Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, buzzes with energy and dilapidated charm. Imposing office buildings, government ministries, and well-maintained colonial architecture bequeath some parts of the central city a prosperous, modern feel. Yet even with its hurried industry, its traffic and businesspeople, there is a sedateness. This is especially the case around palm-lined Place Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, the nerve-center of Port Louis, with its statues and colonial atmosphere. Across the highway from this central business area is Le Caudan Waterfront, a slick shopping center disconnected from the rest of downtown.
The rickety balconies and rough-and-tumble magic of the blocks around the Central Market are the real draw. The feel here is quite French, though more along the lines of New Orleans than Nice. There’s a Bourbon Street, a Chinatown, countless shops, old buildings, and a pleasingly grubby tumult. It’s impossible to stroll through and fail to be impressed by country’s ethos of coexistence across a range of ethnicities and religions. In Port Louis, a Buddhist nun, women in headscarves, churches, and Hindu social organizations all share space on the same block. This dizzyingly plural cultural setting is exciting.The center of the action is the Central Market itself. A highlight of any trip to Port Louis, the Central Market is huge tourist magnet as well as a social and commercial activity hub for locals. Approaching the market along Farquhar Street, to its west, tourists will begin to see the hawkers almost lick their lips at the prospect of new arrivals. “Here is my card. Come with me. Where are you from? What is your country?” goes the spiel. (What follows is an entertaining lesson in the island’s tourism demographics. “Germany? England? South Africa? Australia? Netherlands? Belgium? Spain? Greece? One of the new countries of Europe? Czech Republic? Bulgaria? Romania? New Zealand? Denmark? Norway?” All no. A deeply perplexed question follows: “But my friend, where are you from?”) The hawkers are subdued and easily bypassed.
Inside the Central Market, there are stalls hawking vegetables, meat, textiles, souvenirs (most of which are made not in Mauritius but in China and Madagascar), herbs designed to address various ailments, and prepared food. The environment is hectic though not overwhelming. On the inside of the market at least, most hawkers are fairly relaxed. This is especially the case in the ground floor produce sections where tourists are less commonplace. Some of the most picturesque items for sale include chili peppers, herbs for fighting cellulite and nervousness, blocks of tofu, and long purple eggplants.
Though the Central Market is a great place to get a sense of daily life in Port Louis and pick up something to eat, it’s not necessarily the best place to purchase souvenirs or other gifts. There are other venues in Port Louis and elsewhere in Mauritius for nabbing beautiful souvenirs that cannot be located elsewhere. Unlike tourist-oriented boutiques, however, the Central Market opens a window onto local culture. It should not be missed.
Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.