Travel: An island green with energy

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The Independent Culture
It was touch and go whether I would be able to leave the Cape Verde islands and return home to northern Europe, since flights in this part of the world are dependent on the wind. The "Harmattan" that blows down from the Sahara between November and March is full of desert sand, creating an impenetrable fog that prevents planes from landing on most of the islands, where the landing strips have no lights. Praia, the capital, is the only exception, but I was stuck on Sao Vicente, and the best the ground staff could manage in the way of reassurance was "the plane might come".

The previous week in Praia, there had been no sign of the dreaded Harmattan, save for the first day, when the town disappeared from view, even from the hotel balcony where we were perched. When this happens, the best thing to do is sleep away the afternoon and conserve your energy for the evening's music and dancing.

Cape Verde's best-known export is its music, and the groups of lads who play music on every street have plenty of role models: Cesaria Evora ("the barefoot diva", who sings in Portuguese Creole), Ildo Lobos, Tito Paris, Boy Ge Mendes and most recently Fantcha, to name but a few.

Music is an integral part of daily life here. In Praia, you can hear live music under the straw roof of O Atlantico, a jazzy bar/restaurant that has an open-air feel. One of the most popular clubs is Di Nos, which is also partly open-air, where one of the best-known bands, Os Tubaroes (the Sharks), used to play before their split in 1996. Ildo Lobos, their lead singer, now has a blooming solo career. The Piano Bar in Mindelo is where Cesaria Evora sang in her early days, and she still sometimes frequents it.

The islands' musicians are not as well-known in Britain as they are in Portugal, their former colonist, or France or even Holland and the US, both of which have large Cape Verdean communities. There can be few other nations with a diaspora large enough to match that of Cape Verde: less than half of its 900,000 citizens live in the islands.

Many successful bands have left Cape Verde for Europe and America, but like other exiles, they remain sentimental about their homeland. Much of Cesaria's music is a love letter to Cape Verde, as is shown again on her latest album, Cafe Atlantico, where one of the songs is entitled "Paraiso di Atlantico".

"Paradise" may be a little strong, but the islands are certainly lovely and are dramatically different from the landscape of Senegal, the nearest stretch of mainland Africa. Of the nine main islands - there are several tiny ones - easterly Sal, Maio and Boa Vista are flat with white sands and azure seas, while their six more westerly sisters are home to dramatic volcanic peaks. On Fogo, the volcano remains active and, as the name suggests, during much-needed rainy spells, the islands turn violently green and lush.

When you tire of Praia and its nightlife, head west to spend the day at Cidade Velha, once the country's capital. Today it is a tiny fishing village that feels deserted in the midday heat. It was originally established by the Portuguese as a slave- trading post, and in the centre of the village the pillory, where slaves were publicly shackled, remains. It was from here, during the 17th and 18th centuries, that many thousands of African slaves embarked on their lengthy journeys to the Americas or, sometimes, to their deaths.

If you've walked the 12 or so dusty kilometres here from Praia, you'll be in need of a cold beer and Cidade Velha is certainly the place to sip it: on a shady terrace looking out across a rough ocean. Better still, go to Tarrafal, in the far north of Santiago island.

After a beautiful and bumpy ride through the mountains of the interior, you descend a steep hill into the small town.

Beyond the pretty square with its church and marketplace, the cliffs give way to a soft, sandy fishing beach, washed by big blue rollers and strewn with palm umbrellas and discreet beach huts set back among the coconut palms.

On a rocky outcrop above the beach sits an open-air restaurant. The beach is wide and open, but all along this coast are little coves ideal for swimming.

Many tourists arrive in Sal, which has the only international airport besides Praia, and which has been heavily marketed for its white-sand beaches.

These are, undoubtedly, magnificent, but the resorts that line them are expensive and bear no relation to local culture. Sao Vicente is more interesting and Mindelo, its capital, is widely acknowledged to be the liveliest town in the archipelago. Down the coast from the good beaches at Baia das Gatas, Calhau and Praia de Sao Pedro, there's a faintly sleazy feel to the town, and it still has many live music venues.

In February, Mindelo hosts a carnival, and in August, a celebrated music festival, for which many exiled musicians return.

Unfortunately for lovers of the seaside, the nearest beach has drab black sand and sits just in front of a large and noisy industrial plant. So, while the beach-lovers indulge their sun-worshipping fantasies in Sal, the foot-tappers get to keep Mindelo's music for themselves.

Fact File

Getting there

Following the end of apartheid, it is now harder to reach the Cape Verde airport of Sal than it used to be (South African Airways planes used to refuel at the island en route to and from London, since no other country would do so). SAA still stops en route from New York, but travelling from the UK, options are limited. The main carriers these days are TAP Air Portugal (0171-828 0262), with connections in Lisbon from Heathrow; and the Cape Verde airline TACV, which flies from Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Madrid, Munich, Paris, Rome, Vienna and Zurich. Yesterday the discount agency Travel Deals (0181-993 9993) quoted a fare on Air Portugal of pounds 547 return.

Getting around

Most of the islands are tiny, and you can comfortably visit several in a two-week stay. It is rumoured that there are ferries between them, but the best way to travel is by plane on TACV, which has frequent flights from Sal to Boa Vista, Praia, Sao Nicolau and Sao Vicente. Buying an air pass when you book your international flight works out cheaper than buying them individually on arrival. A handy website to check out transport links, and to find more information on the islands, can be found at www.erols.com/kauberdi/index

Tuning in

Cesaria Evora plays on 25 May at the Barbican, London (0171-638 8891) and on 22 May at The Anvil, Basingstoke (01256 844244). Her new album, Cafe Atlantico, is released this month by BMG.

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