I tell you that for one shipload of pepper which may go to Alexandria or to other places, to be carried into Christian lands, there come more than one hundred of them to this port.

Thus wrote Marco Polo when he visited QUANZHOU (泉州, quánzhōu), then called Zaytoun (from the Arabic word for olive, symbol of peace and prosperity), in the late thirteenth century. At this time, Quanzhou was a great port, one of the two largest in the world, exploiting its deep natural harbour and sitting astride trade routes that reached southeast to Indonesian Maluku, and west to Africa and Europe. It became uniquely cosmopolitan, with tens of thousands of Arabs and Persians settling here, some of them to make colossal fortunes – the Arabs of Quanzhou are also believed responsible for introducing to the West the Chinese inventions of the compass, gunpowder and printing.

The Song and Yuan dynasties saw the peak of Quanzhou’s fortunes, when the old Silk Road through northwestern China into Central Asia was falling prey to banditry and war, deflecting trade seawards along the Maritime Silk Road. Polo was by no means the only European to visit Quanzhou around this time: the Italian Andrew Perugia, Quanzhou’s third Catholic bishop, died here in 1332, having supervised the building of a cathedral; and fourteen years later the great Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta saw the port bustling with large junks. But by the Qing era, the city was suffering from overcrowding and a decaying harbour, and an enormous exodus began, with people seeking new homes in Southeast Asia. According to Chinese government statistics, there are more than two million Quanzhounese living abroad today – which compares to just half a million remaining in the entire municipal area. Despite these depredations of history, Quanzhou today retains several reminders of its glorious past, and it’s certainly worth a stopover between Fuzhou and Xiamen.

Quanzhou is a small, prosperous and, so far, sympathetically preserved town. Located entirely on the northeast bank of the Jin River, the majority of its sights can be reached on foot. The two major north–south streets are Zhongshan Lu (中山路, zhōngshānlù) and Wenling Lu, with the town centre falling mainly between these two. The oldest part of town lies to the west and up along the northern section of Zhongshan Lu, where you’ll find attractively restored, colonial-era arcaded streets, lined with trees and packed with pedestrians and cyclists. As in Fuzhou, there are plenty of minor temples scattered around, perhaps the best of which is Tianhou Gong (天后宫, tiānhòu gōng), a large airy hall at the southern end of Zhongshan Lu, dedicated to southeastern China’s most popular deity, the Heavenly Empress.