A gem of a Boland town: Franschhoek

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This gem of a Boland* town formerly known as Oliphants Hoek, might be a little out of the way for the visitor, but it’s certainly not altogether out of reach!

It is known for its charm and Boland friendliness, and hundreds of thousands of tourists visit it each year. There’s much to do, with lots of lovely things to see such as galleries and craft, and excellent eateries to choose from. All of this can easily keep one busy for the day, and if you decide to stay over, for the whole week.

It was called Oliphants Hoek after the elephants that used to travel as they followed the seasons, moving inland to graze, and back. With this, clear pathways were created which then were used by humans when they travelled into the interior.

Today, the mountains there are known as the Franschhoek Mountains. One of the ways to get to Franschhoek from Cape Town is from the N1 side. Another is to cross over the Helshoogte Pass from Stellenbosch (the co-ordinates for Franschhoek are 33.8975° S, 19.1523 E).

In fact, this is what the writer of the article did on a cold winter’s morning as the sun was coming up over the Boland.

The early morning sunrise before I set out to explore the Franschhoek Huguenot Road (Central) Trail.

From Franschhoek one can drive further into the interior to visit some of the other Boland towns, such as Villiersdorp, Robertson, McGregor and Montagu.

Crossing the Middagkransberg Pass, which is rich in flora, and with some time on your hands is going to be a stunning adventure (but not advisable when it’s raining or too windy). The pass was commissioned by the then Governor at the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset. Work began on the project in 1822 and it was completed three years later in 1825.

Upgrades were carried out more than 100 years later when reconstruction took place in 1932 to 1933 followed by more improvements in the 1960s. Very recently there have been some landslides due to rain, so it’s worth checking with the local tourist agency before proceeding. But the views from there are spectacular.

The monument is certainly worth a visit if one is wanting to find out more about the history of the place and especially learn more about the Huguenots coming to that region. Read more about the history here.

Today the town of Franschhoek has come a long way from being called Oliphants Hoek, the place where the elephants used to go through and tread paths. It has turned into a much-visited place where tourists both local and from abroad love to go to enjoy good food and wine.

Its history, however, is entrenched in a confluence of different factors. This is what drives its economy, together with agricultural production, viticulture and wine-making. Its earliest inhabitants lived here in peace and harmony with the environment. These were the Khoi (pastoralists) and San (hunter-gatherers) who inhabited the area for thousands of years before the advent of Europeans. Read here about this fascinating yet complex early history.

Sight must never be lost of the fact that Franschhoek’s history dates back to tens of thousands of years when the first inhabitants came there to live. It is, therefore, only relatively recently that the Huguenots settled in the Franschhoek Valley.

The first to arrive at the Cape was Francois Villon and his family, which was in 1671, and by 1692 a total of 201 Huguenots had settled in what was then known as the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town and Environs).

The Huguenots came to the Cape as French Protestants and as members of the Calvinist reformed Church established in the middle of the 16th century in Europe. As France was predominantly Catholic at the time, the Huguenots living there were persecuted for their religious beliefs, which caused them to be exiled to other, nearby countries.

As the Huguenots were known for their abilities in craft manufacturing, the Dutch East India Company administration decided to post them to the Cape. Once the Huguenots had arrived, the Governor at the time, Simon van der Stel, set aside land in the area today known as Franschhoek – the “Corner of the French”. Many of the farms there today are wine farms that are named after the original French families.

  • View a feature here from Jamie Good, filmed on 7 May 2015, which gives some relevant historical background.

As the scope and ambit of the tourist industry in Franschhoek is so vast, it would be impossible to capture it all in the space of an article like this, therefore a selection was made from the Central Huguenot Road Area, starting on the side of the Huguenot Monument.

At least the article should cover the topics of food and wine, craft and nature … to get a good feel of how Franschhoek ticks and what can grab the visitor.

Start the walk through the Central Huguenot Road area from the side of the Huguenot Monument, after visiting it first. Check here for the opening times of the Huguenot Memorial Museum.

Franschhoek is hemmed in between the Klein Drakenstein Mountain Range and the Dassenberg Mountain. Read here for information about hiking trails.

