by Robert La Bua
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 indeed be off the beaten path for mainstream travellers, but intrepid souls whomake 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 for visitors of nearly all nationalities.
Mauritania may not be Mauritius, the country with which it is often confused, but this large nation in northwestern Africa shares an alluring trait with the tiny 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 may be spotted cavorting surprisingly close to the shore. On the beaches of Mauritania, the byword is serenity.
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 1960. Since then, a constant influx of migrants from other parts of the country have increased the population to approximately 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, though the newly opened house museum under the aegis of the Vergnol Foundation promises to be an outstanding addition to the cultural landscape. With the ambitious goal of being a repository of Mauritanian history, Thierry Vergnol has set about acquiring all sorts of Mauritania-related memorabilia, from postcards to posters, maps to traps, Monsieur Vergnol’s dedication has served him well. Located in a modern structure one block from the French Institute, itself an important venue for Mauritanian cultural events such as concerts, lectures, handicraft fairs, and films shown in one of the few cinemas in the city. Lucky visitors in town at the right time may catch a movie presentation by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, whose astonishing film Timbuktu was nominated in the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Academy Awards.
‘Cultural attractions’ is a relative term, though; the whole city of Nouakchott is one large cultural attraction. Both men and women wearing distinctive flowing robes; authentic handicrafts are for sale by the artisans who make them; and vans drive 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 unique and beautiful fragrance whose formula is a closely guarded secret. 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. Other markets in Nouakchott such as Marché Capital and the Sixième Market, are similarly atmospheric and interesting.
More refined works of art can be found at several galleries in the city. Foremost among them is Galerie Zeinart, where Portuguese expatriate Isabel Fiadeiro has been fostering the careers of Mauritanian artists for decades. Zeinart’s displays change weekly to give artists from across West Africa the chance to display their works in a fair-trade environment. Also prominent on the art scene is Galerie Sinaa, housed in a red building a few streets back from La Palmeraie. Gallery owner Marie works full time as a teacher at the French school but, like Isabel, is tirelessly dedicated to promoting the work of Mauritanian and West African artists.
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 private garden.
Swirling robes, colourful boats, entrancing concerts, interesting people. Nouakchott may just dazzle visitors after all. Though the city will not win any urban beauty contests in the near future, its raffish charms are there to be discovered by visitors who actually see what they are looking at. The small international community, extraordinarily friendly in welcoming visitors into its convivial circle, is a fountain of information about travel and life in general in one of the least familiar countries in the world. One is just as likely to bump carts in the supermarket with a dedicated NGO worker brimming with enthusiasm as bump into an urbane ambassador enjoying a croissant in the bakery. No less friendly, and perhaps much more curious about visitors, Mauritania’s diverse population is a cosmopolitan mix of North African, sub-Saharan, Lebanese, and European influences; the vast majority of inhabitants of Nouakchott speak at least two or three languages. English is not always one of them, though, which perhaps explains why Mauritania is not better known to the world’s travellers who use English as their lingua franca. For those of us whose Hassaniya, Wolof, Pulaar, and Bambara are a bit rusty, French will go a long way in facilitating communication with the locals.
Once familiar with the capital, visitors can venture to the fascinating sights of Mauritania beyond Nouakchott. Tales of the Sahara have enchanted readers and listeners for centuries. Yet today, the place that has inspired countless stories, novels, and fantasies remains relatively unvisited by the world’s travellers. At a time when urban travel is growing at a fast rate, bursting the seams of Paris, Rome, and Barcelona, exploration of less-populated areas of the world brings a certain level of serene satisfaction in expanding the mind in sometimes unexpected ways. Instead of an hour-long wait to get into The Louvre, there is no wait at all to see the source of artifacts found in famous museums where throngs of people, phones held above their heads, clamour to see exotic artworks from faraway lands. Adventurous travellers these days simply visit the faraway lands, having their destination to themselves. Mauritania is such a place.
What there is of a tourism industry in Mauritania is extremely small. The annual number of non-VFR (visiting friends and relatives) visitors can be measured in thousands rather than millions. This is not because tourists are unwelcome in Mauritania; they certainly are, beginning with an easy entry procedure; as mentioned, travellers of nearly every nationality can receive visas on arrival at the Nouakchott-Oumtounsy International Airport and at land border crossings.
It is worth making the effort to reach the ancient cities of Chinguetti and Ouadane. Although the drive from Mauritania’s capital may at times seem long, it is not arduous; the new highway makes the ride surprisingly comfortable and it passes through some spectacular scenery. A stop at Terjit oasis instantly refreshes and rewards visitors with a river of greenery and literally breathtaking views for those who huff and puff on the climb to the top of the cliffs. The final payoff on arrival in Chinguetti will be substantial for those who can visualise the past from the vestiges that remain today. Chinguetti was once upon a time a major entrepôt on the trans-Saharan trade route and an important centre for scholars of the ancient Islamic world. Today, the libraries where they studied have garnered Chinguetti, along with nearby Oudane and Mauritania’s other ancient cities, a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. Though the honey-coloured stone buildings of Chinguetti and Ouadane stand stark against the dunes of the desert encroaching on their very existence, the dunes themselves are almost bewitching in their beauty, works of art created by the winds that etch them with undulating lines across vast plains as far as the eye can see. La Gueïla, a charming guesthouse run by the equally charming Frenchwoman Sylvette, offers a comfortable place to stay as well as delicious meals. Sylvette can arrange haima tents to be set up on the dunes for a dinner or a night under the stars as well as excursions to Ouadane and further into the heart of Mauritania.
Perhaps in our rush-rush world, slow travel will develop a dedicated following similar to the one devoted to the Slow Food movement. If so, Mauritania will definitely be on the menu.
Robert La Bua is a travel writer and television guest travel expert who has had more than 1000 articles published in print and online publications across the world in the past 16 years. Having a particular affinity for African destinations, his travels have taken him from Tunisia to South Africa, Senegal to Djibouti, and many places in between. Two recent visits to Mauritania have been highly rewarding and leave him wanting to visit again in the near future to explore more of this beautiful country.