Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: African Contrasts 2015

The full Stone Town experience

Before starting to recount the day's events, it seems an appropriate point at which to take stock of our new destination, where we had recently arrived for an almost unprecedented stay of four consecutive nights in one place! Stone Town (Swahili: Mji Mkongwe) is the old town section of Zanzibar City, capital of the eponymous island. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 for its unique blend of Arab, European, Indian and Persian architecture, the old town that now relies on tourism was once the flourishing centre of the spice and slave trades in the 19th century. The first stone houses in Stone Town were constructed as a fishing village in the 1830s, and were controlled by the Sultan of Oman, although a settlement had existed in the location since the 11th or 12th century. In 1840 Said bin Sultan moved his seat from Muscat to Zanzibar, creating the Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar. In 1861 there was a war of succession within the Omani royal family, and Zanzibar became an independent sultanate under Majin bin Said. In the last decades of the century, the Sultans of Zanzibar gradually lost their possessions to the British, and Zanzibar itself became a British protectorate in 1890 under the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty. In 1896 the Zanzibari Omanis staged a rebellion against British rule, leading to the Anglo-Zanzibar War. Remembered as the shortest war in history, this was brought to an end when the Sultan surrendered after 45 minutes of Royal Navy bombardment of Stone Town! The slave trade was abolished 1897, but the island still enjoyed its position as a relatively important trading centre. Zanzibar finally became a semi-autonomous part of the United Republic of Tanzania, the new nation formed in 1964 with the union of mainland Tanganyika and the island of Zanzibar, freeing both from British rule.

Breakfast in the hotel's 5th-floor restaurant featured a reasonably attractive spread and very friendly service from the staff. We had pre-booked onto a walking tour of Stone Town with tour company Zanzibar Different, and met our guide Anjam in the hotel lobby at 9:30. The first order of business was a short walk to the nearby Tembo House Hotel to pick up an American family of three, in which the adult daughter was serving in Zambia with the Peace Corps. We learned that Anjam was scheduled to be our guide for the next three days, with the American family once again joining us on Wednesday.

The tour began with a visit to two nearby points of interest, both separated from the seafront by the Forodhani Gardens: the 17th-century Old Fort of Zanzibar, built by the Omanis to repel a Portuguese attack, and the House of Wonders, built in the late 19th century by the second Sultan of Zanzibar.

Forodhani Gardens House of Wonders Old Fort of Zanzibar

Anjam then led the group off in the direction of Kenyatta Road and the Shangani district. As we walked, we were starting to see examples of typical architectural features such as large verandahs protected by carved wooden balustrades, and wooden doors with brass studs in the Indian tradition. Although UNESCO World Heritage Site designation helps protect the area, the trade-based wealth of years gone by is no longer there and sadly, around 80% of the buildings are listed as 'deteriorating'. We stopped at a house purporting to be the birthplace of one Faroukh Bulsara (1946-1991), although in reality the exact location of his arrival into the world is not known. He was much better known to most people as Freddie Mercury, lead singer of rock band Queen.

LEFT: Anjam leads the group away from the seafront towards the Kenyatta Road
RIGHT: Mercury House and the Shangani Hotel
St Joseph's RC Cathedral

Although Zanzibar is more than 90% Muslim, it has enough of a Christian population to support two cathedrals, and there is also a small Hindu community. The first of the two great Christian churches, St Joseph's RC Cathedral, formed our next brief stop. Next followed one of the most interesting parts of the tour, where we wandered around a maze of narrow lanes and got more of a taste of local Stone Town life and everyday commerce. There were some colourful displays of various fabrics and other goods for sale, which together with the architectural features made for plenty of visual interest.

The colourful theme continued as we progressed to geographically the easternmost point on the tour, the bustling Darajani Market. The strength of the midday sun was obvious as we emerged from the narrow streets and lanes into this more open location.

The final sightseeing stop was Christ Church Anglican Cathedral, a site of major historical importance as the cathedral is built directly on the location of what was once Zanzibar's largest slave market. The cathedral itself was constructed mostly of coral stone and opened in 1903. It was undergoing extensive renovation works at the time of our visit, affecting both the interior and exterior of the building. As a Scot, I was particularly interested to read of the role that explorer David Livingstone had played in ending the slave trade in Zanzibar.

LEFT: Christ Church Cathedral, undergoing extensive cleaning and renovation
RIGHT: Memorial to the victims of the slave trade
School's out!

After seeing the colourful and interesting sights of Stone Town on foot, it now quite definitely felt like lunchtime. We knew that the tour involved having lunch with a local family, but the absolute highlight of the day came when the family concerned turned out to be that of Anjam, our guide. We were guests at his house for a lovely meal served by his charming wife, and we were also joined by his daughter, who was home from school for lunch. Of the many treats on the table, the highlights were a fish curry, grilled fish steaks and very tasty beans in sauce. Our hostess was nervous in case her food might not be good enough, until Anjam pointed out to her that Bruce and I were already on our second plateful! The whole experience was thoroughly enjoyable, highlighting the fact that travel is about more than sightseeing. Let's face it: it's not every day that somebody from Central Scotland finds himself on a beautiful island off the east coast of Africa, eating lunch as a guest in the home of a local Muslim family. If this was anything to go by, our chosen local tour company, Zanzibar Different, was genuinely living up to the promise implied by the second half of its name.

The tour had overrun substantially, but no-one minded in the least. We got back to the DoubleTree around 3:20 and spent the rest of the afternoon just lazing around - a perfectly reasonable thing to do on holiday!

Conscious that we had another full-day tour ahead of us on Tuesday, we didn't feel like venturing out in the evening; instead, we returned to the hotel's top-floor restaurant for drinks and a light evening meal. What a fabulously interesting and enjoyable day it had been!

Monday 18 May

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