Chilling in Sao Tome

Arriving in Sao Tome (especially from Angola) is like having a balm applied to your soul. The immigration guy was so friendly he even gave me a big thumbs up. No visa required here for under fifteen days, so nice relative to many African countries. Nunes was there to pick us up, and we cruised down the island in the languid evening heat listening to local beats. And breathe out…….

We are staying at a ridiculously lovely Airbnb. A typical Sao Tome stilt house perched on the edge of the cliff above the pounding waves in Santana. We passed out almost immediately on arriving (it was 1am and we hadn’t slept for 40 hours) lulled to sleep by the breeze and the sound of the water. Delightful!

Santana- view from the villa
Santana- view from the villa

After a slow wake up, we got our rental car – no insurance, no license check, and a general request to put some Petrol in it at some point- and headed into town. The capital (a word I use loosely) has some amazing examples of crumbling Portuguese architecture. It always amuses me the sheer audacity of the colonists who turned up in Africa and expected through force of will to-recreate their homelands and religions in the African jungle! The religion has certainly endured with pretty little churches on almost every corner. The architecture is lovely but hasn’t endured so well, but for me that is a lot of the charm.

Seventh Day Adventists
Praca Amizade
One of the oldest cathedrals in Africa

We meandered around town, ooh-ing and aah-ing as we turned every street corner at the buildings. It was a relaxing few hours taking in all the main squares and streets, with an obligatory espresso break (the coffee is pretty good here). The locals are friendly, but the guys can’t help but give you a smile and a bit of a wink. I am sure if I was alone I would be getting whistles, it certainly makes a difference having hubby in tow, though here the whistles are more opportunistic than threatening.

Sao Tome town – tiled building
Sao Tome town
Sao Tome town – health centre

we wandered our way through the cultural quarter and the parque populaire and eventually made it to the fort and the national museum. We sat for a while on the top of the fort being amused by the kids laughing, doing back flips and paddling on makeshift paddle boards. It started raining, but even the rain here is relaxing – plopping gently down, just enough to cool you down and not enough to make you wet and cold.

A good looking french man at the fortress
Fisherman’s church Sao Tome
Sao Tome harbour – boats and litter

We found a restaurant serving local food and got stuck into some calulu and feijoada! (Delicious salty fish stews with breadcrumbs!!!)

Calulu and rice

While eating I started reading the Bradt guide on my phone, I never really read it until after I have seen everything. Fun fact – I am in the middle of the world – Sao Tome is the closest land mass to where the line if zero longitude(Greenwich) crosses zero latitude (the equator). After eating, we needed another coffee to get moving. Everything here is leve-leve, easy pace, and no need to rush, and we are fitting right in. I love it here, all the groove and spice of west Africa without any of the hassles :-).

Sao Tome town – coffin maker
Sao Tome town – retail
Sao Tome town
Sao Tome town
Sao Tome town – main market

We meandered back along the coast road to Santana stopping at the local market to try and buy provisions for the next day. Steph was tempted by the flying fish, but I wasn’t super keen for a fishy breakfast – so we got some fresh eggs and some bread rolls that were so dense they should keep us going for a few days

High quality taxi
Sao Tome town – school

Back to the villa….. aaaaaah….. nothing to do but sit and watch the waves roll in. I feel like I have been here a month and want to stay another. After an hour the skies opened up and entertained us with a stunning rain storm. It must be a kiwi thing but I find the sound of rain on the roof immensely reassuring. What a way to spend the afternoon.

Even better we had asked Yves to sort out dinner for us, so we were delighted when this three course feast arrived at 7.30. The local cat arrived at the same time and managed to commandeer a decent share

yum – dinner

After a wonderful 8 hours of sleep, I woke up to the waves. The friendly cat hadn’t left (we couldn’t lock him out of the open air house) and the minute we opened the bedroom door he made himself right at home in the middle of the bed. I put up with it until I saw the fleas…. and then he got evicted

It was a glorious sunny day so we set off to drive down the island at a relaxed pace. You couldn’t go too fast, it’s Sunday, and clearly laundry day, with all obvious surfaces covered by laundry including the sides of the main road. And it’s a communal industry, I even saw some men chipping in

Our first stop was the Roca Agua ize. Apparently it is still a working plantation, and it was the first cocoa plantation on the island, staffed with 50 Europeans and 2500 contract workers. It’s not obvious it’s working today, but it was Sunday. We checked out the old hospital – am amazing ruin with a fab view. And then wandered around the streets of the small town which would have been built for the European workers. The pastor wasn’t having a great day, with less than ten in attendance. But the rap beats were pounding out from a variety of industrial speakers.

