From the mainland, a surreal single-lane bridge crosses the Indian Ocean, leading onto Ilha de Moҫambique – a tiny little island whose powerful ancient soul makes you want to drop to your knees, clutch your heart and break into song.
Ilha is a spicy mix of Swahili, Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, Indian and Chinese, with a torrid history of explorers and occupations, missionaries, slavery, colonialism and civil war. Yet it is utterly charming – the whole island is a Unesco World Heritage Site because of its unique coral rock buildings and architecture – and the people are even more charming.
The sun is about to set when we get there. Light plays on ancient buildings, kids frisk in the waves, palm trees are silhouetted against orange skies. After such a dramatic arrival we need a cocktail and somewhere to call home. We – my friend and colleague Sally and I – check into Villa Sands, an Afro-chic boutique hotel designed by Swedish architect Marcus Antman, whose team renovated three 400-year-old warehouses, turning them into this sexy soulful space. A Moroccan-style indoor pool greets us as we enter, and the ocean views beckon from the spacious lounge and meeting area. You can walk straight off the outdoor deck into the sea at high tide – which we do as soon as we’ve each had a giant G&T.
Villas Sands has 14 rooms – eight on the ground floor around an atrium and six on the rooftop terrace. We’re upstairs, but spend the first evening down on the deck, in the restaurant, popping into the bar and in the pool, purring. Marcus and his wife Gisela Matavel Antman entertain us with stories of how they started Villa Sands and what life’s like on this ancient island.
Marcus is Swedish and studied architecture in Portugal; Gisela is Mozambican and studied agronomy in Italy. They met in Maputo and have a passion for developing arts and culture tourism on the island. Like everyone else, they’re getting ready for the festivities in September.
Over the next couple of days, Sally and I discover the ancient soul of llha and it becomes inscribed on my heart. We wander through Stone Town’s narrow streets and alleys, past thick-walled, high-ceilinged, double-volume houses with shutters, tiled alcoves and rooftop gardens for gazing at the stars that steered the ancient mariners and the maps that lie within the Milky Way.
Stone Town has fabulous monuments, churches, galleries and museums to explore, as well as a beautiful run-down Art Deco cinema. Many places have been restored, but many are still dilapidated, which lends the town it own charm.
The Black Road divides Stone Town from Macuti Town – the local township with thatched houses sunk below ground level. The canals have long run dry and residents fetch water from wells and sleep five to a room, but there’s still nobility and history here, with ancient mosques and cemeteries.
In Stone Town, we visit Jardim dos Aloes. This “garden of aloes” is an Afro-Mediterranean guesthouse with Egyptian touches, run by delightful Italian, Bruno Musti, and his Mozambican wife, Judy. We chat in the courtyard to the sound of birdsong and building next door. Bruno left fascist Italy to explore early socialist Tanzania and is an intellectual, yachtsman and teller of many tales. Their establishment is across the road from the fabulous and funky Ruby Backpackers. Escondidinho in the town centre is great, as is the theatrical Terraҫo das Quitandas – a 400-year-old house filled with furniture and objet d’art from Goa, Bali, East Africa, China and Asia. Across the bay is Coral Lodge – the place for honeymooners and swooners. It’s all soft white sand and deep blue seas, gorgeous chalets and golden sunsets.
Despite being so small, Ilha de Moҫambique is very cosmopolitan. It attracts travellers from across Europe, many of whom are buying property here. It’s also home to architects, artists, historians, style queens, foodies and escapists. Here you can eat amazing fusion food, buy capulanas (traditional cloth) and high-end crafts and wander the mercado. You can go kayaking, cycling, snorkelling, catch a ride on a dhow or hop onto a speedboat.
Sailing in a carrack, Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama landed on Ilha in 1498 while in search of the sea route to India. Portuguese settlers followed in 1507, establishing a hospital, a church and the massive Fortaleza de São Sebastião. The colony became a wealthy trading post for ships sailing on monsoon winds to and from the East. Cargos of gold, ivory and slaves flowed from Africa to be traded for spices, fabrics and spirits from Asia.
Our footfalls ring out a dirge on ancient stone. The fortaleza is empty and haunting. We stand on the roof, which offers a 360º degree view through the turrets, with the original canons still pointing outwards. It’s the oldest complete fort still standing in sub-Saharan Africa and you can feel the ghosts and history here. Our guide walks us through the different rooms, chambers, quarters, slave pits and dungeons, and Sally and I huddle together.
At the furthest end of the fort, a wooden door creaks open and leads into the oldest building in the southern hemisphere – Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte. Dating back to 1522, this tiny little church was built on a promontory at the very end of the fort. We stand barefoot on the cool marble slabs, and look out through the ancient windows, hand-carved in the shape of a cross. I wonder whose prayers filled this chapel 496 years ago and what were they praying for?
Across the bay lies another entirely different monument.
We stand at the grave of Emir Mussa bin Bique, who was the Muslim sultan here when the Portuguese arrived, and after whom Mozambique is named: mussa bin bique becoming Moҫambique. With characteristic grace, it is he whom the Mozambicans will commemorate on 17 September this year, when the island marks the two hundredth anniversary of the Portuguese declaring it a city and the first capital of the country.
Salt air, rain and time have eaten away at Mussa bin Bique’s grave, but I feel like I am somehow close to him, standing here. We take a guided tour of Cabaceira Pequana village, famed for its 600-year-old mosque and cemeteries, see children playing and women drawing water from ancient wells that were built by da Gama.
The next day Marcus takes us to Lumbo, a rural market village on the mainland. In its colonial heyday it had a railway station, administrative buildings, a church and the Grande Hotel do Lumbo, which now lies in poetic ruins. In the ‘50s, it was frequented by politicians, businesspeople and celebrities, including the legendary Hollywood star Rita Hayworth, who was married to Aly Khan at the time.
A young photographer called Jean-Charles Pinheira, who was working as a customs clerk, hid in a cupboard near their suite and managed to snap a photograph of Rita, without the sunglasses behind which she usually hid. He went on to become one of the most famous documentary photographers of the end of the colonial era in Angola.
We take a ramble through the hotel and picture Rita being startled by a young photographer leaping out of a cupboard. “Imagine” says Marcus, “if the hotel could be rebuilt? Imagine if you could land at the nearby aerodrome (built in the 1930s) and spend the night at the Grande Hotel do Lumbo, then sail by dhow to Ilha de Moҫambique for your soulful and spicy adventure”.