it wasn’t really far walking back to Mikhael’s, where we packed our stuff and went down to hang by the pool. Here, we drank Primus beer, ate quiche Lorraine and chips and enjoyed the last of the rays in the pool and on the sun chair.

As the sun was setting like a big, fat, content orange on the horizon we took a shuttle to the airport. There were long queues through the first security scanning, just to get to the check-in (got me serious flashbacks of Denpasar airport in Bali all over again – sooo many hours spent in queues before even getting into the airport there…). Once in, the girl at the check-in had to redo our tickets four times before she managed to get us seats next to each other and by the window. We then had to fill in a departure card, pass through the passport control, and then go through yet another security scanning. Finally inside, there was only ONE tax-free shop and NO souvenirs as far as the eye could see… so much for last-minute shopping, so extra happy we went to the handicraft market the other day!

Compared to the Paris and Gothenburg business lounges, this one was not really brilliant, but compared to the alternative – rickety metal chairs, lots of noise and no access to water nor sockets – I was super happy and continued to enjoy every last second of this luxury trip 🙂 

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