MAPUTO, Mozambique - My wife and I were walking down a quiet street in this capital city when we realized it felt different from the other cities we'd visited during our two-month African voyage.

"They have all these cute sidewalk cafes," I said.

My wife, though, has a better eye for the big picture: "They have sidewalks," she said.

While South Africa's Johannesburg features a fully suburbanized lifestyle, and Zambia's Lusaka is dominated by poverty and pollution, much of this former Portuguese colonial capital looks as if it were built for an urban middle class.

This is an odd feeling in a city where major thoroughfares are named for the likes of Marx, Lenin, and Kim Il Sung. And it's even odder in a country that for much of its brief independence has been known as the impoverished site of a particularly brutal civil war.

But today, the city formerly known as Laurenco Marques is booming. There may still be an avenue named for Fidel Castro - who, after all, supported the country's independence struggle - but today the government has swung its economy toward the free market, and the capital teems with fashionable young Mozambicans chatting on imperialist cell phones and swilling capitalist soft drinks.

For tourists, most of whom, like us, will be on their way to the country's famed Indian Ocean beaches up the coast, the boom means a chance to sample some of Africa's best food, luxuriate in renovated colonial-era hotels, and glimpse the early steps in the revival of a city once known as the continent's prettiest.

In our case, the food was what we noticed first. We'd arrived overland from South Africa, following highways that, like America's, offer little beyond fast-food sandwiches. So imagine our pleasure when, a couple of hours after crossing the border, we were sitting on the terrace of a restaurant called Manjar Dos Deus, ordering crabmeat with ginger sauce and giant prawns as big as our fists.

Like the country's wonderfully mixed-up music, Mozambican cuisine reflects the array of people who have exerted their influence on the country. Many of the cooking techniques come from Portugal, the colonial master until 1975. But there are spices that transport you straight to India and the Persian Gulf, whose maritime traders plied Africa's southeast shore even before the Portuguese arrived in 1498.

And the main ingredient - mammoth, beautiful seafood - comes straight to the country's southern tip from the wild coastline that defines so much of Mozambique.

The feast continued the next day, when we topped off a morning stroll with a cafe lunch of toasted ham-and-cheese sandwiches on Portuguese bread at Vasilis, a bakery on the Avenida Mao Tse Tung.

And in the evening, it was on to more seafood. A friend who lives here met us for a drink as the sun set over the old harbor. He then drove us about 15 minutes up the coast to a vaguely Greek, 1920s-vintage restaurant called Costa del Sol, where the seafood specialties were accompanied by compelling starters such as fried, spiced cheese that was as tasty as it was unhealthful.

On the way back to the hotel, we asked our friend to drive by the home of Nelson Mandela, Maputo's most famous resident, whose wife is a former Mozambican first lady.

Mandela's house, alas, is hidden behind walls. But the building that stuck in our memories was a half-built skyscraper along the beach that was once supposed to become a Four Seasons hotel. In the frantic Portuguese exit after Mozambique's independence, departing colonialists poured concrete down its elevator shafts. It has sat dormant ever since.

Bustling as the country may be, its recent scars are ample, from the war-maimed beggars to wounded sightseeing "attractions" such as the city's botanical gardens, where the greenhouse windows are broken and plant life is notably absent. (We did get very nice cups of espresso in the garden's cafe, though).

Even the recent economic expansion, welcome as it may be, hasn't spread its bounty far beyond a small urban elite. And, of course, tourists - who enjoy the ATMs, boutique resorts, and easy Internet access.

But, in a way, this represents a sort of reversion to form for Mozambique. Back in the Portuguese days, the colony was a destination for apartheid-era white South Africans eager to take a break from their country's tight-laced rules - the "R and R" of a traditional vacation replaced with "P and P," for "prawns and prostitutes."

Likewise, the European, middle-class feeling of Maputo also reflects the inheritance of a painful, older history. The hundreds of thousands of Portuguese who had lived in the colony didn't come with the typical colonial plans - to make some money and boss around the natives for a few years - but with the idea of staying for good. Portugal in those days was a fairly poor country; many of the migrants weren't much better off than their new African neighbors.

Thus, the middle class that evolved was, in fact, a European one.

Still, beneath the real and psychic pockmarks of history, the city remains beautiful. Stately terraced apartment buildings could just as easily occupy corners in Granada, and a strikingly modernist Catholic cathedral evokes the good economic times of the pre-independence 1960s. The opulent Victorian Hotel Polana is a must-see, even for those who can't afford its steep rates.

And though the dilapidated state of the national rail network meant we didn't actually see any trains there, the palatial central rail station was perhaps the city's most memorable building. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame, the 1910 structure evokes all the grandeur and pomposity of the colonial efforts and lingers as a strangely compelling ornament in the center of downtown.

Not all of Eiffel's Mozambican buildings were so successful: He also built Casa de Ferro ("house of iron") for the governor, but its metal sides proved incompatible with the African sun, and it was quickly abandoned.

The contrasting currents of history that created a well-fed city of grand architecture - and led to decades of war over who would rule it - were on display at the Museum of the Revolution, which we visited on our last full day here.

The museum begins with pictures of Portuguese governors being carried on sedan chairs and ends in hagiographic accounts of the left-wing rebels who ousted them.

"A Luta Continua," says an inscription in Portuguese: "The struggle continues."

Of course, after being indoctrinated with revolutionary propaganda at the museum, we still had dinner to eat.

We found ourselves at the sidewalk cafe of O Pescadore, eating spicy pirri-pirri chicken and watching the new Mozambican world (or at least a narrow upscale portion of it) drift by. We washed down our meal with a dry, local beer and decided we'd sort out the cognitive dissonance of it all when we got to the white-sand beaches of Bilene the next day.

Seeing Maputo

You can fly to Maputo from Philadelphia International Airport, with two additional stops, on British Airways or United. The lowest recent round-trip airfare was about $1,957. Or, you can fly into Johannesburg, South Africa, with one additional stop, on those airlines or US Airways; the lowest recent airfare was about $1,000. It is a six- to seven-hour drive from Johannesburg to Maputo.

Places to stay

The Hotel Polana is Maputo's most beautiful colonial-era treasure, newly renovated. The Hotel Cardoso also has a pretty location, overlooking the city.

Places to eat

Manjar dos Deus is a cozy Portuguese restaurant at 162 Avenida Julius Nyerere. Piri-Piri, at the corner of Avenida 24 de Julho and Avenida Nyerere, serves grilled chicken with traditional spices. At the Fish Market, north of town, you can buy beautiful prawns and seafood and have it cooked at several adjacent restaurants.

Things to do

Take a walk around downtown and gawk at the ornate colonial architecture. More recent - and more painful - history is on display at the Museum of the Revolution. Spend a day at the beach at beautiful Inhaca Island, a short ferry ride from the harbor.

More information


Contact staff writer Michael Currie Schaffer at 215-854-4565 or