It’s easy to feel a bit stuck in our industrial small-town corner of central Africa. Direct flights out are very few, and very expensive. In our case, MT has not so far been able to take any holiday time to coincide with the school holidays. Our last relaxing family holiday feels like a long time ago.
But last weekend we managed to make our brief escape! So for anyone who’s been feeling the same way, or just for some insight into travel in Congo, here is your 10-step Brazzaville escape plan!
Step 1: Enjoy surprisingly smooth air travel
Leaving from Pointe-Noire on a domestic flight is a breeze compared to the experience of being hassled every five minutes between check-in and the departure lounge, filling out embarkation cards for all the family, being shifted around the lounge for bag checks, and all that an international departure entails. This time, we checked in, stepped through a doorway where our passport was checked – once – and were left in peace until boarding.
Brazzaville airport was a revelation. It seems to have been designed as a mini-CDG, only without the mystifying mazes between gates, the endless taxiing after landing and with hardly any people using it. We were welcomed by breezy open spaces, and our case came out first into a serene baggage hall where we were surrounded by absolutely no one clamouring to help us.
Step 2: Stay in the luxury hotel
I have to confess this was one of my main motivations for heading to Brazzaville. When I first heard that a Radisson Blu hotel was to open there, the city went straight onto my (very short) Congo bucket list. We’ve enjoyed both luxury and value-for-money at Radisson hotels in the past. Hotel chains may not be the hallmark of adventurous independent travel, but when you’re looking for something reliably stylish and comfortable, especially en famille, this is a brand of which I am honestly a fan. The Radisson Blu Brazzaville is more at the luxury rather than value-for-money end of the spectrum (c’est pas donné as we say around these parts) but definitely worth treating yourself if an escape plan is what you need!
From their desk at the airport a quick call was needed to remind them we were expecting their free shuttle to the hotel, but it arrived 10 minutes later, and we were soon settling into our roomy Junior Suite, which was in fact two fully separate rooms, with plenty of space and storage. After another gentle reminder the daybed was made up and a folding bed brought in to turn the living room into sleeping quarters for the kids. It’s luxury at an African pace, but we were in no hurry!
Step 3 – Stand on the shore of La Grande Fleuve
This was the other bucket list factor for me. The hotel’s location right by the Congo river gave me the moment I’d been looking forward to since arriving in Congo. Pointe-Noire, where we live, is on the Atlantic coast, with beautiful relaxed beaches nearby, but much more evocative is the idea of the Congo river, with all its historic and economic connotations. The open aspect across the river displays Kinshasa and its understated skyline. It looks like a city, yes, but from this short distance it didn’t look like a city of over 11 million people which (I’ve just learned) is now the world’s largest Francophone urban area. It doesn’t look like a city on the edge of one of the world’s deadliest modern conflicts. I’m fascinated by Kinshasa because of these things, because I’ve heard that its culture is vibrant and mesmerising, because I know that it’s the third largest city in Africa with its own diverse economy and culture, because it’s the gateway to a vast uninhabited ecosystem, but mostly because we are definitely not going there any time soon. It looks like a strong swimmer could be there in a matter of minutes, but it’s a world away from our stable and safe and known-to-me Congo.
Step 4: Shop…
…just a little bit, because there’s a shiny new shopping centre – you might even call it a mall – with quite a few French retail brands, including a Géant Casino, Fnac, GoSport and Kiabi. The opportunity of having a fully-stocked range to choose from, at not-far-off French prices, was too good for us to pass up.
Step 5: Leave the stress behind
After several months of non-stop working for MT and an unlucky run of health niggles in the family, the primary goal for our trip was to regroup and relax. Which is why we decided in the end not to take the 3-hours-plus drive to the Lesio Louna Gorilla Reserve, which I believe is a really memorable experience. After a couple of other anxious moments (see below), we decided we weren’t up for a day negotiating in-country roads. There can be traveller’s guilt sometimes, about not taking in all the sights or not being adventurous enough. But I’ve learned that it’s more liberating to just do what feels good in the moment.
Especially if what feels good is relaxing by the triple-pool of the Radisson Blu hotel, ordering cocktails while the kids play in the splash pool, followed by a trip to the spa. Without having looked at the spa brochure, I stopped in to make an appointment for a pedicure. It was explained to me that if I could bring my own polish they would apply it, but that otherwise they focused on foot care, rather than beauty. Little did I know I would spend two hours allongée, with an eye mask to help me relax, while all manner of detailed care was applied to my lower limbs, including a paraffin wax treatment which did make me wonder for a moment if I’d strayed into fifty shades of something, but which left my feet like pillows. Only when MT phoned to find out what had happened to me did I realise how much time had passed…
Step 6: Don’t overthink the transport
Planning our trip, we got a bit carried away with an idea that was probably the most privileged-expat thing we’ve ever done. While the flight to Brazzaville with local airline TAC spends only 45 minutes in the air and cost just over £300 return for our family of four, the journey by road takes a minimum of 8 hours on less-than-ideal road conditions. It’s a journey our driver often takes by bus or on the back of a truck(!), taking advantage of our travels out of the country to visit his family. So he was pretty eager when MT suggested that he drive our car to Brazzaville, drop if off for us at the hotel, then have the weekend to himself before picking up the car to drive it back. Even in the driving seat, making the journey in our SUV would be a more comfortable option than usual.
