Abundant history: Architecture in Maputo is rich and varied, from Art Deco and Modernist to the neoclassical lines of the city hall. Picture: WIKIMEDIA
Abundant history: Architecture in Maputo is rich and varied, from Art Deco and Modernist to the neoclassical lines of the city hall. Picture: WIKIMEDIA

An hour’s flight from the urban hustle of Joburg and you might as well be in another world — stepping into the pages of one of Hemingway’s novels.

And yet, there we are, sitting on cane bar stools, fans swirling overhead, sipping long, icy drinks in an attempt to beat the heat and humidity outside.

Such is a weekend escape to Maputo. The Mozambican capital city is a little bit shabby, a lot tropical and undeniably sexy. It sports a colonial-meets-communist legacy that makes it seem like it’s Southern Africa’s very own "Havana lite" (sans hurricanes, of course).

We’re staying at the newly revamped Southern Sun for the weekend. The hotel is adorned with palm trees, right on the beach and comes complete with all the trappings of a seaside spot from another time. There are polished verandahs, Spanish-style red roofs and air-conditioned lounges with linen couches where the who’s who of the city take shelter for whispered conversations and gin and tonics in the late afternoon.

You understand how weary guests come here for an escape and don’t leave the property … or the pool, more likely.

But they should venture further afield. A quick tuk-tuk ride away, over the hill or along the Avenida Marginal (the beach road), are streets pulsing with life and history. Whichever way you look at it, this is a damn beautiful place.

Maputo’s wide streets are punctuated with jacarandas, variegated crotons and other sultry plants that give the impression that any minute now they plan to takeover. It’s a 130-year-old city (one year younger than Joburg) that’s already had one hell of an existence. This includes making it through colonisation, a liberation struggle, a civil war and, lately, significant economic problems.

The city’s buildings tell this story straight off the bat. Maputo is an architecture-lovers fantasy. Jaded Art Deco beauties vie for attention alongside even older structures decorated with Manueline arches and fripperies. You can imagine this city "modernising" in the thirties and forties and its trendy types looking to New York and the likes for style inspiration. These old girls are juxtaposed with a bevy of Modernist buildings that could make devotees of this mid-20th century style overdo it on Instagram in a heartbeat.

This is, of course, the world of architects Pancho Guedes and Jose Forjaz and when I join a bunch of Mpumalanga architects on a walking tour, led by expert Walter Tembe, to see the city’s buildings, we all stand, staring up, slack-jawed.

The crazy but seriously cool imaginings of Guedes are something to behold. His was a mind that envisioned a physical world where organic and mathematical elements contrast each other and have a lot of fun in the process. It’s not surprising that so many of these buildings look like they’ve taken a beating. After all, they’ve put up with years of mugginess, hard times and changing tastes.

And the new millennium has not been kind to the urban landscape either. Characterless inward-facing South African-style malls are on the up. As are a plethora of Chinese-built projects that include the president’s fancy (read tacky) seaside-facing palace and a colossal but spooky hotel attached to the new convention centre. It’s like something out of Vegas — only without the panache.

The Chinese are also funding a new 500km road that will run all the way down to the South African border. This includes the new bridge being built across Maputo Bay. It’s scheduled for completion at the end of 2017 (which seems unlikely) and is set to be the longest suspension bridge in Africa.

Maputo’s cool crowd eat at Zambi. The restaurant has a decent view, garlic bread of the gods and huge seafood platters

For those who are impressed by delights of a smaller proportion, Maputo’s fish market should suffice. Relocated to a new seaside spot in 2015, it’s a clean, slick operation. You either head straight to the actual market for the day’s catch to cook yourself or you sit down at one of the accompanying restaurants and they do it for you.

A restaurant is the better option for piles of expertly cooked prawns, chips and a couple of cold 2M beers to break the hardship of a two-day vacation. Just know you’re going to have to deal with haggling curio sellers hustling to sell you "I heart Maputo" tat. Skip it and go home with local art and fabrics instead — specifically the patterned capulanas that Mozambican women wear.

Maputo’s cool crowd eat at Zambi. The restaurant has a decent view, garlic bread of the gods and huge seafood platters. Their ceviche, which comes as a sort of taco, is the thing to order and think longingly of after your trip ends.

For something completely different there’s the retro Natural History Museum. It boasts a fabulously kitsch array of taxidermy animals that fought their last battles years before Samora Machel came to power.

While there, spend time looking at Malangatana Ngwenya’s mural on the building behind the museum. One of the continent’s most acclaimed contemporary artists and a Mozambican national treasure, Ngwenya’s works are dotted in public spaces for all to see.

Take a meander through the spruced-up Jardim Tunduru Botanical Gardens in the heart of the old part of the capital and you’re sheltered by a verdant canopy of vegetation that was sourced from all over Portugal’s colonies in the 19th century. Understandably, it’s a popular spot for wedding photos.

It’s where tourists go to ooh and aah over the impressive, dangling colony of bats that made the treetops its home. They sure make a lot of noise and mess for residents who live rent-free in prime Maputo property. They come out at night, much like their human neighbours. Maputo-dwellers love an after-dark razzle. There are bars and clubs thronging with revelers in the centre of town.

The Pool Bar on Avenida dos Mártires da Machava is like something from another time.

A strange English pub-like interior (complete with tartan floors) belies a back garden with a lit-up ’70s-style slasto-ensconced swimming pool. The place is good for some local-watching and jazz and a great spot to start an evening of bar-hopping that, in all likelihood, will be saturated by too many unidentifiable cocktails and heaving hot spaces.

Tumbling into bed in the early morning, you’ll thank your lucky stars for air-conditioning and, at most, worry about what kind of eggs you’ll have at a leisurely breakfast the next morning. It’s an ideal weekend breakout from real life.

• Buitendach was a guest of Southern Sun Maputo and SAA.

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