Beira’s origins lie in the historic settlement of Sofala which is a short dhow trip down the coast. Sofala was an Arab trading outpost for hundreds of years, where gold, ivory and slaves were exchanged for cloth and dyes, beads and spices. About 500 years later, Portuguese navigators, including Vasco da Gama, sailed into the estuary formed by the Rio Púngoè, to see if there was any truth in the story that gold was to be found in Sofala. It was not until 1881, when the European powers accelerated their colonial expansion into Africa, that the site was considered important enough for the Portuguese to establish a military garrison. Coincidentally, the Portuguese crown prince Dom Luis Filipe, who was born at roughly the same time, was given the title Prince of Beira. The new settlement was named in his honour.
Then the British, desperately seeking a sea outlet for landlocked southern Rhodesia, cast their eyes upon Beira. The British ‘Chartered Company’ troops clashed with Portuguese soldiers on a number of occasions in this area, while at the same time Portuguese traders began to explore Lake Malawi. Hostilities were finally ended with the signing of the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1891, which, at last, defined the political boundaries of modern Mozambique and her neighbours.
During this period, the town of Beira was nothing but a stinking, fever-ridden mangrove estuary where malaria and dysentery ruled. Most of the early residents braved disease in search of their fortune during the frantic ‘Manica gold rush’. Governor General Enes is recorded as saying this of the new arrivals: ‘Ten or twelve pounds a month was paid in order to live, baked by slow heat between sheets of galvanized iron … a visitor to the taverns of Beira, could hear veritable concerts of curses and blasphemies from the disillusioned, calling down fire from Heaven upon those who had deceived them with false hopes of wealth.’
The first impression on arriving in the bairro Maquinino on the city’s outskirts may not be very favourable, but once you get over it, Beira holds hidden rewards for the inquisitive visitor. Beira is drab, dirty and chaotic, but it is also bewitching. Although the city is a lot smaller than Maputo, it was strategically far more important than the national capital during the civil war period (1977–92) due to its central location.
Beira’s buildings display a mixture of colonial excess, bland postwar American and constrained socialist functionality in addition to the tin, cardboard and reed shelters of rampant unplanned urbanization.
The imposing Railway Station overlooks Praça dos Trabalhadores, where the parking space available far outstrips demand, as passenger trains no longer do the 300km (180-mile) journey between Beira and Zimbabwe. The oddly grandiose station has a cavernous entrance hall, high arched ceiling and ornamental fishpond. Overlooking this echoing, empty space is a clean and cool restaurant with an interesting menu and wine list.
A walk along the beachfront reveals what will become an enormous challenge to future city engineers: the sea is gradually undermining Beira’s foundation.
The beautiful Catedral de Nossa Senhora de Rosário (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary) on Avenida Eduardo Mondlane was commissioned in 1907 and completed in 1915. Stone from the old Portuguese fort at Sofala was used in its construction. Services are held every day.
The Clube des Chinês building, erected in 1917, was designed in the neoclassical style. Extensive renovations are now complete and it is once more one of Beira’s finest structures. Originally a club for Chinese settlers, it now houses the city archives.
The quaint Casa Portugal (Portugal House) with its tin roof is a private residence located off Praça do Metical next to the Banco Standard Totta, and is typical of the turn-of-the-century colonial period.
Its high stone walls topped with battlements, the old Prisão da Beira (Beira prison) resembles a medieval castle. It lies just off the Praça do Metical and appears still to house criminals. Family members of the prisoners used to bring food to the inmates on a daily basis.
Don’t miss the avant-garde exhibition hall named Casa dos Bicos after the sharp points on its roof (bico means beak or point) located on Av. Eduardo Mondlane.
Near the old golf course, on the way to the Praça da India, the Cinema São Jorge seats 1200 people and is one of the largest and most ornate cinemas in Africa.
