Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A walk through Port Louis

Port Louis was supposedly already a harbour when settled by the Dutch in 1638 but was officially made the capital in 1735 by the French governor Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais (after whom the city of Mahebourg in Mauritius and Mahé, the capital of Seychelles is named). Follow the route on the map below for an easy walking daytrip through Port Louis. 

Before you start walking, do note that Port Louis for some reason is always hotter, sunnier and more humid than the rest of Mauritius - even in winter. Do wear a cap, carry water and drink fruit juice/ cold drinks/ coconut water etc. at frequent intervals or else the walk will be neither comfortable nor enjoyable.
source: author overlay on google-maps

If one is driving into Port Louis, then it is best to go to the parking at Caudan and leave the car there. There is usually plenty of parking outside near the waterfront or, worst case, in the multi-storey car park inside. 

If one is arriving by bus from the west or south, the bus stops at Victoria Square bus station towards the south. From there it is a very short walk along the motorway and then the southern pedestrian subway under to the Caudan waterfront (from near the Feng-Shui shop/ Mcdonalds) to start the tour at No.1 - the Blue Penny museum.

If one is arriving by bus from the north, the bus stops at Gare du Nord (Bus-station North) at Immigration Square. Then a short walk to the northern pedestrian subway near MPCB, cross the motorway to the other end of Caudan and start the tour at No.4 - Aapravasi Ghat.
Assuming one is starting from the southern side

1.  Blue Penny Museum - Houses an extremely rare Mauritian stamp, the first to be issued in the world on 21 September 1847 by the wife of the then Governor. The main exhibit is this super rare Blue Penny stamp on an envelope of which only one other remains in the world apparently. In 1993, a consortium of Mauritian companies headed by the MCB (Mauritius Commercial Bank) got together to buy it for 2.2million US dollars to be able to bring it back to the country. 

Don't be disappointed if the light appears to be fused in the display of the one stamp you went to see. This is what happened to me on my first visit. Because it is so delicate, the actual Blue Penny display light comes on for only 10 minutes on the half-hour every hour - so you may have to wait a bit to see it.
source: Wikimedia Commons

Tip: If you don't feel like spending the MUR 200/- on the ticket to go in, walk into the giftshop free and have a look at the hundreds of pictures of the Blue Penny on books, posters, postcards, T-shirts, towels, soaps etc. etc. etc. Practically the only interesting thing about it to non-Philatelists is that the stamp is so old - it was before the time of perforated edges.

2. Caudan waterfront - Take a leisurely walk through the extremely interesting waterfront. Have some sugercane juice with rhum offered at one of the stalls near the Blue Penny museum and spend some time looking at the driftwood sculptures arranged in one of the plazas. Sometimes you can see the elderly sculptor at work. There are plenty of designer boutiques for window-shopping, a food-court, a casino and a multiplex. Walk at the water's edge past the statue of Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam to the big grey stone stone building on the main road at the other end. This is the Postal Museum. Continue on to the Aapravasi Ghat
source: Wikimedia Commons
3. Aapravasi Ghat - From 1849 to 1910, this is where about half a million indentured labourers came off the ship from India to work on the Mauritian plantations. Most of them stayed behind on the island which is why about 2/3rds of the country's population now is of Indian origin.

In 1865, a photographic unit was created and a photographer took two portrait photos of each immigrant, one of which was attached to the immigrant's ticket while the second photo was retained in the Aapravasi Ghat's records which are now kept at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute.

In 1923, the last immigrants came to Mauritius from India under the indentured labour system.

In 1950, the Public Assistance Department was established at Aapravasi Ghat as the immigration records were kept there.

In 1960, cyclone "Carol" caused major damage to the site. The archives of the immigration depot had to be transferred to a safer place at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute.

In 1968, March 12th - Mauritius achieved independance

By 1976, all the immigration records had been transferred and the building remained empty

In the 1980s, most of the site was destroyed when the motorway was constructed 

In 1987, the historical importance of the Immigration Depot was recognized by the government and it was declared a National Monument. It was renamed Aapravasi (Immigrant) Ghat from it's previous name of 'Coolie' Ghat which had become a derogatory and racist way of addressing Indians, in general, and Indian workers in particular during colonial times.

