Malawi – Beyond the Lake

Malawi – Beyond the Lake

Like most visitors to Malawi, the small landlocked country wedged into the southern end of the East African Rift Valley, I was drawn there by its eponymous lake. But beyond the shores of the dazzling “Lake of Stars”, I discovered an endearing little country with exciting, if limited wildlife viewing opportunities.

Liwonde National Park

Malawi - Liwonde Sable Antelope

An elusive Sable Antelope sighting in Liwonde.

Located in the Upper Shire Valley, the 580-square kilometer (220-square mile) Liwonde National Park is considered the premier wildlife-viewing destination in Malawi. It stretches along the left bank of the Shire River, the only outlet of Lake Malawi and the largest river in the country, on its 400-kilometer (250-mile) way to the Zambezi River in Mozambique.

By far the main attraction of the park, the river allows it to support one of the densest populations of elephants and hippos in Africa (about 900 and 2000 respectively). Liwonde is also known for its abundance of birdlife and due to the absence of major predators, it is home to a good a variety of antelopes. It’s where, after five previous trips to some of the most vaunted safari destinations in Africa, I have the pleasure to finally encounter sable antelopes.



Malawi Village

Malawi village home.

It’s a solid two-and-a-half hour drive from Blantyre, southern Malawi’s major city and airport, to the Western gate of the park. The paved road becomes gradually less so as we get farther away from the city. It disappears entirely as soon as we get off the main north-south thoroughfare. It’s all rocky dirt roads from here on, lined with tiny brick homes covered with disheveled thatch, each sitting on its small patch of ground. My driver drops me off at the park’s gate where my arrival is duly recorded and announced by phone to the Mvuu Lodge.

Mvuu Lodge

Malawi - Liwonde Mvuu Lodge

It’s a short boat across the lagoon to Mvuu Lodge.

Ideally located at the edge of a secluded lagoon across the Shire River from the park entrance and the only property inside the park, the Mvuu Lodge can be reached only by boat. It is so well integrated into the dense grove of yellow acacias that I don’t notice any sign of human habitation at first; until a small wooden craft detaches itself from a spindly dock and chugs its way across to collect me.


Malawi - Shire River Hippo Pods

Shire River hippo pods.

The lodge immediately lives up to its name (Mvuu means hippopotamus in the local Tonga language). We zig-zag our way across the lagoon, giving a wide berth to pods of hippos submerged save for dozens of periscope eyes that follow our progress with a baleful gaze.





Malawi - Mvuu Lodge Lounge

Mvuu Lodge common area.

Mvuu is an upscale, environmentally-friendly wilderness lodge with a casual atmosphere and an attentive, friendly staff. Raised high into the trees, the open-sided thatched main lodge provides an perfect hide-like retreat to observe the constant activity of the lagoon.




Malawi - Mvuu Crocodiles

The Shire River is home to a large colony of crocodiles.

In addition to its many hippos, it is home to a large resident family of warthogs and a colony of seriously oversized crocodiles. A late model telescope on a tripod invite guests to take a closer look at the birds that fill the trees all around.



Morning on the Shire River

Malawi - Shire River Kudu

A male kudu in the brush by the river.

The riverside location allows for a mix of cruises and drives that provide a close and varied view of the game as it goes about its daily life. Game-viewing is generally interesting at Mvuu but never more so than on the river. An especially memorable morning begins as a typical pleasant boat ride punctuated by a steady stream of photo opportunities of the waterfowl and raptor population, various antelopes coming to the water and a small breeding herd of elephants wading across in the distance.


Malawi - Shire Sleeping Elephant

A “big tusker” snoozes by the water.

We then come upon a few venerable “big tusker” bull elephants lined along shore, dousing themselves by the trunkfull with river water. I spot one of them snoozing at the edge of a wall of savannah grass. Yes, elephants do sleep lying down. I can hear his stentorian snore drift toward me. Suddenly several more begin to emerge from the grass and congregate on the shore. The snorer stretches awake.


Malawi - Shire Wading Elephants

Come on in, the water is fine.

After a half hour of what looks like a palaver to weigh in the advisability of going in for a bath and considerable testing of the waters by various parties, they all wade in over time. What follows is a “horsing around” session of epic proportions, with these grizzled behemoths splashing and dunking each other under the waterline before rearing back up like teenagers at the beach.



