A fascinating amalgamation of Asian spices and Arabian architecture, European tourists and African locals, dazzling palaces and decrepit ruins, Zanzibar's stone town is a clash of cultures.
Dizzying alleyways connect brand new Hiltons and Hyatts with buildings that date back hundreds of years, when this island served as one of the first major trading ports in the Indian Ocean. Oman's ancient line of sultans ruled the area starting in the 12th century, bringing intricate arabic designs to many of the buildings, converting most of the locals to Islam and developing a rich trade in ivory, spices and slaves.
Later the island was taken over by Portugese, Germans, and British before becoming a self-governed municipality that enabled all the influences to bleed together in a gorgeous stew. The city today retains shades of its former glory, but many once resplendent buildings have decayed into perpetual construction sites.
Stefje and I started our exploration the evening of our arrival by visiting the Fodhamini Gardens. Sprawled out amongst trimmed hedges, the street food markets ideal for getting an overview of Zanzibari cuisine. Skewers of meat and seafood were accompanied by Indian chapatis and samosas, fresh fruits juices and thick shwarma wraps.
The following day we took off on foot to absorb the sights. The city is assembled on the edge of the ocean, providing enchanting views out across pristine tourqouise waters.
Inside the old fort we discovered an aesthetically pleasing lawn, which we discovered at different times throughout history was an executioner's block, a railway car repair shop, and even a ladies tennis club.
It turned out this exotic mixture of history would pervade while observing most of the town's oldest buildings. A sultan's palace is now a museum. The Doubletree was once home to sailors and traders. At the construction sites, history from centuries past gets unearthed daily before being unceremoniously paved over by a fresh layer of concrete.
Proceeding along the dock, we moved towards some of the islands oldest and most impressive buildings. The old dispensary, which prominently features the island's signature wooden balconies, stood on the edge of the water. Amongst delicious blend of white-washed stone, mint green balconies, and stained glass windowsills, men played checkers under the shade of a mango tree.
We continued by wandering the curving alleyways of the city center, our eyes craning up towards a jumble of buildings and balconies. Intricate doorways rule the day, with carvings that have withstood the tests of time.
Although some stretches were overflowing with kitschy tourist shops masquerading as unique glimpses of African art, there is undoubtedly still a realness to daily life in Stone Town.
The mosques intermittently ring out with their hypnotic calls to prayer. Men of all ages sit on stoops, sipping espresso and watching the day roll by. Young Muslim girls adorned with milky white headdresses and bright blue school uniforms weave through the masses of traffic in flocks. The papers are displayed on bulletin boards in central areas, drawing swarms of onlookers eager to get their news fix.
As we continued on foot, we ended up caught in a mass of humanity heading towards the city's central market. Here dates were sold from push carts, old wooden busses were loaded up with way too many people, and vendors sold everything from sandals and hijabs to sim cards and headphones.
The chaos threatened to send me into a state of frenzy. People descended on all sides, motorcycles honked from behind, and buss whizzed around the plaza. Yet soon enough we escaped and caught our breath jus in time to discover another market. Unlike the local one, here other tourists were buying spice packets and flashing cameras amongst locals shopping for fresh produce.
Sides of beef hung from meat hooks, fresh seafood invaded my nostrils, and heaps of fruits were displayed under red plastic awnings, giving the whole scene a tint of burgundy.
Just a block away from this market we stumbled into Lukmaan's restaurant, the city's worst kept secret. Dishing up some of the best local cuisine at bargain prices, this was one of the few restaurants in Tanzania that occupied that middle range which enables locals and tourists to mingle.
We ordered from the buffet counter and ended up with a meal exploding with flavor. Mashed pumpkin cooked in coconut milk, creamy spinach and carrots, and a vegetable curry were all accompanied perfectly by naan bread and chapati wraps. It was instantly our favorite dining experience so far!
The exceptional meal capped our love affair with stone town. The allure of this city goes deeper than just glimpsing a tiny slice of local life amidst decadent buildings. It's a way to transport yourself into a melting pot of cultures, religions and cuisines, peeling away one layer of history at a time.