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Published: July 15th 2019
A visit to the island of Zanzibar has always high been on my bucket list, having heard many times of the great sandy beaches along with atmosphere of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Stone Town, and this desire was only further increased after my visit to Oman a couple of years ago when I learnt of the historical trading relationship between these two countries. Given its colourful history, you can see evidence at times of each of African, Indian, Arab and European cultures, within each of the architecture, the cuisine and the people. While I declined to take one of the offered spice plantation tours, having experienced a similar tour previously in Granada, there was plenty of evidence of the presence of their products in the various markets, thus giving rise to Zanzibar being known as the ‘Spice Islands’.
Stone Town is not very big and can easily be fully explored on foot. It comprises many attractive buildings, often dating back to the nineteenth century, but sadly due their lack of finances, most of them are in a poor state of repair and look as though they haven’t had a coat of paint since that time. For some people,
this may well contribute to the charm of the buildings but I couldn’t help wondering what I could do for Stone Town with a few barrels of white paint. Many of the hotels and restaurants have rooftop facilities, allowing their customers the benefit of some great sunset views as well as the prevailing early evening breezes, although not all of them serve alcohol as this is a predominantly Muslim island.
Of particular interest is the Old Fort, a large fortification built near the waterfront by the Omani Arabs in the eighteenth century as protection against the Portuguese, and later used as a prison, but now showing all the ravages of time, but in an appealing way. Other attractive buildings, albeit also showing significant wear and tear, are the House of Wonders, built in the nineteenth century as a ceremonial palace, with its tall clock tower a standout, and the Old Dispensary, a four storey structure with magnificent balconies, which maybe stands out most as the front facade has been very tastefully repainted but the rest of the building still shows all the ravages of time.
Stone Town contains lots of narrow twisting alleyways, crowded with stalls, small shops
and people, and none of which appear to have names, which means it is easy to get disoriented. However, you can always in due course find your way back to the seafront, and so long as you can remember how to locate your hotel from the waterfront (ours was very close to the Ferry Terminal), you can eventually make it back without getting totally lost. One thing that often stood out in these alleyways were the giant, elaborately carved, heavy doors, generally made out of imported teak. They also often contained large brass studs, which have their origins in India, and are likely there primarily as an indication of wealth. Funnily enough, the only other place I can remember seeing similar doors is in Muscat, Oman.
One claim to fame for Stone Town is ‘Freddy Mercury’s House’. However there isn’t anything to see except a heavy wooden door with a plaque saying ‘Mercury House’ above it. And judging from the relatively modern facade of the building, it’s hard to believe that this was the exact building of young Freddy’s childhood. There is also a restaurant named Mercury’s on the waterfront, very close to where we were staying, but some
reviews were not too flattering.
But for me, the big winner in Stone Town were the evening food markets in Forodhani Gardens and the activities of the locals on the adjoining beach front. Zanzibar is clearly one of these cultures where people don’t stay home but tend to spend a lot of time outdoors, be that socialising or even just ‘hanging around’. At night, the food stalls are buzzing with activity with both locals and tourists alike partaking of the range of pizza, pancake and seafood options. As for myself, I took in a delicious Nutella, mango and banana pancake. Down on the beach and along the seawall, there is a similar mass of activity, with the local boys (remember this is strict Muslim territory, so no girls) divebombing and somersaulting off the seawall into the water or on the beach challenging each other to test their ball skills or to an impromptu game of soccer. Just off the beach were anchored a range of boats, with a wide range of seaworthiness, that carry the tourists over to the various small,islands, and further out to sea were a selection of dhows, with their triangular sails to the wind, which
made for some great sunset pics. All in all, an enthralling atmosphere and a great exercise in people-watching!
So next stop on the tour is Ethiopia, which in itself fills me with anticipation, but the fact that last weekend there was a failed coup, with the coup leader having been shot dead, and that we have been advised that the internet has been shut down throughout the country, might just add an extra edge to our visit. Stay tuned.
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