Malawi - Liwone Elephant at Play

Liwonde elephants at play in the Shire River.

It is this spectacular encounter with that I take with me at as the iconic memory of my visit to the Mvuu Lodge.





Good To Know

  •  Mvuu Lodge opened in 1998. It is owned and managed by Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS), a Malawi company wholly owned by founders Chris and Pam Badger. Central African Wilderness Safaries,, e-mail:, or call: + 265 1771 393/153.
  • Accommodations consist of eight spacious tents under thatch that can welcome a total of 16 guests. The tents are raised well above the ground on vast wooden platforms that include a wrap-around deck overlooking the bush. They are scattered along neat sandy paths at the rear of the lodge for complete privacy. Each tent has full bathroom facilities, including a shower with hot and cold running water and a flush toilet. There is solar power in the tents.
  • Wifi was not available at the lodgeat the time of my visit
  • Although lion tracks have been occasionally spotted and a male lion sighting reported recently, I didn’t see any “big cats” during my stay. But in addition to the large and active population of elephants, I found the abundance of antelopes, the excellent bird-watching opportunities and the warm Mvuu hospitality well worth my visit.


A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Liwonde National Park

Fun Fast Food – Lorraine Style

Fun Fast Food – Lorraine Style

My recent short visit to Metz, the capital of the Lorraine region in the northeastern-most corner of France, was ostensibly not about food. It was supposed to be all about the top-notch museums that show and tell of two millennia of rich local history from the Gallo-Roman era to modern and contemporary art. But trouping around medieval cobblestone streets and futuristic museums is hungry work. Luckily I was able to time my wanderings just right to happen by the Marché Couvert around lunchtime. And it turns out, in addition to its rich displays of glorious foodstuff it has a most interesting architecture and history, for a covered market, that is.

From Palace to Market

France - Metz Covered Market

The Metz covered market started out as a palace.

One of the oldest and grandest in France, it was originally commissioned in 1762 from the Royal Architect by the Bishop of Metz as his new palace. Work began in 1785. But before the owner had a chance to move in, the 1789 French Revolution happened. Anyone of nobility, bishop included was well advised to lie low. Rather than let a good palace go to waste, the people of Metz decided to repurpose it into their central food hall. And here you have it, a 5,000 square meter (54,000 square foot) U-shaped neo-Classical covered market built of the local golden Jaumont limestone, adjacent to the forecourt of the Metz Cathedral.

A Soup Bar

France - Metz, Soup Master Partick Grumberg

Soup Master Patrick Grumberg

Go up the stately staircase and walk in. Over 40 cheese mongers, butchers, greengrocers and every possible local specialty awaits along with a central food court. And that’s where I come upon Soupes a Soup’s, a soup bar with at least half a dozen kinds of thick, flavorful soupes-du-jour. The man behind the soup pots is Patrick Grumberg. With his red knitted hat and spectacular white facial hair, he looks like an understudy for Santa Claus.


France - Metz, Soupes a Soup's

I go for a bowl of hearthy split pea soup

Order your soup to take out or sit on a bench around the family-style table and eat in. I opt for the latter. My order arrives instantly, in an old French china plate slightly chipped for added character and filled with thick, piping hot split pea soup and a hunk of crusty country bread. It’s so filling I can’t even be tempted by the home-baked cake on offer for dessert.

You Say Potato, I Say Pomme de Terre

B-28 FR_Metz-12

Gratin Dauphinois, En Robe des Champs Style

Another welcoming place to drop into any time of day when a serious hunger pang strikes is En Robe des Champs (French for in their jacket). This is not a fashion statement but the name of a classic French brasserie, at least in appearance. Open the menu, which is served all day, and it’s all about potatoes, baked, au gratin, mashed, prepared with a wide assortment of toppings and served with interesting salads.

France - Metz - En Robe des Champs Potato Restaurant

Baked Potato with Smoked Salmon

I have the gratin dauphinois. With its soft, cheesy interior and perfect brown top crust, it is one of the best I’ve ever had. Meanwhile my friend enjoys a baked potato with smoked salmon. Everything is locally grown, well prepared, served promptly by the friendly staff, and hugely satisfying with a glass of crisp local Moselle wine.

