Time passes quickly when you’re in Maputo, especially on a first visit. One moment you’re eating a pastel de nata for breakfast and the next you’re having flame-grilled crayfish for dinner. Here’s my advice about what to do during a two-day visit to Mozambique‘s capital city.
I walk through Pancho Guedes’ Maputo – what was then Lourenço Marques – a cityscape transformed by his characteristic H-shaped buildings that allow for the flow of natural light, with their visceral designs, extended drain pipes and chimneys, and mosaiced façades. Guedes was to Maputo what Gaudi was to Barcelona. Students of architecture pilgrimage to the seaside capital city to see his buildings beyond the printed pages of a book, to admire how sunlight falls on their curves, and how shadows creep into their corners.
Jane Flood, of Maputo a pe walking tours, takes me to but a few of the 100-odd buildings Guedes designed during his 25-year career in this, his adopted homeland, which led to the incorporation of African motifs in his designs. Guedes was a provocateur, who was dubbed the alternative modernist. His architecture was one of the imagination that fused art and architecture.
His former home along Avenida Julius Nyerere embodies his creative notion of building inside out. His vision flows out onto the pavement through the black swirls of the wrought iron gate. In the changing socio-economic landscape, many of his buildings have been restored and have taken on a new function: one houses an NGO, another is a TV company, yet another is home to a pastel-painted frozen yoghurt parlour – where we indulge in respite from the humid heat – there are apartment blocks with peeling paint and even a hair dresser.
As we flâner along crumbling pavements down streets named after philosophers, poets and socialist leaders – a brief history lesson on Mozambique’s communist past – we pass the works of fellow architect José Forjaz and the Santo Antonio da Polana church, which is dubbed the Lemon Squeezer for its shape. By now I can distinguish between the Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Bauhaus buildings that delight photographers looking for symmetrical compositions.
The mustard yellow Smiling Lion apartment block with its sinuous, convex ceiling and mosaic detailing is like an illustration from a child’s storybook. There’s delight in the detail. But it’s also a reminder of Mozambique’s recent history, as it is located across the street from the military base.
Later, I tiptoe between what seem to be segments of tanks, a car radiator, rocket launchers and mortar shells on the sandy ground in a courtyard. There’s a metal heap of bullet belts, soldiers’ helmets and other deconstructed bits of weaponry I can’t make out. Lifeless bullet shells lie like confetti.
Traditional African masks are nailed to the wall, above a wooden workshop table, but they’re not made of mahogany that shines with a coat of shoe polish nor are they made of hand-carved stone. Instead the eyes are bullets, the nose is a handgun barrel and the ears are hollow grenades.
This is the workshop of sculptor Gonçalo Mabunda, one of 10 artists part of the ‘Transforming Guns into Hoes’ programme led by the Christian Council of Mozambique. After the 16-year-long civil war ended in 1992, it offered ploughing instruments and seed grain, bicycles, and sewing machines in exchange for firearms and weapons. More than 800 000 weapons have been decommissioned and given to Mabunda and fellow artistes to be used as a medium of expression.
These remnants of war are made into masks and thrones that narrate the country’s past and reflect on post-conflict Mozambique. It’s a cathartic comment on national memory and reconciliation and Mabunda’s artwork has been exhibited in London, Paris, New York, Tokyo as well as at last year’s Biennale in Venice.
As we leave, his parting remark is that we visit Núcleo de Arte – a co-op atelier, where seedlings grow in a muraled corner while canvases with generous dollops of paint dry against the boundary wall. The adjoining gallery displays a dog made of tyre rubber, a car radiator with a distorted smile, carved muses and an upcycled robot out front. This is the place for flowing conversation over drinks, as jazz fills the courtyard on a Sunday by the light of dusk.
Maputo is the nucleus of Mozambique’s art scene, but it’s not just in the formal spaces of art galleries and museums that one becomes aware of this fact: it’s in the streets, the designs of mosaiced buildings and in the fancy footwork at Face to Face bar, where locals make the moon blush with their sensual khizomba moves.
By morning, the neoclassical building that houses the Maputo Central Market has a steady flow of locals – mostly mothers with children hiding behind the folds of their kitenges – who have come to buy ingredients for dinner.
Frozen fish thaw in streaks of sunlight that slice the market into dark and light, while sand-covered crabs lie in cardboard boxes. Fruits, balanced one atop the other, are arranged according to the colour wheel. Buy bird’s eye chillies here if you want to make your own peri-peri sauce, ask for the traditional recipe that was brought by Portuguese colonialists and mastered by Mozambicans.
Chatter is interspersed with machetes striking coconut shells. I am offered coconut water, sticky custard apple, a handful of cashews and avocado sprinkled with sugar, as I meander between the market stalls. There’s also an offer to braid my hair with extensions at one of the many beauty stalls on edge of the market.
Then I’m pointed in the direction of Casa Elefante, across the street. It’s here that the city’s women buy kitenge. I’m given a demonstration of how to wear the motley East African fabric; it’s wrapped around my chest, then my waist, I can even wear it as a headscarf and later I see it being used as a baby sling.
A walk past the yellow and green Jumma Mosque through Baixa – named so after one of Lisbon’s downtown neighbourhoods – reveals more of the city’s colourful character. Stop at a pavement cafe for a pastel de nata egg tart and espresso, before you continue through the red light district towards the train station. Perhaps it is the iron latticework dome, or that it was designed by French engineer Gustave Eiffel, but Architectural Review named it one of the world’s 10 most beautiful train stations. (You can find more photographs of the train station in my 2015 in Photographs post.)
Once you pass the artefacts within the Fortaleza de Maputo fort, from there it’s an uphill walk along Samora Machel Avenue, so you may want to rest in the Tounduru botanical gardens. You’ll know you’re there once you reach Machel’s statue on your right. Across the street is the Iron House (Cassa do Ferro), another of Eiffel’s works, although not as popular initially as the pre-fabricated metal house does not fare well in the tropical climate. The governor for whom it was built abandoned it and it’s now the Ministry of Art and Culture.
A few steps further up is Independence Square with its neoclassical City Hall and another, bigger statue of Machel and the neighbouring whitewashed, Art Deco Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
By now, it’s time for a siesta at Chez Rangel, the music bar established by photographer Ricardo Rangel. Grab a Mac Mahon or two, known as a 2M among locals, before heading off to dinner where you’ll have a choice of Portuguese Trinchado, peri-peri chicken livers or succulent crayfish, at some of the city’s finest eateries: Zambi (yet another building designed by Guedes), Taverna or Sagres. Then it’s off to sample the nightlife that Maputo is so well known for at Coconuts Live. And before you know it, sunrise will bring in another day in the coastal city where time is a fleeting.
A number of Mozambican islands and archipelagos are easily accessible from Maputo. Be sure to read about my island holiday on Bazaruto Island, if you’re planning a trip this part of the world.
Which is your favourite city to visit on a short stay? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.
I was hosted by Southern Sun Maputo and thought I’d tell you a few things to do on your visit. I maintain full editorial control of all content published on this website. You can find more of my photographs from this road trip on my Instagram account by using the #EagerJourneystoMoz hashtag.