Set at the very western tip of the African continent and surrounded by water on three sides, Dakar is quite simply West Africa's most spectacular city. In centuries past, the Mali Empire (of which Senegal was a part) was known as the Bright Country for its wide-open skies and savannahs - and while wide-open spaces are a rarity in metropolitan Dakar today, the city still shimmers in a crisp oceanic light, bathing all corners of the LEGO-block cityscape in a dazzling glare.
Thanks to the independent-minded Lébou fishers and farmers who inhabited the peninsula for centuries (and continue to retain great influence), the first European presence in what would become Dakar didn't arrive until 1857 - more than four centuries after the Portuguese set up their first trading post just across the water on the island of Gorée. At the time, Ndakaaru was a village of barely 300 souls; within 50 years it officially became capital of France's vast West African holdings, and shortly after, the terminus for the famed Dakar-Bamako railway.
Today, Dakar's four million-or-so inhabitants are the inheritors of a city that wears its heritage with pride, and takes comfort in its diverse history and identity. The Plateau district is dotted with French colonial relics such as the 1936 cathedral and 1912 railway station, and even in a country where less than 5% of the population is Catholic, and with no currently operating train service, these buildings are lovingly tended and considered proud parts of the Senegalese patrimony.
Further up the four-lane Corniche road, towards Africa's westernmost point, is a somewhat more controversial edifice: the unmissable Monument de la Renaissance Africaine. Brainchild of former president Abdoulaye Wade, this 52-metre-high, North Korean-built statue of an über-heroic man, woman and child looms on a prime oceanfront hilltop and was inaugurated in 2010. It's the tallest statue in Africa and visible for miles around, but despite its grand pretensions, most Senegalese seem to just think it's a bit naff (and a waste of money to boot).
Given its location, life in Dakar is often oriented towards the sea, and in a city with precious few public parks or green spaces, the many beaches provide a well-loved respite from the perpetual din of commerce and traffic in some of the city's more crowded districts. As such, the whole population seems to decamp to the beaches at weekends to picnic and swim with family and friends, to work out or wrestle on the sands (traditional wrestling is huge here), or even to bring their sheep to the water for a full scrub down in the surf. The city's army of fishermen also haul their multi-coloured wooden pirogues ashore every evening, their catch quickly bound for plates and bowls around the city - eat fish grilled on the spot at Soumbédioune market.
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