“I got down from the wagon and beheld the distant view of the beautiful mountain of Stellenbosch, Jonkershoek and Drakenstein; before me lay a spacious valley planted with vineyards and plantations, and in its centre was the village of Stellenbosch. At that distance it looked like Paradise. I felt a surge of nostalgia, I thought of my fatherland, and some prophetic sense told me that this would become the place where I would find peace.”
(Carl Otto Hager, 1813-1898, German master builder and architect)
One mild January morning, I found myself in Stellenbosch, a tranquil town at the heart of the Cape Winelands. With several hours to savor before meetings, I took a stroll through the town center, soaking in its bright colors and the sounds of a new day about to begin. I was lucky to stay at the charming, thatched-roofed Stellenbosch Hotel, built in the late 17th century and declared a national monument: As I stepped out of its doors, it felt like the most beautiful parts of town arranged themselves around me, as if in an embrace.
Most of the town was still asleep, but streets were being swept, and the flower pots were being watered: I walked onto a stage, before the curtains are due to open.
I decided to walk down Dorp Street, home to South Africa’s longest row of old buildings–distinctive Cape Dutch houses, blindingly white against the cobalt blue sky.
From there, I let my curiosity lead me: from narrow street to narrow street, lined with 200-year-old oaks, planted by the town’s Dutch settlers. Stellenbosch is sometimes called “Eikestad”, the “City of Oaks” in Afrikaans. The great oak leaves whispered in the breeze against another sound from my childhood: a lazy stream meandering through the water furrows, the leiwatervore.
I wandered up a hill toward what felt like the centerpiece of the area–the Moederkerk (“Mother Church”). I heard this church before I saw it: Its bell chimes envelope the town regularly throughout the week. The church doors and gates to what looked like beautiful gardens and an old cemetery were still locked. Sadly, I didn’t manage to make it back while they were open to the visitors.
I wandered on, eventually spotting a common theme: all over town, there is a sprinkling of distinctive bronze statues–mostly, cheetahs, caught in sinuous motion, unmistakably belonging to the same hand.
Later, I learned that all of these statues are by Dylan Lewis, who placed these creatures in Stellenbosch to honor the wilderness there once was. The sculptor’s website offers a map of all Stellenbosch statues here. I wish I saw this map earlier–this would have been a good way to direct my ramble. As it was, I eventually began following these statues like breadcrumbs, and they proved to be excellent guides, bringing me to some of the most important buildings in town. The statues led me to the Powder House, once situated on the town’s outskirts. In the 18th-century Stellenbosch, inhabitants were supplied a ration of gunpowder on a monthly basis–and this is where it was stored. I concluded my walk by The Burgerhuis (Burger house), now a museum showcasing a “typical” well-to-do 17th-century Stellenbosch home. The museum was still closed, but I could explore the grounds.
At the Burgerhuis garden gate, I was greeted by a small black cat, a twin of the cat I had growing up, Simona. It was somewhat surreal. My new acquaintance was engaging, but never allowed me to approach and absolutely refused to pose for pictures. She half-led, half-followed me through the grounds, meowing meaningfully, just like Simona did with an adolescent me. When I had to head back, the cat accompanied me to the gate and then watched me walk away from the garden’s threshold.
Retracing my steps back to the hotel, and initially lost as usual, I got to appreciate the Stellenbosch Mountains–the town is nestled in a valley, and one summit in particular stood out against the sky. Later on, it turned out that I could see this very summit from my hotel window. This was news to me: In early morning, the clouds (or a momentary fog?) were so thick I couldn’t see it at all. As I approached the hotel, I stumbled upon a make-shift market place, a tourist trap, with tribal masks, wooden carvings, and a million little “authentic” souvenirs brought in daily in truck beds. I was among the first tourists to wander in, so the sellers were quite forceful. I was drawn to one kiosk though, with a quiet young woman inside. She seemed gentle and genuine, and, I got a feeling, not quite good at what she was supposed to do. One of her masks (she said her mother paints them) is now on my wall, vetting everyone who enters.
Two wrong turns and several blocks later, I was in my hotel room, a busy workday about to begin.
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