A photogenic route, full of curves, counter-curves and spontaneous stops to contemplate the lush tropical sceneries had held us back too often and delayed us beyond repair.
The day was already over when we finally reached the beginning of the trail that led to the volcano's crater, then hidden behind a blanket of low white clouds.
A few walkers returned exhausted from those veiled heights and indulged in life-saving meals at the bar located next to the car park. Others, in obvious improvisation, tried to see if there was still time to go up.
We follow a couple who use binoculars to discover what those heights were made of. Like them, we decided to postpone the expedition. We knew the terrifying reputation of the Martinique vipers. Still, we were left to explore the damp slope where the tall grass and remaining weeds had subsumed any sign of lava.
Shortly thereafter, we return to the serpentine road, skirt the broad foothills of the mountain and point out the Fort-de-France.
The morning brings the blazing sun back over the capital but also the desired weekend. A street band occupies a dark corner next to an uncharacteristic shopping center and enlivens the square with their choir voices, synchronized drums of jambés and other percussion instruments.
We found out it's the San Chènn. We never questioned them but, by name, we infer that their motive was the celebration of the island's native culture and, more than that, the liberation of slaves from the long subjection to the French settlers who, two weeks later, would have their ephemeris there.
Ludger Cylbaris was born in 1875, almost three decades after Governor Victor Schoelcher signed the abolition of slavery in the territory. It enjoyed, therefore, an existential autonomy that was unthinkable until a few years ago.
But in one of so many days of excessive alcohol in Saint-Pierre, he became involved in a conflict with a fellow countryman whom he wounded with a knife. He was sentenced to one month in prison. Near the end of the sentence, he escaped.
Captured again, he saw his sentence increased by eight days. Ironically, this aggravation of punishment would save him from a tragic end and promote him to the status of eccentric and bewildered hero of the predominant Afro community in the French overseas province.
This explained why the San Chènn repeated his name over and over again, as part of the chorus of a song that portrays and immortalizes him. However, we still lacked the discovery of the village in which he had lived and the most burning episode of his existence as a guinea pig of destiny.
We head north, almost always with the west coast of the Caribbean Sea in sight and along a coastline shortened by steep slopes. Saint-Pierre would not be long.
The tropical breath is stronger than ever when we reach the entrance to the city. We ignored the coastal breeze and headed down a slope that a sign lost in the vegetation confirmed, leading us to a semi-promontory.
We only get halfway when we have to interrupt the car's laborious march. A platoon of talkative ladies in white Eucharistic garb descends and blocks the road.
Betty Moustin asks us if we are going to the viewpoint: “We just came from there. It's a special place”, she assures us, smiling, as if inspired by a vision.
It was May. We realized that they were part of a Marian pilgrimage to the city and that they were returning from praying on that summit. We completed the ascension. A final descending grass trail leads to the platform.
From there, the more distant Pelée Mountain and the bay filled by the Caribbean Sea defined an unforgettable scene.
In between, the reddish and white houses of Saint-Pierre stood out, rejuvenated, between the gray sand that the village had taken by storm and the leafy cliff opposite.
The fascination proved instantaneous but prolonged. We agreed that a painting like that had to be seen in a decent light. We promise to return in good time and descend back to the heart of the city.
Hundreds of devotees circulate around the cathedral and between the temple and a communal house that serves them meals and religious gatherings. Shortly thereafter, a mass begins.
The church is filled with worshipers from all over Martinique who fight the heat with handkerchiefs, fans and other practical flaps.
Despite the gaudy green Afro dress and the crisp yellow turban that crowns her and sets her apart from the crowd,
Fedia also has her role in the event: “why am I so colorful? Well… it may not seem like it but I'm a driver and I like to cheer up my passengers. I brought a bus full of believers from Sainte Marie to here. Now I'm waiting to take them back.”
Only going back more than 100 years could we find a Saint-Pierre so exuberant and busy. When we visit the ruins of the cell that held Cylbaris, we are faced with the calamity suffered by the former capital of Martinique and the fate reserved for the prisoner.
At the turn of the 1889th century, the Pelée Mountain was considered a dormant volcano even if, since 1902 and, especially in April XNUMX, there was some activity of sulfur fumes in the crater.
From the end of the month, the mountain imposed several geological whims. It projected small samples of ash, then rocks, produced earthquakes, made the sea move back 100 meters, and then return to the normal waterline, among several other manifestations.
Finally, on the morning of May 8, Ascension Day, the inhabitants observed glows on the summit of the volcano.
The telegraph operator transmitted, however, the Fort-de-France a report without any development that ended with “Allez”, with which, at 7:52 am, he gave the floor to the interlocutor. The next moment, the line was cut.
The crew of a telegraph repair boat witnessed what happened. A dense black burning cloud spread horizontally from the base of the volcano.
A second, monstrous, mushroom-shaped and composed of dust, vapors, ash and volcanic gases was visible 100km away. Later, it was calculated that the initial speed of both would have been almost 670 km/hour. The temperature inside rose to 1000º.
Saint-Pierre succumbed to that hell regurgitated from the depths of the Earth. Of the people who were in the city, 28.000, almost all of the inhabitants, perished.
But, as the popular theme sung by the San Chènn recounts, Ludger Cylbaris was not one of them.
Protected by the wide walls of the windowless cell that held him, the prisoner was rescued three days later by a man from Morne-Rouge who heard his screams. He had suffered painful burns on his body but he resisted.
The event quickly traveled the world. Thus also spread the fame of the lucky Cylbaris who, shortly afterwards, would be recruited by the American circus Barnum, to show himself and his burns, on an international tour, as the only miraculous survivor of the catastrophe.
At the time, Saint-Pierre was the economic capital of Martinique and the Antilles.
The sugar trade attracted boats from all over the world to its cove, and the proceeds from this financed one of the first electric urban lighting networks in the Americas, a horse-drawn trolleybus, an 800-seat theater, a botanical garden and a hyperactive port.
In a few minutes, the elegant mountain that had long lived in the city reduced it to rubble and coal.
As planned, when the afternoon begins to close, we go back up to the viewpoint and submit ourselves to the haughty supervision of the statue of Notre Dame du Bon Port, which was also knocked down and removed from its original place by the eruption and later placed there. high pedestal as if to preserve the city from a new hecatomb.
A few years after the destruction, absent residents and other outsiders joined forces to recover the first buildings. With the passage of time, the urban structure was effectively restored to the embellished aspect that we can see from there.
We see the sun setting, in a hurry, over the sea. The twilight sets in and the urban lighting gains vigor, reinforced by the light trails left by the vehicles that cross each other in the geometric grid.
Residents and visitors celebrate the end of another welcoming Caribbean day on the esplanades of the coastal street and aboard some sailboats off the coast. Little by little, Saint-Pierre is taken by the ocher of a tenuous fire that is reflected in the adjoining bay and contrasts with the superb blackness of the Pelée mountain.
The image refers to the tragedy that almost erased it from the XNUMXth century, but even without the glow of other times, the Paris of the Caribbean shows signs of life.