The town of Ribera Grande, known today as Cidade Velha [Old City], was the first town to be founded in the Cape Verde archipelago, in 1462 by Antônio de Noli. Its strategic location made it a mandatory port of call for travels to the New World, including the third voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas in 1498 and the voyage of Vasco de Gama to India in 1497. It was not long before it became a hub for the slave trade issuing from Guinea Bassau and Sierra Leone. Less than a century after its foundation it had grown to city size and the erection of large buildings commenced, including the Cathedral of Sé, completed in 1693.
Its strategic position and the rise of the city also made it a target for pirates and thieves, who plundered the city over many years, leading it to near destruction. The city could protect itself from attacks from the sea, but strategically there was an important shortfall: not many miles away was Praia, a harbor where it was easy to moor ships, so inroads on land were a simple affair. Thus around the end of the 16th century, the English pirate Francis Drake ravaged the city in a devastating attack, and the consequence was the construction of the Royal Fort of São Filipe to protect the city and prevent more attacks. This construction was entirely ineffective: in 1712, the French pirate Jaques Cassart left the place virtually in ruins.
For years the town survived amidst memories of the old glorious days, and in the year 2000, because of its rich traditions and historical importance, work was started to submit the candidacy of the city for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This work yielded its fruits, because on June 10, 2009, it was catalogued as one of the Seven Wonders of the World of Portuguese Origin, and two weeks later, on June 26, Cidade Velha was included on the World Heritage List.
Among the city’s many architectural remains, on Banana Street, the first urban street built by the Portuguese in the Tropics, is the Church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário, the oldest colonial church in the world, built in the Manuelino (Portuguese Gothic) style. Other monuments include the Cathedral of Sé, destroyed almost completely in the attack of 1712, and the Royal Fort of St. Philip, which was meant to protect the city from its height of 120 m, and the Convent of São Francisco, a busy place of worship, equally ravaged by the pirate Jacques Cassart.
Cidade Velha is a fascinating place for travelers drawn by stories of the Tropics and is of great importance for learning about the history and development of the western world as we know it today.
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