I imagined Maputo to be like most African cities – gritty, crowded and disorganised. Instead I was met with Mediterranean-style architecture, a waterside setting and wide avenues lined with jacaranda trees. I was grateful for space and air: after a three-hour delay coming in from Vilanculous, I was hot and wet with sweat.
The next day, I got lost in Maputo’s beauty, in the company of my guide. She took me to the century-old cream-and-green train station building, with its old-fashioned clock-face and graceful arches. I watched the city fill up — there are no car park permits; instead, the street kids are paid to look after the vehicles — and stopped by the old Cathedral de Nossa Senhora da, which dominates the original part of the city, the baixa (pronounced bye-shuh) next to the port.
She took me downtown to the red-light district. This was where some of the scenes of the movie The Blood Diamond were made, starring DiCaprio, where I saw women loiter on corners. We drove to the Municipal Market that was selling all sorts of vegetables, fruits and nuts; we paused by fishmongers and got stuck in traffic jams of yellow-and-green taxis. Every minute, I felt the vibrancy of the everyday.
And then an evening at Gil Vicente — a downtown bar in a gorgeous art deco building where I listened to live jazz and ate piri piri chicken shot through with the flavours that give Maputo its spice: Arab, African, Portuguese. As I turned in for the night, I looked at my ticket out to Johannesburg the next day. How short-sighted of me to have kept my Maputo visit to just 24 hours. I was only just beginning to uncover her riches, including, bizarrely, an extraordinary natural history museum holding the foetuses of elephants.
There’s nowhere else quite like Maputo — and Africa is the continent I know best in the world.