In 1679, in a land far, far away from Cape Town (by foot), a plump man with a thin moustache and a head of flowing auburn hair that would have been the envy of any self-respecting Duchess decided to call it a day and stepped down off his steed – or ox wagon, it had been a three-day horse ride from Cape Town and the derriere could only take so much. Settling on the banks of a river, the Dutch Commander appraised his surroundings and conceived of the idea of expanding the Cape colony to include a second settlement here because, well, why not? Three and a half centuries ago, the human ego was hob-tied to conquering and owning things (oh, wait, it still is).
And so, on the banks of the Eerste Rivier (the first river), sprawled out under a bosch (bush) for shelter, the Dutch Commander and first Governor of the Cape, Simon Van Der Stel, had the epiphany that conceived one of the Cape’s most ardently loved destinations. He declared the new settlement “Stellenbosch” – a nod toward his own ego and the humble bush that sheltered him on that first night he camped out under the stars.
Or so the legend goes.
These are the delectable historic titbits one learns on a walking tour with Stellenbosch-based tour company, Bites & Sites Food Tours.
Bites & Sites Food Tours
Fast forward to Saturday 24th August 2019…
A group of two Americans from Miami, one from New Jersey, a family of three Belgians, and we two humble South Africans convened at 10:00 at 47 Church Street, Stellenbosch: the home of Bites & Sites Food Tours and Stellenbosch Wine Routes. Here, we met our Bites & Sites tour guide, the crimson apron-clad and crimson-headed Louise Smit, and hit the streets on foot to experience the town’s most alluring, internationally renowned attractions of history, architecture, food, and wine, glorious wine!
Bites & Sites Food Tours depart daily, Monday to Sunday at 10:00 and again at 13:00.
The tours centre on the five oldest streets in Stellenbosch: Dorp, Andringa, Plein, Kerk, and Rhyneveld Street, stopping quite regularly for anecdotes and architecture, and to appraise features of the town’ original build, such as the deep grachts or gutters that line the streets. Additionally – and this is where the offering is so greatly elevated above any other walking tour I’ve experienced – the tour makes frequent stops at various restaurants, cafés, a butcher, and a wine bar for distinctly South African refreshments, thereby giving visitors a holistic and unforgettable impression of the history, heritage, and culture of Stellenbosch and the Cape.
A hop and a skip back in time
Our first stop was the Stellenbosch Museum where Lousie laid out the basic foundations for the town’s history, introducing us to the indigenous Khoisan people, the early Dutch settlers, and the first Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel. For those of you who get narcolepsy at the mere mention of the word “history”, fear not. The Bites & Sites tour guides keep it light and entertaining without hovering for too long in any one place but at the same time, ready to delve deeper should you have any questions.
The Stellenbosch Museum property is home to four houses built during different time periods, the oldest of which, Schreuderhuis (1709), we toured. From the robust yellowwood furniture, meat hooks made from fire-hardened Protea tree roots, and kitchen ceiling adorned with bushels of drying herbs to the taxidermied cat enjoying a permanent nap on the bed, stepping into Schreuderhuis, which once belonged to the court messenger, is like stepping back in time. The house has also eerily survived the numerous fires that have swept through the town over the centuries.
Anecdote: since doctors were so appallingly ignorant in those days, the corpses of dead people would be buried with a string tied to their wrist, connected to a bell above ground. Then, should they wake from their misdiagnosed death (perhaps they were in a coma, fever, or deep sleep), their movement would ring the bell and attract the attention of some poor passer-byer who would probably spend the remainder of his or her life in sore need of therapy. Hence, the origin of the expression “saved by the bell.”
Our third and fourth stops were the impressive Dutch Reformed Church on Kerk Straat (1863) and the University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Theology, housed within a handsome, historic building and with lovingly kept gardens shaded by a monstrous 52 metre tall, 200-year-old Norfolk pine tree.
With a leisurely hour’s strolling around under our belt, we stopped in at Dora’s Restaurant at 2A Ryneveld Street for refreshments of tea and South African sweet treats. As locals, we found it endearing and strangely pride-inducing to watch foreigners dip a big toe into our culture and, for the first time, taste and enjoy the cuisine we were raised on. Dora’s served up three indigenous teas (rooibos, honeybush, and buchu) and three absolutely delicious sweet treats: milk tart, koe sisters (not to be confused with koeksisters), and malva pudding drizzled with amarula cream. These were accompanied by enthusiastically told tales of how the various spices and recipes that characterise South African cuisine were introduced to the Cape and the country.
Biltong, droëwors, and wine
Have you really been to South Africa if you’ve omitted biltong and droëwors from your bucket list? (Vegetarians and vegans, you’ll be excused from this one.) And so, after another hour of meandering the historic streets of Stellenbosch and listening to fascinating, romantic, and sometimes ghostly tales of the town, we stopped in at the Eikeboom Butchery, the oldest surviving traditional butchery in Stellenbosch. Here, we picked up snacks for our wine tasting, which was hosted at the Brampton Wine Studio, where we sampled the dry, fruit-driven, and easy-drinking Brampton Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, and Pinotage.
Personally, I would have preferred it if we got to taste wines that better showcased the high calibre the Stellenbosch winelands are capable of. With Americans and Europeans in our tour group, we were competing against Californian and French wines! Nevertheless, the wines were drained and the biltong enjoyed by all.
Optical illusions and spiritual phenomena
With wine coursing through our veins, we resumed our tour of Stellenbosch’s historic streets, stopping in at various arts and crafts shops to indulge in a little retail therapy. We took in the Stellenbosch City Hall and its stunning artwork of late President Nelson Mandela. With the sun bouncing off the screen of my cell phone, taking pictures was more a “mik-en-druk” (point and push) exercise. So I was quite taken aback when going through my photos later to see two beams of sunlight eerily coursing their way down on either side of Nelson Mandela’s artwork. An optical illusion or a spiritual phenomenon? I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Lunch at Oude Werf
For lunch, we stopped in at the Oude Werf, a luxury hotel in the heart of Stellenbosch whose history dates back almost to the town’s very beginnings (1686). The menu, of course, was a collection of classic Cape dishes: bobotie wraps, chicken pie, roasted sweet potato, snoek cakes, and yellow (turmeric) rice. This was served (I was happy to see) with two gorgeous wines from the Stellenbosch winelands: the Waterford Pecan Stream Chenin Blanc 2018 and the Kleine Zalze Pinotage 2018.
Whilst there, our guide Louise took us down a short flight of stairs to show us a slice of the hotel’s exposed, preserved foundations, which, since the Oude Werf used to be a Church, was where the wealthy (and only the wealthy, since they could afford the honour) were buried. It gives a whole new meaning to the expression “stinking rich” doesn’t it?
A wonderful, whirlwind experience
Three to four hours of strolling, admiring architecture, and listening to evocative tales of South Africa’s second oldest town, with a bit of wine, biltong, retail therapy, and a traditional South African lunch thrown in…this is what Sites & Bites tours are all about. It’s a whirlwind, multi-sensory immersion in Cape and South African culture that will send you home – whether you’re a local or a foreigner – with colourful memories, beguiling anecdotes, and perhaps even a few new international friends!
47 Church (Kerk) Street, Stellenbosch
This blog article was originally written for Southern Vines magazine, the largest lifestyle and leisure magazine in the Western Cape of South Africa: https://www.southernvines.co.za/2019/08/29/bites-sites-a-whirlwind-walking-tour-of-the-beating-heart-of-stellenbosch/