Sunday 22 May 2011

Cape winelands: Europe meets Africa

Stellenbosch, just under an hour's drive from Cape Town, is a pretty, oak-tree lined university town surrounded by wine farms. Whenever work used to take me there, I'd leave early in the morning to avoid traffic on the national road, and I'd be driving through vineyards at sunrise, to have early coffee in Dorp Street (below), where the houses and shops go back to the 1700s. 

The legacy of the Europeans in Africa is here - the Dutch, whose governor founded this town in 1679 ... 

and the French, who settled in nearby Franschhoek below...

The French Huguenots, hot-footing it to Africa away from persecution in 1600s France, found compensation here after they crossed the mountains, above, into this lush valley that was perfect for planting vines and practising the art of wine-making - something they knew plenty about. 
They named their new farms after the areas in France they came from and the vineyards they'd left behind ... La Motte, Cabriere, Provence, Chamonix, Dieu Donné, La Dauphine and many more still exist today in this part of the Cape winelands.

They called the area Le Coin Francais, their little French corner of Southern Africa (later translated by the Dutch to Franschhoek).

The 'Cape Dutch' style of their gabled houses (shades of old Amsterdam) is actually a mix of Dutch, French, German and Indonesian styles unique to this part of the world. They were built by slaves imported from the east who were skilled craftsmen, from local materials - clay, sea-shells, wild reed, slate from Robben Island ...

Some had the vision to plant vines high up on the mountain slopes. Delaire is the 'vineyard in the sky' at the top of Helshoogte mountain pass (meaning hell's height, or a hell of a height) with these spectacular views of the Banhoek valley, framed by mountain ranges ...

You used to be able to have a relaxed picnic under the trees here while enjoying the views, but no more. In a contemporary version of European colonisation, Delaire has been bought by self-made (Stepney to Bond Street) billionaire jeweller, Laurence Graff and had a multi-million make-over. Rustic Cape Dutch has disappeared and in its place is a contemporary fusion of African and ... I'm not sure, really, but it makes a statement of its own even if accessible mainly to the very rich ...

Graff has gathered works of art by contemporary South African artists, including sculptor Dylan Lewis (his fabulous big cats are against the mountain backdrop in a photo above).

What would the Huguenots make of all this?


  1. Dear Karen, There is something about the light in your photographs of Africa that is very haunting...I can't get them out of my mind. Have always loved the gabled facades which were adopted by the Europeans in Africa. My house has a similar front, copied from architecture in Northern Italy. So nice of you to share these beautiful vistas.

  2. Beautiful 'spots' again! I know from some friends who lived in this region that it is an amazing country side and they are 'homesick'!

    I did not know that the Huguenots settled there as well. So, your historical information is very helpful and I've learned something, Thank you Karen.

  3. What a lovely post, I shouldn't have read it really ... as it's made me very homesick!


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