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Saturday June 22, 2013

Exploring Mauritius' Port Louis

<b>As breathtaking as it gets:</b> The view of Champ de Mars from Fort Adelaide, Port Louis, Mauritius. -TOM COCKREM As breathtaking as it gets: The view of Champ de Mars from Fort Adelaide, Port Louis, Mauritius. -TOM COCKREM

The Indian Ocean island nations, including the Mauritius, are renowned for their beaches and resorts, but not for their cities. But the Mauritian capital city of Port Louis has a lot going for it.

I’M surprised to hear what people say about Port Louis: “Not many people want to go there.” “You’ll be disappointed.”

This reminds me of all the negative things I had heard about Suva in Fiji, one of my favourite island cities. Like Fiji, Mauritius is seen by most visitors as no more than a holiday destination with its picture-perfect beaches where you revel in the pampering you get in the resorts.

Little wonder then that any urban centre here would receive the big thumbs-down.

Yet the Mauritian capital has credentials. It’s a town with a 400-year history, which has seen the coming and going of a veritable league of colonising nations. The Portuguese came in 1510, using the port as a stop-over en route to the Indonesian spice isles. The Dutch came to settle in the 1590s, bringing with them sugarcane, deer and rats.

The latter soon reached plague proportions, driving the new settlers away, and hastening the inevitable demise of the helpless dodo bird, the country’s national emblem. The rats ate up all the dodos’ eggs.

The French arrived in 1718, bringing African slaves to work the sugar. A hundred years later, the British stepped in. They replaced the slaves with indentured Indian labour.

Given this history, one is not surprised to find that present-day Port Louis hosts a potpourri of ethnicity – Africans, Indians, Chinese, Europeans and Creoles. With a history as colourful as this, the island’s capital, I reckoned, deserved a little of one’s time. I head for town by bus from my resort back in the island’s east.

I am dropped near the port. It’s pretty old and shabby hereabouts. The main tourist attraction is the Central Market. Busloads of visitors arrive daily from the beach resorts in search of souvenirs. This is most probably the only part of Port Louis that they will ever get to see.

I decide to cover the city in a systematic way, moving up and down the long streets that run parallel and westwards from the port. Setting off up Corderie Street (which later becomes Eugene Laurent), I immediately notice that Port Louis bears its scars.

Some places look like war zones. Busted roofs and gutted homes inform you where the vicious cyclone winds have had their way. But soon the shabbiness abates.

In the streets behind the market you find the old survivors – grand old wooden shops and dwellings, warped and tired ones, it’s true, but handsome just the same with decorative wrought iron balconies and tiny attic windows peeping coyly from the gables of their roofs. These, you have to say, are true survivors.

I rub my hands together. I might like Port Louis still. The town has already shown what really is its pride – its people.

France, my guide, had spoken of them earlier.

“The folk of Mauritius”, he told me, “may wear Indian saris and attend (sic) Tamil temples, or answer the Muezzin’s call to prayer in the mosque; or they may live in Chinatown and pay homage at the Buddhist pagoda. But they all speak a common language – Creole French – and are above all else Mauritian, and get on very well together. Racial strife is rare”.

Along the streets, more evidence of cultural diversity appears. In the heart of Chinatown, the huge Jummah Mosque commands one entire block. Then there is the stern stone greyness of the Port Louis Cathedral.

I am reminded of something else France had also said: “The people – Hindus, Catholics, Buddhists and Muslims – all celebrate each others’ holy festivals. There were so many festival holidays before, the Government had to cancel some to save the economy.”

Dr Eugene Laurent Street soon has you in the suburbs. To my left, a steep green hill rises high above the streets. On its top are black stone walls. This is a fortress – La Citadelle to the French, and Fort Adelaide to the English, who built it in the 1820s.

I set about the climb. In the skinny streets and lanes that I pass along the way, I begin to see those roofs – high, dark-shingled ones. They belong to Creole-style townhouses. And they are oh-so-neatly kept, sitting prettily and proudly behind their iron gates, surrounded by manicured garden beds and lawns.

One little Creole classic sits opposite the Champ de Mars race course. It’s a true colonial gem, complete with brightly glazed and decorative facade, shingled roof with turrets either side. Port Louis in these parts is a very pretty place.

Drawn still to the fortress, I finally reach its top. From here, Port Louis’s other kind of beauty springs to the fore. The town is half encircled by a range of grassy mountain peaks. Some, like the majestic Le Pouse, are topped with funnel-shaped volcanic plugs. They lend an element of fantasy to the town.

From the fort, you also get a grand view of the port, and directly below, of the historic little race course – Champ de Mars. It still draws big, race-day crowds, and many of the jockeys are brought in from Australia.

The city also boasts a fine collection of time-honoured public buildings – The Municipal Theatre is the oldest theatre in the southern hemisphere. The Public Courts are now a national monument. The palm-lined Place S. Bissoondoyal leads to the pride of them all – Government House. With its shingled roof and broad airy verandahs, this cherished clapboard relic is as Creole in design as any cottage or chateau.

By now my earlier suspicions have been confirmed. I have hardly seen a foreign visitor on the trail. It seems a shame that Port Louis’ finest enclaves are not on their agenda.

If they were, then the Mauritian capital might well be for many as it now is for me: firmly entrenched on my list of favourite island towns. And those old Creole survivors should be celebrated too, as staunch and proud resisters of the winds.

Bring sun hat, sun block, repellent, raincoat/umbrella. Port Louis is mainly warm by day but can be chilly at night. There are also frequent downpours.

The best time to go is September through November, or in the hot season from January through April. The coldest months are July through August.

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