Be sure to look at the Casa Infante Sagres on the west end of Avenida Poder Popular. This neoclassical building now houses Dalmann Furniture, Acisofala consultants and the Manica Mozambique Company, which was responsible for its renovation.
MANANGA SMALL BOAT HARBOUR
Wooden fishing vessels and ancient, rusting trawlers rub shoulders with each other here. More than just a safe place to anchor, this floating village houses a special community of honest fishermen but becomes a mud flat at low tide.
The municipal market, just a few paces away from the Praça do Município, is one of Mozambique’s most colourful and best-stocked marketplaces. Fruit and vegetables arrive by the truckload from as far afield as Maputo, Quelimane, Zimbabwe and Malawi, while dhows and chugging trawlers bring in fish, prawns, calamari (squid) and other food from the sea. Tiny stalls sell anything from toothbrushes to tinned tuna, and many splendid local crafts such as figurines in pau-preto (ebony) and pau-rosa (mahogany) are also on offer. Have you ever dreamed of mangoes the size of footballs, bananas as big as your forearm and pineapples too heavy to pick up with one hand? At Beira’s Mercado Municipal those fantasies may become a reality!
MACÚTI BEACH, SHIPWRECK AND LIGHTHOUSE
The bairro of Macúti, one of Beira’s wealthier residential areas, is named after a trawler that was wrecked nearby during a cyclone in 1917. It could seem ironic that the skeleton of the Macúti should have ended right beneath the lighthouse that was supposed to guide it to safety, but the hull was, in fact, towed there to act as a breakwater. Macúti beach extends some distance to the north and south of the lighthouse, and it is here that Beira’s residents come to swim and promenade on weekends. Walk up past the lighthouse to where gaily painted wooden fishing boats lie hull up and the fishermen lay out their nets for repair. This is the best place to buy Beira’s famous prawns, as well as a mouth-watering variety of other fresh seafood. The lighthouse is in good condition, and still accommodates the keeper and his family.
Take a look at the Dom Carlos Hotel behind the lighthouse, which was Beira’s five-star flagship before independence but is now deserted except for a few loyal staff. Although the building is crumbling, the hotel’s personnel have been waiting patiently for 30 years for the return of their boss. They will welcome you, if you don’t mind the lack of running water and electricity and don’t believe in the ghosts that are said to haunt the premises.
A word of warning: only venture out in groups after dark, as muggings have become a problem in this area.
THE SHIP GRAVEYARD
From Praça do Município, walk west in the direction of the Púngoè River, past an informal market which specializes in selling clothes. On your left there will be warehouses and beyond them a large open area which must be avoided as it is a military zone (zona militar). Walk into the informal scattering of thatch-and-reed huts and watch out for the rusty steel prow of a ship sticking up from the shore of the river. Vessels that were sabotaged by the Rhodesian Special Air Service in 1977 or had sunk due to being unseaworthy have been towed here and abandoned.
Not only is this ship graveyard a monument to the follies of war and bankrupt socialist policies, it is also an amazing photo opportunity. Don’t wave around your camera, though, as it could be stolen. Nearby you can see wooden ships being built according to ancient designs.
Sculptors from the fiercely independent Makonde tribe of Cabo Delgado province have set up a small co-operative where Av. Martíres de Revolução meets Av. das FPLM. Their small run-down shack has a storeroom and a showroom where statues, traditional weapons and musical instruments are displayed. Much of the artists’ work has been toned down to suit the taste of tourists – the real Makonde art is characteristically bizarre and surreal.
One of the more colourful and frivolous legacies of the Portuguese period in Mozambique’s history is that of Latin-American dancing (a favourite with the temperamental, fun-loving Portuguese) which is popular at some nightspots. From 21:00 onwards, one of the places to be in Beira is the Moulin Rouge, just off the Station Parking area..
For a slightly younger vibe, take your dancing shoes to the Estrela Vermelha, situated a short way along the highway to Dondo, Chimoio, Manica and Zimbabwe.