A corner of paradise

Feature The language may have gone but Franschoek retains its French elegance in a glorious African landscape.

A stone Hugenot memorial commemorates the arrival of 200 French Calvinist Protestants in South Africa in 1688.
Powered by automated translation

Once, as I was fishing in a river above Franschhoek, a small town about an hour and a half from Cape Town, I had the sense that I was being watched. Indeed I was - by a tribe of baboons, perhaps hoping I would leave some of my lunch behind. Baboons have a curiously nonchalant way of watching you, faintly contemptuous, but always wary, a very large male with very big teeth, to the fore. This day they stayed for about half an hour, before setting off along the riverbank foraging for roots, scorpions, wild fruits and frogs. In my bag I had a sandwich of wild rocket, goat's cheese and pesto, which they would have enjoyed. Baboons eat almost anything: twice I have had a picnic stolen at Cape Point, where the baboons can be quite aggressive. The mountains around Franschhoek are obviously home to a more genteel class of primate: I couldn't have defended my sandwiches against a concerted rush by 14 baboons.

It's a strange feeling, but one I find increasingly gratifying, that there are special places in my life where I am instantly at home. Franschhoek is one of these. It was founded by French Huguenots in 1688, and given its name, French Corner, by the Dutch. In fact, it is a valley, surrounded by spectacular and ever-changing mountains, and home to some beautiful fruit and wine estates, many of them with their lovely and original French names, such as La Cotte, Cabrière, Dieu Donné, Provence and La Motte. As I approach over Hellshoogte (the Heights of Hell), the mountain pass from the direction of Cape Town, I always have a sense of coming to a paradise. I can imagine the Huguenots sensibly ending their travels here as they discovered a valley full of elephants and deciding that this was their own Eden, far from the conflicts of Europe. Here they would set out industriously to create a corner of France as they remembered and treasured it.

Over two centuries, the French language died out, but the place names, and the names of families and farms have remained. Now the whole town has been re-branded in French, to the bemusement of the locals, who speak Afrikaans. The local laundry, for example, is known as La Laundry, presumably because La Blanchisserie would have been a step too far. But at the end of Huguenot Street stands the Huguenot Memorial, with a museum devoted to the struggles and achievements of the first French settlers and the enduring justification for all this charming chamber-of-commerce francophilia.

In all my travels one of my favourite spots to linger is the front veranda of the Quartier Francais, a Relais et Chateaux hotel, on the main street. Relais et Chateaux it may be, but at first sight it is more a charming collection of cottages, loosely knitted together. A few months ago I was there at a literary festival and, sitting on the terrace facing the main street in the warm autumn sunshine, I thought that this was utter bliss, seized by the certainty that I was, fortuitously, in exactly the right place at the right time.

When the weather cools for a few months, as it does between May and August, there is always a wood fire on the back terrace and every bedroom, grouped around a small swimming pool, has its own fireplace, where a fire is lit in the evening. The Quartier Francais also has a delightful small cinema, which on Sunday evenings provides dinner and a movie, and this is a favourite with the locals, many of them "swallows", as the Brits who come with the summer and leave in the winter are known.

The little town, with its fine Cape Dutch houses and modest cottages, was lost in a deep and dusty rural sleep for most of the 20th century until it was rediscovered both by urban South Africans who wanted a quaint old village house, and by the wealthy - many from Britain and Germany - who wanted to practise gentlemanly farming. The development in the past 20 years has been extraordinary, but the essential village atmosphere has not been lost, even as grand estates, stud farms and gated communities have sprung up all over the valley. Along with this prosperity has come a squatter community on the edge of town and a rise in crime, but there is still a sense of tranquillity as the sun sets on the mountains all around and on the vineyards that reach up in all directions; there is a particular contentment when the harvest comes in and tractors pull trailers full of grapes through town.

The harvest festival has now become a big event, a celebration of the traditional folk music and dance of the local people, known in Afrikaans as langarm - long arm - and boeremusiek, the traditional Afrikaner farmers' music. It takes place in April at Solms Delta Estate. Bastille Day is also celebrated with berets, accordions and onions, without apparent embarrassment, and is a favourite outing for Cape Town's residents.

