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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003