The giant surprise of Haiti: Citadelle Laferrière and Sans Souci palace

An incredible giant fortress was built by the freed slaves for the Black King at the top of a mountain chain to fight back the return of Napoleon. Sounds like an alternative history novel? And yet it’s true. Citadelle Laferrière is located just 30 kilometres to the South of Cap-Haïtien. More than that: at the bottom of the mountain a black Versailles stands in ruins, a large sophisticated palace that was conceived by the black king as the centre of the administration of the newly built black kingdom.

This double attraction is the pride of Haiti and its main tourist sight. Inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list, it is no doubt the most surprising and most impressive fortress built in the Western hemisphere after the “discovery” of America by Columbus. As I wandered around it, I was struggling to comprehend how the slaves that had just gained their freedom could built such a miracle of architecture in the middle of a country destroyed by the civil war? How an idea this brave could be born, what was the key to its methodical implementation?

Clearly, when this fortress was built, when the kingdom of Henri-Christophe just came into existence, the whole history of the world must have appeared very different, and the future too held a very different promise. It was the time when the United States had just been born, the French Revolution had just taken place. The reactionary forces had not yet suffocated the new growths of freedom in Europe. And Africa was not yet divided between colonial empires like a multi-coloured carpet. At that time anyone could be forgiven for thinking that freedom and self-sufficiency were within reach for any hopeful new country.

This is a video I made in Citadelle Laferrière. From its top levels I could see an incredible panorama of Haitian mountains descending towards the Atlantic in the distance. I added a song “Ayiti leve” from an album of Haitian music given to me by a friend long time ago. “Ayiti leve” in Creole means “Get up, Haiti!”

There are virtually no tourists in Haiti. The locals are convinced that any white person has an endless supply of cash and so the rare visitors that do come here are asked to pay exorbitant amounts for the most basic services. The asking price for an excursion to the Citadel from Cap is from 120 dollars. I figured out that taptaps connect Cap with a small town of Milot that is at the bottom of the mountain – the Sans Souci palace is bordering the town. From Milot it’s 7 km up the moutain to the Citadel, and it was not entirely clear how to deal with that obstacle. We’ll play by the ear, I decided.

Finding the right taptap in Cap was easy-breezy. There were armies of taptaps all over the place, but once I asked for Milot, smiling drivers sent me from one to the next until I got to the right one. Off we go. This time I sit in the back of taptap – it’s covered, with narrow benches inside along the sides, where lots of passengers squeeze you from every side. I was glad to have earplugs with me – the centre of the truck, like an altar, was occupied by a huge music transmitter which blared so loud you had to shout to be heard.

Of course, it’s Haiti. Immediately after departure we were caught in a monstrous traffic jam. What’s going on? Very soon we were surrounded by a shouting and dancing crowd carrying handwritten slogans. A demonstration! I couldn’t quite figure out its reasons, but it was clearly against the government. So all traffic froze. No matter, after standing for about half an hour we slowly started to move again and an hour later I got off at Milot. Of course local handymen surrounded me right off, insisting that they wouldn’t even let me inside the national park without a “guide”! My earplugs came in handy yet again – I demonstratively put them in my ears to get rid of a particularly insistent guide candidate. And then promptly struck a deal with one polite boy. He offered to get me up to the Citadel and back for 10$ return.

Midway up the mountain a realisation struck him that he’s out of fuel. He left me by the roadside works and asked to wait. I was laughing, but did wait for him – perhaps a quarter an hour. It’s Haiti, after all, I was telling myself. This is where I was waiting for him:

It’s actually a long way up. To walk it on foot in the scorching sun would be madness (though a few mad tourists to Haiti nevertheless undertake this hike). Finally after 5 km on a steep uphill road you get to a mud square. From here on the motorbike cannot go. You can walk or you can ride a horse.

I resolutely declined paying a fortune for a horseride up and even insisted that a horseride seller stop following me (it’s their tactic to get tourists to buy their product). I much preferred walking alone. The way up looks like this from this point:

It’s only 40 minutes of pleasant walking. Of course it’s hot – but you get to enjoy such views!

As you approach the Citadel, you start appreciating its enormity.

I had no helicopter to make this kind of pic – so it’s a photo of a photo.