Visit here for Franschhoek Tourism to find out what’s happening in the town.

Franschhoek’s Huguenot Road is well kept. Franschhoek is a spotlessly clean town. One never gets away from the idea that the town is cosily wrapped around by spectacular mountains.

The lounge and fireplace.

The Leeu Collection is made up of three world-class venues/sites: one in South Africa (Franschhoek); one in the United Kingdom and one in Italy.

Its founder is Analjit Singh, who built up the South African leg from three five-star boutique establishments: Leeu Estates, a 17-room country house and boutique winery in the Franschhoek Valley; Leeu House, an exclusive 12-room hotel in the heart of Franschhoek village; and Le Quartier Français, a romantic 32-room hotel including two independent villas, also located in the village.

Opposite Leeu House is the Marigold Indian restaurant and Tuk Tuk, a microbrewery and taqueria. Furthermore, there is a partnership with Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines and the Everard Read Gallery (see further down).

Then outside South Africa is Linthwaite House, a 36-room country retreat overlooking Windermere in England’s scenic Lake District, and then Leeu Villa Querce, a luxury hotel with pristine gardens in Florence, Italy which opens its doors in 2021.

The Leeu Learning Centre was established in Franschhoek in order to enable the youth of Franschhoek to embrace the digital and information economy, offering up-to-date equipment and professional support. Its doors opened as recently as 1 February 2019.

Bronzes of two exceptional world leaders who both lived in South Africa and from their experiences influenced world thinking on the approach to humanity. On the left is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and on the right is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

The Marigold in Huguenot Road opposite Leeu House serves authentic Indian cuisine.

Apart from eateries and fashion and craft outlets the town is a hive of art galleries, each with its own approach and brand. The best way to visit them is to walk through the town from the one side to the other, not missing anything. I began this journey from the south side, with The Boutique Gallery.  

This venture is the creation of Ellen Christiaen and William Vaesen, who selected the venue in Franschhoek to be their first gallery. They subsequently expanded to the historic heart of their hometown, Sint-Martens-Latem.

Today their gallery in Franschhoek displays a collection of unique works of art from the continents of Africa, America and Europe. Well-known names can be found there: Isabelle Scheltjens, Samuel Allerton, Guy du Toit and Gil Buvel.

Inside The Boutique Gallery

The Abe Opperman Gallery in 11 Huguenot Road

Abe Opperman is a distinguished artist who exhibits from his gallery in Franschhoek. According to his website, “Using mostly black and white, sometimes with the appearance of very symbolic patches of colour, Abe reflects the world through the eyes of his inner child and paints visual recollections of his unique encounters with the ordinary and extraordinary, which is inherent in everything, every situation, every colour, every creature, every landscape.”

After matriculating in 1979, Abe proceeded to complete his military service. He then decided to study fine art and fashion design at the Pretoria Technikon. In 1994 he opened a flower shop in Johannesburg, with the vision of creating “the most beautiful floral arrangements in the country”.

Today, Hoy P’loy Flowers and Interiors also houses the Abe Opperman Gallery, which was opened in 2010, followed by a Cape Town branch in 2016 and a Franschhoek branch in 2019. All three galleries exclusively display Abe’s artwork and have received much acclaim.

Tuk Tuk offers the visitor a unique experience of beer tasting and much, much, much more!

This is a great experience, the “Hop-on-hop-off transporting 7 days a week”. Go to the TUK TUK Ticket office next to Leeu House. Tours start on the hour from 11 am, with the last leg departing at 4 pm.

For this tour, visitors can enjoy three craft beer estates to enjoy beer tastings, with beer and food pairings and a delicious lunch if required. If you have a favourite stop you can linger longer, or just get to the next place.

The signpost for Le Quartier Français, one of the town’s most established places to stay

One of the many fine restaurants is La Petite Colombe at Le Quartier Français

Le Quartier Français, a romantic 32-room boutique hotel, which includes two independent villas, is located in the heart of Franschhoek … even the pathways remind one of the French way.

One of the villas at Le Quartier Français

The pool area at Le Quartier Français

The above photographs depict the luxurious accommodation available at Le Quartier Français.

