A wander around the maze of alleys and streets in Stone Town, taking in the Catholic Cathedral, the Hindu Temple and the Persian Baths
Start point: At the Old Post Office on Kenyatta Road
To put together an itinerary for finding a way through the central maze of Stone Town would be futile. Instead, this section points the way to a number of the main sites and leaves you to find your own way around the remainder. There is something interesting to discover at every turn.
It is not really possible to get completely lost in Stone Town, unlike other similar Arab souks and bazaars. Even if you have completely lost all sense of orientation, walking in one direction is sure to bring you out either on Creek Road or at the seafront. It is generally safe to walk anywhere in Stone Town during the hours of daylight, although it is probably prudent to keep to the main thoroughfares at night. On the whole, the visitor is a great deal safer than it may seem when first entering this labyrinth of alleys.
From the Old Post Office, walk downhill and take the first right along Gizenga Street (formerly Portuguese Street).
Believe it or not, this is one of the main thoroughfares through the town, with pedestrians, bicycles and handcarts fighting to squeeze past one another in the narrow passageway between the bazaars. These main streets are characterised by their intense commercial activity, with rows of small shops lining the route on both sides, almost all of which have the plainer Indian style doorway, with squared designs and protruding upper corners.
Another feature of the main streets is the continuous bench or ‘baraza’ which runs down each side. This not only serves as a good place to sit and while away the day but also as a raised walkway along which to pass when the rain (or a blocked sewer) floods the streets. A key navigational trick when passing along these main routes is to consider buildings and corners as islands of obstruction to navigate around. There seems to have been a serious lack of coordination during the town’s construction, with some people building right across the route of the main thoroughfares.
Although its twin towers are noticeable from a distance, the Catholic Cathedral can be surprisingly difficult to find at close quarters. At the second crossroads along Gizenga Street, turn right and it is fifty metres on the left. The Cathedral of Saint Joseph was constructed at the turn of the century by members of a French mission of the same name. The building was designed by the same architect that designed the Basilica in Marseille, France.
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The Cathedral is well used and holds regular Mass. When not in use, the doors may be closed, in which case entrance can be gained by the back door, through the adjoining convent.
Returning to Gizenga Street, proceed around the long bend to the junction at the rear corner of the Old Fort and turn right along Hurumzi Street. After fifty metres, this street kinks left and then right, whilst the road that continues straight changes to Changa Bazaar (the main bazaar running up towards the market area at Darajani).
Follow Hurumzi Street around the corners and after a further fifty metres, another large door and absent first-floor balcony betray the otherwise anonymous New Emerson Restaurant. This rooftop restaurant commands wonderful views of Stone Town and the House of Wonders. (Similar rooftop views can be found on the upper stories of many of the larger hotels and houses in the town). This roof is also a good place from which to view the Shakti Hindu Temple, with it’s the characteristic red, yellow and green-tipped spire, located immediately across Hurumzi Street.
Back on Hurumzi Street, return ten metres to the last junction and turn left. Crossing Changa Bazaar, proceed in the same direction for 100 metres until the Hammam comes into sight down a side alley to the right, its white facade being unusually decorated with a pattern of red bricks.
Built-in one of the oldest quarters of the city (now known as Hammamni), the Hammam is a Persian style steam bath, commissioned by Sultan Barghash for public use, the proceeds going to a ‘wakf’ or trust, maintained by the Royal Family. The baths were built by Hadj Gulamhusein, using a specialist team brought from Persia. Closed to the public in 1920, the baths were partially restored in 1978, but not yet to full working order. It is possible to take a short guided tour.
Located into the North of the Hammam, the Caravanserai is fronted by a magnificent door, with a plaque above: “Established and endowed by Khoja Ismail Ramjee of Cutch Sama Coca for the use of only the Khoja Caste travellers in the reign of H.H. Sultan Seyyid of Zanzibar Dec. 29 1892”. The accommodation is no longer used as a travellers’ refuge but is instead occupied by local families, who are allowing the place to fall down around them. This building is, however, listed and will hopefully be soon rescued.
There are so many other interesting things to see amongst the maze of Stone Town. Its streets must retain the same character as they did a hundred years ago. Only by wandering around and getting lost, taking time to stop, to look and to talk, can one gain a full appreciation of this fabulous town.