The One That Got Away

France - Metz, bar at La Brasserie

The bar at La Brasserie.

It is on the last morning of my stay in Metz that I hear of Les Amis de Saint Louis (Friends of St. Louis), on the grounds of the Catholic Seminary of Metz. Originally intended to feed the seminarians, the restaurant morphed over time into a fine dining establishment, currently under the direction of up-and-coming young chef Christophe Koessler. It is open mainly for lunch. Ever the optimist, I drop by on impulse and can only glimpse covetously at the sumptuous dining room with its ornate eighteenth-century wood paneling and antique crystal chandeliers. Every single one of the white linen-clad tables is occupied by lucky diners enjoying the refined seasonal menu.

France - Metz. Brasserie, Les Amis de St. Louis

A delicious salmon burger at La Brasserie

The apologetic hostess suggests that I try La Brasserie across the hall, where there may still be room. There is. The menu is casual fare but the high standards of the chef come through regardless. While not what I had hoped for, I do enjoy a delicious salmon burger on toasted brioche served with a basket of perfect French fries and a lovely chocolate tart dessert. Note to self: next time reserve as soon as I’ve purchased my train ticket to Metz.

Good to Know

  • Soupes a Soup’s, is open Tuesday through Thusday from 10:00 A.M. to 6:30 P.M. and Friday and Saturday from 8:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. Contact: Email .Tel: 33 (0) 6 08 31 11 04.
  • En Robe des Champs is located 14 Rue Marguerite Puhl-Demange, Metz, France, and open seven days a week from 11:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. Tel: +33 3 87 36 32 19

  • Les Amis de Saint Louis and adjoining Brasserie,, are located at 4 Avenue Jean XXIII, Metz, France and open every day 12:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M. as well as on Friday and Saturday nights from 7:30 P.M. to 9:30 P.M. Contact: Email , Tel: +33 (0) 3 87 75 51 71.

Location, location, location!

Metz, France

Metz – Spanning Two Millennia of European History

Metz – Spanning Two Millennia of European History

It’s just a little more than one hour’s ride by TGV (Train a Grand Vitesse) from Paris to Metz, the historic capital of Lorraine, the province tucked in the northeastern corner of France. When I heard of the new Pompidou Art Center, a satellite of the famous Paris Modern Art institution, a quick side trip seemed in order. I wanted a look at the innovative building designed by noted Japanese Architect Shigeru Ban and inaugurated in 2010. What I discovered is a city of beautifully preserved architectural and artistic treasures spanning two millennia of European history.

The Gallo-Roman Era

France - Metz, Gallo-Roman Anguipede Column

Third century A.D. Gallo-Roman column representing the slaying of the Anguipède by Gallic god Taranis.

Located a stone’s throw away from Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany, Metz was an important European city from the start. It was a prosperous Celtic center of trade for iron and terracotta a few centuries before Julius Caesar’s land grab in 52 B.C. turned it into the western hub of the Roman trading route to Mainz, Germany.

Although few traces of this Gallo-Roman history remains above ground, extensive vestiges are readily visible in the basement labyrinth of the Musées de la Cour d’Or (Golden Courtyard Museums) located on the site of the palace of the Merovingian Frankish kings that ruled over the area from the sixth to eighth centuries.

France - Metz, La Cour d'Or Museum Funerary Monument

This well-preserved Gallo-Roman tombstone shows the interaction of a shopkeeper and his client.

Nineteenth century excavations in the foundations of the museums revealed extensive thermae (roman baths complex) as well as remains of a burying site and an industrial-size kiln for the production of the local terracotta that can now be admired here. There is also a surprisingly rich collection of decorative and funeral statuary, artisan tools, jewelry and artifacts of everyday life. The collection is all the more interesting that it is entirely constituted of artifacts from digs in and around Metz.

The Medieval City

France - Metz, Place Saint Louis

The Place Saint Louis fourteenth century arcade is reminiscent of the Northern Italian Republics of the era.

Place Saint Louis. Metz has an exceptionally large historic town center that has maintained its medieval atmosphere of winding narrow cobbled streets and ancient homes. The Place Saint Louis (St. Louis Square) with its long fourteenth century arcade anchored to the foundations of the roman wall is a notable gem from the Middle Ages. Built by the thriving community of currency changers, many of them originally from Lombardy, the elongated square is reminiscent of the Northern Italian Republics of the period.


