Martinique: Strictly no banana jokes

The world's favourite fruit is taken very seriously in Martinique. And they have a museum and 'plantation experience' to prove it

Is it only the British who think bananas are funny? This crucial question of cultural identity struck me as I inspected exhibits in Martinique's Musée de la Banane, an institution billed on the web as "the best museum of the banana in the whole wide world".

Is it only the British who think bananas are funny? This crucial question of cultural identity struck me as I inspected exhibits in Martinique's Musée de la Banane, an institution billed on the web as "the best museum of the banana in the whole wide world". The boast may be true, but the unsettling impression remains that Martinicans and their mainland French compatriots take their bananas very seriously. No double entendres in this museum, no Noël Coward-style levity, no Bananaman or Bananarama, but a great deal of solemn information on the world's most eaten fruit.

The museum, set in this Caribbean island's lush north-east, is a fine example of how French tourists expect " un peu d'histoire". A series of panels in the one-room exhibition centre explain how important the banana has become to the global economy, its various types (Gros Michel sounds like an over-enthusiastic banana eater, Bluggoe even less attractive), and the nasty bugs that attack it. You look in vain for any Anglo-Saxon phallic allusions or banana-skin jokes. The lightest relief comes in the form of some old advertising posters. Then it's a slow stroll through a hot, humid valley with a sluggish brown stream and sleepy cows, where different sorts of fruit are planted and labelled. To the untrained eye they all look much the same, but on closer inspection there are big ones and little ones, all green, all seemingly upside down. It is hot, very hot.

It's a pleasure to finish what the museum leaflet optimistically describes as " une promenade rafraîchissante" and to reach the gift shop and bar, housed in tastefully idealised slave huts. The shop reveals how many items can be made from bananas – perfume, soap, hats, fans – while the bar offers a range of banana cocktails. No banana jokes here either; although the lady making the milk shakes seems to enjoy her routine of peeling and whizzing.

Outside, the banana packers (for the museum is set in a working plantation) have already finished for the day. This, after all, is legally part of France, and the 35-hour week is scrupulously observed. We are a long way from the low-wage banana plantations of Latin America here, since this fruit is produced within the European Union by citizens of the French Republic.

Martinique's Frenchness takes many forms. The old clichés about baguettes and Gitanes are broadly accurate, and the tropical landscape is littered with the familiar and ugly warehouses of M Bricolage and Carrefour. Renaults and Citroëns clog the highways, while Martinican drivers, when allowed by the traffic jams to exceed a crawl, show all the bravado of the mother country.

In some respects, Martinicans are even more French than the French. They eat more yoghurt there than in any other département and drink more Champagne. And, as in France, they are gearing up for the euro, with posters and leaflets that explain just how many you will need to buy a breadfruit.

But it is in their love of museums and consumption of culture generally that Martinicans seem most French. The island has about 400,000 inhabitants and at least 40 museums, let alone art galleries and cultural centres. Some of these are little more than heritage-flavoured shop fronts for the distilleries which produce some of the best rum in the world, but others reveal a distinctly Gallic taste for pedagogy. There is a sugar-cane museum, a fishing museum and, of course, a rum museum. You wonder when someone will think of starting a tourism museum. There are collections of Amerindian relics and carnival costumes, you can visit a bee-keeping exhibition or even a display of dolls made from different woods and, inevitably, banana leaves.

The house once inhabited by the Empress Joséphine, a local girl, contains a collection of artefacts in her memory, while Paul Gauguin, who lived in Martinique briefly before finding another version of paradise in Tahiti, has his own museum. Perhaps most fascinating is the museum of Creole costumes, where you are invited to decipher the subtle sexual messages transmitted by the number of knots tied in a traditional woman's Madras headscarf (three mean hands off, two that I'm spoken for but you can try your luck).

All these collections are doubtless generously subsidised in some way by the unknowing French taxpayer, but they are also genuinely popular, not just among tourists tired of some of the Caribbean's best beaches but also with locals curious about their island's culture before the advent of yoghurt and traffic. Some of them allow Martinique's past to be relived in a sanitised form, consigning slavery, the plantation and poverty quite literally to the museum. Nobody now lives in the rickety shacks that act as tourist shops. No self-respecting Martinican would dream of cutting cane. That job is done by contract workers from neighbouring St Lucia. But you can still see what it was like to wield a machete.

The knack of turning the unpleasant past into today's heritage attraction is most creatively exercised in the west coast town of Saint Pierre. Until 8 May 1902, this was the most sophisticated and charming town in the Caribbean, a "Paris of the Antilles" complete with theatre, lycée and botanic gardens. Then, on that day, the volcano that looms over Saint Pierre coughed up a cloud of boiling gas that rolled down on to the town and flattened it within seconds. All but one of the 30,000 inhabitants died. They could have been evacuated, it seems. But there was an election due in a few days, and neither party wanted its voters to leave town.

Today a smaller, sadder Saint Pierre still sits under the Montagne Pelée, new buildings having sprouted among the charred ruins of the old. The place is now the poor relation of Fort-de-France, the island's capital, and it looks more recognisably Caribbean, more ramshackle than the high-rise metropolis to the south. But there is no self-pity in Saint Pierre. Instead, the authorities are looking forward to the centenary of the volcanic eruption as a golden opportunity to market their particular sort of disaster tourism.

The town is already 101st on France's list of historic sites, and it is true that the ruins are impressive. Great stone blocks and pillars lie where they fell a hundred years ago, blasted by a force that experts compare to several atomic bombs. Two museums recall the town's past glories as well as the dreadful events of May 1902.

The cathedral's main bell is melted into a weird crumpled shape, and you can see poignant domestic details such as knives and forks that have been fused together or charred plates of food. In a rare lapse of taste, a tourist train, named after Cyparis, the sole survivor of the eruption, trundles round the town, pointing out what used to be a church or a school. And you can view the underground cell where Cyparis, locked up after a rum-fuelled brawl, escaped the inferno.

I suggest to a guide employed by the tourism office that all this could be seen as slightly morbid, but she is infectiously cheerful about the past and present. It's almost as if the volcano did Saint Pierre a favour, a pretext for selling itself as the Caribbean's Pompeii. I am reminded that Cyparis made an unexpected career out of showing off his burns in a Barnum & Bailey circus, so the tourism people can point to a precedent. But tourism is a serious business in Martinique, and in Saint Pierre, if not the banana museum, there is little to laugh about.

Travellers' Guide

James Ferguson paid £750 for a two-week package arranged by French tour operator, Evasion Tropicale in Paris (00 33 1 43 72 22 00). This included flights to Martinique with Air France from Paris, and two weeks at the Diamant Novotel, half-board. This was a low-season special offer. Car hire, also arranged by Evasion Tropicale, costs about £20 per day.

Recent unofficial reports state that around 380 people have developed symptoms of dengue fever. This unpleasant viral disease is transmitted by mosquitoes that bite mainly in the day. There is no vaccine.

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