Zanzibar: Stone Town and spice farm

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 🙂

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Turmeric. The root is bright orange-yellow, has a very strong taste, and it stained our fingers and teeth for a few hours! It is dried and pounded to a powder, which is what we get in shops.
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Fresh nutmeg – isn’t it gorgeous? 🙂 The red covering (generally called aril) is also dried and made into a spice called mace. Its flavour is a bit more delicate than nutmeg itself.
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Black pepper – with still unripe peppercorns! They can still be picked and dried though – that’s how you get green pepper 🙂
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Coffee flowers. It smells a bit like jasmine!
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Unripe vanilla beans. I didn’t know vanilla is an orchid and a vine that climbs around another tree or pole. It especially likes acacia with which is forms a symbiotic association.
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Lots of lemongrass! And we have just discovered it growing in a pot at the back of our house 😀
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Ginger (with some tangerines scattered in the midst) – doesn’t look like much, does it! 😉
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Henna bush. Its dried and powdered leaves are usually mixed with lemon juice, some essential oils and water to create a paste used for dying hair and decorating skin. But I didn’t know that in Zanzibar women also use henna powder to make an abortion-inducing potion…
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Delicious lunch at the end of the spice tour!
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While we were walking around the farm, the guide’s assistant, apart from climbing trees to get us Zanzibar apples and cherimoya, picking lychees and digging in the ground for ginger and turmeric for us to try, also made some ornaments for us – we both got crowns (they were too tight though, haha), I also got a handbag, and T. – a tie, all made from banana leaves, palm leaves, and flowers 🙂
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The assistant also gladly demonstrated how the “lipstick tree” works – it’s called achiote and its fruit contains seeds that are used as body paint or lipstick 🙂 The colouring is called “annatto”, and it’s widely used in foods, e.g. to give cheese, like Gloucester, or Red Leicester, a characteristic orange tinge 🙂
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This guy was selling hand-made soaps and nice-smelling essential oils, all made from plants grown on the farm. His T-shirt made us laugh a lot – Wawa is a nickname for Warsaw, but he knew nothing about that! 😀

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.

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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).

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Entrance to the fort courtyard. Above it is the emblem of the Girl Guides – apparently the fort used to house them!
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View from the Old Fort towards the House of Wonders.

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…

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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.

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Entrance to a Hindu temple, through a gift shop 😉

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There are also many little courtyards where people, mainly men, meet to chat and watch the world go by.

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And of course, Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar, and there is a museum in his family home called Mercury House.

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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!

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A pretty impressive padlock at the bottom of this door 😉

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!

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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! 🙂

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8 thoughts on “Zanzibar: Stone Town and spice farm

  1. echozpolnocy

    Od kilku lat zaopatruję się w przeróżne przyprawy u wrocławskiego hurtownika. Na opakowaniach jest napisane, z jakich rejonów świata pochodzą laski cynamonu, gwiazdki anyżu, kulki gałki muszkatołowej, ale nigdy nie zadałam sobie trudu sprawdzenia szczegółów botanicznych. Dziękuję za relację z fantastycznej wyprawy do farmy przypraw 😊 Kamienne miasto prezentuje się niesamowicie. Bogato zdobione drzwi, wrota muszą przyciągać spojrzenia oniemiałych z zachwytu turystów. I jeszcze Dom Freddiego Mercury’ego – ale czad! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cieszę się, że Ci się podobało! Ja Zanzibar będę bardzo dobrze wspominać, i może nawet kiedyś tam wrócę, żeby to Kamienne Miasto obejść z lepszym przewodnikiem! 😉 Drzwi są wspaniałe, zdecydowanie jedna z najfajniejszych atrakcji turystycznych na świecie 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your trip sounds really interesting! I would like to visit this place and spice farm one day! I dream about visiting most of the countries 😛
    For how long have you been in Africa? Sorry, it’s possible that you mentioned it before, but I just started reading your blog, so I’m not up to date 😉
    Is it easy to communicate with local people? Do they know English or you’re speaking in different language with them?

    Swear words haha! I remember few years ago we were teaching our friends from Spain some polish words (it was ERASMUS exchange), they knew almost all of them! It was really funny, because their accent caused a very funny sound of these words 😀

    I think Stone Town is original. It’s not well maintained, but in a sense, it has its charm. Try to not to compare it to any place you’ve seen before.
    Doors are incredible! Theoretically similar but very different because of these details. Who made these doors? Is it one author of all of them or just people order it from various sources?

    I think I would avoid the Prison Island. To be honest – I decided to go to Alcatraz when I visited San Francisco and I really regret it. It was boring! This trip had really bad organization, I was also writing about it just after I returned, just prison cells, dining “room”, toilets, “playground” outside – only facts. No information about people living there, their experiences, things they liked to do, feelings, nothing which could make me feel like they felt this time.
    I’m disappointed, because Alcatraz trip is one of the best rated tourist attractions in the world – no it’s not a joke…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, thanks for visiting my blog! 🙂 I’ve been in Rwanda for over a year now, and before that I lived in South Africa for nearly 4 years. Almost everywhere I’ve been in Africa, English is the main language of communication (only in Madagascar and to a large extent in Mauritius French had an advantage).

      I get your point on Stone Town – I do agree it is an interesting place and has its charm, it just wasn’t the right time for me to visit! The doors were made by local carvers, and they have different characteristics depending on whether they’re Arab or Indian style. The Indian ones for example have big brass stubs as that’s what the doors traditionally looked like in India – the stubs were meant to protect the house from elephants! There aren’t any ellies in Zanzibar though, but the style remained 🙂 The ornaments have some common themes but generally they are supposed to tell a bit of a story about the people who live in the house, their occupation (slave or spice traders, for example) or beliefs (patterns believed to keep evil spirits away) 🙂

      I’ve been to Alcatraz and really enjoyed it, but that was 17 years ago, and it was my first big overseas trip so everything was exciting! 🙂 I don’t remember the details at all though, just Al Capone’s cell 😉 And of course the fabulous views of San Francisco! I’m sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy the trip, I think on Prison Island you’d find out a bit more about the slave trade, etc.

      Like

  3. Ta czerwona osnówka gałki muszkatołowej zwie się kwiatem muszkatołowym – pewnie ze względu na piękny kolor i jest przyprawą, podobnie jak sama gałka, ale droższą i o delikatniejszym zapachu.
    Drzwi są przepiękne. Uwielbiam ten motyw fotograficzny. Lubię też robić klamki i zamki – w niektórych miastach sa jedyną ozdobą drzwi… Pozdrowienia z Polski!

    Liked by 1 person

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