Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Spices & History

Mar 10 - Spices & History

After a leisurely breakfast I made a quick site inspection of the Matemwe House which is a private house with a pool on the beach that is perfect for a family.  I then visited the Matemwe Retreat which makes up part of the large beach front estate we were on.  The retreat features four large villa "bungalows" with private dining and butler service.  The suites are stylishly designed and very private.  Upstairs is a fabulous terrace with a plunge pool overlooking the entire coastline directly across from the idyllic Mnemba Island.  Ideal lodging for a honeymoon couple or one celebrating a big anniversary due to the complete privacy.  Afterwards we bid adieu to the friendly staff at Matemwe and set off on a 45 minute drive to the center if the island where we were given a very informative spice tour.  Many of the common spices we use at home are grown here in Zanzibar including clove, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, lemon grass, and more.  It was interesting learn that spices come from various locations on a plant including the root, stem and leaves.  The guide gave us a woven reed basket to keep the various samples that he shared with us and the bouquet was amazing.  Unfortunately a driving rain forced us to curtail the full tour but we met some really cute kids on the porch of a hut that we took shelter under.  The guide was great and actually went out in the rain and brought us back samples of most of the plants that we were not able to walk to.   My favorite scents from the tour were lemon grass and cinnamon.  It was fun trying to guess the origin of each vibrant fragrance he brought to us.  I definitely recommend this tour for anyone with an interest in the culinary arts.

Next it was off to the bustling port in Stone Town where we had lunch as the ferry from Dar Es Salaam arrived and disgorged its passengers.  There was a myriad of vessels in the harbor from simple wooden dhows to large ocean cargo containers.  After lunch we had a sobering visit to the slave market and learned about the horrible trade in human flesh which was eventually ended with pressure from Dr. Stanley Livingstone!  That was a surprise to me...there is a huge church built on the site of e slave auction whipping post and gorgeous stained glass that was imported from England in the late 1800's specifically designed for the church.  We then set off on foot into the quaint historic streets of Stone Town having driven past the large outdoor marketplace.  The architecture was a classic mix of Arab, Indian, African and Portuguese styles and we soon came upon some stunning carved wooden doors. One could identify the Arabic doors by the arch at the top whereas the Indian doors had ornate flowery carvings and large cooper spiked caps that protruded from the door as defense against wild and dangerous animals.  The town clearly had a diverse ethnic mix as a result of its history which includes a visit by Vasci de Gama, settlement by the Portuguese who were then ousted by the Sultan of Oman who set up his palace in Zanzibar.  The British then followed and took over administration until independence in 1964 when Zanzibar unified with Tanzania's new dynamic leader Julius Nyerere who was famous for creating a socialist state.  In its easy history Zanzibar was visited by Persians, Egyptians, Phoenicians,  and Greeks.  Fascinating history!  

The shops were full of spices, soaps, carvings, paintings in a local style called Tinga Tinga, jewelry including the deep blue Tanzanite stones, hand sewn pillow cases, modern items like shoes and soccer jerseys, and much more.  It was like a mini grand bazaar...our tour included the fort and we also stopped by the House of Wonders which had the first electricity and modern wonders like an elevator.  We were glad to have a guide as the streets were very circuitous and it would have been easy to get lost.  The shop keepers were very friendly and not as aggressive as I had expected though there were some street hustlers selling CDs and other items which we easily ignored.  After sending my guests off to the airport I wandered to the port to see the opening of the night food market in the green lark by the waterfront in front of the old fort and House of Wonders.  The vendors set up a vast array of food stalls with everything from fresh lobster to pressed juices, fruits and vegetables, Indian delights like Somalis, and more.  It was a great scene to watch and smell as the aromas of spices wafted over the park and kids played soccer on the nearby sandy beach as the sun set and the last of the fisherman beached their dhows with their fresh catch spilling over.  A scene out of paradise and I felt lucky to be a part of it.  I returned to my fantastic historic boutique hotel among the narrow streets called Emerson Spice which was a converted 6 story mansion with restored lovingly restored to its finer glory.  The hotel was built around a central fountain with an open interior that rose to the sky as each floor featured balconies that allowed one to look down into he heart of the building at the fountain below.  The stair cases had beautiful think mahogany handrails and each floor boasted high ceilings with intricately carved balconies.  Each spacious room was tastefully decorated with billowing curtains in a very open floor plan with lots of windows and doors that swung out into large private balconies with chairs to sit and enjoy the street scenes below.  I could really taste the history in this fantastic setting.  They even had an original copy of the Guide to Zanzibar from the 1960s in each room.  The bathrooms were tiled with gorgeous geometric patterns and featured a large bathtub with double vanity and separate bathroom.  The furniture was antique silk embroidered chairs and a couch with a carved wooden desk and armoire.  Spacious and elegant with large ceiling fans and air conditioning to supplement the cooling.  Dinner was a real treat on the rooftop as the sun set in the western sky amongst the minarets, hindu temples, church spires, and garden rooftops of the old town.  We sat on too of the world as the chef prepared a 5 course tasting menu that was mind blowing.  From caviar stuffed eggs to lobster in garlic butter to the final cooling taste of guava givre the chef outdid himself.  We were served a complimentary glass of bubbly to kick things off and ended with my favorite - cardamom cinnamon coffee....what a treat!  A superb meal for the amazing price of $ wonder so many expats live here!  I can see why it is hard to leave.

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