In 2001, November 2nd was declared a public holiday in memory of the arrival of the first indentured labourers who arrived in Mauritius from India on that date in 1834 on board the Atlas.

On July 12, 2006, the Aapravasi Ghat was inscribed on the World Heritage List during the 30th session of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee held in Vilnius.

This area in the Trou Fanfaron was called Place de l'Immigration and it is still called that. The old railway station across the road that carried the workers straight from the landing depot to their plantation is now the Gare du Nord or the north bus-station. The railway tracks is where the motorway now runs.  
(sometime between 1850~1900)/ source:

Tip: Whyall this information when people will be visiting this site anyway? Because there is absolutely nothing there that tells visitors of the site's history. The information office will give you a small map of the area and nothing else, the Interpretation Centre is not ready yet and there are no detailed brochures, pamphlets, plaques or posters of any sort. So do have a look at the information above or the reason it became a UNESCO World Heritage site will remain a mystery even after the visit. 

More stories and photos about the Aapravasi Ghat or 'Immigrants' Stairway' in my posts here. A description of a traditional Indian Ghat at the end of this post here.

Update 2015: The Museum / Interpretation Centre is finally open.

4. Mauritius Postal Museum - The museum is located in one of the oldest buildings on the waterfront circa. 1865. There is an entrance fee so only go in if your cravings for history and philately have not been satisfied already by the Blue Penny museum.

Having said that, the entry fee is cheap, the museum does have some interesting old photographs and if in doubt about whether to visit or not - has a virtual tour available on their website. Walk back towards the main waterfront and take the northern pedestrian subway next to the juice stall. In fact, have a juice or a cold-drink at one of the waterfront restaurants before proceeding to cross the motorway and entering Port Louis proper. Make your way to the large Victorian-era looking covered Central market.

5.  Central Market - Probably the most interesting place in Port Louis, if one sees nothing else here - one should visit this. The market is a 3 storey high building with lively, noisy, colourful stalls in the main ground floor double-height hall selling all kinds of wonderful fresh produce - local fruits and vegetables and herbs and medicinal powders and spice mixes and whatnot. 

Apart from everything to see, smell and taste, the building itself is amazing with it's towering internal columns and sweeping staircases - a sort of grand temple or cathedral dedicated for vegetables (!). The first floor has all kinds of souvenirs and handicrafts, everything grossly overpriced and made either in China or India. The second floor has a huge clothes store which has a perpetual sale on (though nothing seems to be overly cheap).
A little bit of history about the market from here - Port Louis had a central market as far back as 1772 when it was situated opposite the “Old Church”. In 1774, it was installed behind the Government House at the site of the Grand Theatre today. Following a fire, the market was transferred to the Jardin de la Compagnie (East India Company Gardens) in 1790. In 1816, the market burnt to the ground and four years later it was rebuilt from scratch on Rue de la Reine or Queen Street at it's present day location. Partially demolished in 1980, it was re-built in 1981 and renovated recently in 2004. 

The Central Market is not limited to the building as such, the stalls spill out onto the streets outside with lots and lots of vendors on the adjoining roads. In fact, the whole area is known as 'Central Market'. On weekends, the roads are exclusively for pedestrians and hawkers, and most of the people shopping on the streets for clothes, toys, electronics etc. are locals not tourists. Cross over to the Route Royal or Royal Street and turn left to walk towards the Jummah Masjid.
Central Market 1952, source: Wikimedia Commons
6. Jummah Masjid (Friday Mosque) - This largest and most important mosque in Mauritius was built by local Muslim traders in 1853 and the location was chosen so as to be close to their shops and places of business. The architecture is a mix of styles with delicate plasterwork and detailing in the Indian Islamic tradition with a colour scheme of white walls and pastel green windows typical of the colonial architecture on the island. Visitors can enter and have a look around the courtyard shaded by a Badamier tree (Indian almond) - a veritable oasis of calm and cool in the midst of the noise and chaos of Port Louis. 
Turn left from the Masjid and keep walking ahead on Royal Street to enter Chinatown through one of the 'Friendship' gates. The stretch of road between these two gates is known as Chinatown and is characterised by some Chinese shops and groceries. However it is nowhere near as colourful and lively as the some of the other Chinatowns around the world. 

