Port-Louis is a real hive where big businesses and small trades cohabit to form this lively city. The intense inter mixing of races and cultures of this small city, which is enclosed between the sea and mountains, gives the place its colours and spirits, its shades and its strengths.
It was in tribute to King Louis XV, in the name of whom Captain Dufresne d’Arsel took possession of the island in the outbreak of the 18th century, that “Port-North-West” came to be later known as “Port-Louis”. However, it is under the reign of Mahé de La Bourdonnais, governor of “Ile de France” (ancient name of Mauritius) - and whose statue occupies a place of honour at the entrance of the Place d’Armes - that the town knew a genuine expansion, whether on the architectural or economic level. Its harbour was built on a marshy expanse and became an important naval base for the French fleet.
Today, the city has approximately 150’000 inhabitants and has turned into a fiscal haven through its free zone. Everyday, more than 100’000 persons besiege its trades, its banks, and its enterprises. But, in spite of its daily traffic jams blending pollution, humidity and heat, this small city is not short of spellbound attractions. Is it because the past is nearly still perceptible? The ancient structures made up with basaltic rocks and the small houses built in wood have looked on distrustfully at the construction of the first buildings. Year by year, the past and the present coast along without merging completely.
In the town, we are overwhelmed by the intense activity that prevails; along the boulevards, and in the streets, we come across overloaded motorcycles identical to little donkeys, old backfiring bangers, and buses spluttering their nauseating fumes. Women dressed in the latest fashion or in the traditional saris, veiled Muslim women, men and children, stray dogs and cats, stroll about in the narrow lanes where at times, we have to nudge through the crowd to clear a way for oneself. The thick crowd and the intense heat might as well make you dizzy. The sun darkens still more the tanned and moist skins, and translucent halos appear on the white or adorned clothes.
Opposite the harbour, the business neighbourhood has expanded with its offices, banks and the Caudan Waterfront, which is a large tourist and commercial complex comprising of three buildings, one of which is a luxury hotel. This architectural success proves that we can break free from the hovering concrete modernism. Its shops, bars and restaurants, its surprising casino whose entrance represents a pirate ship, welcome businessmen, “Bollywood” stars (Indian Hollywood), tourists, as well as most of the Mauritian youths, tuned in to the latest fashion (mobiles, trendy clothes and shoes...), who come to stroll about, unoccupied and idle. The Government House, built in the French colonial style, is only a few metres away from the Place d’Armes. Here, magnificent royal palm trees soar skyward. The statue of Queen Victoria, watching sternly the daily scene, reminds everyone that Mauritius has once been under the governance of Great Britain during the period of 1810 to 1968.
We should not visit Port-Louis only for the sake of it, instead, we should accept to lose our way in this city! Besides, the different lanes are already contributing to this fact: one alley has a different name half-way, another has been recently renamed by simple political whim, and there are still others that cleverly mingle English and French words, using “Street” and “Rue”, depending on their goodwill!
