St-Pierre

The rise and fall of St-Pierre is one of the most remarkable stories in the Caribbean and one of its worst disasters. Martinique's modern history began here in 1635. By the turn of the 20th century St-Pierre was a flourishing city of 30,000, known as the Paris of the West Indies. As many as 30 ships at a time stood at anchor. By 1902 it was the most modern town in the Caribbean, with electricity, phones, and a tram. On May 8, 1902, two thunderous explosions rent the air. As the nearby volcano erupted, Mont Pelée split in half, belching forth a cloud of burning ash, poisonous gas, and lava that raced down the mountain at 250 mph. At 3,600°F, it instantly vaporized everything in its path; 30,000 people were killed in two minutes.

The Cyparis Express, a small tourist train, will take you around to the main sights with running narrative (in French) for an hour Monday through Saturday, starting at 11 am, with reservations (0596/55–50–92, 0696/81–88–70) for €12.

An Office du Tourisme is on the moderne seafront promenade. Stroll the main streets and check the blackboards at the sidewalk cafés before deciding where to lunch. At night some places have live music. Like stage sets for a dramatic opera, there are the ruins of the island's first church (built in 1640), the imposing theater, and the toppled statues. This city, situated on its naturally beautiful harbor and with its narrow, winding streets, has the feel of a European seaside hill town. With every footstep, you touch a page of history. Although many of the historic buildings need work, stark modernism has not invaded this burg.

As much potential as it has, this is one place in Martinique where real estate is cheap—for obvious reasons. There is now a recommendable small hotel on the bay, Villa St-Pierre, as well as ferry service between the town and Guadeloupe. A restoration/urban renewal project has been started by architecture students, with strong input from the residents, historians, sociologists, and city planners, as to how to beautify this historic port with such a tragic past. St-Pierre has 15 of the 30 classified historical monuments on Martinique. The active phase of the Great Saint Pierre Project is about to begin with the primary purpose of remaking the town into what it should never have ceased to be, a town of history and art, and the heart of the northern coast.

What is immediately noticeable at the entrance to St-Pierre are sculptures completed by island visual artists that are being referred to as totem poles.

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