The intensity with which São Tomé and Príncipe reaches our senses is inversely proportional to its geographical, demographic or economic scale. The eyes must become accustomed to living simultaneously with an exuberant natural wealth and with an immense human misery; the aromas so quickly attract us as shock us and humidity sticks to us as a second skin.
This was my first trip to Africa and I hope it was not the last. I took the vaccines, started the prophylaxis for malaria and packed medicines, sunscreen, two packages of repellent and many expectations. I took a mental note not to forget to drink only bottled water (I’m a little distracted about these things) and headed to São Tomé and Príncipe on a Sunday morning.
São Tomé and Príncipe is a small country, the second smallest in all of Africa. It’s just a tiny point lost on the map of the Gulf of Guinea, a David in front of Goliath like Nigeria, Cameroon or Gabon. It’s an island state made up of two main islands (São Tomé Island and Príncipe Island) and several islets, where about 200 thousand people live. This is about two per cent of those living in Portugal or less than one per cent of those living in Angola, just to give some examples to serve here as scale.
In São Tomé and Príncipe there is almost everything to be done and a little bit of everything is missing. It’s a country that seems to have stopped in time after the independence. The tropical weather, hot and humid, and the generosity of nature must have their share of responsibilities in a certain indolence, translated into the typical local expression “leve leve”, which means “is to be done calmly”. However, this calmness and a great dependence on external aid and investment result in a certain degradation and lack of basic services that shocks us as visitors in another’s land and punishes those who make it their home of every day.
Green reigns outside the city of São Tomé. Here and there, small communities line up along the side of the road with their wooden stilts houses, some proudly painted in blue or pink. People and animals also circulate along the road. Children running around playfully, women skillfully balancing a bowl on the head while carrying a child tied behind their backs, flocks of goats, litters of pigs, stray dogs, motorcycles that may carry one person as well as a family of four. In the streams, women wash the clothes that they then put over the stones to dry in the sun.
The almost untouched nature is for sure the main wealth of São Tomé and Príncipe. In the past, this small country grew to be the largest cocoa exporter in the world, but the production of coffee and cocoa beans also stopped in time and, with few exceptions, these plantations are now a disordered mix of human and vegetation occupation. Besides, it is almost heaven on earth: people are hospitable and generous; children have an easy laugh and contagious joy; nature grows to its own pleasure; beaches are dreamy, framed by the blue of the sea and the green of the coconut trees; and, finally, food is simple but good.
Eat in São Tomé and Príncipe
In São Tomé and Príncipe you eat very well, especially fish and seafood (like the wonderful sailfish (peixe andala), greater amberjack (peixe azeite), stone bass, octopus and cuttlefish). Servings are usually generous and the typical side dishes are fried banana or breadfruit and matabala (similar to yam) boiled or fried as well. Drink the national beer, Rosema, served in a bottle without label, and look for local coffee. Eat bananas, there are lots of different varieties, and jackfruit which is absolutely delicious. Visit the chocolate factory Claudio Corallo , learn about the work that is being done at the cacao and coffee plantations, enjoy the tasting and do not leave without buying one of the best chocolates in the world or the coffee blend that mixes three ancient varieties of Arabica.
These are some of the restaurants I visited in the city of São Tomé and that I can recommend:
– Tété: The specialty of Dona Tété is the spicy seasoning with which she involves the fish, cuttlefish or chicken that goes through her grill. It is not easy to find the restaurant, only those who know it are able to guide themselves through the dirt roads poorly lit. Take some time to talk to Dona Tété, who is a very friendly lady.
– Dona Hortênsia: Dona Hortênsia serves at home and can either prepare a dinner for two or a banquet for 100, but you should make a reservation first. The menu varies depending on the inspiration of the moment and it’s best to go hungry because servings are large. Dona Hortênsia is a very nice lady who doesn’t mind sharing her recipes, just ask. I still have a chicken with coconut and peanut sauce to try at home, it’s was a delight.
– Jasmim: taste the sailfish fillets, well seasoned with lemon and, of course, spicy.
– International Cuisine: this is the restaurant of the Omali Lodge hotel and here you can find a more refined cuisine made from local ingredients. I tasted the fish and seafood açorda and the custard with São Tomé vanilla and both were very good.
– O Pirata: a friendly restaurant, very close to the Pestana hotel and with a terrace on the beach.
Have a nice trip!
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