Journey Jotters

Bitten by the travel bug

Yesterday I wrote here about the Le Franschhoek Hotel and Spa where we stayed while in Franschhoek. Today, I shall focus on the actual visit to the area. The Cape Winelands area comprises some of the oldest and biggest wine-producing valleys in South Africa, including Franschhoek. Stellenbosch (which is popular with tourists from Cape Town), Paarl, Wellington and Tulbagh. Many of the earliest wineries originated in the 1600s and continue to function in one form or another to this day.

valley with farmlands surrounded by towering mountains
The Franschhoek Valley

Franschhoek was the area that Amie recommended we visit on our drive from Knysna to Cape Town. Although this area is only an hour’s drive from Cape Town, she felt the area’s beauty and magnificence required at least a night’s stay. And we agreed!

Franschhoek means the “French Corner.” The land here was settled by the French Huguenots, who were fleeing France facing religious persecution. With the landlocked valley bearing alluvial soil and the gentle slopes of the surrounding area providing rocky but well aerated and well-drained soil perfect for viticulture, backed by temperate climes, it was only a matter of time before wineries became the mainstay of cultivation here.

Franschhoek is famous for its many wine estates; it’s equally renowned for being the gourmet food and wine capital of South Africa. I read that about eight of the top 100 restaurants are located here. If food and wine aren’t sufficient temptations, then the grandeur of the natural settings, the relaxing atmosphere of this town, and its various spas should be an excuse to explore this valley.

Franschhoek boasts of some 40 plus wineries. Most retain their original French names and charm, although many estates have changed hand numerous times over the centuries. While driving is always an option, the Franschhoek Wine Tram makes it easy for visitors to enjoy trips to local wineries, stress-free. The wine tram runs eight different routes that cover the local estates. A combination of trams and tram-buses takes visitors around, in a hop-on, hop-off fashion. They also offer curated wine experiences as well as group tours, and village walking tours.

wine casks stacked in cellar
Wine barrels in the cellar at Vrede en Lust

As far as winery experiences go, each estate offers something different, both in terms of the variety of wines and activities. Some include wine tasting, cellar tours, wine and cheese pairings, wine and chocolate pairings, wine and canape pairing, oyster bars, game drives, whiskey tasting, blind taste challenge, etc. Some have to be booked in advance. Many wine estates are also home to famous restaurants and require at least a 24-hour notice to avoid disappointment.

Franschhoek itself is very quaint and charming to drive through and wander in. Outside cafes and restaurants, antique shops and artisan galleries, coffeehouses, and eateries compete for attention and space. People, food, colors, a crispness in the air, the verdant nature create a portrait of happiness and help with unwinding. Along with award-winning wines and gourmet restaurants, the De Villiers Chocolate is famous here.

memorial to french huguenots in franschhoek
The Huguenot Memorial, Franschhoek

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, it took us over six hours to reach Franschhoek from Brenton-on-sea. Since we were ill-prepared for breakfast and had to settle for a brunch on the go, we slowly got into town. The route to the Franschhoek Valley follows one of the most beautiful passes we’ve driven. The Franschhoek Pass or Route 45 first ascends a couple of miles before making a dip into the valley. The journey is filled with S bends and hairpins, but the splendor of the valley makes it all worthwhile.

Once we drove into the town of Franschhoek, we were spellbound by its simple allure. As I mentioned before, visiting wineries and wine tasting is the biggest attraction here. But when I started researching places to visit, the list quickly became long. Most wine estates expected us to be on the property at least sixty to ninety minutes before closing at 5 pm, to enjoy their activities. And while I loved the idea of the wine tram, the last tram/ bus departed at 130 pm. So I researched the experience but made no reservations for the tram as we wouldn’t reach the area in time to make the last trip.

whitewashed walls of a courtyard with mountains in the distance
Entrance to the wine tasting area, Vrede en Lust

Instead, we decided to narrow our focus down to one wine estate and enjoy that experience thoroughly. We chose Vrede en Lust, one of the oldest wineries in the area. Initially, the lands were acquired by a Flemish merchant, Jacques de Savoye, who used the 55 hectares of land to create a successful business producing wheat, barley, and wine. He named the farm Vrede en Lust, meaning peace and delight, both of which it exudes in vast quantities. Now, the enterprise is run by its 17th owners, the Buy family. The estate has been expanded, restored to its original charm, and is famous for its bold red and white wines.

I reached out to Vrede en Lust to schedule a cellar tour. The estate built a 500-ton cellar to store its reds in 2001. Since then, the capacity has increased to 750 tons, including the storage of whites and reds. Solar panels were added in 2012 to enable to estate to function on its own. The email said all we needed to do was to show up, and the rest would be taken care of.

double glass doors lead to a wine cellar
The cellar at Vrede en Lust

After quickly settling into our room at Le Franschhoek Hotel, we refreshed, ate the complimentary fruits, and set off to find Vrede en Lust. The estate was a straight shot on the main road in town, and we were there in about 20 minutes. After parking, we found many people waiting for the wine tram. Making our way to the wine tasting area, we found all the staffers gowned in red dresses. At the central desk, we enquired about the cellar tour, but the first lady said they were closed for the day. So we checked with another staffer who then found our guide for the tour. Although I forget her name, she was very knowledgeable, had a ready smile and a great sense of humor and kept us entertained for the next 25 to 30 minutes.

