While beaches are the main attraction in Zanzibar, a visit to the historic Stone Town and a tour of a spice farm are an important part of most visitors’ itinerary. Here are my impressions 🙂
We visited both places on the same day. It’s easily done if you don’t have much time as the best spice farms to visit are very close to the Stone Town. Now, it’s worth knowing that there are lots of farms but some of them are tiny and not much grows on them, so before booking a trip you need to make sure you are taken to a proper one! A guy approached us on the beach and offered both a boat trip to the reef (which T. did and really enjoyed; I don’t swim and being on a small boat freaks me out so I passed on that) and a visit to a spice farm and Stone Town for a bit less than what our hostess at the hotel told us it would cost. We asked her about it, and she said that the trip her trusted driver takes guests on is more expensive as it includes lunch, and it’s definitely a large farm instead of a small field with just a few plants. We decided to trust her, and I think we did the right thing 🙂
At the spice farm we were greeted by a guide (whose name I unfortunately forgot) and he took us around, telling us lots of interesting things about various plants. It took a couple of hours of leisurely wandering, tasting and smelling. Really enjoyable! At the end we were given delicious lunch (although we were already quite full from all the fruit we had tried!) consisting of pilau rice with lots of sides: spinach, boiled banana, potatoes, coconut sauce and a tomato and onion salad. For dessert, there were more fruit: watermelon, bananas, oranges, and apples. The tour itself was really interesting. I never thought of cinnamon sticks as dried tree bark (which keeps growing back after being shaved off), or of henna as an inconspicuous bush. And fresh nutmeg is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen 🙂
There was another Polish moment while we were eating our lunch. When the fruit arrived, one of the guides sitting near us, having a break, looked at us and said in perfect Polish: Watermelon. Very good watermelon 😀 Good that Polish tourists taught him something different from the usual swear words! 😉 We also bought a few packets of spices, tea and coffee as a souvenir before we left the farm. I don’t recommend it to be honest, as most of the tea went mouldy within a few days and I had to throw it away!
Nourished and energised, we set off to Stone Town. Our driver had already organised a tour guide for us. His name was Amir. He took us on an hour-long tour of the main bits of Stone Town, and while the history of the place is certainly interesting, with the mixture the Arab, Indian, European and African influences clearly noticeable its architecture, it didn’t steal my heart. Maybe it was to some extent because of Amir, who seemed confused and even a bit offended that we didn’t want to do any shopping (the spices from the farm were enough for us, we didn’t need any fabric as we can get the same stuff in Kigali) or stick around the local market where the overpowering stench of rotting meat and fish made me feel dizzy. We did explain to him that we lived in Rwanda so such a market isn’t anything new to us, we’ve seen it all before, but we also tried to assure him that it’s interesting to see the one in Stone Town anyway. He didn’t seem convinced though. Or maybe it was due to the crowds and shops mainly aimed at tourists that made it all seem a bit staged and not authentic. Moreover, many buildings were empty, with broken windows and clearly no plans from the authorities regarding their future, which Amir admitted himself. The famous House of Wonders, built at the end of the 19th century, was the first building in East Africa to have a lift, and the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity and running water. It also was and remains the tallest building on the island. Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter it anymore as it’s in a state of serious disrepair, and the museum it used to host is now closed.
The Old Fort, built by the Omanis as a defense against the Portuguese around 1700, is now mainly a place of trade, with lots of local women offering henna tattoos and massages to tourists, and stalls full of the usual “African” merchandise (some of it made in India or China).
There is also an amphitheatre in the fort where the annual international film festival takes place. Now, that’s something I would like to see! We missed it by just a few days though…
Walking around the labyrinth of narrow streets, we got a sense of what it’s like to live here. It was very hot but because the buildings are quite tall and really close together, there was quite a lot of shade. Most of the Stone Town is shops and hotels, but people live here too. Not in great conditions though. We walked past an open door at one point, and when I peeked inside, I saw a dark, run down and gloomy interior, with not much inside, apart from some debris and an old sofa. The air was cool and smelt damp. But the windows above had shutters, men were sitting on tiny balconies, smoking and eating, so clearly the building was inhabited. The electricity cables “adorned” every street, giving the place an air of temporariness and improvisation.
There are also many little courtyards where people, mainly men, meet to chat and watch the world go by.
And of course, Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar, and there is a museum in his family home called Mercury House.
But it’s probably the door that makes Stone Town so unique. There are two main types: Arab and Indian. The former are rectangular (like the ones in Mercury House) and the latter have a curved top. They’re all beautifully carved in wood, with lots of intricate ornaments. You could just spend hours wandering around Stone Town and taking photos of doors!
All in all, I don’t regret visiting Stone Town, and I do realise I only got a glimpse of it. We didn’t get to see the Anglican cathedral, and the famous slave memorial, up close because a large and noisy group of young tourists entered the premises just before us, and we really didn’t fancy joining them at that point. Also, we didn’t visit the night food market at Forodhani Gardens, in front of the House of Wonders, simply because we needed to get back to our hotel. It’s very much tourist-oriented but apparently good fun and worth going to. You can also take a boat to Prison Island, about 6km from the harbour, to visit the site where slaves were both imprisoned and quarantined when they were brought to these shores. It just depends on what you feel like doing and what kind of sightseeing you enjoy!
As I mentioned in my previous post about Zanzibar, our main wish for that holiday was to get away from the hustle and bustle of Kigali, and mainly from people as we are never really alone here. We also both love the sea, and really miss it. That’s why we chose to stay in a quiet beach resort as opposed to busy and crowded Stone Town, and maybe that’s why we didn’t fully appreciate what Stone Town had to offer. However, I think I would like to return one day, especially for the film festival, to spend a bit more time there. Or maybe the best time to visit is in low season, between March and May, when it rains quite a lot but also it’s not so crowded and hot? Either way, from my very short visit I will mainly remember the fabulous doors, you won’t find anything like it anywhere else, and I’m glad I got to see some of them! 🙂