Sunday, 22 September 2013

Saint Denis Mosque

Saint Denis' mosque has its origins in 1892, when six Gujarati tradesmen bought a building at 111 rue du Grand Chemin for religious purposes. At that time about 130 Gujaratis (called z'arabes locally) had settled in Reunion over the previous 20 years.

the minaret of St Denis mosque

In 1897 a request was made to build a mosque, and authorisation was granted the following year by Governor Beauchamp. As the muslim community was small it took seven years to build the edifice, located on the same street as the previous building, now called rue Maréchal-Leclerc. The Noor-E-Islam mosque, covering an area of 720m2, was officially inaugurated on 28th November 1905. Its name means "light of Islam" in Arabic, and until Mayotte became a French department in 2011 it was France's oldest mosque.

the minaret is 32 metres high

On 12th October 1974 fire in a neighbouring building destroyed some of the wooden structures surrounding the mosque, but the courtyard and prayer hall were untouched. Following this a gallery of shops was built to replace the wooden buildings, and rue Maréchal Leclerc became the busy shopping street it is now. Today Reunion is home to about 50 000 Muslims, and there are around forty different religious buildings specific to Islam in Reunion; some of them are Shi’ite but most are Sunni.

the mosque is located in a busy shopping street

The Noor-E-Islam mosque can be visited all year round (dress respectfully and be prepared to take off your shoes inside), but I visited it this year as part of the Heritage Open Days (non-Muslims are allowed into mosques, as long as they do not sleep or eat there). The entrance is sheltered behind a series of columns, and when you enter the courtyard (sahn) you are immediately struck by the tranquil atmosphere after the bustle outside. 

part of the mosque courtyard

Located close to the entrance is the ablutions area, as ritual purification must precede all prayers.

ablution area

After the courtyard is the prayer hall (djamat khana), which has capacity for 500. The mosque's interior design is classic, and predominantly white and green. When you enter the prayer hall immediately opposite you is the mihrab, a semicircular niche that indicates the direction of Mecca (qibla) i.e. the direction that Muslims should face when praying. To the right of the mihrab is the minbar, the pulpit where the prayer leader (imam) delivers sermons.
mihrab and minbar in the prayer hall

prayer hall windows

framed Koranic verse

framed Koranic surat (chapter )

The mosque is easily identifiable by its 32-metre high white minaret topped with a dome designed to withstand cyclones. 

The minaret was built as part of the 1975-1978 restoration work following the fire in 1974. It is decorated with jalis, perforated marble screen decorations.

Minaret dome

Having visited mosques all over Asia, I'm pleased that after more than 20 years in Reunion I finally got round to visiting this beautiful mosque so close to home! 

Chateau Lauratet

During the Heritage Open Days 2013 (Journées du Patrimoine) we visited Chateau Lauratet, in Reunion's capital, Saint Denis.

Chateau Lauratet, Saint Denis

I had often noticed this elegant period building located at number 44, rue Alexis de Villeneuve, and was glad to be able to visit it at last.

looking back over the front garden from the house terrace

It's currently home to the Chambre Régionale des Comptes de la Réunion (the Regional Audit Chamber for Reunion), and while most of the Chamber's offices are located in a modern building built in 1987 (just visible to the right in the top photo), the Creole house holds the Chamber President's offices and personal living quarters, surrounded by 2600m2 of garden.

Audit Chamber display inside Chateau Lauratet

On 8th February 1787 Jean-Baptiste Lecolier sold Jean-Joseph Pajot a large piece of land with a house. Pajot lived here with his wife Ursule Lagourgue and their nine children. The main part of the house, including the three French windows at the front, date from this period. The property remained in the Pajot family until 1861, and eventually in 1876 it was acquired by Anaïs Lauratet, wife of a prosperous merchant.

inside the house

The Lauratet couple modernised the house, taking their inspiration from an architectural style introduced to the island in the 1840s and visible at what is now the Leon Dierx Museum in the nearby Rue de Paris (built 1842-1843), and Chateau Morange, a larger but similar building somewhat further away (built 1853-1860). The Lauratets had the imposing entrance built as well as the unique wrought-iron gate, and added balustrades and other decorative elements such as the roof-top decorative Medici vases which are also unique to Chateau Lauratet. The architect was Mr Chatel, who came to Reunion to build Saint Denis' Town Hall, and it is said that the work was carried out by labourers who had come to Reunion to build the railway.

back of the house

Anaïs Lauratet died in the house in 1896, and in 1910 it was put up for sale. In 1917 it was sold to Augustine Kerveguen (née Villèle), before being sold in 1926 to the Cazal family, local printers, who bequeathed it to the nation on October 23rd 1984. It was then assigned to the Regional Audit Chamber.

custard apples growing in the garden

The garden holds several magnificent trees, including a strawberry guava (goyavier) with an unusually large trunk and a custard apple tree.

strawberry guava with an unusually large trunk

cocoa fruit on a tree in the garden

Unless you're in Saint Denis during the annual Heritage Open Days, held every September, you may not be able to visit Chateau Lauratet, but at least now you'll know what the building is and a little bit about its history!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Mascarin Botanical Conservatory

The Mascarin Botanical Conservatory (Conservatoire Botanique de Mascarin) is a botanical garden and national conservatory covering 12.5 hectares located above Saint-Leu at an elevation of 500 metres.