She led us down the grand staircase to the double door entrance to the cellar. We walked past the barrels of wine casks to the enormous stainless steel drums in the back used for the winemaking process. The floor here can be wet with the winemaking, and thus, sturdy non-slip shoes are required for a visit. I was completely unaware that so many steps went into the wine making process. Next, we made our way to the actual cellar where the wine barrels were stored. Again, she talked about the types of barrels used and their sources, the aging process, the variety of reds and whites they make. She also spoke about the solar panels installed by the estate, thus becoming a sustainability leader in the wine industry. The estate has 898 photovoltaic panels, driven by three South African made inverters, producing 374000 kWh of power annually to meet all the winery needs. The solar power generated fuels the offices, tasting rooms, guest accommodations, and the farm operations.

Large steel vats used for winemaking, Vrede en Lust

Once back upstairs, we decided to do a wine tasting. We were led to the end of the wine tasting room just adjacent to the beautiful terrace. There are a variety of tastings offered, but we went with the premium experience. It consisted of six different wines with bread, and we ordered two cheese platters to satisfy the teenage hunger surrounding us. I forgot to write down the various wines we tried. I liked about two-thirds of what I tasted, but I can hardly call myself an oenophile. The tasting room cleared slowly as the afternoon wore on. The terrace was soon devoid of most visitors, and we took the opportunity to make good use of it. The views from here of the surrounding Simonsberg mountains were amazing. The hustle and bustle, the worries of everyday life, the stress and the frustrations seemed very distant. Whitewashed buildings, rows and rows of vines, distant majestic mountains, a golden sun, and a warm breeze made the experience a phenomenal one!

room with grouped seating several tables and chairs
Wine tasting room, Vrede en Lust

Just as we were finishing up, the tasting room was closing up for the day. We walked outside to the outdoor courtyard and lingered there, admiring the views. Slowly, we made our way to the parking lot, enjoying the simple sophistication and style of the other buildings that make up this large estate.

Vineyards at Vrede en Lust with solar panels and the mountains in the background
Vineyards at Vrede en Lust with solar panels and the mountains in the background

A large portion of the buildings in Franschhoek are in the typical Cape Dutch architecture. Originally thought to be either Dutch or Northern Germanic in origin, the characteristic features are the whitewashed walls, the black thatched roofs, the long horizontal buildings with one or two stories, green details, wooden shutters, and the rounded gables. Made of simple ingredients including the thatch, mud brick, lime plaster and limewash, the style lends an air of elegance to the buildings.

steps leading up from courtyard to the terrace
Cape Dutch style architecture with white walls, thatch roof and rounded gables

Back at the hotel, we spent time exploring the grounds and gardens and enjoying their beauty. For dinner, we had obtained a reservation at the famed Babylonstoren. This a Cape Dutch style farmhouse that is storied for its gardens, the fresh ingredients in its gourmet cuisine, and the wine. Babylonstoren is a working farm where people can stay and assist in the daily functions of the garden. Visitors can also spend a day exploring its beautiful buildings, the vast and plentiful garden that produces over 300 varieties of edible and useful plants, and eat at their restaurants and enjoy their winery.

Like Vrede en Lust, Babylonstoren land grants originally were given to a Dutch burgher called Pieter van der Byl in 1692. He planted the first vineyards thus, sowing the roots for the farm today. Many original structures from the 1700s still stand as a testament to the timelessness of this area and the architecture. Now the fruit and wine farm also provides multiple options for accommodation on site. Two restaurants and a bakery serve up meals prepared with produce from the garden. Wine tastings, cellar tours, spa treatments, a large shop offering a host of products and event space for weddings and functions round out the farm’s breadth and depth.

dusty road leads to gates of farmhouse
Entrance to Babylonstoren

Earlier in the week, I had emailed the team at Babylonstoren asking for dinner reservations, and we were asked to show up at 2000 hours on the evening of our Franschhoek visit. The farm was located a little distance past Vrede en Lust, and since its set back from the main road and dusk was falling, we had to drive slowly to be sure we didn’t miss the entrance. The path leads right to the gates, and the guard there gave us directions to the parking lot and how to let ourselves out when done. By the time we got to the parking lot, the light was starting to fade. And we didn’t want to be late for the table. Thus, we had little time to explore our surroundings. And I have very few photos of the farm to share.

Babel, the restaurant where we dined that night, was fantastic. Of course, we had already notified the team that we were vegetarians, as they can tailor the meals to visitor preferences. We were led past the outer courtyard and the large outer room to an inner room where smaller groups were accommodated. Even so, we could not have been more than about eight tables in all in that area.

Babel in Cape Dutch style

The service, as can be expected, was top notch. In addition to the farm bread, their olive oil, we enjoyed the green and yellow salads. The main dish was a lemongrass-infused risotto, garnished with chili coriander paste, dried leeks, and ginger. Dessert was a summer berry parfait. The meal portions weren’t large, like we are used to in the US. The relaxed pace of the meal, the ample open space, the consistent service, and the excellent food more than made up for the coolness of the room. We had a light jacket or two but could have done better with an additional layer to take our minds off the temperature.

green salad with zucchini and radish with herbs
Green salad at Babel
Risotto at Babel

I would have loved to have spent more time on this farm, and in the general area of Franschhoek, to have explored at a more sedate pace. The town has a lot to offer to discerning visitors. But our family was just glad that Amie had recommended including this on our itinerary. I am confident that our future travels to Cape Town will include a couple of days in the Franschhoek area. We have just scratched the rim of the valley!

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