“Fly me down to capital city in the sun”- Noel Gallagher.
It came as more of a shock to my travel friend Malina than me that the muddy, agricultural hub known collectively as Porto Novo is the capital of Benin. I guess I kind of expected it. Having witnessed some unusual capital cities on my journeys, such as Banjul (The Gambia), Wrythe (Austenasia) and Belmopan (Belize), I half expected an unimpressive lacklustre people houser. Porto Novo is exactly that. It houses a whopping 267,191 people (cited by their official website as 400,000), so no small fry up, but where is the centre? Where are the sights? Is this really the main street we are on? All these became blatantly apparent as we explored a charmless city, seeking the charm.
“Oh my gosh, this is the capital”- Malina.
Named after the Portuguese words for new port, Benin’s capital is a little bit of an oddball. Even the Lonely Planet authors failed to get excited by it nor did they recommend many things to see or do here. Their expert knowledge correct this time as our zemi john weaved it’s ways through the streets of Porto Novo.
“When you put it altogether, it’s a model of a charmless town” – Damon Albarn.
Porto Novo is also very far east in Benin. So close to Nigeria, you can smell it. We didn’t have visas for Nigeria so skipped it this time. Another country so close yet so far for me on my journey. Malina and I were so tempted to try and border hop for a few hours. It would have been more exciting than an afternoon in Porto Novo.
Benin was a lunatical experience though. We got e-visas in advance and based ourselves in Cotonou. Most of the country’s embassies are located in Cotonou which holds the honour of being Benin’s most populated settlement. But it ain’t the capital…
Getting to Porto Novo
From the chaotic “bus station” in Cotonou we worked out how to get a shared taxi to Porto Novo. You agree the price (bargain like hell and hell again) and wait until the taxi is full until it leaves. As a tip ask the other locals how much they pay and then you should pay the same. Otherwise of course it’s racist and discriminatory. The taxi ride took about 1 hour 20 minutes and cost us 1500 West African Francs each. If we were black it would have been lower.
Once we arrived in Porto Novo however, we were not in the city centre, so we had to pay 500 West African Francs to a zemi john for a lift to Songhai.
Having researched in advance, apart from some Mosque and a church, the highlight here would be the Songhai Cultural Centre. Indeed it was. This centre is the country’s industrial hero. Here at Songhai, they manufacture all kinds of things, mostly food and organic products.
“Africa stands up” – motto at Songhai.
The highlight of Porto Novo made our trip here worth it – Songhai. Songhai is a huge cultural centre which produces food and drink for the country, and beyond. It is all farmed in a bio-friendly way. Songhai’s farming methods emphasize protecting the natural resources and the environment. To do this, they integrate producing agricultural crops, raising livestock and fish, and producing energy. This demonstrates a commitment to helping human beings eat healthier foods and live better lives. It’s well worth the trip, and while you can get guided tours – we didn’t.
Details of Songhai:
As well as touring the Songhai Centre, you can buy their local produce to take away as a souvenir.
Food and drink in Porto Novo
Corner and street side restaurants are everywhere but we were here for an afternoon only. So we only had a snack and seriously we chose chips! No shame in saying that as Malina and i delved into the local food a few times and weren’t impressed. Save for the fish dishes. We also had coffee. We ate at the best bar and restaurant inside the Songhai Centre.
Porto Novo Beer, Songhai Water and Baobab Juice
However I did try Porto Novo beer and the delicious Baobab juice, plus Songhai had excellent water. This succulent juice from the Baobab tree is both healthy and tasty. I previously tried it in The Gambia. As we were leaving, the Songkhai centre, the staff alerted me that I couldn’t take the bottle of beer with me, as they need to recycle it, then it was a simple move of pouring it into my empty water bottle as Malina and I also had spare water!
Sleeping in Porto Novo?
We didn’t need or want to stay overnight in Porto Novo but you can. There are many cheap hotel options, and if we had been heading to Nigeria the next day, I’d say a night here would be a good idea. We did it on a day trip from our base in Cotonou.
Getting There and Back
The “bus station ” in Porto Novo is what the word oxymoron was invented for. Basically there are no buses, and therefore no bus station. It becomes hilarious when you are plumped off your zemi john next to a crowded market with no room for even the ardently experienced taxi driver to manouevre through!
National Football Stadium Visit
Forget it. There is no national football stadium here. All international matches of Benin take place in the city of Cotonou. We passed the stadium there numerous times, as there is a zemi john stand nearby. We didn’t go inside or get to a match in Benin, however we did this in nearby Togo – at Lome when we attended Togo v. The Gambia in an African Nations Cup qualifier, as detailed in my Lome article.
Final Thoughts on the capital city of Benin?
Overall though, while it’s not a charmer, it is the capital and we are delighted we visited. Especially as the beer, coffee and time at Songhai was enjoyable. Benin is chaotic and disorganised at best and Porto Novo lives up to this reputation and hype. Some final photos. I’m done with Porto Novo, for this lifetime…
Here are some videos from our time backpacking in Porto Novo: