The second-largest city in the Cape Verde archipelago, off the coast of Senegal, Mindelo is the pride and joy of the island of São Vicente. Nestled in a bay ringed by mountains, it is the cultural capital of this chain of islands… and the homeland of singer Cesária Évora. It is from here that the “Barefoot Diva” put not just the music but the very soul of Cape Verde on the map.
“Petit pays, je t’aime beaucoup”
Cesária Évora was born on 27 August 1941, a summer’s day in Mindelo. And it was on a winter’s day, 19 December 2011, that she died there. She was 70 years old and left some 400,000 grieving Cape Verdean souls behind. Hampered by poverty, Cesária Évora sang in obscurity for the first fifty years of her life. She dedicated the last twenty to proudly flying the flag for Cape Verde, to the point of becoming its ambassador and unmissable leading singer. She’s the reason these small slivers of land 500 km off the coast of Senegal now play an influential role on the international stage. She’s the reason these islands charm their visitors with their wild beauty, warm colours and melting pot of cultures – a reflection of Mindelo and of Cesária herself.
Touching down in Mindelo means arriving at Cesária Évora’s “home” – the international airport is named after her. A bronze statue of her waits outside to welcome you. She also features on the 2000 escudos note. You will come across her portrait hanging on the walls of bars and cabarets where she sang. Places where, through her traditional mornas and coladeiras, the “barefoot diva” returned again and again to proclaim her love for her “tiny country” in her husky voice, celebrating its morabeza (hospitality and kindness) and Cape Verdean saudade, a meaningful blend of melancholy, nostalgia and hope. Her greatest anthems rightly include Sodade, as well as Petit pays, Sangue de Beirona, Bondade e maldade, Angola and Carnaval de São Vicente. The latter celebrates the carnival held every year during the week before Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras. Exuding intense musical enthusiasm, these festivities are undoubtedly the best opportunity to get into the rhythm of musical Mindelo.
Cesária Évora’s Sodade is a beautiful lament. More than a song, it is a political act. It tells the story of the parting of two lovers: one remains in Cape Verde, on the island of São Nicolau, while the other goes to São Tomé and Principe, an archipelago off the coast of Gabon. A whole host of Cape Verdeans were exiled there and forced to work on the cocoa plantations by the Portuguese colonisers. You will see the scars of Portuguese colonialism everywhere during a stroll through the cobbled streets of the town including around Praça Amílcar Cabral square which comes to life in the evening, and Rua Libertadores de África, formerly known as Rua Lisboa. On Avenida Marginal, which runs along the coast of Porto Grande Bay, don’t miss the Torre de Belem, a replica of the tower in Lisbon. Originally used as the harbour customs office, it now houses the maritime museum. The iconic Palácio do Povo stands in the heart of the town. The former palace of the Portuguese governor, it was renamed the People’s Palace when the archipelago gained independence in 1975. There is an exhibition hall inside dedicated to Cesária. A stone’s throw from the palace, don’t miss the covered market built at the end of the 19th century, a colourful and lively centre of Cape Verdean flavours.
One walk at sunset along Laginha beach, to the north of Mindelo harbour, will be all you need to appreciate the full beauty of this tiny country. Climb up to the ruins of the Fortim do Rei, an old abandoned fort, to enjoy a spectacular panoramic view of the whole of Mindelo Bay, one of the most beautiful bays in the world. From there you can take in the colourful facades of the town, its harbour and, in the distance, the mountains of the island of Santo Antão. Mindelo is beautiful inside and out. Why not leave the town and explore further afield? Head to the more rugged white sand beach of São Pedro, on the southwest coast of São Vicente. At the other end of the island, the eastern coast offers Praia Grande beach and the small coastal villages of Calhau and Baía das Gatas which, incidentally, holds a music festival in August that is a real institution with an international reputation. As you might imagine, this reputation owes a lot to the great lady of the people, Cesária Évora.
And to close, in the words of Manuel de Novas, another icon of Cape Verdean music and a good friend of Cesária, for whom he composed a handful of mornas: “If you do not know Mindelo, you do not know Cape Verde”.