Could this be the same city, I wonder, nursing my sundowner on the grassy lawns of the hilltop Hotel Cardoso. This classic old-school hotel has been going for close on a century, with a rich history as the pre-election headquarters of the Renamo rebel movement.Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, is stretched out below my feet. The rumble of the city filters up through soft sub-tropical skies, while across Maputo Bay the beaches of Catembe wink back in the warm evening glow. The sun may be setting, but for Maputo it’s a new dawn.
When I first visited Maputo in 1996, memories of the civil war were fresh and the city still had the shell-shocked demeanor you’d expect after 15 years of bitter conflict. But that was then.
Since the millennium ticked over Mozambique’s fortunes have been transformed. Investment dollars have poured into the country, and the economy boasts one of the highest growth rates on the continent. From the cranes reaching their metal claws into the sub-tropical sunshine, to the streets where pavements are finally winning the war against potholes, Maputo is rising.
“People have this crazy notion that the city was wrecked by the war, which is entirely wrong,” says Jane Flood (+258 82 419 0574), a local tour guide passionate about the city’s rich architectural heritage.
It’s a heritage that ranges from symmetrical towers of colourful Art Deco balconies to statuesque apartment blocks fading gracefully in the humid air. Then there are the churches: the stark-white spire and vaulted ceiling of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (Rue da Rádio) drawing inspiration from the Notre Dame in Paris; a soaring example of Art Deco architecture given a religious bent. The striking Church of Santo Antonio da Polana (Ave. Kwame Nkrumah) is another highlight, its angular walls and circular shape leading locals to refer to it as ‘the lemon squeezer’.
Flood is particularly passionate about the works of architect Amancio ‘Pancho’ Guedes, the Portuguese-born architect who shaped much of the Maputo skyline in the mid-1900s.
“He was incredibly prolific, and a huge chunk of the city was designed by him,” says Flood, who leads weekly tours to admire the idiosyncratic works Guedes left behind. “His style was just as varied: he was inspired by the works of Antonio Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Much of his legacy is to be found in the historic portside district known as the baixa, a compact, charming corner of the city enjoying a new lease on life thanks to tourist dollars.
After a wander through the fresh produce stalls of the Central Market (Ave. Eduardo Mondlane) we stop for a break in the Jardim Tunduru Botanical Gardens (Rua Henrique de Sousa). It’s a calm respite from the frenetic pavements, and on its northern corner lies another architectural highlight of the city.
Alexandre Gustave Eiffel may be more famous for his Parisian tower, but his Casa do Ferro (Ave. Samora Machel), the Iron House, is as much of an attraction in Maputo. Imported from France for the colonial governor in 1892, the impracticalities of a solid iron house in the tropics were quickly discovered and it was mothballed for decades.
Across the gardens, the Teatro Avenida (1179 Avenida 25 de Setembro, +258 21 326501) is home to acclaimed theatre group Mutumbela Gogo. Most of its stage dramas are presented in Portuguese, but it’s a bellwether of the thriving art and music scene that has sprung up alongside Maputo’s reinvention. In the city’s train station I discovered a delightful gallery of local artists in the intimate and carefully curated Associacao Kulungwana (www.kulungwana.org.mz), while the Tilandia gallery (452 Ave. Julius Nyerere, +258 21 494 454) is the best place to discover the striking work of Gonçalo Mabunda. Famous for his installations crafted from defunct weaponry, he was the first Mozambican to exhibit at the Venice Biennale.
“The art scene here is thriving,” enthuses Flood, who says Sunday afternoons are the best time to visit Nucleo de Arte (http://nucleodearte.portalmoz.co.mz), a gallery and incubation studio for some of the city’s brightest young talent.
The burgeoning art scene isn’t the only surprise Maputo has in store. Mozambique’s long history as a Portuguese colony has seen the cultural blend of African and European influences filtering into the city’s kitchens.
Restaurante Piripiri (1232 Ave. 24 de Julho, +258 21 492 379) is a perfect example: this old-school diner has become an institution in the city centre and is packed day and night with crowds queuing for the flame-grilled Portuguese-style chicken served simply with green chillies and lemon.
Further down the Avenida, the Portuguese-inspired Náutilus Pastelaria (cnr Ave. Julius Nyerere & Ave. 24 de Julho) is the most famous bakery in Maputo and home to “the best pasties de nata in Maputo!” says my taxi driver with a smile, as I leave with a packet of the flaky pastry and custard tarts.
As the city booms and wallets grow fatter there’s been a surge in upmarket restaurants to match. The Delagoa at the five-star Polana Hotel (www.serenahotels.com) is popular with out-of-towners, while at Zambi (zambi.net), set in a colourful Pancho Guedes building on the seafront, chef Jorge Jordão whips together local flavours and continental techniques. Don’t miss his starter portion of crab samoosas, a perfect dance of flavour and texture.
But perhaps Zambi is too European, too familiar? I thought so, and hopped in one of the plentiful taxis to head out of town. Past the chic new Radisson Blu (www.radissonblu.com) hotel and out to where palm trees outnumber construction cranes. Out, to the end of Avenida Marginal.
This seafront promenade is where Maputo hangs out on the weekend. Fires are lit for grilled chicken; families spread picnics on the sand and football games kick off as the tide goes out. It’s a colourful, crowded corner of the city, and if you haven’t phoned ahead you can forget about getting a table at the Costa do Sol (10294 Ave. Marginal, +258 21 451 662).
This Maputo classic has been open for close on a century; colonialism and civil war passing by its Art Deco terrace. Tourists flock here for the platters of prawns doused in garlic and chilli, but rather order the prawn rissoles to start before moving on to the freshly dug clams steamed in their shells, served with crusty garlic bread. Order more bread to mop up the Prawns Naçional: plump shellfish cooked in a heady marinade of garlic, butter and beer.
At the table next to me a young Mozambican family chats happily over a platter piled high with prawns. Across the terrace suited businessmen discuss their next deal, while flashy German sedans crawl slowly past on the street outside. There’s an energy here, an optimism, and a lick of paint has given the Costa do Sol a new lease on life. Like so much of Maputo the change may have been slow in coming, but look beyond the chequered history and you’ll find that the future is bright indeed.
Mozambique New Metical
Citizens of most countries require a visa to visit Mozambique.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Expect dry days and moderate temperatures from May to November, while the mercury and rainfall spike dramatically during the peak summer season December to March. Maputo and resorts in the south of the country become extremely busy during Christmas and Easter holidays.