Monday, October 25, 2010

Completely Franschhoeked

The lake with the mountain behind it.

Long, long ago I had a little penpal. She was based in Franschhoek, which in those days was a charming, sleepy little town in the Winelands. Not much happened there besides the annual harvest but the town had beautiful old buildings which had stood there since the Huguenots sought refuge from religious persection in the Cape in the late seventeenth century. Many of the farms had been in the same families for generations. The Dutch didn't much like the thought of a French settlement to rival their own, so separated the new settlers into isolated farms in an attempt to break the use of their mother tongue. The town was called Olifants Hoek back then, to honour the elephants which travelled along ancient trails around and around the craggy Franschhoek mountains.

But the Huguenots brought their winemaking skills with them and found that the vines flourished in this mountain-ringed,windless countryside. They left their legacy in many of the handsome, olive-skinned, dark-eyed faces, in the surnames in the area and the 300-year-old wine farms, many of which are today the property of big corporations or foreign investors.

My little penpal told me none of this however. I learnt it all many years later on subsequent visits. She and I communicated with one another in different tongues, as I was an immigrant much like the early Huguenots and had to learn this peculiar language called Afrikaans. She, on the other hand, had to brush up on her English. it was nevertheless a charming correspondence and we learnt much about one another. Perhaps the blood of Huguenot ancestors flowed through both our veins.

Subsequent visits showed how Franschhoek was changing and evolving. It was still sleepy in the early 80s, when my sister was married in neighbouring Stellenbosch and had her reception at Boschendal, but by the millennium it began to be a major tourist destination. I stayed there in 2003 during the Cricket World Cup in a pretty B&B and saw the explosion of restaurants and big-name wine estates. There was a view of the mountains from every angle of my upstairs room, and I became aware that this formerly sleepy town was now prime real estate for retired couples, or those who wanted to leave the rat race and open yet another guesthouse. Pseudo-Frenchification was everywhere in the town - much to the early Huguenots' delight I am sure.

My next trip was part of a media trip for the new Schwartz jewellery store in the town; obviously big money shopped there. We ate non-stop, starting with fabulous fish restaurant Boullaibasse (which has now sadly closed down, along with the town's branch 6f Schwartz, thanks to the recession) and winding up at the chocolate shop down the road. Fortunately there was a great deal of walking involved! We staggered back to our guesthouse, Klein Olifants Hoek, named in honour of those long gone pachyderms, where white Iceberg roses and long stemmed lavender bushes were starting to bloom in the mizzly rain. It was early spring, sit-by-the-fire-with-a-glass-of-good-red weather, and I tumbled into my bed to sleep, straight from a fabulous open bathtub which was positively 18th century. The floors and doors were not quite flush, and I was told the building was an old school which had obviously been built on to.

Franschhoek had clearly lost none of its charm, despite obvious and growing commercialisation, and my latest visit confirms this. This time I am down for the polo at Val de Vie polo estate outside the town. All thanks to Deidre Theron-Loots, CEO of the TCB Group, who sponsored my airline ticket with 1Time Airlines, as a favour to event organiser Edith Venter!

I am staying at L'Ermitage right up on the mountain near the white painted name of the town which greets visitors on the road in. The owner has established a number of self-service villas with an adjoining chapel, popular for weddings of any religious denomination, and built himself a house not far away, with the vineyards of the estate climbing across the mountainside. A gentleman in a bright, harlequin-coloured outfit vaguely reminiscent of the Four Musketeers greets me at the gate and directs me to reception.

It is the perfect retreat. You know when you have reached burnout point when you try to switch cramping feet in the hire car and you hit the brake instead of the accelerator. Thank God this is Cape Town and everyone drives at snail's pace! I need a refuge from the endless traffic, deadlines and bills. My nerves are stretched to breaking point and I am as cranky as a snapping turtle. My room is like the suite in a hotel, it goes on for ever. There is a self-service kitchen, a dining room/TV room, an enormous bedroom, a luxurious bathroom, a garage to park the car and an outside balcony where I can lean over and look at the big dam directly underneath, the mountains and the vineyard where they produced a label called Fransch Hoek. It is so peaceful. I sleep that night and the next night with my windows open so the sounds of outside and the fresh clean air wash over me: that deep liquid frog bubble and the ducks quacking quietly.

L'Ermitage ... what a beautiful place.

Driving to the polo is delicious too. En route is one of the most picturesque prisons I've ever seen ... did you get sent to the Groot Drakenstein Prison for good behaviour? There is a half-hearted attempt at barbed wire along the wall but otherwise it is as charming as anything else in Franschhoek. The only thing that is not charming were the hovels along the road that many labourers still live in, a disgrace to one of the richest wine growing areas in the country. Only the Ruperts' farm, L'Ormarins, on the road going out of Franschhoek has rows of neat, modern, white washed cottages with chimneys slightly smudged by smoke. They are on a par with the townhouses which are springing up like mushrooms all over the vineyards.

Val de Vie, scene of the BMW International match earlier this year, is almost too enchanting- and the view! The gods of the Cape's weather smile and send us a beautiful day, along with plenty to eat and some yummy polo players.

The next day it is time to drive into Cape Town for lunch with a friend in the Cape Quarter. In true confusing Cape fashion there are TWO of the above, the older one called the 'old Cape Quarter" and the newer one, well, the "new Cape Quarter". Not only that, but there are two restaurants by the same name in both, so I land up in the wrong place. There is something exasperating about a place that does that, and does not indicate its exit signs properly so you end up driving round and round a parking lot like a nana. All the mountains in the world don't make up for this muddled thinking and Joburgers, with their finger-snapping sense of urgency and efficiency, often can't get their heads around a place where a freeway that just ends in mid-air. What is WITH that? Also the tendency to consult the weather, like the Delphic Oracle, when it comes to deciding where to eat.

????? How BIZARRE.

OK, it was time to get back to Franschhoek. They have parking mafia here too, I discover, thanks to all the tourists but finally find refuge and a well deserved stop for a chocolate icecream under the trees at BICCCS, the recommendation of chef Fortunato, who I later discover has a vested interest, as it's his place!

It's been a stinker of a day so I splash my feet in the swimming pool at L'Ermitage which has a huge fountain in the middle of it and check out the deli opposite. From the top of the road a small channel of water runs down over the cobbles and into a drain, very 17th century. The road back was a veritable pantheon of some of the most familiar and famous names in South African wine-making, as well as the food world. Graham Beck has a big-ass South African flag unfurled outside their imposing, bougainvillea-laden brick and iron gates, the biggest I have ever seen. Plaisir de Merle, La Motte, Grande Provence, Allee Bleue, Allee Bleue ... the names positively tripple off the tongue. I once asked where the old graveyards are in this pretty town; many of the founding fathers are buried on their farms and descendants can go and visit with the permission of the current owners. There is also a beautiful cemetery in the town.

I post on Facebook over my breakfast smoked salmon trout and strawberries, looking out over the dam fringed by white roses and completed by a Rodin-like reclining sculpture (never was there a more beautiful breakfast view) that there can be nothing closer to heaven than this. I can't help wishing I could win the R30-million lottery. That's how much it would take for me to move to this little piece of paradise, or at least buy a wine farm.

A small wine farm ... just like the Huguenots had.

The view from my balcony!

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