It all worked out fine, despite MT’s innate pessimism making him anxious and jittery until the car actually arrived at each end. For the one half-day that we spent exploring by car, we were far more comfortable than we would have been in a taxi, and the children were secure in their car seats. But as soon as we arrived in the town we realised that, of course, just as in Pointe-Noire, there are taxis everywhere in Brazzaville (green ones, much to the kids’ excitement), which are cheap and always available. Without going into detail, having the car there added a lot to the cost of the trip (fuel, ‘contingency money’, etc), as well as to MT’s anxiety level. If we had driven out to visit the gorillas it would probably have been worth it, but otherwise, it was an unnecessary extravagance.
Speaking of added costs…
Step 7: Don’t relax too much…
…or you might get your backup cash stolen from your bag in (we think) the overhead locker of the plane. Not advice specific to this trip – just a general reminder not to get blasé and forget basic security when travelling!
Step 8: Find your way into gin
Okay, this might just be me. At the hotel I discovered the solution to my I’m-an-expat-who-doesn’t-drink-gin deficit: mix it with champagne! On the Radisson cocktail menu they called it Sur la Fleuve; I’ve since discovered that elsewhere it’s called a ‘French 75’ and that in some quarters it’s referred to as ‘pimping your prosecco’, which makes it sound a lot less elegant than it tastes. Whatever it’s called, it’s a whole new world for me.
Step 9: Eat well
At the hotel each morning we bagged a breakfast table by the floor-to-ceiling windows, giving us a sunny outlook to start each day, with more of that impressive view. The breakfast selection was tasty and fresh, but if you’ve got places to be, things to do, be sure to get your coffee or eggs order in quick: another gentle reminder may be needed. MT and I both very much appreciated the gamey menu at the hotel’s Feu de Saveurs restaurant, with its stunning circular terrace overlooking the river. That menu had limited choice for kids, but once we realised we could also order from the bar’s snack menu (pizzas, mini burgers) everyone was happy.
Our most memorable meal was at the expat favourite Mami Wata, right next to the hotel, with its terrace jutting out over the water, giving spectacular views of the Pont du 15 Aout, dramatically lit up at night. The decor was chic and the menu varied, with very attentive service.
Step 10: Get close to Africa again
Daily life in the expat routine can be absorbing. The amazing fact that we live in central Africa is often forgotten in work, school runs, grocery shopping, and overcoming the minor, but time-consuming, hassles encountered daily. It takes some time out of the routine and the bubble to start noticing again.
We took advantage of our car to head a short distance downriver near Pont du Djoué to the site touristique that offers a clear view of the Congo Rapids. At this point, the water that seems to be in no hurry to meander past the town, comes gushing over the irregular rock formations of the river bed and banks, and suddenly we could sense the power of this iconic body of water. There’s a cute café bar which offers a comfortable vantage point here – we’d been advised that ordering food here can take a long time, so our price for the view was the cost of some sodas.
As we stood at the barrier, at the most dramatic point of one of the world’s most iconic rivers, with the force of nature thundering in the background, ironically I felt closer to everyday Congo life than I had in a while. Below us, across the flat rock formations of the river bank, life was being lived. Men and women were washing themselves in the water; others were washing clothes, laying them out across the rocks to work soap into the fibres with fastidious attention. Children jumped from rock to rock, playing tag, trying to get our boys’ attention in hope of a friendly donation. There was fishing: some wading through the shallow water in hope of finding small shoals, others simply casting nets out from the rocks. I watched with trepidation as two men in a pirogue expertly manoeuvered their seemingly-delicate craft between angry currents and jutting rocks to find the best spots. The overwhelming force of the river is daunting, yet the nimble expertise of the people who live by its grace has its own fierce power.
Our drive back to town provided more typically African contrast. Driving with the windows half-down (because our AC wasn’t working) meant the sounds and smells of the orderly chaos of the Marché Total were in the car with us. By the sides of the road every inch of space was taken by a stall, while parasols jostled above the tables to provide a continuous canopy of much-needed shade. Shoppers and vendors squeezed through every gap, continuing shouted conversations with the vendor three stalls over, while music systems from every other ad-hoc bar competed to be heard amongst the throng.
Just a few minutes later we were passing through a wealthier suburb, on wide leafy avenues, past the presidential palace, embassies, spacious private residences and international schools. In fact, Brazzaville reminded us very much of a smaller version of Kampala in Uganda. But, y’know, French.
As usual, a bit of escape from my African day-to-day living, was just what I needed to remind me of my amazing African adventure. With a little bit of luxury along the way, of course!
We booked our stay at the Radisson Blu M’Bamou Palace Brazzaville, who kindly offered us a room upgrade. All opinions are my own.