France - Metz, Porte des Allemands

The Porte des Allemands guards Metz’s eastern flank.

Porte des Allemands. At the eastern corner of the old town, the Porte des Allemands (Germans’ Gate) is a major vestige of medieval military architecture. Built from the thirteenth to fifteenth century the gate is in fact a small fortress, both city gate and fortified bridge that straddles the River Seille and guards Metz’s eastern flank.



France - Metz, Cathedrale Saint Etienne

The Cathedrale Saint Etienne is a flamboyant gothic masterpiece.

Cathédrale St. Etienne. Even by the lofty standard of the grand European gothic churches of Europe, the Cathédrale Saint Etienne (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), built from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries is a flamboyant example religious architecture of the era. Its 123-meter (404-foot) long interior soars to a breathtaking 47 meters (154 feet) at the height of its transept.

France - Metz, Marc Chagall Stained Glass Windows

Twentieth century Marc Chagall stained glass windows

Light streams in through three tiers of stained glass windows, the largest expanse of ancient stain glass in a single building anywhere (6,500 square meters or 70,000 square feet). The stained glass creations range from the fourteenth to twentieth century and include three contemporary windows by Marc Chagall.





The cloister surrounds a garden of medicinal plants.

The cloister surrounds a garden of medicinal plants.

Cloître des Récollets. Founded in the fourteenth century by a Franciscan monastic order on the Saint Croix Hill in the center of the medieval city, the cloister is notable for the funeral stones embedded into the walls. It surrounds a large garden of medicinal plants. Today it houses the municipal archives and is home to the European Institute of Ecology founded in 1972 by noted biologist and urban ecologist Jean Marie Pelt.

The Imperial District

France - Metz, Moselle Riverbank

Over the centuries Metz developed along the Moselle River.

Under French rule since 1552, Metz was part of territories of Alsace-Lorraine that were absorbed into the German Empire at the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 before being returned to France at the end of the First World War.




France - Metz, Water Tower

The water tower shows a notable germanic influence.

However, in the intervening half century Emperor Wilhelm II engaged in a frenetic construction program of a new Imperial District to “germanise” the city.

He imposed a neo-Romanesque style to public buildings such at the cavernous 350-meter (1,150 foot) long railway station built between 1905 and 1908, the nearby water tower intended to supply water to the steam engines (1908) and the Reformed Protestant temple known at the New Temple (1901- 1904).

Centre Pompidou-Metz

France - Metz, Picasso stage curtain

Stage curtain for the ballet Mercure, created by Picasso in 1924.

This new museum is an offshoot of the Pompidou Art Center in Paris, an institution with one of the richest modern and contemporary arts collection in Europe. The structure was especially created to house expositions of rarely seen large-scale modern works.




France - Metz, Centre Pompidou

This new Pompidou Center for modern and contemporary arts.

Located in the Quartier de l’Amphitheatre, a nod to the large Gallo-Roman amphitheater that once covered the neighborhood, just a short walk from the train station, it is the largest (5,000 square meters or 54,000 square feet) temporary exhibition space in France outside of Paris.



Good to Know

  • Where to sleep? There is an abundance of hotels and bed and breakfasts at all levels of luxury and price throughout the city. I focused on the Hotel Le Mondon for the convenience of its location and was glad I did. This simple, squeaky clean, 38-room three-star hotel fully renovated in January 2015 welcomed us with spacious rooms, excellent bedding and superior soundproofing. The complimentary WiFi was reliable, the staff attentive and the prices friendly. Hotel Le Mondon is located a 10-minute walk from the train station, 15 minutes from the center of town, the cathedral and the Pompidou center,, 8 Avenue Foch, Metz, 57000 France. Contact: Email Tel: +33 (0) 3 87 74 40 75.
  • The Musée de la Cour d’Or is divided in three distinct collections of local treasures: Gallo-Romain, Medieval and Fine Arts. The abundance of riches is such that the Museum tickets are valid for 24 hours to permit visitors who run out of time or steam to return the next day and complete the visit.
  • Foodies – See Fun Fast Food – Lorraine Style

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Metz, France