NIAMEY (Reuters) - Nestled on the banks of the Niger River, Niamey stands at the crossroads of the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa with a population of nearly 1 million people who take pride in their city’s reputation as one of the continent’s most laid-back capitals.
Unlike the 32 dignitaries of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s regime who have sought refuge here but remain under surveillance with limited movement, you will be able to visit some of the panoramic countryside which surrounds Niamey, enjoy all the local cuisine on offer and hit the nightlife.
Due to kidnapping threats from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, several Western embassies have issued travel warnings limiting non-essential travel to Niger and visits outside the capital especially to the north of the country are forbidden.
But if you are a traveller with some experience in visiting difficult places, Reuters correspondents with local knowledge can help you get the most out of 48 hours in the usually relaxed and friendly city of Niamey with its tree-lined streets despite soaring temperatures.
5 p.m. Check into one of Niamey’s fine hotels on the east bank of the Niger River with a view of river and the plains beyond. You have the choice between four-star accommodation — the Gaweye or Grand hotel where prices range from about 65,000 CFA francs per night — or a budget hotel such as the Sahel or Terminus further up the road for half that price.
6 p.m. Hire a local taxi for about 5,000 CFA francs an hour or 30,000 CFA francs per day and head out to the Kayergorou dune, about 20 km (12.43 miles) outside Niamey, on the west bank of the Niger.
Atop the dune, witness the magnificent orange afterglow as the sun sets on the horizon. If possible, pack a picnic basket with a bottle of bubbly to toast the sunset.
From the desert dune, you can also admire Niger’s contrasting geographic relief. Looking eastward, you can see the silver outline of the Niger meandering southward, leaving in its wake, a lush marshland on both banks.
8 p.m. Back in Niamey; make your way to the terrace of the Grand Hotel with a view of the river, to sample its famous brochette - grilled meat kebabs, washed down with the local Biere Niger, popularly called “La Conjoncture.”
The beer was named after the French term “conjoncture economique” following a severe economic crisis in the mid 1980s which forced the local brewer to scale down the size of the bottle but left the price unchanged, making it affordable for hard-hit consumers. The popular bar at the terrace sometimes hosts a jazz band on Thursday and Sunday nights.
10 p.m. Catch a cab and go check “La Flotille” Bar Restaurant on banks of the river where the Orchestre du Sahel, an ensemble of Nigerien musicians plays music from around the world on Fridays and Saturdays.
9 a.m. After breakfast, go shopping and sightseeing at Niamey’s markets, starting with the Grand Marche, as the name suggests, the big market of the capital. You can buy anything from colourful fabrics to fresh fruit and local spices.
10 a.m. Continue the shopping and sightseeing tour at the spectacular Kataco market and visit the meat section at the edge of the market where cowhides, legs, heads and tails are brought from the abattoir to be chopped, de-boned, washed, roasted and sold in the local market or exported to neighbouring Nigeria, Benin and Ghana.
12:30 p.m. Head back to the hotel to cool down and refresh. Drink a lot of water. By midday, temperatures in Niamey can rise as high as 40 degree Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
1 p.m. Lunch at Le Pilier restaurant. One of Niamey’s finest restaurants, Le Pilier is an Italian eaterie favoured by expatriates. A wide variety of dishes are served including fresh pasta, cheeses and tiramisu for dessert. If you are back in the evening for dinner, try the lamb tagine with prunes and almonds served with couscous. Beer is served in iced-cold mugs.
2:30 p.m. Take the scenic drive to the Koure Biosphere Reserve, about 60 km outside Niamey on a very good road to see a herd of the last-surviving West African giraffes. If you are lucky, during the rainy season, from June to September, you will not need to drive far into the savannah to spot them and get really close as they feed on the acacia shrubs.
5:30 p.m. Back in the city, visit Niamey’s racecourse. You may catch a race on a Saturday evening or watch jockeys train their horses.
6:30 p.m. Visit Niamey Grand Mosque constructed with financial aid from former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The guard can give you a guided tour and take you up the minaret for a splendid view of the city.
8 p.m. After rest, hit Niamey’s Saturday night circuit where several open-air bars and restaurants (known locally as “maquis”) are ready to cater for your needs. You can kick off the night with dinner at the popular Maquis 2000. Food from across west Africa is served in a convivial atmosphere. You can also try the Djinkounme, which also serves popular Togolese and Nigerien dishes.
10 p.m. You have the choice to cap off the night at Niamey’s trendy Alizee bar discotheque at the corniche on the bank of the river and dance to the latest tunes at its open air dancefloor with a view of the river. The El Rai night club at the Gaweye Hotel is the scene for Niamey’s young hip crowd while the Cloche is a favoured spot with expats and an edgier crowd.
9 a.m After breakfast, a visit to Niger’s national museum and zoo is a must. The museum is described as among the best of West African national museums with its brightly coloured blue and white buildings. Artefacts of Nigerien history and customs are on display and some are on sale including traditional homes, instruments and costumes.
11 a.m. Go art and craft shopping at the Artisan Village in Wadata were local craftsmen work cattle and other animal rawhides to produce handbags, belts, sandals, small decorative boxes, and other items. You can watch them deftly create an item for you if you have the time to spare.
Also visit the Tuareg craft market in the Chateau I district where you will find handmade silver jewellery with traditional Tuareg motifs.
1 p.m. After lunch, head down to the river for a long leisurely canoe ride to spot hippos and view rice farms on the banks of the river. You can hire a covered motorised canoe for a reasonable price especially in a group or family depending on how far you want to go.
8 p.m To cap off your stay in Niamey, reserve a table at the Tabakady restaurant, known as Niamey’s finest eatery. The French restaurant is known for its excellent cuisine and charming decor with striking photos of the desert and Sahel life on the walls.
Reporting by Bate Felix