There’s culture everywhere in Stellenbosch. From a sculpture garden on its outskirts to the historic heart of pavement cafés and bistros, innovative shops and galleries galore.
Words and Pictures: Marion Whitehead
It’s the kind of sultry summer evening that’s too good to spend indoors. Stellenbosch’s pavement cafés and bistros are packed as connoisseurs and students wind down with the fruits of the vineyards that surround this jewel of the Cape Winelands.
Luscious oaks filter the soft light, forming green tunnels between gracious Cape Dutch buildings, many still thatched and proudly sporting national monument plaques. Church and Dorp streets are the spine of the town’s heritage area and, strolling along here, it’s not hard to see why they punt themselves as South Africa’s art and gourmet capital.
Cultured and cultivated, Stellenbosch – claimed to be the oldest town in South Africa by proud residents, who airily dismiss Cape Town as the first city – is seen by many as a playground for the rich. But the vibrant student population and a new breed of innovative entrepreneurs bring a lively buzz that spills into the streets and makes it a destination worth visiting even without its famous wine routes.
Promising young music student Tibone Makiti is blowing a bold riff on his trumpet outside the Gallery of the University of Stellenbosch, as I set off on an art walk with Francé Beyers, chairperson of the Stellenbosch Arts Association. She explains that on the last Thursday of the month, central galleries stay open until 20h00 and she’s organised for some of the town’s musicians to strut their stuff at strategic spots. At D-Street Gallery, the powerful voice of cabaret singer Marthie Hauptfleisch fills the space devoted to upcoming artists.
“It’s fantastic, we have so much talent here,” Francé enthuses. We stroll between the venues and she introduces some of the sculptures dotting street corners. “Goat Woman is my favourite,” she says of a large figure by Eddie Thamsanqa Kiti, decorated with bright mosaics, just a block from the landmark NG Moederkerk.
“It all started in 2007 when land artist Strijdom van der Merwe wrapped all the trees in Dorp Street in red fabric,” she explains. The following year sculptor Dylan Lewis placed some of his bronze sculptures in the streets. “When he took them away, the streets felt so empty, the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust raised funds for an annual exhibition.”
The 2015 theme is Reflections. “Outdoor art has really taken off. It’s the most democratic form of art – anyone can look and touch,” says Francé over drinks at De Warenmarkt, the town’s newest happening spot for artisan food and craft beer, where we end our tour.
Next day, I find entrance is free at the Stellenbosch University Museum, one of the major galleries. I ogle several floors of artworks, including a fine collection of paintings by Maggie Loubser, who studied here, and plenty of big names in South African art, like Alexis Preller, Gregoire Boonzaier, Judith Mason and Ruth Prowse.
My appetite whetted, I continue my art odyssey at the Rupert Museum to view the famous Johannesburg Station panels by H Pierneef and feast my eyes on the superb collection of contemporary South African artists, including Bonnie Ntshalintshali and Penny Siopis. A recent acquisition of a painting by the late Ernest Mancoba and a rich embroidery on velvet by Sandra Kriel are just cherries on the top.
Stellenbosch’s creativity spills out into crafts. At Crafts Alive and iThemba Curios at the info centre, Anna Kruger is on a mission to uplift the local community. She’s a dab hand at bringing together artists, designers and crafters for mutual benefit, and shows me a painting by Karla Duterloo that includes beadwork by Moses Muller, who is part of her initiative. “The aim is to build bridges between the different communities through arts and crafts,” says Anna, who ran curio shops before risking her pension to start Crafts Alive. “It’s just a calling, something I had to do.”
I join her on an errand to deliver beads to Moses at his shack in Kylemore and find him surrounded by red-beaded earrings, preparing for the upcoming Strawberry Festival.
More beautiful crafts crowd the shelves at Local Works, a small shop near the Moederkerk. “Everything here has a story,” says owner Ina-Marie Kilian showing me a delicate belt made from recycled inner tubes, made by a group near Paarl.
