The Cape has a number of contenders for quaintest dorp award. Franschoek is near the top of most people’s lists, and Greyton also comes up regularly in conversation. Recent up-and-comers include trendy Barrydale and long-forgotten Suurbraak. But for its beautifully preserved architecture and dramatic (and often snow-capped) backdrop, Tulbagh gets my vote.
Every few years I return to Tulbagh to remind myself of its beauty. My most recent visit, with my wife and one-year-old daughter, was only two weeks ago and we were blessed with the kind of Cape winter weather that folk from upcountry don’t even know exists. Daytime sunshine gave way to evenings which were chilly but not cold, and all the while there was a quality of light, a crispness in the air, that made everything I set my eyes upon appear as if it had been torn from the pages of a coffee-table book.
A Blessing in Disguise
Tulbagh is probably most famous for the earthquake of 1969 which claimed 11 lives and destroyed many of the oldest Cape Dutch buildings. Ironically, what was the town’s biggest catastrophe also proved to be its saviour. In the aftermath of the quake the Tulbagh Restoration Committee was formed and Church Street (which had become pretty dilapidated even before the tragedy) was transformed from a pile of rubble to the glittering white gem it is today.
It’s only fair that Church Street, or Kerkstraat as it should really be known, received such preferential treatment. It has the highest concentration of historical monuments anywhere in South Africa – in spite of being barely a kilometre in length – and was at the centre of the valley that used to be known as Het Land van Waveren during its heyday in the 1700s and 1800s.
A Walk Through History
Upon arrival we were all in need of some fresh air and – pram in tow and camera to hand – we took advantage of the dappled sunshine on tree-lined Church Street. We started at the southern end of the street, and although we decided not to subject the baby to the exhibits of De Oude Kerk and its adjoining Volksmuseum, we did take a moment to appreciate its 1743 architecture.
One-year-olds are more into nature than history, and luckily Church Street had a feathery ace up its sleeve. The regionally renowned Paddagang restaurant has a flock (is that the right word?) of peacocks who stand watch over its impressive gardens. One male had tail feathers that must have been at least two metres long: not only baby was astonished by him!
After all the avian excitement we were in need of sustenance. We popped into Reader’s Restaurant for a coffee, some cake and a browse around the feline-themed Curious Cats gift shop…once again right up baby Dall’s street. Revitalised by caffeine and cats, we walked back to the car and drove with no destination in mind in the hope that baby would nod off.
A Tale of Two Valleys
We followed signs leading to Winterhoek, passing the drab buildings of Tulbagh Winery and the sparkling white contrast of the Oude Drostdy Museum on the way. The road got narrower, and windier, and the jagged mountains closed in around us like something from Transylvania. The blossoms on the apple trees were fooling no-one: this was a dark and malevolent valley. The sun may have been shining down below, but up here there was a perpetual wintry gloom.
The next morning we went for another drive to destination unknown. A sign urged us to visit Moniki Chocolatier and we didn’t take much persuading. Once again the road took us high into the hills, but this valley was sunnier, happier. Tar gave way to gravel, gradually worsening as we got higher.
The 18th century Cape Dutch farmhouse which doubled as family home and chocolate factory had been stylishly revamped – huge French doors in the sleek granite and steel kitchen opened out onto a stoep with what must be the best view in the whole valley.
The owners were out, but Berry the able chocolate maker was a gracious hostess. For R35 each we tasted three chocolates and washed them down with tea served in a delightfully ornate teapot. The enormous resident boerbul/ridgeback cross kept us company as we busied ourselves with the onerous task of choosing our favourite chocolate. Eventually we agreed to disagree, and bought a few boxes of ginger chocolates and a few more of orange-flavoured truffles to take back to our families.
Our Own Country Estate
We stayed at Rijk’s Country House, just out of town on the Winterhoek road. Being midweek, we were the only guests, and my one-year-old daughter had great fun crawling around the surprisingly baby-friendly room, and shouting at the resident ducks and geese in the too-picturesque lake which serves as a mirror for the whitewashed manor house and outbuildings of Rijk’s.
We had dinner at Rijk’s too. Baby had pride of place in a high-chair that was both state-of-the-art and spotlessly clean. She was much keener on the butternut and chicken breast which the chef had prepared especially for her than she is on the same meal when made by us!
Rijk’s doesn’t just do baby food, though… I ordered the rack of lamb and my wife had pork belly – both meals were excellent, and the bottle of Rijk’s Pinotage we washed it all down with was so good we decided to buy a few bottles for the road.
Our room was so comfortable, and so well-heated, that all three of us had our best night’s sleep in months. My wife and I were astonished to greet each other for the first time when the sun was already up! Breakfast was a la carte, and although it wasn’t yet warm enough to eat on the stoep, the views from the dining room were a soothing tonic.
Rijk’s is a 4-star establishment, and during peak season its rates are probably out of the reach of most South Africans (myself included). But it offers amazing low-season discounts as well as two-night midweek and weekend packages which include dinner and a bottle of bubbly.
Unfortunately we could only wangle one night away from the city this time round, but we returned to the city revitalised and safe in the knowledge that when city life next starts to wear thin, Het Land Van Waveren is only an hour and a half away. We’ll just have to make our next trip a bit longer.