Like several other places in Reunion it's somewhere I'd visited before, about 15 years ago, but not recently.

water lily & fish

It's home to plants that are endemic to Réunion and found nowhere else in the world, and also has collections of coffee trees, tropical fruit trees, palm trees, cacti, orchids and ferns. 


It was established in 1986 on land which originally belonged to the family of the Marquis Antoine Sosthène Armand de Châteauvieux.

looking across the garden to the adjacent hillsides

In 1993 it became one of France's eight Conservatoires Botaniques Nationaux (National Botanical Conservatories). It not only focuses on the conservation, cultivation and propagation of rare and threatened plants endemic to Réunion, but also the management and monitoring of species in their natural habitats.

cup of gold vine and bougainvillea

  • Indigenous (or native) - an organism growing naturally, brought by birds or wind but not by man, the same organism may be found elsewhere in the world. Reunion has 848 indigenous species, which account for 49% of the island's flora. 605 species are flowering plants, and the remaining 243 species are spore-producing (e.g. ferns).
  • Endemic - a unique native organism which is confined to a well-defined area and has evolved into a species of its own. Of the 848 indigenous species, 237 (28%) are endemic to Reunion, and 153 (18%) are endemic to the Mascarene Islands.
  • Exotic - an organism introduced by man. Reunion has 867 exotic species (not counting cultivated plants).

The actual garden covers 3 hectares and contains about 4000 plant species endemic to the Mascarene Islands. It's organised into seven sections:
  • Réunion collection - indigenous flora, including more than 50 endemic species.
  • 'Lontan' plants - a historical collection of local agricultural plants, including coffee, spices, fruit trees, sugar cane, and geraniums.
  • Orchard - more than 50 fruit tree species.
  • Succulents - succulent plants and exotic cacti, including species from the Americas and Africa.
  • Palm trees - endemic and exotic palm trees.
  • Orchids - orchids and ferns.
  • Bamboo ravine - bamboos.

colour-coded map showing the Garden's seven different sections

The Mascarene islands consist of Reunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues. While Reunion has managed to keep 30-40% of its original vegetation, in Mauritius this figure drops to 2% and on Rodrigues it's less than 4%. Although Rodrigues has  50 indigenous species and 40 endemic species all of the latter are considered rare, endangered or vulnerable.

artwork in the garden using wire and organic matter

We started our visit by a guided tour of the Reunion collection, which represents what the leeward, semi-arid west coast probably looked like about 400 years ago before humans arrived.

general view of part of the Reunion collection

The Mazambron marron (aloe macra) is a species of Aloe endemic to Reunion. It was formerly used to treat boils and to wean breastfed babies as it has a bitter taste.

Aloe macra,  known as Mazambron marron

The Song of India or Pleomele (Dracaena reflexa), known locally as Bois de Chandelle, can sometimes grow up to 15 metres high but its normal height is 4-5 metres. It's often used as a tutor for vanilla cultivation.

Bois de chandelle / Song of India

The collection of cacti and succulents show how plants have the ability to adapt to particularly difficult conditions such as lack of water.

view of the cactus & succulent collection, showing a baobab (right)

The Crown of thorns is a succulent shrub indigenous to Madagascar which can grow  to about 2 metres tall.

Crown of thorns

The cactus known as Barbary fig is native to Mexico, but can also be found in many other parts of the world.

Barbary fig flowers

the fruits of the barbary fig are known as tuna

an interesting 'prickly' tree trunk 

The palm collection not only presents species endemic to Reunion, but also from other countries. The Red Latan Palm is an endangered species of palm endemic to Reunion which can grow up to 12 metres high. Its trunk was used for house construction, its leaves were used for roofing and its fruit, known locally as pomme latanier, is the island's only endemic fruit.

Red Latan Palm known as Latanier Rouge in Reunion

I was interested to see the four talipots, a palm which is native to Sri Lanka. The ones in the garden have not yet reached their full height, which can be 25 metres. What is remarkable about these palms is that they flower once, only after up to 70 years. It takes a year for the fruit to mature, then the palm dies. I've only ever seen one talipot flower, in the 1990s in Saint Denis' Jardin de l'Etat.


There are 100 000 species of  orchids and 10 000 species of ferns in the world - obviously the Mascarin Garden can only show a tiny percentage of these. Reunion has 120 species of endemic orchids.

these ferns have been planted in an old manure storage pit

Cymbidium orchid

Vanda orchid

On the property the main house and some outbuildings have survived. They were built by the Marquis Antoine Sosthènes d'Armand de Chateauvieux who settled here in 1857 with his wife and ten children. His estate originally covered 660 hectares, stretching from the coast to the mountains. 

the main house

The interior of the main house has been renovated and decorated with period furniture.

back of the main house

the old stables have been converted into an outdoor eating area

Useful information:
  • Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
  • Guided visits at 11 a.m. (except Saturdays), 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. 
  • An admission fee is charged.

Useful links: