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St Pierre: mountain of death

Once, St Pierre was a centre of French elegance and pleasure, the pride of the French Caribbean, “the Paris of the Antilles”. But one morning the mountain behind the town blew apart, wiping out the town and killing almost all its 30,000 people. Lifestyle Caribbean revisits the volcano, exactly 100 years on

It’s a small town like any other in the Caribbean. A cluster of two-storey shops and houses, dominated by a solid stone church; a cheerful gang of uniformed schoolchildren on their way home for lunch; a sense of torpor descending over the place as the midday heat drives people indoors.

Saint Pierre looks like a quiet one-horse town, as the traffic stops crawling down its two main streets and the sun beats down on its empty quayside and deserted squares. We are not far from bustling Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, but it seems a million miles away. And every time you look up and inland you see the huge form of the Montagne Pelée, a great green-covered mountain looming over the bay, its head lost in clouds.

It’s hard to imagine that this quiet place was once the “Paris of the Antilles”, a notorious and cosmopolitan town of 30,000 people, famed as much for its brothels and gambling dens as for its elegant theatre and botanical gardens. This was the jewel in the crown of France’s Caribbean colonies, synonymous with stylish living and sophistication. The colony’s white elite was based here: planters, merchants, professionals, the bishop. Songs and poems recall the pleasures to be enjoyed at Saint Pierre. There were fountains and street lights, a lycée (high school) and a cathedral; there was even a tramway.

It’s even harder to believe that this same town was the scene of the 20th century’s worst and most lethal volcanic eruption, an event that killed all but one of those 30,000 people on 8 May 1902. It was on that day that Pelée, the “bald mountain”, unleashed a devastating cloud of red-hot gases onto the town below. A century separates sleepy Saint Pierre from the ghost of that glittering past and the terrible tragedy.

Venturing out into the sun-scorched street with Françoise, a guide sent by the tourism office, I begin a tour of Saint Pierre and its haunted landmarks. Everywhere are the black stones of an earlier town, upon which more modern buildings of concrete and corrugated iron have been built. Occasionally you see a pile of bricks or stone blocks, seemingly charred by some enormous heat, or a fragment of archway or pillar. We walk to an open space of crumbling walls, where weeds sprout among scorched masonry. A once-elegant balustrade leads up to this area, and suddenly you realise that this is all that remains of the theatre, modelled on that of Bordeaux, and holding audiences of 800 in its heyday.

We visit the old lunatic asylum, a metal chair used for strapping patients down rusting among the ruins. There is water everywhere, the Roxelane river and its streams tumbling down to the sea through the former grounds of the hospital. It was here than Saint Pierre’s washerwomen, famous for their gossip as well as the provocative remarks they shouted at male onlookers, used to clean the sheets of the town’s wealthy families.

As we stand among the great chunks of rock and tumbled pillars that once made up the impressive Église du Fort, Françoise hums a Creole song of old Saint Pierre:

It tells of a young man who went to town to buy a saucepan, but ended up instead with a woman. The women of Saint Pierre, it is said, were particularly beautiful, and the town was famed for its irreverent and easy-going carnival celebrations. Françoise says that in 1902, weeks before the eruption, a particularly unpopular priest was made to dance, in effigy, with a pig. Not surprisingly, some people said that Saint Pierre was cursed.

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