Built in 1828, the vast market - it is known as the “Bazaar” - is located between Farquar Street and Queen Street. In spite of several fire outbreaks, it has managed to rise, phoenix-like, from its ashes. It opens its doors as early as half past five in the morning; it is like stepping into a world rich in colors, scents and embarking upon an amazing culinary voyage through the East, Asia or Africa... Indeed, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a swarm of tanned faces, bent over the different stalls to touch, assess and bargain. The traders try to attract our attention and call out to us to boast about the freshness of a fish or some meat, sometimes laid down on the bare stone itself, or to convince us about the virtues of an herb tea or a medicinal plant. The market continues further behind Farquar Street. Here, pyramids of pumpkins, lemons, pommes d’amour (tomatoes) and heaps of bananas, coconuts, mangoes, pawpaws and litchis are piled up. Sun-basked and tasty, they appeal to a stealthy stroke and slightly tilting the head, we breathe in the sweet smells and try to imagine the flavor... On a particular stall, the slightly sour scent of the citronella mingles with the spicy fragrance of the coriander, the “caripoulé” (local bay leaves) and ginger. Untied, the bags of spices similar to pouches containing gold coins reveal, luminous and sweet-smelling: chilly, curry, cumin, cardamom, turmeric, distinctly colourful just like the pigments worthy of being mixed up in oil and proceeding to the palette of the most grand masters. Bulging heavy cereal bags and salted fish spread out like long soles run over till the pavement. Further, Indian incense perfumes the Malagasy materials, pareos flirt with the saris and the “Made in Mauritius” T-shirts, and African tom-toms enhance the Creole sega. And of course, here are the inevitable tourist souvenirs, such as sculptures, masks, scale model boats, baskets and jewellery that should be cleverly haggled over! Suddenly, our senses are awakened by the deliciously spicy scent of samoussas (fried pastries), gateaux-piments (chilli cakes), dholl puris (pancakes accompanied by a curry sauce), fried noodles (Chinese noodles fried with vegetables, chicken, prawns, eggs and spices) or biryani (rice, spices, vegetables with either fish or meat) that the hawkers suggest as lunch.
Perpendicular to the Bazaar, La Corderie Street abounds in stores selling cloth where heaps of fabrics, cottony or silky, and cheerfully designed, are stretched out, folded, and piled or they undulate their colours to the ground. There’s a strange desire to thrust in our hands into all these soft materials just like in the swirl of waves! A few alleys further, small Chinese shops with their coloured walls and flowery balconies begin to appear, and where bric-a-brac tin utensils cover the wall like some rough art decoration. The traders, wearing enigmatic smiles, are successful in attracting us in the heart of their shops and show us their countless ancestral remedies, homeopathic, aphrodisiac, and magical...
In the middle of the Chinese locality, a mosque springs up in all its splendour. Built in the 19th century, it has thick white walls, green shutters, mysterious turrets and its impressively sculpted door that opens and then closes up again on prayers and faith. Suddenly, at the bend of a street, we come across a Creole house with its small tropical garden, which shelters mango trees, pawpaw trees, hibiscus and bougainvilleas, or still, a temple, a red-roofed pagoda, a church. They give evidence of the importance of beliefs that, side by side, silently respect each other. Then, we came to the Muslim locality, far from the centre, and that is known as "Plaine Verte”.
The existence of this multiracial population sums up the whole history of colonisation, of slavery and of the immigration of “independent men” (who had willingly come in search of work). Strolling about in Port-Louis, before the beauty of some old but restored residences, we regret still more the disappearance of most of the ancient houses, noticeably built in wood or stone, that have given way to small block of flats, which are hastily being reproduced everywhere... In Pope Hennessy Street (as well as in St-Louis and St-Georges Streets), we can admire the ancient colonial residences and an amazing Chinese house, “tagged” with yellow and red ideograms!
On higher lands, Fort Adelaide (La Citadelle) offers a vast panorama on Port-Louis and its harbour. Then, we inevitably arrive at Champ-de-Mars, designed by the French in 1740 for their military drills, but used as a racecourse since 1812. It is here that every Saturday (from June to November) that families get together to bet on a particular horse or simply, to end up the day nicely by watching the horse races.
Coming back towards the harbour, we take a few minutes to rest in the Jardin de la Compagnie, where workers come to eat their lunch in the soothing shade of giant banyan trees, sacred and seemingly similar to that under which Bouddha first knew spiritual illumination. Next to the garden, we will take the opportunity to visit the Natural History Museum (Mauritius Institute), which shelters a stuffed replica of the famous “Dodo”, a big bird but alas, with too short wings to be able to fly and that disappeared at the end of the 17th century.
The city of Port-Louis is wealthy in yesterday’s treasures, that are nowadays toying with the future. Let us hope that the place will not be distorted, only “arranged” like the hair of a beautiful girl. Nevertheless, let us hurry up and travel through its numerous lanes to discover the last small houses built in wood that are being looked upon by the tall glass towers...
Text: © Valérie Claro • Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra