Yamoussoukro © Guillaume Mignot
The independent republic of the Ivory Coast (or Côte d'Ivoire) lies on the south coast of the bulge of West Africa, consisting mainly of a vast plateau (except for mountains in the northwest extremity), hemmed in by five other countries and the Atlantic Ocean. Once, its main cities of Abidjan and Yamoussoukro were showpieces of the continent, politically stable and economically sound, attractive not only by dint of the physical beauty that abounds in the country but also boasting a rich culture.
In 2002 an armed rebellion split the nation, and although a peace deal between the rebels and the government was brokered in 2003, implementation was difficult and a further peace accord had to be signed in 2007. After the 2003 peace deal tensions remained high, and most foreign nationals left. Ivory Coast remains blacklisted as a 'no-go' destination by most western governments, with United Nations and French peacekeepers holding on to a volatile situation.
Tourists that do brave the political situation can experience attractions in the Ivory Coast like one of the last remaining virgin rainforests in West Africa at the Tai National Park, an unspoilt wonderland of huge trees, gurgling streams and abundant wildlife. Then there is the impressive Cascade Waterfall, located in a bamboo forest in the lush region around the town of Man, which also hosts the intriguing annual Festival of Masks with performing stilt-dancers.
The cities, too, are worthy experiences, particularly the capital Yamoussoukro. A unique city in Africa, boasting a full-sized replica of St Peter's Basilica in Rome. The stunning cathedral (containing more stained glass than you will find in all the churches of France), and other lavish edifices in the surprising city, including an internationally-rated golf course and multi-lane highways that disappear into the jungle, was built courtesy of long-term president Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who bestowed all these gifts on his hometown.
The largest city, Abidjan, has a cosmopolitan flavour lent to it by its large French and Lebanese communities. Abidjan presents an attractive aspect, set on a lagoon and boasting high-rise buildings like the spectacular Hotel Ivoire. Abidjan has its landmark cathedral too: St Paul's was built in 1985, and consecrated by the Pope. The city has a vibrant nightlife and bustling atmosphere, offering a few good museums for sightseeing and a rainforest reserve called Parc du Banco for shady relaxation.
If and when Ivory Coast solves its political dilemmas it will undoubtedly once again emerge as one of the tourist jewels of Africa, being able to utilise tourism as a means to help shrug off the debts incurred by its wasteful bureaucrats and years of unrest.