With wine, food, history, art, architecture and a choice of Romantic Routes, no wonder the Boland town of Tulbagh lies in the Valley of Abundance. Fall under its spell and you might never leave.
Words: Marianne Heron
Pictures: David Morgan
There’s something about Tulbagh that reminds me of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The relationship has nothing to do with the town’s dramatic location in a fertile valley set in the amphitheatre of the Winterhoek, Obiqua and Witzenberg mountains. No, it’s the sheer number of possibilities: Napoleon’s 1806 monument sits at the centre of L’Etoile – a starburst meeting point of 12 roads waiting to be explored, and similarly in Tulbagh there are a dozen intriguing routes to enjoyment.
The list of the town’s offerings is enticing – wine, history, art, architecture, olives, horse riding, gardens, scenery, gems, live music and fine food, all things I love that are irresistible. There is even a restaurant called Things I Love. How appropriate for the wedding capital of the Western Cape, where even the mountains blush pink at sunrise in this Valley of Abundance, that there are half a dozen Romantic Routes. Each is different but equally enticing – wine routes, a horse trail, a hiking trail, scenic routes, an art route, or you can create your own.
The valley was originally named Land van Waveren by Governor Willem van der Stel when he arrived there in search of new pastures for the Dutch East India Company in 1699. It was named after the Oetgens van Waveren family from whom Van der Stel’s mother was descended. The first eight land grants in Tulbagh were issued in 1714 and its handsome Dutch Reformed Church (now a museum) was completed in 1754. Unusually, the parsonage was built some distance away, with houses along the path between the two, creating Church Street.
Today the dorp’s statistics are impressive. It boasts the largest number of historic monuments (60) in any small town in South Africa, the majority in Church Street, which is lined with exquisite 18th and 19th century houses. There are around 1 000 beds for visitors, 13 wineries and Tulbagh’s version of the impressive gardens of Babylonstoren in Franschhoek. Also, there really is a French connection for the imposing 1804 Drostdy (now home to the Drostdy Hof homestead, cellar and museum) which was designed by Paris-trained architect Louis Michel Thibault.
The disastrous 1969 earthquake that registered 6.5 on the Richter Scale, (remembered in the Earthquake Museum at Number 4 Church Street) caused nine deaths in the area and reduced many of the old buildings in the town to ruins. The passes into the valley were blocked by falling rocks and the mountainsides set afire by the sparks they generated. But within a few days 3 000 tents had been supplied to shelter the homeless and just a few years later the houses in Church Street had been restored by a restoration team headed by celebrated architect Gawie Fagan, an example of the remarkable way Tulbaghers triumph over adversity.
Curiosity may have brought one of the town’s most celebrated residents, artist Christo Coetzee, to Tulbagh in the wake of the quake, but he stayed on, dividing his time between his home at 26 Church Street (built in 1796) and Finestrat, Spain from 1970 until his death in 2000. Number 26 is now the Christo Coetzee Gallery and anyone booking a tour of his exhibition will have a riveting insight into the life of this internationally renowned artist who counted Salvador Dali and designer Schiaparelli among his familiars.
Gallery manager Jan Wolmerans’ talk swept us though Christo’s fascination with brides that began at the impressionable age of five, as well as his time at Wits University with the Wits group of artists, his international career and involvement with the Japanese Gutai movement and on to the confrontational sessions he had with students at his Tulbagh studio. We emerged after the talk in a delighted daze, only partly due to the hottest October day on record.
Twee Jonge Gezellen Road is one of the Romantic Routes radiating from Tulbagh. Originally translated as Two Young Bachelors, this was changed to Companions when it became known that the young men, who must have had romantic designs of their own, had left several descendants in the valley. Their other legacy was the 1710 farm of the same name, now home to Krone Methodé Cap Classique. Demand for this romantic sparkling wine is growing exponentially, winemaker Stephan de Beer tells us.