Stellenbosch started out as a farming community to supply Dutch ships with fresh produce, explains Hanli Fourie, as we stand where the town’s founder, Simon van der Stel, camped in 1679 on his first visit to this verdant spot on the Eerste River, below the Jonkershoek Mountains. It’s now occupied by what she jokingly calls ‘the angel factory’ (theological seminary). She tells us the story of the early fires that razed Stellenbosch, before taking us to visit Schreuder House, the oldest remaining dorpshuis (town house), now restored and part of the Village Museum, where we see a special pan used to bake melktert on hot coals.
On Hanli’s Bites and Sites walking tour, we get to know the heart of the historic town through its food. We stop at Eikeboom Butchery, the dorp’s oldest, where biltong is made the traditional way, and traipse through De Wet Square that throngs with popular eateries and local design shops.
We rest our legs at Brampton Wine Studio for the inevitable wine tasting, pop into Schoon de Companje for a whiff of artisan bread and roasting coffee, and pause at M Patisserie to see the owner, local celebrity Martjie Malan, a runner-up on the Koekedoor television show, before parking off for lunch at Oude Werf Hotel. The chef indulges us with a platter of traditional dishes such as bobotie, snoek, roasted sweet potatoes and chicken pie while Hanli entertains us with anecdotes about the cuisine’s origins.
Our food safari ends at Helena’s Restaurant in the equally historic Coopmanhuijs across the road for dessert and a tea tasting – rooibos, honeybush and buchu. “All rich in antioxidants,” adds Hanli, clearly in love with all things local.
The Stellenbosch foodie culture bubbles over at its markets. At the Saturday morning Slowmarket at Oude Libertas, I find locals queuing for organic, free-range chickens, decadent German cakes baked by a real German, hot Portuguese chilli sauce made by an excitable Irishman, sun-ripened strawberries, artisan chocolate, fresh oysters trucked in from Saldanha, Lebanese treats and much more. “We’re at the forefront of the food revolution here,” says Matthew Kruger, the market’s brand manager.
I am delighted to find spinach growing between the flowers on the traffic islands in Stellenbosch, part of an initiative to bring food to the people. Another surprise is the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden, a quiet 2.4-hectare retreat in the middle of town, half a block from the Moederkerk. The roses are in full bloom but not the famous lotus lilies. They bloom in January and February, explains administrator Viola Calitz.
The art of gardening takes on new dimensions with a visit to Dylan Lewis’ sculpture garden at Paradyskloof, south of town. On a guided tour with Hanli Hill, we see how the artist has moulded the landscape into a giant canvas painted with a mosaic of fynbos, to show off his large sculptures to best advantage against the backdrop of the mountains. It is inspiring.
Too late I discover that Old Nectar, the estate of the late gardening doyen, Una van der Spuy, is once again open to the public after a major rejuvenation. Another visit will be necessary to this verdant spot beneath the Jonkershoek.
- With more than 80 restaurants in Stellenbosch, there’s something to please every palate and pocket, from modest to posh at wine estates such as the Lanzerac and Neethlingshof. Twaalf, on a courtyard off Dorp Street, is one of the newest in town and serves good, honest food – made like your ouma cooks – at affordable prices.
- The plethora of markets is great for sampling local fare informally and meeting the producers. Try the Stellenbosch Slowmarket (Saturday morning), Blaauklippen Family Market (Sunday morning) and Root44 (Saturday and Sunday).
There’s plenty of luxury five-star accommodation in the wealthy Winelands region but the trick is to find something that fits your wallet, be it a hotel, B&B or self-cater.
- Caledon Villa in central Stellenbosch is a real gem: the owners of the beautiful Edwardian B&B are art and music connoisseurs and a fount of information about their historic dorp. 021 883 8912, [email protected], www.caledonvilla.co.za.
- Staying at Momberg Cottage on Middelvlei Wine Farm, conveniently close to town, means you don’t have to drive anywhere after a wine tasting or enjoying their famous boerebraai. 021 883 2565
[email protected], www.middelvlei.co.za.
- For more options and details on activities, contact 021 883 3584, [email protected], www.stellenbosch.travel or 021 886 4310, [email protected], www.wineroute.co.za