The gates themselves are somewhat drab looking and for some reason, the sit-down restaurants appear to be on side streets and on the first floor. It's hard to tell if they are open or closed though one of the restaurants we once walked into was HUGE, had an exclusively Sino-Mauritian clientele, seemed to be designed for huge wedding parties and had very reasonably priced food. So if you haven't had lunch yet during this walkabout - seek and ye shall find. 

Tip: To be honest, there's nothing much to see, do or experience here so one can just turn around after the Jummah Masjid and walk back along the Route Royale to the main avenue at the head of which is Government House on the left.

7.  Government House
The seat of colonial power in Mauritius. As per the Lonely Planet description, it is "a beautiful French colonial structure dating from 1738, although it was added to later. Outside it stands a typically solemn statue of Queen Victoria in full 'we are not amused' mode." Quite. Mahé de Labourdonnais built the ground and first floor of this U-shaped building and Decaen, the last French governor, added the second. One can walk right upto the Prime Minister's office which feels a bit strange having lived in New Delhi and London where this kind of access would be unthinkable.
Government House 1961

Turn left where Government house ends and walk in the arcade of the grey stone Treasury building until you hit the major junction. The yellow neo-classical building across the circle is the Grand Theatre.
Hungry for lunch by now? Just continue walking down La Chaussée street and buy a 'Dalpuri' at one of the stalls next to the Jardin de la Compagnie and eat it in the gardens with all the other locals. For a somewhat less local experience, one can eat at the KFC on La Chaussée just opposite the gardens (that is get a takeaway and eat in the gardens, not much space inside the KFC). But the best lunch option is described below -

Walk to Location 12 on the map above. Directions:
Continue down La Chaussée for about 10minutes and turn left at the intersection with St.Georges street (just before the statue junction). Walk into the old house on the right which says "Lambic". 
Lambic Restaurant, Port Louis

This is a wonderful restaurant in a restored colonial house. One can sit inside or outside under the trees in the shady patio. The menu is extensive and the food superlative. Best of all, they have a selection of imported craft and local micro-brewery beers - the most extensive on the island.

Walk back to Government House to resume

8.  Port Louis Theatre - Supposedly the oldest theatre in the Southern Hemisphere having had it's first performance on a Tuesday, 11 June 1822. It seats 600 people over three storeys and has an elaborately painted dome with chandeliers. Apparently Dame Margot Fonteyn danced here in 1975 and her photos adorn the foyer. However, according to the website, the place has been closed since 2008 for renovation so one can't go in.
In fact, there is another opera house/ theatre in Mauritius called the Plaza in Rose Hill that was built in 1933 and can seat 1500 people including VIP boxes, seats and even a standing gallery. It had a turning stage added in 1980 and functioned for awhile as a cinema. But I'm not aware if this place was ever opened after renovation either.

How does it matter if either are open or not? Well the island does have a group called Opera Mauritius composed of local and visiting talent who are quite active and recently put up a whole fortnight of assorted classical music concerts including a programme of Verdi's La Traviata. They were supported by an orchestra from Reunion. 

The singing and music was really very good and professional though the production itself was inexpensive. The most disappointing thing was that all the performances were held at a local institute's auditorium and assorted other places - but none in the Port Louis Theatre or at the Plaza. Previous performances of Bizet's The Pearl Fisher (2009), Carmen (2010) and Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel (2011) were also held in other modern auditoriums. Maybe the Grand old opera houses are just too small to host anything anymore?

Having seen the Opera house across the junction, turn right between 2 buildings to enter a small cobbled alley that leads to the Mauritius Photographic Museum.

