Maputo: The sinking cathedral

The capital of Mozambique is struggling to surface from the floods that engulfed the nation. Maputo is fighting hard - a city without airs and graces and all the energy in the world

Maputo is slowly sinking into the sea. Seventeen years of civil war - from 1975 to 1992 - has left the city terribly run down. And the torrential rain of last February has tinted Maputo's concrete a little greyer and made its potholes a little deeper. The capital of Mozambique is built on a type of rust-red soil which has all the properties of instant gravy powder. The floods left a cavernous hole where Avenida Julius Nyerere used to be and placed such landmarks as the Polana Hotel and President Joaquim Chissano's residence under threat.

Maputo is slowly sinking into the sea. Seventeen years of civil war - from 1975 to 1992 - has left the city terribly run down. And the torrential rain of last February has tinted Maputo's concrete a little greyer and made its potholes a little deeper. The capital of Mozambique is built on a type of rust-red soil which has all the properties of instant gravy powder. The floods left a cavernous hole where Avenida Julius Nyerere used to be and placed such landmarks as the Polana Hotel and President Joaquim Chissano's residence under threat.

But this is Africa, so the band plays on - not in some mournful drone but in an upbeat, toe-tapping rhythm that tells you everything just might come right if you let yourself go and dance. None of the colour has gone from the dazzling red flame trees or the mauve jacarandas that hang above black and white mosaic pavements. And, despite a brief frenzy of malarial mosquitoes, none of the fun has gone out of this quirky Commonwealth capital.

Maputo lies just a few hours drive from the shopping malls and Americanised order of Johannesburg. Yet here, everyone speaks Portuguese and Shangaan, the climate is subtropical, the architecture Mediterranean and crime is relatively negligible. Nightclubs swing to soulful rhythms rather than angry urban sounds, and, to keep your stamina up, you can always pick up a plate of galinha piri-piri (spicy chicken), matapas (cassava leaf stew) or bacalhau (dried cod).

The Mozambican capital has its daylight attractions too. Gustave Eiffel had a hand in designing the city's stunning railway station, and in building the casa do ferro (house of steel), originally destined to be the Portuguese governor general's residence, but which proved too hot to live in.

Equally incongruous is the Louis Tregardt Trek memorial garden, which commemorates the Boer pioneer's disastrous attempts to secure Lourenço Marques - as Maputo was then called - as a sea port.

The city where Vasco da Gama landed (around 1498) also has an all-concrete Art Deco cathedral (right), a Neo-Classical city hall and overgrown Botanical Gardens, designed in 1883 by the obligatory Englishman - in this case, Thomas Honney.

The Mercado Central, or covered market, is the best place to buy cashew nuts and beautiful baskets, but a more peaceful excursion would be a boat trip to Catembe, a suburb that is to Maputo as Brooklyn is to Manhattan.

What you will not find in your guidebook is the feel of Maputo. The atmosphere seems to change just about every month, as Portuguese settler families who fled at independence or during the civil war return to their African roots, bearing entrepreneurial ideas and investment for the local tourism infrastructure, and espresso machines.

Ponder Mozambique's tourist potential as you lounge on the terrace of Café Nautilus, sipping a cappuccino (caffe latte has yet to arrive) and sinking your teeth into thick wedges of buttered toast. Street traders ply batiks, cigarette lighters and wooden carvings, while you decide whether to go snorkelling or bird watching at Inhaca Island marine reserve, or simply to relocate to Avenida Marginal for shopping at Artedif and eating plates of fat prawns at Costa do Sol. If you are feeling energetic, go to Xai-Xai, the seaside resort which was totally submerged by the floods. The main road there was washed away altogether, so you will have to stay overnight to allow for the detour.

The trouble with all this is that Maputo is a difficult place for which to make plans; something will inevitably happen to distract you from them. The last time I was there, a quick drink at Djambo turned into an evening spent with a crowd that included Eusebio, the legendary Portuguese footballer of Mozambican descent, who played for the Lisbon team Benfica during their golden era. If you don't meet him, you might bump into the country's new superstar, Maria de Lurdes Mutola, the 800-metre runner who, in Sydney, gave Mozambique its first ever Olympic gold medal.

From Djambo, we moved on to the new Art Bar in Rua de Bagamoyo, the city's former red-light district. Some will tell you to avoid this area. Go. This is where the city's most talented musicians can be found - especially between Thursday and Sunday, and generally after 11pm. Things are pretty relaxed. If you don't like one band, you can simply take your glass to another bar in the old port area. When everything else is getting boring, head to the long-established Feira Popular - a kind of open-air fairground composed entirely of little huts, rendered festive with bunting and striped awnings. People come here to dance and to eat.

It is the combination of elegance and decline that constitutes Maputo's personality - as if Lisbon has been shipped to Africa.

Unlike other cities on the continent, Maputo is unusually cosmopolitan, simply because it has no airs and graces. People of all races and from all backgrounds go drinking and dancing in the same venues, and even the large influx of South African businesspeople has yet to take the spontaneous soul out of the city.

Getting there The two main options are on TAP Air Portugal (0845 601 0932) from Gatwick or Heathrow via Lisbon, or South African Airways (020 7312 5000) from Heathrow via Johannesburg. Through a discount agent, such as the Africa Travel Centre (020 7387 1211), the fare on Portugal for travel next January is £551 return.

Visas Uou need one, which can be obtained from the Mozambican High Commission at 21 Fitzroy Square, London W1P 5HJ (020-7383 3800). You must submit a passport, two photos and a completed application form, and allow six working days for processing.

Eclipses Both the 2001 and 2002 total eclipses of the sun will be visible in Mozambique. The book 'Africa & Madagascar Total Eclipse 2000 & 2001' (Bradt, £10.95) is very useful, as is the associated eclipse website that you can visit through www.bradt-travelguides.com.

More information National Tourism Fund, Av 25 de Setembro 1502, PO Box 614, Maputo, Mozambique, 00 258 1 307 320; www.mozambique.mz/turismo/eindex for information in English. The two leading guidebooks are 'Mozambique' by Mary Fitzpatrick (Lonely Planet, £11.99) and 'Travellers' Survival Kit: Mozambique' by Adam Lechmere (£10.99)

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