One of the least-visited countries in the world, Mauritania is as far off the beaten path as one can get in our highly connected world. Extending over territory that transitions from sand dunes of the Sahara to, well, more sand dunes around the coastal capital of Nouakchott, Mauritania may well be off the beaten path for mainstream travellers, but intrepid souls who make their way here are gratefully rewarded for their efforts. The secret is that it’s not all that hard to get to Mauritania; Air France has nonstop service from Paris and visas on arrival are available at the airport.
Mauritania may not be Mauritius, but this large country in northwestern Africa shares an alluring trait with the Indian Ocean island off the continent’s southeastern flank. Both have beautiful beaches, but there are no fancy resorts on Mauritania’s long, deserted strand of sand stretching hundreds of kilometres. Shocking to almost everyone is the pristine state of the beach, a place where nature reigns both on land and in the sea where dolphins are often spotted cavorting surprisingly close to the shore. On the beaches of Mauritania, the byword is serenity.
National Museum exhibits
Nouakchott does not dazzle in the way other North African cities such as Marrakesh, Tunis, and Cairo do, but it has its charms. Everything is very chill in Nouakchott, which was transformed from small village to national capital in 1958. Since then, a constant influx of migrants from other parts of the country have increased the population to nearly one million inhabitants, making Nouakchott one of the largest cities in the Sahel region. With only a handful of cultural attractions as defined by Western standards, the must-see list is rather short; one highlight is the National Museum Of Mauritania. ‘Cultural attractions’ is a relative term, though; the whole city is one large cultural attraction, with both men and women wearing distinctive flowing robes, authentic handicrafts for sale by the artisans who made them, and vans driving by with camels as passengers. The men’s garments, called boubous, are meant to make a statement. Simple white cotton boubous bereft of any embroidery are the simplest ones; more affluent Mauritanian men wear white, light blue, or even black robes made of expensive cloth imported from Germany. In order to ensure authenticity and thwart counterfeiters, the German cloth is impregnated with a beautiful fragrance whose formula is a closely guarded secret. Vibrant dark blue robes signal the wearer is of Touareg descent. Women, too, of course have their own traditional garb, here called melahfa, which like the men’s boubou serves to protect the wearer from sun and sand while simultaneously providing the level of sartorial modesty expected in public in a Muslim country.
Cloth of all kinds is available at the busy Cinquième Market, a bustling market typical of African commerce where a great diversity of merchandise is available for purchase. A trip here is certain to leave an indelible impression. Visitors who appreciate skincare products will marvel at the pyramids of dense shea butter in its pure form, sliced to order, as well as handicrafts made by artisans to complement the plastic products from China.
It is the fish market, though, that presents the quintessence of Mauritanian daily life as it has been lived for centuries. The busy market is best in late afternoon, when dozens of
traditionally painted pirogues return to shore with the evening’s dinner. Before or after a hearty meal, the busy bakery of La Palmeraie is the place to find excellent French and Mauritanian breads and desserts. La Palmeraie is the equivalent of a lobby for the entire city; spend a morning here and it is likely one will observe people from the worlds of politics, cinema, and diplomacy pass through the doors to pick up orders or enjoy meals in the dining room or the lush private garden.
La Palmeraie is just a few hundred metres from the French Institute, the de facto cultural heart of the city where a busy calendar of events takes place throughout the year. From simple artisans who travel from far and wide to display their wares in the handicraft festival to a presentation of films by Academy Award-nominated Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, with lively concerts and useful language lessons in between, the French Institute provides a welcome platform for very aspect of cultural life in the city.
Swirling robes, colourful boats, entrancing concerts, interesting people. Nouakchott may just dazzle visitors after all.
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