Apart from the epiphany of the landscape, one of the great attractions of Franschhoek is the food. This little place is now home to four or five of South Africa's top 10 restaurants. The food at the Quartier Francais is terrific, with an ambitious tasting menu, and some superb standard dishes. My particular favourite is a boned, stuffed partridge. I love the breakfast, too, with home-made granola and pastries, fresh fruit, omelettes and eggs Benedict. Across the road is Reuben's, a restaurant that has often been voted in the top three in South Africa. Again there is something warm and essentially unpretentious about this place; like Margot Janse, the chef of the Quartier Francais, Reuben Riffel, the chef cum proprietor of Reuben's, has become a celebrity. Both chefs supervise cookery classes and there is a storm of charcuterie- and cheese-making going on all over the valley. Particularly notable is Moreson, with its Bread and Wine restaurant, which specialises in charcuterie. Local people have been sent to Europe for training and work experience and this has clearly paid off.

There are several other fine restaurants, too, including La Petite Ferme up on the pass out of Franschhoek, where panhandling baboons can sometimes be seen; this place has a spectacular view back down the valley and is a favourite for lunch. Grande Provence is an estate with an elegant restaurant, an art gallery and a spectacular group of Cape Dutch buildings. The Owner's Cottage provides luxury accommodation. There are guesthouses and B&Bs, all of them comfortable, a few even improbably elegant, around the valley; some are in the village itself, some on the surrounding estates.

Huge sums of money have flooded into the valley in recent years, but somehow the old Cape hospitality and atmosphere have been preserved even as celebrities such as Elton John have come to stay on estates or at the luxurious new La Residence, tucked away from the town. The owners of La Residence also have a private game reserve up country not far from the Kruger National Park and some visitors combine a Cape stay with the authentic big-game experience. That said, the Cape now has its own game reserves within easy driving distance of Franschhoek. Actually, the Western Cape has some wonderful public reserves that offer a sense of the wild and cheap, comfortable accommodation. It is also possible to enjoy these reserves as a day visitor for a modest fee.

One of my favourites is De Hoop, along a 25km stretch of the coast, not far from Bredasdorp, three hours from Cape Town and about one-and-a-half hours from Franschhoek. In the whale season - May to December - it is one of the best places to see the Southern Right Whale, which comes close to shore to mate and calve before setting off on its journey around the coast. The accommodation in De Hoop has been updated and is both picturesque and well equipped. Cottages are sited around the reserve, which is home to native species such as the bontebok and Cape mountain zebra, as well as eland, grey rhebuck, baboon, yellow mongoose, caracal and the occasional leopard. Tortoises and snakes can often be seen crossing the roads. But a few words of advice: book well in advance.

The great advantage of Franschhoek is that it is close to Cape Town and the spectacular coastal journey that is the Garden Route; beaches, small towns, and spectacular day trips are within easy reach, with many options, including golf, beyond the next mountain. The seaside resorts of Hermanus, the Wilderness, Knysna and Arniston, are all worth a visit, as well as the towns of Somerset West and Stellenbosch.

As you leave Franschhoek over the pass that takes you out of the valley and eastwards, you sense the vast splendour of the countryside: it is Africa, yet strangely familiar to the European visitor, with its tidy farms and rows of fruit trees and vines. The passes through the protea-dotted mountains are awe-inspiring; this is the region of the aromatic fynbos, the unique Cape flora, of which the protea is the reigning monarch.

When I am back in Europe I think of these mountains, with their constantly changing colours, and cloud patterns sailing over them, and standing up to my waist in the ale-coloured Berg River flows down in a valley behind Franschhoek. It has now been dammed, creating a vast lake to supply Cape Town with water. One day, way up above in the river, my son caught an improbably large rainbow, perhaps a refugee from the trout farm that was flooded as the dam filled. The dam has altered the landscape, but already it looks as though it was always there, perfectly enclosed by the mountains, incorrigibly wild.

Justin Cartwright's new novel, To Heaven by Water, is set partly in South Africa and will be published in July by Bloomsbury.