Cities and Towns in Africa
Lilongwe is another nondescript African capital. It's hardly a city, just a very spreadout town with different neighbourghoods, none more attractive than the others. Dirty Lilongwe River runs through town and a visit gives an grim, though interesting, insight into poverty ridden Lilongwe. The chaotic local markets are always a good place for some people watching and if you need to pick up some souvenirs, try the surprisingly big craft market outside the post office. Oddly, there is a nature sancturary right in the middle of Lilongwe, which might be worth a look if you are stranded for too many days, but else there isn't a hell of a lot to see or do in Lilongwe.
Mali's capital can be a challenge. Bamako is a necessary transport and visa stop for most travellers, but unless you thrive in hot, heavy trafficked and overcrowded cities you're not likely to enjoy it here. It's dry, dusty and dirty. Dust and car fumes will make eyes itch and the throat sore; the garbage littered streets will probably make you twitch – try breaking through the mouth. However, as the place is hard to avoid why not make the best of it? The National Museum and adjutant botanic garden are among the best in West Africa and a pleasant escape from the city's hassle. The nightlife's vivid and the music scene rival those of Dakar and Conakry – traditional music and lessons are also easily arranged. If night time drinking doesn't do the trick, many guesthouses can arrange booze cruises on the Niger. Lastly, the northern hill of Point G offers some great views of the city. Alternatively, simply stroll through the lobby of Hotel de l'Amitié like you own it, take the lift up to the 14th floor and enjoy the view from there.
Mali's third largest town is known for its artisans. Especially the pottery that is shipped to town from the surrounding villages are sought after by the rest of the country. Truthsayers claim there's something in the earth here – sceptics would retort that it's simply a matter of the clay being of a superior quality. Other treats to look for in Ségou include bogalan (mud cloth), koras (traditional Malian string instruments), and traditional medicine as the Marabouts (medicine men) of Ségou should be particularly powerful. If you happen to be around in the first week of February stop by for Le Festival sur le Niger, which focuses on the river environment and its peoples' livelihood. It features concerts, films, theatre and dance performances.
It's impossible to determine whether the ancient and crumbling houses of Old Chinguetti is rising out of the Sahara's famous dunes or being consumed by them. For centuries an important caravan stop, a home of Islamic scholars, and the most important gathering place for commencing the Hadj (holy pilgrimage to Mekka) for the desert dwellers in what is now Mauritania. During the 17th-century, more than 32,000 camels passed through the city daily! Citizens here claim that Chinguetti is the seventh most holiest city in Islam, that is, however, not a claim heard outside the city itself. However, once the sea trade of the colonial era replaced caravans, it marked the beginning of Chinguetti's demise. Today the town, founded around 1300, is Mauritania's most valued and visited historical site, with the old city's 16th-centrury mosque being its most recognizable landmark. After Chinguetti (together with three other desert towns, Ouadane, Tichit and Oualata) was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 a slow process of restoring some of the crumbling building have luckily been initiated.
In 1957, a conference of Bidan elders voted to build Mauritania's new capital on the site Nouakchott occupies today. Previous the only human presence had been a French army outpost. Today around 1 million call Nouakchott home. Calling Nouakchott a highlight of visiting Mauritania would be pushing it, to say the least. But you might very well find yourself forced to pass through at some point, so you might well make the best of it. In a country where chairs are hard to come by – the nomadic tradition of sitting, eating and socialising on mats is still predominant in most of the country – Nouakchott is the only place with something that can realistically be described as cafe life. Most interesting sight is the fish market on the beach 6 km west of town when boats return late afternoon. The city's markets are also the best stocked and finding traditional crafts, like silverware, can be an enjoyable outing. If you're desperate are the three main mosques worth a quick snapshot. Known based on who funded them there's a Moroccan mosque, a Saudi mosque and an Iranian mosque.
Port Louis is a lovely break from the otherwise easy beach life. It's noisy, crowded and run down, but it has an interesting vibe. There are dilapidated colonial buildings and palmy squares, but the only real sight is the UNESCO enlisted Aapravasi Ghat. The orderly central market is full of vegetables on ground level and textile on the first floor. For some excellent Chinese food head to the well-stocked China Town a few blocks down.
Both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a favourite hippie getaway, Chefchaouen is the best of both those worlds. Named the Blue City after its blue-rinsed buildings, this is a colourful twist that set Chefchaouen’s small medina apart from those of other old Moroccan cities frequented by tourist. It still offers the obligatory narrow, tortuous and winding lanes that are impossible not to become lost in. Just with a slight blue glow to it. The atmosphere here is also less chaotic, and there is less hassle than in other destinations favored by visitors. Tugged away in the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen is also in the middle of a vast cannabis growing area. Something that could explain the relaxed atmosphere. It certainly explains why it is a famous hippie and backpacker hangout. This brings with it a few particular scams that should be mentioned here. Expensive, but poor quality hash is sold on the street and touts will offer invitations to cannabis farms, where they eventually will pressure any "guests" to buy their products and take a commission for showing them around.
Boasting the most impressive sunset in Morocco, a windy beach, and a UNESCO-recognised harbour, Essaouira is well worth the two-hour drive from Marrakesh. Here is lively, but no hassle. The harbour is dominated by dozens of small, blue fishing boats, a market, and a citadel, which walls extends all around the medina (old city). Both the walls and the citadel offer unobstructed views of the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean – as does most of the city’s roof terraces. In fact, the old town is almost overflowing with romantic spots. The picture perfect beach extends for many kilometres south of the city. However, strong winds and dunes make it more suited for the wind- or kitesurfing and quad biking than for swimming and sunbathing.
The world’s biggest Islamic medieval city and accidentally also the world's largest car-free zone. The medina, Fez el-Bali, dates back 1200 years and is one of those places where time has been at a standstill. It is a labyrinth where getting lost is inevitable, where goods are still transported by donkey and where it is quite impossible to expect what awaits around the next corner. Especially famous are the city’s tanneries where leather is still dyed in pits as it were hundreds of years ago. If it all become too hectic, the peaceful Bou Jeloud Gardens does offer some tranquil relief. The same does Fez el-Jdid, or New Fez, which is only 700 years old(!) and less affected by tourism. It almost goes without saying that the medinas of Fez are on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Tired of the chaos in Marrakesh? Fed up with the hassle in Fez? Morocco’s third imperial city, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, got none of that. It is more pleasant, relaxed and slow-moving than its two sister cities. Hence, it also sees more local visitors than foreign tourists giving it a distinctly local feel. This charm is accompanied by a number of sights: the beautiful Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, who made Meknes Morocco’s capital in the late 17th century; a vast underground prison; the Bou Inania Medersa (Quranic school); the Heri es-Souani granaries; and, of course, an old medina. Or you could just enjoy some mint tea on the bustling Place Hedim in front of the grandeur Bab Mansour. The square resembles Marrakesh’s more famous Jemaa el-Fnaa, though this is smaller and easier to take in. Should you want to get out is the Roman Ruins of Volubilis just an hour’s drive north of Meknes, a UNESCO site in its own right.