They say that “in order to know a city, you first have to learn to get lost in it”. Stone Town, the “ville de Pierre” in the heart of Zanzibar City, was probably built to support that proverb. In the labyrinth of its alleys, we discover a hidden world that vibrates on a gentle multicultural frequency. An initiatory dive in Swahili land.
Like any little boy, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut or explorer. To move away from the Earth and contemplate it in its entirety. It was at the age of 7 that I faced my first maze. I had the feeling of living the greatest adventure of my life, of finally fulfilling my destiny as an explorer.
‘The world is very big and full of magnificent places which it would take more than a thousand lives to visit – Escape – Find better a little further – Zanzibar is calling’.
It is after reading these few lines from Arthur Rimbaud’s Correspondence that I decided to dive into the secrets of this archipelago of the Indian Ocean.
«Zanj el Barr », literally ‘the coastline of black men’, the heart of the Swahili civilization, is the fruit of multiple influences that have been mixed over the centuries. Even though the splendors of former colonial powers only remain memories, Zanzibar has always stood at the crossroads of civilizations, attracting travelers, merchants, sailors and explorers from all over the world.
Today, Stone Town is surely the part of the island that attracts and fascinates the most: a unique architecture, colorful and fragrant markets, narrow streets dotted with surprises and a welcoming and mixed population.
It is on a heavy summer day that I start exploring this legendary city: the thick air seemed to be compressed between the stone walls. The scents of cinnamon and clove, emanating from the spice stalls, add a note of lightness to this dense atmosphere. Walking through these arteries is comparable to being wrapped in a muffled and melancholic murmur. I could close my eyes and feel like I am back on the island of my childhood, Reunion Island. Visually though, it is very different. So atypical, so tortuous, so striking.
At every intersection, I feel this mixture of emotion that I experienced many years ago in a maze”. I thought to myself ‘Let your intuition guide you. She’s your best ally and will lead you where you need to go!’.
Taking the first alley on my left, I find myself on a beautiful little plaza, colorful Indian garlands attached to balconies as ornaments.
Jaws corner is a unique place in Stone Town, where men gather early in the morning to chat while sipping some black coffee.
I sit on a ‘baraza’, these stone benches in the shade of the buildings, and chat with my neighbor. While sipping my coffee in a small communal cup that is passed from hand to hand, I notice that, in front of me, some men write on a chalkboard.
‘Someone in the community died this morning, we will go to his funeral’, he tells me.
After chatting for a few minutes, I greet my new friend and resume my ephemeral destiny. I slip into the second alley on my right hand side. In the distance, a clamor rises. I’m at the gates of Darajani Bazaar, Stone Town’s largest covered market. I join and attempts to infiltrate the crowd of pedestrians as best I can.
I perceive a great agitation: a tiger shark of more than 300kg freshly caught. A mixture of admiration and sadness grips me. Although I often dreamed of being able to meet this god of the sea, I never imagined our first encounter would take place in such dramatic conditions. The rain suddenly poured down on me and I rushed into the first covered alleyway that offered itself to me.
The rain ceases rapidly and the sun rays start breaking through the rusty tin roofs. The paved way leads directly to the “Forodhani Gardens” market.
Busy vendors are preparing local specialties such as grilled seafood skewers, fish soup or the famous Zanzibar pizza.
I am tempted by one of those appetizing skewers. “If you want freshly caught fish, go to the port of Malindi Market tomorrow at sunrise”, advises a salesman wearing a starred chef’s hat.
The next day, I once again dive into the maze of alleys, a few light bulbs connected to bare wires serve as an illuminated path. Darkness gradually gives way to twilight. With the Muezzin’s call for prayer as background music, the city is slowly beginning to come alive. Suddenly, men cycle past me, all converging in the same direction.
I have sharpened my intuition since the beginning of the day and learned to follow the signs of life. I decide to follow their lead. The line of bicycles looks like a blood stream coming out of the main artery in the heart of the city. By following them, intrigued and tired, I don’t realize that I am also moving away from the maze of Stone Town.
Suddenly I find myself facing the ocean. The delicate light of the rising sun floods the small harbor spreading out before my eyes. Malindi, here you are! I sit down and contemplate: a dozen fishing boats return from their nocturnal excursion, carefully followed by a flock of brawling seagulls. They are welcomed by an excited crowd, in which I recognize some faces. Some of them jump into the water to board the boats first and grab their precious cargo. Lucky ones are already returning to land, baskets full of octopus and fresh fish, under the envious eyes of newcomers.
I feel like I know this place, connected to its history. I do not feel tired anymore but rather dazzled in this moment of profound authenticity. I am then overwhelmed with a sweet feeling of fullness. My intuition, my best ally: I am where I belong.
“Man is both the labyrinth and the walker who gets lost in it.”
There are no direct flights from Johannesburg.
Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways are the two largest airlines serving Zanzibar (a stopover). On average, count R7000 for a return flight and don’t forget that you will have to pay for the visa (50$) in cash upon arrival at the airport.
The Tembo House Hotel is located in the heart of the old town, facing the ocean. This Swahili style hotel with its Zanzibari charm offers comfortable accommodation. The restaurant offers delicious and fine fish and seafood-based meals and its terrace facing the sea is very pleasant (swimming pool). Approximately 1900R for one night in double bedroom.
The restaurant House of Spices is located in the Kiponda district, on the 2nd floor, with a large terrace with a golden cloth draped ceiling. Charm and relaxation await you and make the House of Spices the ideal place for a break during a visit to Stone Town.
Despite relatively high prices, you will get value for your money with a wide choice of perfectly prepared traditional dishes and quality service.
The Forodhani Night Market is one of Stone Town’s major attractions. This is the Swahili version of Jemaa El Fna’s famous square in Marrakech. All the locals gather there early in every evening. Just eating there is an experience worth living.
The gardens are located by the sea, near the House of Wonders in Stone Town.