Roca Agua Ize – workers houses
Roca Agua Ize – workers houses
Roca Agua Ize – hospital
Roca Agua Ize – Palm Oil Factory
Roca Agua Ize – Palm Oil Factory

After that we stopped by the boca de inferno – the Mouth of hell – and watched the spray come up through the blowhole

Boca de Inferno

Then more slow driving, avoiding dogs, laundry and kids using the big hills as a skateboard ramp as we headed south down the island, admiring the intermittent views of the pico- an unusual rock formation sticking up like a needle in the middle of the island

Cao Pico

We made it to the idyllic restored plantation at Sao Joao and wandered round the grounds checking out his art gallery and sculptures. We wandered around town too, to work up a bit of an appetite – as apparently this is the best restaurant in the country. It’s a beautiful shady terrace with a lovely breeze and an outstanding view over the sea.

Roca Sao Joao plantation house
Roca Sao Joao art gallery

Lunch turned out to be a 14 course degustation of local flavours! I felt quite impressed with myself for accidentally organising a lovely lunch for my hubby (who is being a very good sport this year and accompanying me on some bonkers trips with no complaints when the travel arrangements all go tits up at the last minute). The food was excellent, great fish, herbs and plenty of local flavours of coconut, mango and vanilla. The swordfish and manioc was excellent as was the cerviche, and the salted cod with with palm oil and banana was amazing. The chopped squid with a fried rice ball might have been the best but hard to judge. The chef/owner/artists came round during some courses and explained the local provenance of the food – it was quite a performance, he was almost singing.

Roca Sao Joao- squid and arancini
Roca Sao Joao- pickled tuna and green papaya
Roca Sao Joao- aubergine and fried swordfish

After lunch we cruised back up the coast….. and had a well deserved siesta before heading to the airport for our flight home (a vile three flight red eye a day early given taag’s uselessness – see why below). I loved it here! We will come back but next time will definitely pop over to Príncipe for a few days. If you want a lovely easy leveleve African experience, come to Sao Tome!

Roca Sao Joao- church – jesus is love

9 more countries to go…..

Additional info

  • Definitely stay at divine ocean villas or one of Yves other properties at Santana, they were amazing
  • Yves can arrange a rental jeep for €40 a day and it gets delivered to the door and you can leave it at the airport
  • Definitely eat the degustation at Sao Joao

Side note 1 – I hate flying in Africa

Due to the vagaries of African airlines (and European airlines that don’t rate their African clientele) this had been a hell of a trip. BA cancelled our flight two days before departure and made no effort at all to find us an alternative (and as yet haven’t refunded me). This necessitated a last minute, very expensive purchase of an indirect flight to Luanda. The next leg from Luanda worked fine to Sao Tome (albeit on the crappiest plane I have seen in years with seats as hard as rock). But then we figured out (by accident) that TAAG had moved our return flight forward 18 hours, so instead of a civilised flight out with a good connection to our BA flight, we were now on a 3am flight with a 17 hour layover in Luanda, and as we were using different airlines in and out of Luanda we wouldn’t even be allowed out of a transit room until four hours before the next flight (apparently there’s no food or water in the transit room), and we couldn’t clear immigration as it takes weeks to sort a visa. Crap!!!!! Oh well, that’s what credit cards are for, and we have found a faster route home, with bonus stops in Accra and Lisbon, but the downside is we only have two nights and days in Sao Tome! Sigh!

Art at Sao Joao

Side note  2 – hubby to 100

It turns out hubby has been keeping a track record of his country count. He’s at 70 which is pretty impressive for someone who is not trying to visit lots of countries. The amusing thing is that he has been to Bhutan and Mauritania and Sao Tome (and is coming to Afghanistan later this month) but he has not been to Germany or Ireland and a bunch of other ‘normal’ European countries! We have decided next year we are going to do a dinner date in a European city each month to at least tick off the main countries in Europe :-), as would be nice to get him to 100

Sao Tome, 6 May 2018

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