“Production is heading for a million bottles next year, most it for the home market. The winery is undergoing a renaissance under new owners Vinimark and, to celebrate, a new bubbly made from 2004, 2005 and 2006 vintages is to be launched shortly called The Phoenix, which will join the trio of MCCs – Krone Borealis (Brut), Krone Rosé (Cuvée Brut) and Night Nectar (Demi-sec).”
Further along the route, Sue and Pieter du Toit’s ten-year-old dream to create a model olive farm is about to culminate in the launch of Oakhurst Olive’s new Tasting Centre and Test Kitchen.
“We want to educate people about South African olive oils,” says Sue, explaining that oxygen and light are the worst enemies of the oil. “Once you have opened it don’t save it for best. Use it and love it.” Olive Palace seems a more fitting description for the impressive Tasting Centre and Test Kitchen where, below the tasting room, olive oil pressing and blending from ten different olive varietals takes place at one end. At the other, 300 tons of Kalamata table olives mature in brine for a year.
I wasn’t the only one to be impressed. “This is the best tapenade ever,” said Michael Deg, who had dropped in with his wife Colette for an olive oil tasting, and were sampling Sue’s tapenade made from Oakhurst’s luscious hand-picked Kalamata olives. Praise indeed, for Michael just happens to be head chef at the Delaire Graff Restaurant in Stellenbosch.
Cupid certainly seems to get around in the valley. Imagine horse riding through stunning scenery in the foothills of the Witzenberg mountains, to a secluded glade and a Champagne picnic. It’s a scenario that Jo and John Lister of Horse About Trails arrange from time to time, leading the ride out on experienced trail horses before disappearing discreetly at the picnic spot.
“We wait behind the bushes wondering if it’s all right to come out,” says Jo with a laugh. Engagements aside, Horse About’s morning and evening trail rides are suitable for everyone, and the full-moon rides are oh so romantic.
All those weddings in Tulbagh call for post-celebration restorative meals, especially hearty breakfasts. Chris Shylock, chef of the Patriot Restaurant at the delightful old world De Oude Herberg on Church Street, demonstrated his Eggs Parisienne for us (another French connection), separating the yolks and whipping up a frou-frou of whites, sliding the yolks into meringue nests and popping them in the oven briefly before serving with bacon and all the trimmings. Another of Zimbabwe-trained Chris’ popular dishes is king prawns marinated in lemon, paprika and basil with home-made chilli sauce.
At Things I Love restaurant and deli on Van der Stel Street, freshly whizzed fruit cocktails like apple and pineapple with ginger are favourite pick-me-ups, according to manageress Miela Pietersen. Here the fare is the antithesis of fast food. “Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh,” says Miela. Their Parma ham, melon, papaya, lettuce, feta and olive salad dressed with local olive oil, seems a perfect choice for a light lunch on a hot day.
Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend but other gemstones caught Mandy Kriel’s eye on a chance visit to Pofadder. Fascinated by the crystals she saw there, Mandy studied them and then turned her passion into a business. Now her Crystal Cave draws collectors and people in search of gems with healing properties to the top end of Buitekant Street. “The more you discover about crystals the more there is to know,” says Mandy.
With names like black obsidian, green aventurine, red tiger’s eye and pink tourmaline, the stones have a mysterious fairy-tale appeal and may cost only a few rand. Customers can make attractive bracelets of stones to match the colour of their chakras. We emerged from the Cave with a haematite stone to help David’s broken ankle, and a sodalite to make my soft Irish voice louder, and we await results with interest.
Just around the corner from the Crystal Cave, the Saronsberg Theatre on Van der Stel Street was lovingly restored several years ago. Disaster was averted when the place was about to close, just as impressario Chris Grobbelaar (aka Kreeft on account of his crayfish tattoo) had booked it for live bands during the during popular Tulbagh Arts Festival in September.