I reach the foot of the Citadel:

The gates:

The first internal courtyard, meant to confuse the attacker:

That courtyard as seen from the inside of the fortress:

From another angle:

The internal courtyard of the fortress itself:

You climb steep internal staircases to reach still higher inside:

The tomb of king Henri-Christophe about mid-level inside the fortress. Henri-Christophe was one of the generals in the liberation war of the slaves against the French colonisers. Following the decisive victory in that war the top general, Dessalines, declared Haiti’s independence. As Napoleon crowned himself emperor of the French in 1804, Dessalines swiftly followed suit and declared himself emperor of Haiti. However in 1806 Dessalines was assassinated in a coup d’état, and Haiti dissolved into two parts – the South was controlled by general Petillon of mixed black and white blood, whereas the North was ruled by general Henri-Christophe, a former slave. Some years later Henri-Christophe declared himself king. He developed a complex administative system for his kingdom, copied after feudal Europe, and came up with a whole list of titles – princes, dukes and counts – for his new “nobility”. In Europe this provoked a lot of ridicule – for a long time the expression “Haitian nobility” stood for fake, newly created titles with no tradition to back them. However the rule of Henri-Christophe was based on the system of forced labour – which gradually led to loss of popularity and power. In 1820 he commited suicide and Haiti was again unified by yet another general.

We climb ever higher:

To the actual roof:

Impressive towers marking the corners of the fortress:

Internal rooms:

One of the giant terraces:

Cannon balls:

All the cannons of Henri-Christophe’s army are tropheys – they were taken by the slaves from the French expeditionary corps sent by Napoleon. The origins of a few cannons cannot be traced.

Such as this one – created in England after the Haitian independence and bearing English markings. How it got to the slave army is a mystery.

The plan of the Citadel:

Citadel is a veritable labyrinth actually – you can circle it for hours:

Having spent about 2 hours in the Citadel, I headed back down.

It’s around here that I met the crazy South Korean from my previous post. He was riding a horse up the mountain! Here he described his “very basic” hotel for 10$ and told me where he’d managed to visit already that morning. He also shocked me by telling that he was taking a night bus to Port-au-Prince. Shocked – because I was going back to Santiago where I’d left my luggage – and so couldn’t make it to Port-au-Prince!

This road leads back to the exit. The local villagers keep asking you to buy something – the effect of the constant flow (trickle, rather) of tourists.

My motorbike rider waited for me for over two hours right here – to take me down to Sans Souci. Little did I know that the greatest challenge of the day was only coming up! Explanation: the road is paved with stones. It’s no problem as you ride the motorbike up. But it’s a wholly separate story to ride it down. You feel like you are inside a washing machine – the bike keep jumping every second, and you jump with it, holding on to the dear life to the back of your black driver, praying he doesn’t lose control and we don’t fly off down the mountain! I though my intestines will turn into whipped cream. It was so bad that I asked him to stop several times and let me get back to my senses.

Finally we arrived. I thanked him and entered the Sans Souci palace – or rather its remains. The main entrance of the palace:

Guarded by the UN:

You get to feel the scale of the construction:

Looking back:

This is how Sans Souci looks from above:

In actual fact I entered the palace through a hole in the fence where my bike driver left me off – to avoid circling the whole palace. We’re in Haiti, after all. (It’s one ticket for the Citadel and Sans Souci anyway.) So actually my first view of Sans Souci was like this:

This statue is probably the most recognisable emblem of this once resplendent palace and its long gone glory.

The way back through Milot.

Passers by:

I got back to Cap-Haïtien as I came – in a taptap, knowing by now that it’s a perfectly operational transport mode, despite being squeezed in the seat next to the driver with two (TWO!) other rather fleshy locals. No worries. On the next day I took a Caribe Tours bus from Cap back to Santiago – without any crazy adventures this time, except that on our way we came across another Caribe Tours bus that had broken down and so all its passengers joined us in our bus.

My impressions of Haiti were nothing like the horrifying stereotype that I’d had beforehand. Nobody is eaten in the streets in this beautiful and friendly country. Though don’t count on things going quite as planned 😉

4 thoughts on “The giant surprise of Haiti: Citadelle Laferrière and Sans Souci palace

  1. One giant problem with your post, your tenuous grasp of Haiti’s prehistory.
    “Henri-Christophe was one of the generals in the liberation war of the slaves against the French colonisers. Following the decisive victory in that war the top general, Dessalines, declared Haiti’s independence.”
    The people who fought the French weren’t slaves since slavery was abolished in 1793 on the island and on 2/4/1794 by the French government in Paris. Haiti’s war of independence was fought to stop Napoleon Bonaparte from robbing the people of the freedom they acquired, as a reward, for successfully fighting off the British and Spanish attempts to take the colony from France. Referring to them as slaves is simply not true.

    1. You are not correct. The Haitian revolution started in 1791 and the first armies of actual slaves led by Toussaint Louverture started fighting the colonisers already then. The revolution lasted for 13 years with many ups and downs and one of the actions of the French colonial authorities was indeed to abolish slavery in order to try to win the support of the population. However, it happened after the start of the rebellion. Eventually, Napoleon sent troops which were defeated by the revolutionaries.

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