Gourmet Capital in the Western Cape

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. Dutch Reformed church Swellendam 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. P1130713 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. P1130745 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. mountains2

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. View from Haute Carbiere 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.

A Cape Dutch Style House
dutch reformed church
dutch reformed church

After a light lunch (salad) in the village we returned to the auberge to rest. Vineyards and Mountains 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. haute carbiere 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.

wine carrier 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. manor house boschendal 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.

Yellow wood and Stinkwood Armoire
Yellow wood and Stinkwood Armoire

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.

franschhoek town hall
franschhoek town hall

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.

Road Trip: Route 62 – Wine and Roses

The “longest wine route in the world”, otherwise known as the Route 62 is known for its delicious wines and brandies. Route 62 meanders through incredible rock formations and narrow mountain passes

The second part of my trip to South Africa in 2008 was to drive along the Garden Route and visit Addo Elephant Park – well at least it used to be an elephant park, but there is so much more there now including lions. As I never like to do the same journey there and back I decided that on the outward journey we would drive through the Klein (Little) Karoo along Route 62 and then at Oudtshoorn make for George via the Outeniqua Pass. I always think that the Garden Route really only starts at George and ends at Storm River, although this is hotly disputed and some say it starts at Heidelberg. We would do that stretch twice, but stop in different areas on the way.

Leaving Cape Town

After another great breakfast and leaving the Cape Peninsula behind us we headed for the N1 towards Paarl, getting stuck in two traffic jams on the way. As we limped past Century City (don’t go there) I vaguely wondered about bypassing the Huguenot tunnel, a toll road through the Klein Drakenstein (Little Dragon Stone) mountains, and drive instead on the R301 up to Wellington and then across the R303 through Bain’s Kloof Pass to Breerivier and then the R43 back towards the N1 at Worcester.

This is a route that I have done several times before, including on my previous visit to the Cape in 2000 and it is one of the most picturesque passes in the Cape. I may be biased as I find most routes in the Cape to be pretty impressive, but this is undeniably scenic following the Witte River with rapids and rock pools where you can bathe and picnic by the side of waterfalls.

However, I had never driven through the tunnel before as this wasn’t built when I lived in the Cape and the usual way out was up and over Du Toitskloof Pass which was often very unstable with regular rockfalls and incredibly scary at night. Given the amount of driving that we had to do and the time already lost in the traffic jams, we decided to use the tunnel. It is a fine tunnel, as tunnels go, and we quickly  emerged at the other side to some incredible views over the Breede River valley and the Hex River Mountains in the background.

(Apologies for the poor quality of some of these images, but they were taken through an increasingly dirty windscreen)Breede-Valley

Valley of Wine and Roses

We stopped off at the Worcester Ultra City to fill up and then left the N1 (so unfortunately missed the Hex River Valley, another stunning area especially in the autumn for the colours of the vineyards) and followed the N15 to Robertson.

kogmans-kloof (One important fact about driving in South Africa is that you have to pay cash at filling stations – they do not take cards. A very nice aspect though is that you get excellent service, someone fills up the car, your windows get cleaned and they  will even check oil and tyres for you! All for a few Rands as a tip. I must admit though that I was nervous about carrying large amounts of cash with us, so I tended to fill up quite often to avoid this.)

Driving to Robertson was a surprise as there are now a plethora of wineries, and it is known as the valley of wine and roses. I hadn’t realised that there were so many vineyards, including Graham Beck, as I remembered it as mainly for fruit-growing. Yes I know, grapes are fruit, but I was thinking of orchards. wineries-nr-robertson

Klein Karoo

Leaving Robertson towards Ashton and Montague we hit Route 62 and followed this to Ladismith at the foot of the Klein Swartberg range where we stopped for coffee. In fact as you drive into the town, you feel as though you are driving straight into the Towerkop (Bewitch Peak) which is famous for its cleft peak!

Ashton
Ashton

(Another driving fact – watch out for speed cameras! I never saw any on this trip, but there were many times when I wasn’t sure of the speed limit as signage is not always very prominent. On my return to the UK I had collected 3 speeding tickets! I have never had one in the UK so I was not expecting them in rural areas. According to ‘Seth Efrikan’ legend you generally pay more for the speeding tickets and toll roads than you do for your holiday!)

Toverkop-from-Ladismith
Ladismith and Towerkop in the background

From Ladismith it is onwards to Zoar and Calitzdorp. There is lovely Victorian and Edwardian architecture in Calitzdorp and several wine cellars. Near Zoar is an interesting place called Ronnie’s Sex Shop –

Ronnie painted the name Ronnie’s Shop on a cottage next to the R62, planning to open a farm stall to sell fresh produce and fruit. His friends played a prank on him by changing the name to Ronnie’s Sex Shop. Initially angry about the involuntary name change, Ronnie left the name and continued fixing the dilapidated building. His friends would stop by for a chat, having a few beers and throwing a couple of chops on the fire. During one of these evenings, someone suggested: “Why don’t you just open a pub?”

Now it is a pitstop for visitors from all over the world as well as local farmers – to be honest there is very little else on this road to stop at! We were doing this drive in the South African autumn but it was still rather warm so thank goodness for air con! I have driven through here in the mid summer when temperatures rise to 40 C and no air con – and it does get extremely hot! Once, long ago, I went through here in a VW kombi (campervan) and being air-cooled – well, yes, you see the problem – hot air does not make a very efficient cooling system and we broke down several times en route having to wait (in baking heat) at the side of the road until the van had recovered sufficiently to carry on a bit further. Very annoying in the days when petrol stations closed at 6 pm because of the oil shortage.

Ostriches

After Calitzdorp comes Oudtshoorn, the largest town in the Klein Karoo and famous for Ostrich farms and the Cango Caves. Well, it is supposedly famous for ostrich, but we didn’t see a single one! Even when we passed the Safari show farm on the way out of town – not one ostrich to be seen. Oudtshoorn is completely surrounded by mountains so whichever way you approach it is quite stunning. Another place to stay overnight but not on this occasion. We continued along the R62 to Zebra (and annoyingly once again I didn’t manage to get a photo of the building on the side of the road which is painted with zebra stripes), in fact that is the only building I have ever seen in Zebra!

cottage-near-montagu
Cottage nr Montague

Outeniqua Pass

Finally we left the R62  (N12) and went into the Outeniqua mountains, still the N12 / N9, and through the Outeniqua Pass. Unfortunately for us, clouds and thick fog had formed over the mountains and the views were not as striking as they can be in clear weather, but dramatic all the same. We wound our way down the serpentine curves to the town of George and the coast, silenced by the breathtaking mountains surrounding us. cloud-in-the-outeniqua b&w Route 62 may not be the quickest way to reach the Garden Route, but it beats the N2 any day if you have the time. I just want to do it again only with time to linger longer in the towns of the Klein Karoo, so I guess I shall be back.

Victorian-architecture-Geor
George