In keeping with our coastal theme, this month’s walk-through heads to Mombasa. Catrina Stewart takes a short tour of the city’s venerable Old City.
We start our walk at the imposing Fort Jesus, the plaza in front of which makes a good central meeting point (and a place to pick up a guide). Built by the Portuguese in 1953, the fort was held at different points by the Portuguese, the Omanis and the British, and given the travails it suffered, remains remarkably well preserved. Wander along the battlements, or head towards the building housing the drawings of Portuguese sailors in the early 17th Century, the most surprising thing, one guide book points out, being the absence of lewd etchings. Instead, the sailors drew lots of ships, swordsmen and fish. In the central exhibit hall, salvaged items from the Santo Antonio de Tanna shipwreck, sunk in 1697 during the siege of Portuguese-held Fort Jesus by Omani Arabs, are on display, ranging from ornate crockery to belt buckles and a fish-shaped pin case. Head to the far corner of the fort, next to the Oman House, to see a full-size skeleton of a humpback whale. Perhaps out of place in the museum, but an extraordinary sight nonetheless.
Taking the path down the side of the fort, and turning left past the Mombasa Club (nonmembers not allowed), turn left up towards the Old City, coming onto Sir Mbarak Hinaway street. Drop into Safina Crafts for new and antique Lamu beds and chairs, nautical memorabilia, and a chest with a secret drawer to stash away your secrets. Just along from Safina is the 16th-Century al-Mandhry Mosque, the oldest mosque in Mombasa. It’s a good example of mixed ArabAfrican design, but sadly its interior is closed to non-Muslim visitors.
On from the mosque, you’ll notice some of the more typical Old City houses with covered fretwork balconies – to hide Muslim female inhabitants from outside view. One of these houses YA Gallery on the site of the first Post Office, built in 1899. Now it’s a veritable emporium presided over by Yusuf, and casual browsers can rifle through working accordions, West African masks, aged maps and samsonite suitcases. “This is a hunting place,” says Yusuf, a collector himself, who forced himself to give up his hoardings to the shop.
Across the street from YA Gallery is Forodhani Restaurant, a waterfront spot that opened last year, and is ideal for a leisurely lunch. The dining terrace overlooks Mombasa’s northern channel – with trade ships from Zanzibar moored at the Old Port just a few metres away. It’s one of the more pocket friendly places to eat lobster, served up for less than Ksh 1,500.
Turning right out of Forodhani, wander through the square with the Old Port on your right. Opposite that is Old Port Souvenirs, a much-loved furniture carving showroom, where many departing expatriates buy their Lamu style chairs. A carved and threaded dining room chair will set you back around Ksh 6,000 here, about half the price of what they are sold for in major Nairobi showrooms. Furniture can be made (and shipped) to order: it takes about one week to carve a Lamu bed; three to four days to make a chair.
You’ll smell the Fish Market before you get there. It’s a short walk up the road from Old Port Souvenirs. Drop inside for a glimpse of the day’s catch, which could include – to name just a few – octopus, snapper, kingfish, rockfish.
After the market, start weaving to your left via Coast Sandals, which, as it name suggests, sells sandals. Pick them up here for the wholesale price of about Ksh 600 for the more basic designs.
Come out the shop and turn right and right again onto a narrow alley, bringing you out onto the main Ndia Kuu Road. Turn left, and after a car park on your left, you’ll take another turn left to find the legendary Jahazi Coffee House (now in a new venue), a favourite meeting spot for Mombasa-ites. It’s furnished in classic coast style, with two rooms set aside for lounging at floor level. It only needs a shisha pipe…
Back on the main street, turn left to find the Imani Collection, a women’s empowerment organisation, where disadvantaged ladies weave carpets, make pillows, kikoys, bags and more. Coming shortly is a new showroom for the products, which will be housed across the street in Jahazi’s old premises. Continue along this road to bring you back to the plaza outside Fort Jesus.