9.  Mauritius Photographic Museum - The museum is housed in a small colonial building dating back to at least 1875 or perhaps even earlier to 1768. There is a sign announcing Musée across the arch at the end of this street called the Rue du Vieux Conseil or Old Council Street near the Port Louis Council building. Apparently this little street is built over a meandering rivulet that once emptied into the Ruisseau Tonnier (or Tonnier Stream) running along the Rue de La Poudrière on the other side.
The museum is located in an old colonial era building. The door to the museum is on the left as one enters the arch. Apparently there is an admission fee, it opens from 9AM to 3PM Mon-Fri, is run by a local photographer Tristan Bréville and his wife Marie Noelle since 1993 and has the oldest photos of Mauritius which are daguerrotypes made in 1842 shortly after the technique was invented in 1839. 

Apparently the museum also has the camera used in the 1860's by the British to capture the faces of Indian workers brought to the island as indentured labourers in case they ran away; as well as the first printing press used on the island for newspapers which made it the first one in the southern hemisphere. It appears that one of the first buyers of a camera in Paris in 1839 was a Mauritian called Ferdinand Wörhnitz. There is also a photo of the first autobus in 1930.

However, all this I know from their website. Every time I've been there, the place has been shut so I don't know if it's been my bad luck or the museum is/was under renovation. There was an incident a few years ago when a huge mass of debris from the neighbouring construction site fell onto the roof of the old museum building causing considerable damage. Perhaps they haven't been able to re-open yet...(?) But anyway, you can always try your luck!
Continue through the arch on leaving the museum and enter a shopping centre that brings one to Poudriere Street. Cross the street to re-enter the Jardin de la Compagnie or Company Gardens.
10. Jardin de la Compagnie - The Company Gardens are another oasis of calm in the middle of Port Louis. There are some statues and plaques commemorating assorted people and events and some very old and handsome banyan trees. The park used to be a sort of vegetable garden for the French East India Company.
Lovely as the gardens are during the day, it has an extremely unsavoury reputation past sunset, apparently being a well-known haunt for prostitutes and drug-pushers/addicts. Yes, prostitution is alive and thriving in Mauritius as a drive down the Quatre Bornes main road after 9PM will make evident.

Cross the street to enter the big neo-classical building which is the Mauritius National Institute with the Natural History Museum on the Ground Floor. 

11. Mauritius Natural History Museum - This museum was founded in 1880. Apart from all the exhibits on the Ground Floor, it has a huge reference library on the first floor with some 50,000 books or so (apparently). Entry is free and the displays are interesting. 

Of particular interest is the display of poisonous fishes found in the environs (trouble in paradise?) and the Dodo exhibit. There is rather a large contrast between the newly designed and installed Dodo exhibit room and the rest of the dilapidated displays. This museum has one of only 2 or 3 known skeletons/stuffed specimens of the Dodo in the world so is worth a visit for that reason alone. The story of the Dodo is also interesting particularly as one realises how very little is actually known and how much is conjecture. The taxidermy job may have been either very faithful or very fanciful with respect to the original specimen. No one will ever know.
Apart from the neglected and badly maintained displays, the condition of the building itself which is a handsome colonial, is a criminal shame. A little bit of repair and proper maintenance like replacing the damaged and missing timber floor and ceiling boards would go a long way. Having been a conservation architect myself, my hands were itching to get on a set of plans and draw out a design and strategy for a historic building such as this one - and with a museum and library to boot. Every architect's dream project...
12. Lambic - If not already here following the Lunch Tip after Government House, one can walk here now and enjoy dinner before leaving Port Louis.
One can also, at any point during the walk, make your way back to the Caudan waterfront for a drink and food, or enjoy the harbour-front for the rest of the day. At evening, the whole area is festively lit and there are sometimes shows in the open amphitheatre. You can always have dinner in the many restaurants on the waterfront. Or even better, take the free water taxi across to Le Suffren hotel and enjoy a sundowner on their lovely deck.
Caudan by night

Author: Shahana Dastidar
Rue du Vieux Conseil and Winston Churchill
Rue du Vieux Conseil and Winston Churchill


  1. What a lovely walk you described Mrs Dastidar! Thank you very much indeed.
    Paul van den Brink

  2. Many thanks Paul. I hope you enjoy the actual walk as much as the description.

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    Thanks, very great post.