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Haiti's Citadelle le Ferrière

Travel writer and guidebook author Paul Clammer shares his take on Haiti’s Citadelle le Ferrière—the most impressive of fortresses in the entire Americas.

by Paul Clammer Posted on 28 October 2014

How many times have tourist boards sold a half-baked destination as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World?’ Sometimes however, the real deal is tucked away in some long-forgotten corner, waiting for discovery. As Haiti makes tentative steps to reintroduce itself to the travel market, it carries a pretty impressive trump card in the shape of the magnificent Citadelle le Ferrière.

Walk to the Citadel. Photo courtesy Paul Clammer.

The Citadelle, as it’s known locally, sounds like a series of improbabilities. A castle with walls four metres thick and 40 metres high, perched on the crest of a steep forest-clad mountain. It was built two centuries ago as a bastion of independence by a country had won the only successful slave rebellion in history, and was designed as the ultimate retreat in case Napoleon’s French army ever fancied trying to re-conquer their former colony.

San Souci Palace. Photo courtesy Paul Clammer.

Some 20,000 people labored for a decade to build the Citadelle. Its inspiration was Henry Christophe, who had been born a slave but eventually crowned himself ruler of his own kingdom. He created an instant nobility of princes and barons with fabulous coats of arms, brought in teachers and artists from Britain to encourage his subjects, and also built the palace of Sans Souci, which lies ruined at the foot of the mountain that the Citadelle bestrides—an unexpected Versailles in the tropics where his court would reside.

View of the Citadelle. Photo courtesy Paul Clammer.

Of the splendours of the kingdom, only the Citadelle remains today—and looking better than ever after a highly sympathetic restoration program. From the nearby town of Milot, you trek by foot or on horseback up to the fort’s mountain summit. Cannonballs sit in neatly stacked piles everywhere, waiting for an enemy that never came. Be thankful you didn’t have to carry one with you on the way, let alone drag up one of the hundreds of cannons that bristle from the Citadelle’s batteries.

The Citadelle's courtyard. Photo courtesy Paul Clammer.

Christophe’s rule was harsh—the newly free Haitians chafed at the forced labour needed to build such a monument. After less than ten years on the throne, he came to a tyrant’s grisly end. Half-paralysed by a stroke, and facing a mutinous army, he shot himself to death in the heart. Local guides add with relish that he used a silver bullet. His remains were buried in the courtyard of the Citadelle: spare his short-lived kingdom a thought, as you take in the views from the mountains to the sea, from this most impressive of fortresses in the entire Americas.

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