Stellenbosch really is a lovely town. And for a European who’s never got on with US-style malls, faceless suburbs and communities strung out along apparently arbitrary roads with no clear centre to orient yourself from, it truly is a very pleasant home-from-home.
To give you a flavour of just how charming the place is though, it’s the second oldest settlement in South Africa behind Cape Town, which is located about 50km to the west and is, somewhat surprisingly given the colonial connotations, universally referred to as the Mother City.
You can tell Stellenbosch’s venerable nature, however, by all of its solid, honest-looking, white Cape Dutch architecture, much of which emanates from the eighteenth century and is dotted around the place in the shape of innumerable churches, museums and university buildings.
And nowhere is it more evident than in the historic hub of Dorp Street, just slightly south of the town centre, which even has a row of beautiful Cape Dutch cottages complete with Victorian filigree ironwork on their verandahs and attic windows in their gables, as well as an old general store called “Oom Samie se Winkel” (or Uncle Samie’s shop – see all of those Afrikaans lessons have paid off after all).
The shop was set up in 1904 apparently and has, somewhat bizarrely, been preserved in aspic, which means that it’s changed little from the days when it was a rural trading outpost, stocking everything from besom, witchy-style brooms and cotton clothing to biltong, handicrafts, and (a presumably more modern innovation) tourist tat.
A major plus though is that, should all of the aforementioned retail activity wear you out, particularly during the summer months when the weather is scorching, you can always park yourself on a conveniently-placed bench on the stoep and recharge your batteries while treating yourself to a bit of people-watching.
Another clue to just how lovely Stellenbosch is though is its Afrikaans nickname of “Die Eikestad”, which roughly translated means “the town of oak trees” due to the large number planted by its founder, Simon van der Stel, first governor of the Cape Colony.
A working, Afrikaner town
And it’s apt. The place is littered with wide, dappled avenues lined with towering oaks, some of which are as many as three century’s old and regularly make passers-by nearly jump out of their skins by unexpectedly throwing acorns at them.
Just to add yet more colour to illustrate the picturesque nature of it all though, the town is situated in a basin and surrounded by the somewhat craggy and bleak-looking Great Drakenstein, Simonsberg and Jonkershoek mountains, which stand on average about 1,500m above sea level.
But it isn’t all about quaint, fetching stuff for the tourists. Stellenbosch is a working town and administrative centre and, as such, is much more expansive than it seems at first glance.
Moreover, along with the various attractive little squares situated off the main streets, you’ve also got a very serviceable shopping mall, imaginatively dubbed the “Eikestad Mall”, at your disposal, which includes such delights as a multi-screen cinema and Virgin Active gym to keep you occupied.
One thing to bear in mind though is that Stellenbosch is very much an Afrikaner town and, as such, Afrikaans is its first language and the one that you’re most likely to hear being spoken on the street and to be addressed in.
It’s also safe enough to walk around the streets by yourself, even at night, which sadly seems to be a novelty for South Africa, from what I hear, making it a veritable oasis in a sea of fear over personal safety.
But all of these pluses means that it’s not cheap by South African standards and, looking at some of the huge and beautifully-maintained properties in suburbs such as Mosterdrift, it’s definitely a spot that’s favoured by the well-heeled – old money too apparently, although I’m not entirely sure what difference that makes.
A university town
Anyway, another point of note is that Stellenbosch is home to the Afrikaner community’s most prestigious university, the evidence for which is provided by the gaping emptiness of the streets, roads, bars and restaurants outside of term time.
The institution was set up in 1863 and is not only ranked second or third in the country in academic terms, depending on whom you listen to, but is also treasured as one of the few tertiary education establishments in South Africa where Afrikaans remains the primary language of tuition.
Somewhat more controversially, however, it was also once the intellectual engine room of apartheid and sheltered many of its key players in various shapes and forms over the years. These included DF Malan, who was the university’s chancellor from 1941 to 1959 and led the National Party to victory in 1948, thus ushering in the regime, as well as Hendrik Verwoerd.
Verwoerd both studied and lectured psychology at the university and was widely held to be the guy who dreamed the whole apartheid thing up in the first place, before implementing it in his role as minister for native affairs, maintaining it as prime minister – and being assassinated in 1966.
On a happier university-related note though, it must be said that one of my favourite places has to be the compact but bijou botanical gardens. I do like a nice botanical garden at the best of times, but what makes this one special is the gorgeous woodland setting of the Katjiepiering Restaurant right at its heart, where you can get a spot of lunch and/or huge scone to keep you going on your expeditions.
And if it’s raining, you can always venture inside to recline gracefully in the bohemian, sofa-bedecked conservatory, or even the more formal wood-paneled dining-room from which the university used to broadcast radio programmes about its botanical research for the South African Broadcasting Corporation. All very exciting.
Following on the woodland theme, however, another of my fav eateries in town has to be “De Volkskombuis”- not so much for the food, I hasten to add, which isn’t particularly startling, but more for its al fresco dining area on the banks of the Eerste Rivier (First River) under yet more shady oak trees. It really is a lovely place.