Sunday, 12 June 2011

Babylon's Gardens

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, my father is fond of quoting. Though perhaps not exactly what Pliny the Elder had in mind (though who knows really what was on his mind?) it seems to me whenever I visit Cape Town that there are always some gob-smackingly wonderful new places to indulge the senses. 

Babylonstoren (Babylon's tower) in the Drakenstein valley is technically something new created on something old, derived from something much older. The 'something new' is a unique garden, restaurant and guest houses designed by South African style icon Karen Roos (ex-editor of Elle Decoration) on a Cape Dutch farm dating to 1692.

Nebuchadnezzar's fabulous hanging gardens of Babylon are reinterpreted here, in nine acres of formal garden based on the design of the 17th century Dutch East India Company Gardens, created to supply settlers and passing ships on the trade route to the East with fresh vegetables. 

According to legend, Nebuchadnezzar created the hanging gardens in an attempt to cheer up his homesick Persian wife, Amytia, who found the flat, arid, sun-baked landscape of Mesopotamia depressing and pined for her green and mountainous homeland. 

Unlike Nebuchadnezzar, who had the job of building an artificial mountain with overhanging terraces, Karen Roos had the green and mountainous parts in place down here in the Cape. Two women gardeners planted a formal garden on the principle that everything in it is edible.

The farm restaurant, appropriately enough called Babel, in a converted cowshed, is run by another woman, chef Maranda Engelbrecht, with a farm-to-fork philosophy: 'if we don't grow it or make it or raise it, it comes from a neighbouring farm'. 

Eat under umbrellas on the terrace or in Babel's cool white interior ...

The menu gets written up on the 'bull board' above. It changes daily according to what's fresh in the garden and what seasonal colours work together ...

I have my niece to thank (thank you Nicola) for introducing me to this place, though I've since discovered that this seasoned traveller and this hungry woman are also wild about it.  We went there on the last day of our trip, and now I know exactly where I want to stay next time - in one of these glass-fronted guest houses with designer kitchens where you get to pick your own dinner from the gardens of Babylon ...

(Photos in last two collages from Babylonstoren's website; the rest my own)
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