Sunday, November 7, 2010

Franschhoek and the Ex-Frenchies

"Smoke break" towards Franschhoek
Arriving in Franschhoek
I don't know much about the history of the French Huguenots and why they left France in the late 17th century. All I know is that they were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France (or French Calvinists) from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries that was persecuted by some intolerable stuck-up Catholics. They fled from France to many places across the world, a handful even floating on little ships as far south as South Africa. Something else that I do know about these Huguenots that came to South Africa is that they chose probably the most spectacular location to settle down in what was called the Cape Colony at that time. Olifantshoek (Elephant's Corner), or what is today better known as Franschhoek ("French Corner") became the home of these "unfortunate" French farmers. Here they hooked up with some raunchy Dutch girls and eventually became Afrikaners. Unfortunately that was the time were the raunchiness of the "pre-Afrikaner girls" also ended. Today you will find many Afrikaans speaking people with French surnames or names, like Du Toit, De Klerk, Le Roux, Joubert, etc. And in the Franschhoek valley you will find many wine farms with French names like La Motte, Chamonix, Dieu Donné and La Dauphine. Despite all the French names you will hardly find any French speaking people there. They have an annual festival called Bastille Day, but I bet you most Jouberts and Le Rouxs that are selling "boerewors" rolls and biltong at their little farm stalls do not even know what Bastille Day in France commemorates. One thing I have realized going there is that even though most inhabitants of Franschhoek speak Afrikaans, you still feel like a foreigner in your own country when you visit the town. To own property there you either have to be very wealthy or have a long family history stemming from the first Frenchie who planted his first vine-shoot there. I think the hardest thing for people living there is giving up their property the day they die and go to heaven. For the still living this place looks better and feels better than what heaven could possibly provide.

Breakfast at Essence restaurant
Wemmershoek Mountains in background
So, Saturday I did another breakfast run. And as you've probably guessed by now, to Franschhoek. I have been to Franschhoek many times before, for sightseeing, paragliding, braai competitions, and whatever else you can think of. It is about 75 kilometres from Cape Town and a very popular weekend drive for many Capetonians and other fortunate people living close enough to drive through for the day. I don't want to write much about my bike ride, I think that is getting boring by now and compared to last week's ride a bit less interesting. I would rather talk about this town that I have never really explored before. You see, even though I have been through this town plenty of times before, even seen it from the air a few times, I have never gone through the effort of driving through the rest of the town itself. You enter the town via the main road and if you don't pull over for breakfast or coffee,  you leave it 2 minutes later from the same road. The rest of the town (which probably does not have more than 7 roads in total) you don't see if you don't turn off into one of the few side streets. When you drive down the main road, at first glance all you see are restaurants and little shops selling all touristy stuff. Your common African art stalls which you find all over South Africa is also everywhere to be seen. Some of the best restaurants in South Africa is found here, but unfortunately they are not very cheap. You can come here to have a relaxing day and to hang around some of trendy restaurant to enjoy the best cuisine (sometimes even French) this part of the world has to offer. Perfect for bikers wanting to have a breakfast and calling it a breakfast run afterwards. So, that's what we did. We drove through from Melkbosstrand and ended up at a very nice restaurants for breakfast. The food was really good and this gave me a nice future idea for my blog, but more on that later. Again the usual discussions on bikes and stuff taught me a lot. After the breakfast everyone jumped on their bikes and raced home leaving the undiscovered gem of Franschhoek behind. I decided to turn off into one of the side streets and see what lies behind the fancy restaurants, coffee shops and African art stalls.

Main street
"Evil Clown"
What a discovery. The houses, all decorated with the most beautiful gardens, in small narrow streets, some not even tarred, and the best country atmosphere you will find in any town, immediately takes your breath away. Lying nestled in between the Wemmershoek and Franschhoek Mountains, with the most stunning views from your back yard, I realized why the property prices here have skyrocketed over the last couple of years. Some plots even have horses grazing on the front lawn. This is heaven on earth. Near the main street they had a farmer's market where I smelled braaivleis and stopped to have a look at the stalls. Except for a forward clown I didn't really see anything different from what you see at most farmer's markets. I don't trust clowns that do not belong to a reputable circus, and the only circus we have in South Africa, except for our government, were definitely not in town, so I decided not to hang around the farmer's market for too long. The braaivleis smelled good, but I was already stuffed with bacon and eggs and left without buying or eating anything.

Farmer's market
I then drove up to the monument at the end of the main road and took more pictures. Even this funny looking museum I've seen many times as I drove passed, but I never actually stopped to look at it or to find out what it was. I was hardly surprized when I saw that it was to commemorate the French that came to South Africa and helped putting up wine farms and producing more fresh products. Something that the natives obviously didn't have the know-how to do back then. Apparently there were not many Huguenots that came to South Africa, but I guess they multiplied and did enough for South Africa in general to justify a monument of that size. Today many of the descendants of these French are packing up again and leaving for other countries, although they are not called French Huguenots anymore and hardly anyone goes back to France. And today they are doing it for different reasons than religious ones, but that is not the topic of discussion today. I however do wonder if they will make such an impact over there to deserve a monument like this in the countries where they are shacking up today? I am not a wine connoisseur myself, but I appreciate a good tasting wine and the good reputation South Africa has as a wine producing country. And it is because of these French dudes that we can internationally boast about our wines. I don't know how many natives were kicked off their land during those days, but considering that this valley was called "Elephant's Corner" because of all the wild roaming elephants, I doubts whether there were many who were willing to face these gigantic creatures with their little bows and arrows. So I guess the land was up for grabs. I just wonder why my forefather who came from Holland decided to get an office job in stead of claiming land in this area? Ok, he was not French speaking and he had no reason to run away from Holland other than to work for the VOC , but he also probably had no idea of farming and how it could benefit his descendants many years later. Maybe I do not have a French surname and the privilege to live there on a farm, but fortunately I can get on my bike or my car and drive there whenever I feel like it. I can also share in the beauty that this little town has to offer, even if I just go there for breakfast or french toast and french fries. This town has obviously much more still to be discovered, but to do that I will have to park my car somewhere, take my camera and explore from street to street. Only then can I maybe capture the beauty of Franschhoek, or write more about what the town has to offer. But that will only happen once they get rid of that freaky clown...
Back yard view


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