Sometimes, it is a landmark that gives a place its distinctive character, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Acropolis in Athens. Other times it is an historical event such as D-Day at Dunkirk or even a carnival as in Rio.
But for Dakar it is motor racing that has given the city its cachet. Even if you didn’t know that this French-built shipping port, the busiest in Africa, is perched at the tip of the Cape Verde Peninsula, somewhere in your subconscious will be the phrase ‘Dakar Rally’.
Dakar served as the capital of French West Africa during 300 years of French rule before becoming the capital of Senegal at independence in 1960 and so, unsurprisingly the French influence is inherent in the city’s maritime infrastructure. But city life is embedded in Islamic culture and devout worshippers can be seen spilling out of mosques three times a day.
Though there are no particular sites to visit, apart from the odd slave trade museum; the soul of the city resides in its balmy, sandy streets and winding alleyways. This is where aromas of kebabs being cooked al fresco swirl into the sultry air and where women, modestly swathed in eye-catching Day-Glo fabrics, sashay by with baskets brimful of mango and lime on their heads. You will also feel it in the bustling street markets where religious Muslim men sell luck from leather pouches while the din of hundreds of voices haggling over prices in both French and the local Wolof at sometimes deafening levels.
Kermel market is preferred by expatriate Europeans for flowers and crafts but Marche Sandaga is the largest, offering an ideal opportunity to mingle with the locals, enjoy local smells and flavours and to pick up some ethnic art, craft, fabric or jewellery. But savvy clothes shoppers head for Marche HLM market where over 200 tailors bash out made-to-measure outfits on old sewing machines using shoppers’ own fabrics – perfect for that bargain business suit.
Western business travellers will feel reassuringly at home amid the city-centre’s wide, tree-lined boulevards and elegant French colonial period buildings, especially the monumental government house, and the Parisian-style terraced cafés where the traditional breakfast is a croissant and café au lait.
There is a newly built casino and a vibrant music scene featuring Senegalese sounds of guitar riffs and lively West African drumming made famous by the musician Youssou N’Dour, makes for toe-tapping nights out. And just outside the city in N’Gor, there is a ribbon of beautiful beaches to escape to whenever a moment of leisure allows.
Dakar is located just 12km from the International Leopold Seder Senghor Airport with direct flights from Paris, the Middle East and New York. And unlike other West African nations, most EU and US passport holders don’t even need a visa.
But it is precisely because of this easy familiarity that the inevitable culture shock hits all the harder. Even before you have stepped out of the airport, you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people offering to carry your luggage, find you a hotel or change your money. Get used to it – there are as many hustlers as there are pickpockets.
Visitors are ripe for rip-off prices, so it is essential to master the fine art of bartering. And though getting a taxi is easy, do make sure you settle on a price beforehand. The windshields may be broken and the bodywork battered but the instinct for charging over the odds is well tuned.
And watch out for the beggars, or talibes as they call them. Some are disabled, others only children, but they’ll all harass you relentlessly for a few Francs, especially next to the many ATMs. This is important: in a city of just one million there are an astonishing 300,000 talibes. A tip: just say: “ba beneen yoon” which means next time in Wolof, or “a la prochain, inshallah” in French, while putting your hand over your heart. That usually wards them off.
Combine this harassment with a very hot and humid climate in July and August, or during the January ‘harmattan’ when the winds whip up the Saharan sand, and it is easy to become frustrated. Weather-wise, the best time to go is during the kinder autumnal months of October to December.
Whatever time of year though, taking time out to hop on a 25-minute ferry ride to Goree Island – a world heritage site of colonial houses – is a must-do. Being the closest part of Africa to America, this island served as a transit point in the slave-trading route. Despite the rampant hassle from souvenirs vendors, be prepared to come away deeply affected by ‘the door of no return’ at the processing centre of La Maison des Esclaves, that slaves walked through to be shipped off to a life of subservience.
A few years ago Dakar’s infrastructure was flagging making transportation to land locked Africa somewhat difficult. Since 2004 it has had an injection of investment, some from the World Bank, to renovate the port and improve the famous Dakar-Bamako rail link in order to maintain its competitive edge.
As a result a mix hotel accommodation from plush to auberge has developed to cater for the business traveller. If you want to be away from the madding crowds but near the international embassies in the fashionable Fann Corniche area, the soon to open Radisson Blu Hotel offers state of the art spas, waterfront views and free broadband. Standard rooms start at £181.80 per night including breakfast.
A cheaper alternative is the Novotel located in the business district five minutes walk from Place de Independence with views over Goree Island. The hotel offers a free shuttle service from the airport and rooms start at £108 per night.
Unfortunately Dakar has become victim to the scurge of terrorism and security issues are proving to be a hurdle to growth. The threat of terrorism at nearby Mauritania has become so serious that after a glorious run of 30 years, even the Dakar Rally that would have covered more than 3,600 miles over 16 days through Portugal, Spain and northern Africa had to be relocated to Argentina for 2009. Hopes are that the race will return to its source next year, signalling the return of calm to the area and when no doubt Dakar will be motoring again.