“I told the owner you are going to have to give me the key. That was two years ago and we are still here,” says Chris with a grin. His gamble paid off and the theatre has become a performance venue for bands like the Witzenbergies, combined with his De Kreeft Stam Kafee next door.
“There is always something happening on weekends,” says Chris, who wears several other hats, doing the logistics for the Oppikoppi music festival and managing the Kreeft tented hotel. “It’s a 0.5-star hotel,” jokes Chris. “I have to have three jobs so that I can live in Tulbagh.”
Another lovely example of Tulbagh’s ability to reinvent itself lies on the banks of the Kliprivier, where slaves once grew fruit and vegetables for the residents of Church Street. Now it’s the highly productive Church Street Community Gardens & Gardens Collective, thanks to the input of Jayson Clark, owner of the Cape Dutch Quarters B&B, and donors, volunteers and a trio of passionate gardeners.
Started last July (2015), the garden is bursting with goodness, thanks to a restored reservoir and a revitalised grey-water scheme. Beds of herbs and vegetables like broccoli, globe artichoke, beetroot, cabbage, lettuce and cauliflower radiate from a central bed of traditional muti plants.
The produce is donated to a local soup kitchen, children’s and retirement homes and is also sold to local restaurants, while a pick and pay scheme helps to fund the wages of Themba and Opa Marman who tend the garden.
Jayson shows us the Gwen Fagan Rose Garden, named for the doyenne of heritage-rose revivial, the imposing gateway modelled on the one at Babylonstoren, and the path where one day soon a slave bell will stand as a tribute to former slaves. It’s a perfect back-to-the-future addition to this historic town.
- Make up your own tour or choose from routes that will lead you to enticing destinations.
- Follow the wine route, and include the contemporary Saronsberg Cellar at the foot of the Saronsberg mountains that has an avant garde tasting room and an upstairs gallery, or visit Drostdy Hof cellar and museum in the old magistrate’s court.
- Be inspired by the Winterhoek Mountains on a route that includes the Murludi Hiking Trail, or take a scenic ride with Horse About Trails.
- Step back in time in Church Street and visit national monuments, museums, galleries, restaurants and gracious guest houses like the Cape Dutch Quarters.
- Visit the fruit-growing regions of Ceres and Wolseley, with stop-offs that include Waverley Hills organic wine and olive estate and a thrilling Ceres zip line.
- An alternative takes you to the foothills of the Klein Winterhoek where the Secret Falls make the perfect spot for a romantic picnic.
- For more info on these routes, contact the tourism office on 023 230 1348, where you can also find a promotional pack offering discounts at various establishments.
Where to Stay
- A really friendly welcoming place set in a gloriously scenic valley, Tulbagh offers an abundance of choice to visitors.
- It is also a top wedding destination, with seductive places to stay ranging from the old-world charm of guest houses and inns in historic former homes to idyllic self-catering cottages amid lake and mountain settings.
Where to Eat
- There is plenty to choose from – inventive breakfasts and brunches, casual eating at a bush pub, traditional boerekos, or fine dining and Belgian- or French-inspired cuisine.
- Tulbagh Tourism Office: 023 230 1348
- Tulbagh Wine and Tourism: 023 230 1375
- There is a price differential between old and new homes in Tulbagh, and period properties have a cachet that commands extra value. A typical family home fetches around R1.9 million whereas there are a couple of attractive Victorian houses on the market currently at around R3 million. A new trend is the sale of lifestyle components on farms with the private sale of appealing plots in rural settings.
- Farms for sale in the valley at present come with price tags varying from R5 million-R50 million. An idyllic lifestyle holding in the foothills of the Witzenberg mountains has grapes, olives, holiday cottages offering an income, and a farmhouse and dam for R5.9 million. At the other end of the scale isa beautifully located mixed farm of grapes, olives and geraniums. It has a large house, separate farm dwellings, 7 dams and a borehole with a potential for bottled spring water.