Culture - Arts | Travel - Leisure
Maputo: Joining Gustave Eiffel in Latin Africa
The Coca Cola poster vulgarly yells its message in Portuguese language and is only drowned by the sinful, Latin melodies pouring out of the numerous pavement bars. Small and big buildings in Portuguese colonial style stand as annexes to the ever more dominating skyscrapers. But this neither can be compared to the famous Lisbon districts of Barrio Alto and Alafama.
We comfortably arrive overland in a coach from South Africa. The culture shock arriving from the African version of the US - where you barely can find other items than burgers and synthetically coloured sausages on the menu - into Maputo, was definitively greater than the marathonic flight from home to Johannesburg. After a few hours of coach ride, the Latin capital of Africa unveils, and one immediately gets a desperate desire of shadow while being hit by the voice of Julio Iglesias, now even singing in Portuguese.
Maputo, which used to be called Lourenço Marques in colonial times, not so long ago was one of Southern Africa's most pre-eminent capitals, comparable to Cape Town and home to an enviable list of architectural masterpieces, reflecting the Portuguese colonisers' emphasis on their overseas empire.
A long-lasting freedom fight against the Portuguese in the 1960s and 70s, however, showed no mercy on the cultural heritage. And the worst still was written in the stars. The civil war, which only came to an end a decade ago, put an end to most of infrastructure in most of Mozambique, something one still can observe in Maputo.
During the last years, the country however has developed into on of the most important recipients of international development aid and the scars of war are slowly erased. Every international development aid agency seems to be present in this country, where successes can be shown to the press at home - even the Spanish, generally operating in Latin America, have an office in Maputo. Therefore, Spanish guardia civils are stationed in Maputo's streets, charged with the task to educate Mozambican police forces.
The boom leaves its visible track. At the moment, Maputo is by a new skyline of skyscrapers; most of them in construction. Having a closer look, however, the Parisian boulevards and the incalculable Mediterranean lanes are still dominating. In the colonial centre, even the old Portuguese fort is preserved, and this puts the much later masterpieces of the mythic Gustave Eiffel - the railway station and the Casa do Ferro - in a well deserved historic perspective.
The fort and the railway station are connected by the almost cliché-like colonial Rua de Bagamoio, one of the most picturesque alleys in tow
It is also here that old institutions, like the city's oldest mosque and the roofed town market, are maintaining their actuality, even if these restored historic buildings suffered from much want during the historically close war days in the country. Today, they present a nostalgic taste of how life in the Latino metropolis must have been before massive destruction made the rule.
But the greatest attraction is unfolding itself, majestically throning on Workers' Square, Praça dos Trabalhadores, were the hundred-year-old railway station pompously testifies about a glorious past. Colourful nut saleswomen, sunglasses dealers, "your friend", pickpockets and uniformed officers flock under the concrete skeleton of a dome, designed by the French engineer Gustave Eiffel.
Only a quick look at the metallic cupola's vault discloses the tourist identity of the observers, which in turn, rapidly, animates new friends and other potential pickpockets to announce their presence. No, this definitively is neither the time nor the place for new acquaintances. Another day, maybe?
The station, which recently was given a complete overhaul and now appears in all its splendour, was raised in 1910 and can immediately be classified as a show window of Mozambican architecture and as a sight by its own. Admiring glances are allowed and even completely safe when regional trains are not about to arrive or depart.
After conservation, the dome has also become an illustrative example of the works and techniques of the engineer, who forcefully promoted the use of crude load-bearing materials as the nucleus in the decorative element of the constructions he drew. Steel, iron and concrete thus were rediscovered, this time as decoration, by Mr Eiffel.
Even if Mr Eiffel's Maputo connection so far has been little studied - one however doubts that the engineer ever set his foot in the Portuguese colony - there however exist some theories. One assumes that Mr Eiffel was given the two charges he made for Mozambique while he lived in Portugal between 1875 and 1877, when he was about to construct the famous bridge over the Douro River. It was also during this epoch the engineer was given most of his foreign assignments.
Not far away from the railway station, one can also find the French engineer's second work in Maputo. Casa do Ferro, or The Iron House, only lies a few blocks to the north, between the refreshing botanical gardens, flooding of tropical vegetation, and the relatively modern, white cathedral, presenting a floating intermediate to the grey skyscraper landscape behind it.
The short distance between the two Eiffel works makes it sound a quick walk, but one should not forget the untiring work of thousands of small pores in the skin, drowning the body in perspiration and insisting the system needs some cooling - be it what the ad posters repeatedly cr
The brain finally obeys. One of the numerous cafés en route will do. Julio Iglesias again sings his welcome in fluent Portuguese. Coca Cola tastes better than I could remember - I present a full but temporary capitulation to advertisement.
On the other side of the boulevard lies the Iron House. The characteristic building was exclusively constructed in metal, not unlike another construction Mr Eiffel had made back home, in France. The piece of work, from the last turn of the century, originally was meant to house the Portuguese governor of Mozambique. This, however, never was to happen. The same heat and tropical climate that made me buy sparkling sugar water next door made the construction unbearable.
Casa do Ferro, which today is used by the Mozambican central office of historic monuments, meanwhile has been "decorated" with some modern steel constructions, by the name of air condition. Thus, the building finally is in practical use, but because of one of Mr Eiffel's very few miscalculations - regarding Maputo's humidity and temperature - it remains in a permanent poor conservation state.
It is autumn in Maputo - spring in the northern hemisphere. The heat striking the city "is not normal at this time of year," several town dwellers explain. One rather should head northwards, they explain, where the best beaches in the country are found. That is holiday, not the heat here in town, it is explained.
Be it so. In the modern centre of town, the heat is tolerated much easier in one of the many pavement cafés and bars along Avenida 24 de Julho, where the usual Latino rhythms surprisingly are mixed with salsa tunes from Celia Cruz.
As the night settles, the city is moving around the moderately trafficked artery, which is invaded by ambulating batik and cigarette salesmen, creatures of the night - as the festive Mozambican, unrestrained girls, bats and malaria mosquitoes - in addition to some tourists, mostly from South Africa and Portugal.
Even a familiar face from the guardia civil is showing up, this time in civilian clothes, but nonetheless with an authoritarian voice when, in Spanish language, ordering the waiter to bring him a lager - "and that one better be really cold!"
The Spanish intruder for one moment brings back the feeling of confusion. Where am I? Costa del Sol, Rio or Africa? Julio Iglesias is on again. Damn!
The civilian-dressed however focuses all his attention on another neighbour table, towards three beautiful, local young women, not wearing a garment too much. The flirting girls, with their colourful drinks, garments and skins, actually by now are catching the attention of most adjacent tables.
The walls are soaked by Latino rhythms, as are all the movements of the girls. Their daring clothing competes well with any Brazilian diva. They are shouting to the athletic waiter in an African language that excludes us foreigners from any kind of verbal understanding. He laughs back.
Oh yes! This is Maputo; this is Mozambique. With the best from three worlds.
By Pablo Gracia Sáez
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