Zanzibar: Stone Town HIGHLIGHTS
Zanzibar, it just sounds exotic doesn't it?? One of the legendary Spice Islands of old, and once the most significant trading port on the Spice Route, the original gateway to deepest darkest Africa. Today its a town slowly being eaten by tourism. Even a museum display at the House of Wonders attests to this. On the one hand, the influx of backpackers and package holidays provides employment and income for the people of the Island, on the other it means the importation of cheap gew-gaws from India and China to flog to germans and russians. It never ceases to amaze us why people feel compelled to buy plastic souvenirs in far flung places. We travel enough to see the same souvenirs from the same factories being sold everywhere from Rio to Hanoi.
Old Stone Town was once the home to the Islands weatlthiest inhabitants. Towering townhouses six or seven stories high and sitting no more than five feet apart, create winding shady corridors through the medieval streets. In its hey day, Indian traders moved their families here to live, bringing with them the tradition of elaborate doors. Decoration was not allowed on the exterior of Arab houses, so the only means of showing your wealh and taste was by commissioning a threshold to intimidate or impress all who either passed it by or entered through it. The doorways were elaborately carved and from wood and embellished with brass spikes, a nod to the Indian tradidion of fortifying castle doors against war elephants. They give the whole place a feeling of both crumbling and lost glory and exoticism fulfilled.
This is what Zanzibar delivers so well. Once the Spice Route gave way to more modern trade routes there was simply nothing left for Zanzibar. The great merchants packed up and deserted Stone Town and it soon began to crumble. Today, there is a pervasive sense of faded glory mixed with the bustle of real life. The beauty of stone Town is that is is not yet a pure tourism construct, its a living breathing neighbourhood and one which continues to thrive in its own chaotic way. The best way to see Zanzibar is to simply roam around and get lost in the alleys. Stay OUT of the tourist shops selling fridge magnets and mini bags of spice and meander around. Its a compact town and you'll find your way home easily. Here are some of our reccomendations:
ACCOMODATION: We stayed overnight in The Swahili House, originally a wealthy merchants house, its been restored to its original specifications and was a comfy, if slightly grubby authentic place to stay. The rooms have skyscraper high ceilings, and the whole place conjurs up its former inhabitants, you can imagine the swish of silk robes and the bustling nature of this hoursehold. Swahili House has a rooftop restaurant which is good for a beer at sundown but best avoided for food.
GETTING LOST IN STONE TOWN: We figured after an animated attempt at following a map, that the best way to approach Stone Town was head on, don't bother with a map or a taxi, just wander around, eventually you'll reach a landmark, like The House of Wonders or the Cathedral. Each corner you turn will bring an enchanting or disconcerting street scene. Stone Town is still a genuine neighbourhood, though not s prosperous one. Children chase each other through the streets, waving and shouting “JAMBO!” or “Give me one Dollar!” Women shell peas or braid each others hair on door steps and shopkeepers ply their wares in alcoves.
MUST SEE: THE SPICE MARKET
This is a real market the like of which you just don't see in the West anymore. You want a fresh chicken?? This is the place, in the chicken market traders will sell you a live one, and butcher, and pluck it for you right away. Next door. Farmers sell the days crop. Exotic vegetables and chillies at each stall. Fresh produce plucked thst morning most likley from theirnown fields and carted to the market on bikes or on their backs. the butchers have their own section and they waste nothing. Beef flanks with their tails still attached swing from hooks, offal is profferd and posters of English Permier League footballers adorn the walls. Watchinf the deals take place is great street drama, particularily in the fish market where the Dhow fishermen come to sell their daily catch. This is where the exoticism of Zanzibar lives, the bustle of human life, the sights and smells, it feels like a privilege to wander among the stalls and peek into how the citizens of Zanzibar live.
WHERE TO EAT: THE SPICE HOUSE
Its very easy to eat poorly in Zanzibar. Its recent popularity has meant a host of restaurants has poped up. Many put more into e theatre of their offering than the food. The Spice House is the exception to this rule. Oddly enought they sell themselves as a Pizza restaurant, but dont let that put you off. The food is excellent. Mrs murphy had the squid in thai red curry sauce, and can safely say hands down it was the best Thai Red curry she has ever had. Freshly made sauce with fragrant and piquant spice blend. Excellent! Mr.Murphy had the fish skewer, again excellent. Fresh fish with some delicious dipping sauces all presented exquisitely. On the house came some bread with more fesh dips. The dessert is Mrs Murphys new favorite thing, Cinnamon ice cream, home made with freshly ground cinnamon, best thing ever.
ANTIQUE SHOPPING IN ZANZIBAR
Craftsmen are all over the streets of Zanzibar, Mrs Murphy tried and failed to commission a few pieces from a man with a treasure trove of salvaged wooden windows and doors, but we didint have enough time to arrange shipping. However after stumbling upon the AL TAMIMI CURIO SHOP our desire for a lasting memento from our honeymoon was met. This Alladin's cave is packed to the rafters with antiques, questionable reproductions and everything in between. If you are serious about your home furnishing and accents this is the place for you. We bought dusty old Brass Tray 5 feet in diameter which they shined up for us overnight with lemon juice into a gleaming wonder, also a huge lantern and an enormous silver plated serving bowl for $1200 US dollars, shipping included.
The preamble to that price was a good 30 minutes of good natured haggling with Issa, one of the sisters who own the store. Haggling with Issa was great fun, no doubt she made a HUGE profit from our purchases, but for us it was a fair price to pay for pieces we love which will always bear the tag of being purchased on our honeymoon down a back street in Zanzibar. Haggling is an art, and some westerners seem to confuse it with an argument about being cheated. We were mortified while walking the streets to see a burly German spitting ire at a merchant and generally letting the side down by shouting at him that haggling was “SUPPOSED TO BE IN YOUR CULTURE!!!! COME ON!!!!! DON'T CHEAT ME!!!”.
The sure fire way to ensure you end up feeling good about your purchase and the price you have paid is to decide in your head, how much you are willing to pay and what the item is really worth to you? Keep that number in your head, make an offer well below it and work your way towards it. If, in the end you get close to it, either just above or below, you should be happy. We walked away with a dent in our bank account, but a smile on or faces. You will too.
Verdict: Go here sooner than later before Old Stone Town is totally taken over
For Who: Those who like the exotic and the historic, but also a little local flair
The Damage: As much or as little as you want, also dependant on whether or not you go antique shopping.