Art lovers are in for a real treat at the Everard Read Gallery, which specialises in bronzes, although a great variety of genres is available – all by famous artists.

A bronze at the gallery.

One of Franschhoek’s well-known eateries is Reubens, named after the chef who made it famous.

The chef, Rueben, who became well-known for his creative dishes, had a “passion for creating fine yet uncomplicated cuisine and a laid-back setting to match”. The menu has stayed true to the original, staunch favourites.

Some of the mains include springbok steak preserved in cherry gastrique, pancetta, potato fondant, roasted butternut, game jus and walnuts; josper roasted linefish in a champagne basil crème, pea purée, gnocchi, charred asparagus, roasted tomatoes, mussels, gochujang (red chilli paste), and fire-roasted beef fillet with mushroom ravioli, potato fondant, seasonal greens, bone-marrow jus; soft herb risotto with English spinach, sautéed mushrooms, roasted butternut, balsamic cream parmesan shavings and hazelnut crumbs.

The wines to accompany are of the finest the region has to offer, such as from the classic Haute Cabrière stable

La Cotte Inn sells 505 local wines, 250 imported wines and 104 different cheeses.

Each year there is the annual Franschhoek wine sale, which is held in winter, in June.

It’s a great time to experience the Franschhoek Vignerons’ showcasing of the finest seasonal red wines in South Africa. There are also meals available prepared by Franschhoek chefs, with much to choose from, such as artisanal sourdough pizzas, grilled sirloin paninis and pulled pork tacos. For locals, it’s a perfect opportunity for the whole family with its secure and supervised kiddies’ area and kids’ menu to complement.

Also worth visiting is the Wine and biltong shop of Deon Viljoen in the centre of the town, 48 Huguenot Road. Below is a photograph of the owner, Deon Viljoen, whose descendants were the first French Huguenots to start farming in the Franschhoek region.

Deon has a fiery passion for fine wines and so opened Franschhoek Biltong Wine & Nuts in February 2014 with a goal to showcase the region’s finest to tourists and locals alike. It soon grew into a fully functional boutique wine store, stocking the best of the Franschhoek Valley.

As one perambulates through this little town with its feasts on every corner (for the eye, the palate, or the pocket!), there’s always place for a coffee.

So much to do – such as cycling through the vineyards, followed by an excellent breakfast at the cyclists’ favourite breakfast-venue, River Café.

At Watamu the visitor can find “an exciting array of African curios and artifacts that have been handcrafted by artisans from throughout Africa”. The artifacts reflect traditional motifs and symbolism, out of Africa.

Visitors to Franschhoek come from all corners of the world; it’s probably one of the most international venues in South Africa.

The Dutch Reformed Church

The Dutch Reformed Church was built in 1847 and is situated in the road that was named after the French Huguenots, who brought with them knowledge of viniculture and settled to make wine.

Behind the church is one of the town’s cemeteries, the historical cemetery; the other one is near the Huguenot Monument. The church building was fully restored in 1968. It is in the traditional cross shape with a canopy but no church tower. It has an excellent organ, the music of which resounds throughout the magnificent building.

Franschhoek has many squares and spaces for patrons to sit and enjoy the Cape outside, and even on wintry days Franschhoek is good for visiting if “the old currant bun” is shining.

In this photograph The Wolftrap wines are advertised.

Here Agussi Crafts are advertised.

Visit the Franschhoek Medical Plants Demonstration Garden. Find out more about the medicinal and purported magical qualities of herbs. The garden is located at the end of Huguenot Street.

In Huguenot Road the visitor will find many fashion stores, craft shops and a book shop – see photos below.

Book shops, craft markets, fashion … many of these activities abound in the town.

For wine tasting go to https://www.bovinerestaurant.co.za.

Some of the streets in the town are in the French heritage, such as Bordeaux Street, named after the renowned wine region of France.

Franschhoek is a unique Boland town which buzzes 365 days a year. There can be none other as quaint, and jolie as Franschhoek.

In Huguenot Street, even the locals turn French!

* A region of the Western Cape province of South Africa

  • All the photographs taken by the writer.
Buro: MvH
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