While in Ivory Coast, if you would like to take a visa-free tour to the Vatican, you need not fly down to Italy! Just drive out to Yamoussoukro and enter the premises of the Basilica of our Lady of Peace and you will be on Vatican land.
When it was built on the 1980s, the Basilica threatened to surpass St Peter’s Basilica as the largest church in the world. It is still debatable as to which is the larger, but each basilica has its own claim to fame. While St Peter’s at Vatican can house around 60,000 people as opposed to the Basilica of our Lady of Peace; the latter in Yamoussoukro surpasses St Peter’s in height by about 80 feet. While one can be proud to be the ‘biggest’, the other can stake claim to being the ‘tallest’.
At any rate, the scale and grandeur of the Basilica of our Lady of Peace surely calls for a visit if you’re in Ivory Coast. Over a recent long weekend, my husband, baby and I set off on a road trip, along with another family. The first day was devoted to the town of Dimbokro, where we were fascinated to watch how an Olam cashew factory and its 500 women employees are together changing the face of a community and economy. The next day in the morning, we set off for Yamoussoukro.
The journey took us an hour from Dimbokro, but even if you decide to drive straight from Abidjan, it will not take you more than two and a half hours to reach Yamoussoukro. Cater 3-4 hours at the town and you could easily return to Abidjan on the same day. If you would like to camp at the town for the night however, the UFO-shaped President hotel presents a good option. Apparently, the view from the top of the town is worth catching too.
We decided to return to Abidjan the same day itself and on the recommendation of a couple of friends, we decided to catch lunch at Restaurant Le Roi, which lies pretty much on the highway running through the town. They can take a while to lay out a good meal however, and so it may be a good idea to place your order with them before you head for the Basilica so that your grub is ready by the time you’re done with sight-seeing.
We arrived at Yamoussoukro at noon on a Sunday and since they have mass between 11am and 1pm, we had about an hour to pass before we could enter the premises. So we made our way to the Crocodile Park, the other famous attraction of the town. Despite its grisly history of a caretaker being eaten alive by the crocodiles in the lake, the area was beautiful. A huge lake with the Royal Palace’s extensive gardens spread out behind it invites you to take a walk along its periphery. In the waters, you will see log-shaped figures floating and if you’re lucky, one or two of the inhabitants may climb onto a rock and allow you a better view.
By 1pm, we stood outside the famed Basilica, where we had to pay 2000 cfa each for entry and a guide. Even as you walk from the entry gates to the ginormous structure, photographers flock around you, offering to click a couple of good pictures of you with the Basilica. These are then available for collection at the time of exit, at rates ranging between 500 cfa per photo to 2000 cfa per photo, depending on how good a bargainer you are. Keep in mind that you can look through the photos they click and suggest which ones they print, but there is no obligation to purchase all the printed photos they present you with when you’re leaving.
Back to the Basilica of our Lady of Peace, or Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix as it is known locally. As we gazed at it from the outside and inside, we could not help but compare it to St Peter’s, which we had visited only last year. The guide (we had asked for the English tour) dealt out many interesting facts and figures about the Basilica which made our visit far more meaningful. We learnt about how the basilica came to be built, what special characteristics it boasts of, what the art and paintings inside represent and how it compares to St Peter’s.
We took a lift ensconced inside one of the humongous pillars supporting the structure to the upper floor. The view of the inside of the basilica from above was stupendous. Being a lot closer to the dome, we could appreciate the art work in and around it in a lot more detail. Our guide helped us get pictures with the dome marking a halo around our heads! We then followed him out to the terrace of the basilica and oh, what a view! We could see far into the distance from high above- practically the whole of Yamoussoukro was laid out before our eyes.
Fascinating as the visit had been, the children in our group were tired by then and it was time to leave. After collecting a few of our pictures at the exit, we arrived at Le Roi for a hearty meal. It was around 3pm in the afternoon when we set off for Abidjan once again, drowsy, but with the beauty and grandeur of the Basilica of Yamoussoukro tucked into our memories.
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PIyushi Dhir is the author of the romantic novels, 'In Search of Love' (2014), 'I'm Yours, The Next Time' (2015) and 'Enmeshed Evermore' (2015). A voracious reader, a keen traveler and an ardent dog-lover, Piyushi currently resides in Ivory Coast, Africa. A nomad at heart, she loves to discover new places and capture the hues of life with her pen.