The final part of our South African trip took us back towards Cape Town along the N2 through George, Mosselbaai and Swellandam where we stopped for a light lunch and to stretch our legs. There is a lovely Dutch Reformed Church and an interesting museum so Swellandam would make a good place to stopover en route to the Garden Route. After Botsrivier we turned off onto the R321 towards Villiersdorp, a winding road with beautiful views across the Helderberg (formerly known as Hottentots Holland) Nature Reserve and around the Theeswaterkloof Dam. Here we turned onto the R45 up through the Franschhoek Pass and stopping for an awe-inspiring view from the top of the Cat’s Road which is a series of hairpin bends winding itself down to the Franschhoek Village like a sleeping serpent. As you drive over the pass on the R45 from Theewaterskloof Dam, you have no idea of that beautiful valley ahead of you. Franschhoek has always been a huge favourite of mine. Back in the 1970s it already had a reputation for award-winning restaurants and wine estates, top class boutique hotels, auberges, and guest houses (many located on working vineyards) and speciality shops. Then however, I didn’t have the means to take advantage of what it had to offer, but the surrounding landscapes have always been free.
This magnificent valley with its huge towering mountains on either side with spectacular vineyards that clad the mountain slopes has the most breath-taking scenery in the Western Cape (if not the whole of South Africa).
The valley was settled more than 300 years ago by the Huguenots, who brought with them their French culture and wine growing skills when they fled their homeland after Protestantism was outlawed.
Some arrived at the Cape of Good Hope and were given land by the Dutch government in a valley called Oliphantshoek (Elephant’s Corner) so named because of the vast herds of elephants that roamed the valley. Soon after the Huguenots settled here it became known as Franschhoek (French Corner).
As you drive into the village from the south you will notice the Huguenot monument, and close by the museum, which chronicles the history of those brave pioneers and the original Huguenot farms.
It is well worth visiting the museum to get an understanding of the history of the region. You will also notice that many of the farms still bear French names and are often resplendent with a spectacular Cape Dutch homestead, towering oak trees and vast vineyards.
We stayed at Auberge la Dauphine (Klein Daupine), on the outskirts of the village. A beautiful spot, ringed by the Hottentots Holland Mountains, and with its own dam and summerhouse where you can sit with a bottle of inexpensive sparkling wine and watch the sun go down turning the tops of the mountains pink and the sky ink blue.
On our first night we ate at “French Connection” having West Coast mussels, crispy duck with raspberry sauce, potatoes dauphinoise and stir fried vegetables (cut beans, carrots, courgette and mange tout), washed down with a superb bottle of Shiraz from one of the nearby cellars – Porcupine Ridge. The following day we went back up the hill to Haute Carbière for their cellar tour and wine tasting which was pretty good and very cheap (R30) to taste five wines. Carbière belonged originally to a French Huguenot farmer, Pierre Jourdan who was given the land in 1694. In 1982 the vineyards were replanted in the tradition of the Champagne, and focus on Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay cultivars.
“Come quickly, I’m tasting the stars” is a quote attributed to Dom Pérignon when tasting the first champagne. Pierre Jourdan’s distinguished dry elegance reminds us with every tiny bubble gently exploding like a feather on the tongue to re-look at how exciting life can be… ~ Achim von Arnim, cellar-master of Haute Carbière
We bought a bottle of the sparkling, champagne-like ‘Blanc de Blancs’ (R98) to put into our fridge and booked a table in their gourmet restaurant for that night before heading back into the village to have a good wander around.
A host of shops and galleries line Main Street with antiques, artwork, bookshops and bric-a-brac. There are several specialist shops including a chocolatier, where we bought some hand-made Belgian style chocolates (R26), and a fromagerie.
Don’t restrict your wandering to the main Street though as it is rather pleasant to walk along the streets behind where you can see some lovely Cape Dutch and Victorian architecture.
After a light lunch (salad) in the village we returned to the auberge to rest.Dinner at Carbière was, frankly, out of this world. All their items on the menu are available in half or full portions so you can have as many different dishes as you like. They also do tasting menus, pairing wines with each course. We had the Cuvée Belle Rose (100% Pinot Noir fruit portraying elegant sophistication) with our starters of prawn rolls with chilli jam and herb salad / pea, leek and asparagus tart with herb salad – the pastry was so light it practically melted in your mouth; for mains we both had the chicken stuffed with a layer of lentils and served on a bed of tagliatelle, spinach, spiced cubes of butternut squash and very firm asparagus tips with rocket and chorizo jus which was accompanied with a Brut Sauvage (yeasty with a creamy finish, wild and elegant mystique); dessert was a meringue with raspberries, raspberry coulis and strawberry yoghurt ice-cream (all delicious) and my husband had a most unusual looking desert consisting of 3 tiny sweet spring rolls stuffed with hot dark chocolate and served with a shot-glass of a white chocolate milkshake – exquisite – and this came with a glass of the sparkling Blanc de Blancs.
The whole lot came to R550 (around £40 at the time) plus a R5 tip for the car guard. Currently there are lots of menu options, including wine pairing, from R295 per person .
On our last day in the valley we decided to have a look at a few other vineyards in the area such as Grande Provence, Boschendal, and Glenwood and then drive over the mountains to look around the university town of Stellenbosch. Grande Provence is lovely and has a fabulous setting for their restaurant, Glenwood is in the little valley of Robertsvlei and surrounded by outstanding natural beauty.
Stellenbosch however, defeated us as we could not find anywhere to park! We drove around for a while but the centre was absolutely packed so we had a look at it from the car, admire the beautiful Cape Dutch-style homesteads, the university and the tree-lined streets.
On the drive over to Franschhoek from Stellenbosch on the R310 – Helshoogte Road look out for Tokara Winery which is famous as an olive oil producer and located right at the top of Helshoogte Pass. Passing a village called Languedoc you come to Boschendal one of the most famous wineries with exceptional grounds. The farm Boschendal means “wood and dale” and was granted to Jean de Long in 1685. A fellow Huguenot, Abraham de Villiers bought it in 1715 and was responsible for the buildings you can see today. Boschendal is famous for its “picque-nique” (mid Oct to April only) which you can buy in a basket and then eat in their gorgeous grounds.
You can visit the delightful manor house with yellow wood ceilings, floorboards and doors set in teak frames and stroll around the delightful gardens, including a very fragrant herb garden.
Naturally, food was not far from our minds and we bought a glass of real lemonade and a chocolate and coffee ice-cream sundae from the Café (formerly slave quarters), sitting under the shade of the lovely oaks in the grounds and watching the white ducks (pure Jemima Puddleducks) strutting around looking for titbits.
Our final dinner in South Africa was at the “French Connection” again. We had the mussels as a starter (from Walvis Bay) followed by sole and couscous with butternut squash, feta cheese, courgette and a pesto sauce. Finished off with a Dom Pedro Kahlua, double espresso and an amaretto. Sublime!
Need a reason to visit Franschhoek? Believe me when I say it is one of the most beautiful wine valleys in the world. And the food and wine ain’t half bad either.