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What's the point of going to Benin when no-one knows where it is when you tell them where you were?

Benin has been something of a closely kept secret since a group of young army officers, led by Major Kerekou, put a halt to twelve years of repeated coups by taking control of the country themselves, in 1972.

Dahomey - The People's Republic of Benin

Even now, after the relaxing of the Major's Marxist-Leninist line that turned colonial Dahomey into the People's Republic of Benin, and earned it a somewhat naive title of The Cuba of West Africa, the Gulf of Guinea's least known nation is still not on most travellers' list of destinations.

International representation may be lodged in the characterless coastal town of Cotonou, but it is not the country's capital. Principal status is reserved for a town with a more pleasant setting, and a proper place in history; Porto Novo.

All routes lead to Cotonou though, and once official business is seen to, then diversions and ways out of the sandy grid are sought.

For many Europeans on the Trans-Sahara Peugeot run, the road ends in Niger; although flights to Europe are generally cheaper from the northern Nigerian town of Kano.

Those who do travel along the coast, between Abidjan and Lagos, look at Cotonou as nothing more than a stop between Ghana's beaches and the flight home.

Benin Marina Hotel in Cotonou, Benin (ex-Sheraton)
Benin Marina Hotel Travel Notes

In fact, there isn't really that much to do in Cotonou except get out, unless you like the idea of paying to join the French around the pool of the Benin Marina Hotel (formerly Sheraton).

Lake Ganvie

The most accessible attraction from Cotonou is the lake dwellings at Ganvie.

Stilt Houses on Lake Ganvie - Copyright, Travel Notes

Share-taxis to the landing stage at Abomey-Calavi leave from the Dan Topka market at the end of Boulevard Saint Michel, in Cotonou.

And then the rip-off begins....

You'll need to pay tourist prices to get on the lake.

Lake ganvie, Benin

Called an African Venice, because fifteen thousand people live in the dwellings perched on piles in the lake, Ganvie is a lot more to the Tofinu peoples.

To the Tofinu peoples, Ganvie means:

'The collectivity of those who found peace at last'.

In the sixteenth century, the ruling Dan-Homey King combed the countryside for men to be traded off in exchange for the goods that the Europeans brought with them; especially guns.

Lake Ganvie - Copyright, Travel Notes
On Lake Ganvie - Michel Guntern, Travel Notes

Initially, the weaker communities seeking refuge from the king's army were safe on the lake, as the Abomey religion prohibited warriors from attacking over water.

Then, at the end of the 17th century, other feuds occurred and there was a migration from over-farmed Tado to the swampy forest around Lake Nokoue.

The Tofinu people work their lake efficiently; planting branches in the shallow waters to produce artificial thickets, that trap the fish for extraction or breeding.

Women, accompanied by their young daughters, also preserve the daily commerce of the riverside markets.

As Benin opens up, even the police are friendly, and everyone has time for a smile.

Closed doors seem a thing of the past but, unfortunately, 'cadeaux' has become a word of the present.

Journey to Benin - Landing in Lagos

By Michel.

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