Kings of the Castle

The village of Riebeek Kasteel is tiny but its creativity is huge. Just an hour from Cape Town, it has a small town square lined with unique shops and restaurants, so don’t forget your shopping basket

Words and Pictures: Keri Harvey

Quaint Riebeek Kasteel is a shoppers' haven.
Quaint Riebeek Kasteel is a shoppers’ haven.

After being sternly reprimanded for dancing the Makarena naked on the town square one night, Tony Purnell decided he really liked Riebeek Kasteel. A few years later he moved there. Now ten years on he’s the cupcake king of the castle, keeping the town’s sugar levels constant. “I love the vibe and it’s a beautiful place,” says Tony. “There’s a sense of real freedom here. We’re seventy-something kilometres from Cape Town, so many people live here and still work in the city.”

Hugged by vineyards, wheat fields, and fruit and olive orchards, much of Riebeek Kasteel’s daily activity happens around the town square, where Tony danced naked. Wicked Treats, just off the main square, is Tony and his wife Liesel’s Alice in Wonderland bakery – the little shop is awash with bright purple, inside and out. With his mother-in-law’s biscuit recipe, Tony opened Wicked Treats and immediately expanded beyond the original wicked miniature biscuits. At one stage production was at 25 000 biscuits a day in vanilla, mocha, berry and chocolate Shiraz – tiny morsels of sugar bliss. Then there’s the 44D cupcake about 25 centimetres high, and for salt-tooths the WTF ciabatta roll crammed with ham and cheese, and countless other decadent offerings in this little theatre
of delights.

Crisp is an old world-style green grocer and deli that even sells 'ethical eggs'.
Crisp is an old world-style green grocer and deli that even sells ‘ethical eggs’.

 

Tiny shops are sprinkled around the square and along nearby Short Street, which is a miniature open-air arcade. Ancient Spirit sells beautiful clothing from natural fabrics, while Crisp is filled with fresh fruit and vegetables and deli delectables – their dolmades are the finest. Many of the town’s eateries are also near the square and include Bar Bar Black Sheep, Eve’s Eatery, Etu Deli and the timeless Kasteelberg Country Inn and Bistro. The Royal Hotel is nearby in Main Street, along with the NG Church (and its landmark red steeple) and school. “Damnation, salvation and education share the same street,” adds Tony.

Tony had been coming to Riebeek Kasteel since 1996. He fondly remembers the old days when the Royal Hotel in the main street had a Friday evening Happy Hour. “It was so popular the whole village closed down and people arrived from all the surrounding towns to socialise. Then they renovated the hotel and we used to hold our own spontaneous Happy Hour on the hotel stoep, in amongst the building rubble. We just brought along a cooler box and the show went on.”

 

The village of Riebeek Kasteel lies in the heart of the lush, productive Riebeek Valley.
The village of Riebeek Kasteel lies in the heart of the lush, productive Riebeek Valley.

Further along Main Street, red-fronted Aitsa sells unique tastes like stinging nettle cheese and chocolate-olive salami, along with traditional home bakes. A la Maison next door is a tiny bit of France, with home décor and French-style accessories, while just across the road The Gallery showcases outstanding local artists in a studio awash with sunlight.

“Here’s Leán,” says Tony, stopping a lady in her tracks as she steps into his shop. “She’s a performance artist and her husband Jacques is a conceptual artist. He climbed Kilimanjaro and made iced coffee on top using glacier ice, and he also did a headstand on top of Mount Fuji.” Leán smiles and says it’s true; it’s part of Jacques’s work on climate change, and using artistic gestures to raise awareness. Last year’s Mount Fuji headstand was photographed and the picture flipped around to depict Jacques carrying the world on his shoulders. He called it ‘The Atlas Complex’. Jacques and Leán Coetzer moved to Riebeek Kasteel from Pretoria four years ago, “to get away from city life and disappearing in the traffic, which didn’t make sense anymore”. Leán finds it more social here and much safer. “Just to slow down and not be focused on material things is wonderful. Here we have real relationships with people; children play in the streets. Some days when I walk to school with my children, I just can’t believe our life here. We are so happy.”

Just off the square, on the corner of Piet Retief and Royal streets, lives artist Amanda Cliengen. It’s the funky creative pieces sprinkled in her garden that first catch your eye, everything from shards of wisdom written in the trees to paintings and pictures incorporating vintage clothing. The pieces are whimsical and happy, telling of a life enjoyed. Petite Amanda is a potter by trade and has been a full-time artist for 25 years. She moved to Riebeek Kasteel a few months ago, but is so settled it looks like she’s always lived here. “Here you can walk without fear, the streets are wide and the people are friendly,” she says. “A big sunflower, a plate of food – I have received so many welcome gestures which just doesn’t happen in a city.”

The colourful and eclectic Bar Bar Black Sheep is a foodie favourite.
The colourful and eclectic Bar Bar Black Sheep is a foodie favourite.

Amanda has also created the colourful Artist Café that serves lick-the-plate pancakes filled with fruit and ice cream on weekends. “I make seriously good pancakes and there’s always fresh tea and coffee. At the end of each month I host an Art in the Yard evening, also with fresh pancakes.” Today Amanda is putting the finishing touches to a huge painting of a child, and her painted faces line the wall of her small studio. People describe her art classes and workshops as ‘creative healing experiences’. “It’s not any funny stuff, just a little calmness on the inside, so before you leave your husband, first come for a weekend here and do some art.” At worst you’ll leave relaxed and uplifted.

Pieter and Annalene du Toit have lived here for decades. Their farm Kloovenburg, marked by an understated, low white wall and tall oak trees on the way into town, is an icon in the valley. It’s also a world-renowned brand of award-winning wines and olive oils. The estate is Pieter’s family farm and dates back to 1704, and he’s now been farming it for almost thirty years.

“We grow all the old-style foods,” says Pieter as he walks through a black fig orchard, the trees laden with fruit. Down below in the pack store, huge, crimson, seedless grapes are being sorted and boxed to fly to Asia. Pieter is waiting for just the ideal air temperature to pick his wine grapes for this year’s pressing – the sugar content must be just right. Even the dogs on Kloovenburg have names like Shiraz and Chardonnay, and if you pop in you can always enjoy wine and olive tastings in the magnificent cellar room.

It's impossible to stay in a bad mood in the sugar-coated, brightly coloured world of Wicked Treats.
It’s impossible to stay in a bad mood in the sugar-coated, brightly coloured world of Wicked Treats.

 

If the Du Toit sons want to take over the iconic farming operation, there’s a fruit for each one: table grapes, wine grapes, Parisian figs and olives. And if you love olives, everything is here from olive jam to berry-flavoured olives, dried and smoked olives. There are even olive beauty and body products, also almost edible.

If you can’t add a stop for coffee at Beans About Coffee you will leave only with remorse. Here coffee is a religious experience. It’s freshly roasted and brewed with beans selected from around the world. If you want anything from Ethiopian to Columbian, it’s there, but if you’re unsure just ask for the Sidewalk Blend. Their sidewalk stoep is the perfect place to pause and gaze out over the square, and marvel at how so tiny a village could be crammed with such lust for life.

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