Located at the southernmost point of the African continent and featuring astonishingly untouched natural environments, a diverse portrait of humanity and possessing an unabashed sence of fun along with a disagner’s complexion,
There are some cities that are steeped forever in legend. When you see them, you say, ‘Aha! So this is it...” Cape Town is not one of them. When I went to Africa’s southernmost point, I encountered an astonishing city characterized by a decidedly western way of life yet still exhibiting all the colors of Africa. And I asked myself why I had never come here before. I blamed the guidebooks for not sufficiently plumbing the soul of this city. I was like a pirate who has discovered an unexpected treasure. Binoculars in hand, I stand on famous Chapman’s Peak with its breathtaking view, and I remember the words uttered by Sir Francis Drake when he discovered these lands in 1580, “The most beautiful headland I’ve seen in the world.”
How can a city have such a striking silhouette? A cloud of white fog hanging over the 1086-meter high, flat-topped Table Mountain hangs down the mountainside like a swath of fabric. A blond Cape Town resident stops on his morning jog and informs me: “We call that fog layer the tablecloth. It signifies that the Cape doctor has arrived.” And then he adds, “When a strong southeast wind blows, it clears the air and destroys all the microbes, so we call it the doctor!” I had heard that the natives were inventive, and this conversation was obviously be the first sign. It is true, too, that the wind blows hard. When I turn my face to the south, I can almost see the giant, icy cold waves battering the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean meet, long known as Africa’s southernmost point (in fact, the tip is actually at Cape Agulhas 150 km to the east). There is a distance of only half an hour between us and the Cape, a sailors’ nightmare in the old days when most of the ships rounding it sank. Nevertheless, the surfers and kiteboarders on the beaches that surround the city on four sides are rather successful at taming the wind and waves. I survey the four hills around the city: Devil’s Peak, Lion’s Head, Table Mountain and Signal Hill. Most of the people taking in the view from these hills are tourists. The natives either walk, run or ride mountain bikes. In the distance, I can just make out the climbers, as agile as goats, scampering up the city’s slopes. They must be training for the Two Oceans Marathon held every year in April, or the Argus Bicycle Race in March.
Not being as athletic as they are, I look for an easier way to tour the city. My problem is automatically solved when I spot a brochure advertising double-decker red buses, which I would never have hoped to see at the tip of Africa.
To the beat of African drums
The route to the city center is an appropriate choice for me. My first stop is Green Market Square, a typical African market that has stood here since 1806. All the African handicrafts are spread before my eyes here at this market smack dab in front of the historic town hall. This market may not offer the city’s widest selection, but it is definitely the best in terms of location. Among the items that especially attract my attention are fabrics made of raffia from Mali and Cameroon, and masques and a pleasant sounding ‘marimba’ drum from Ivory Coast. I buy the drum for a song after bargaining. As I thread my way between the women selling flowers, the colorful giant ‘protea’ and bird-of-paradise flowers literally beg me to buy them. Difficult as it is, I restrain myself and continue my city tour.
I come to Long Street and Bree Street at the start of the busy avenues in the city center. The balconies of the many old-style houses in this area are graced with ornamental wrought iron lace-like. Surveying the cafes and restaurants in the vicinity, I realize that design has touched this city’s old texture like a magic wand. I know that the city’s sizable artistic community has taken over these two thoroughfares as well as Waterkant Avenue in Sommerset. They are enjoying the sweet southern sunshine as sip their drinks in the sidewalk cafes.
African jazz in the background
The quarter of Bo Kaap where the city’s Malay origin Muslims reside has an appeal all its own. With its mosques, its well-maintained houses, its steep, narrow streets and its small restaurants redolent of spices, Bo Kaap has over time become the city’s main attraction.
Seeing a red bus approach, I remember that I need to go to the W&A Waterfront, the heartbeat of the city. This is the city’s most attractive spot, where the fashionable stores and bars and the famous Two Oceans Aquarium are located. Only about five minutes from the city center in the direction of the sea, it’s actually within easy walking distance, but some of the streets in between are said to be a little dodgy so I catch a bus instead.
When I reach the Waterfront, I encounter the restaurants, most of them facing Table Mountain, which offer world cuisine featuring primarily Indian food as well as sushi, seafood and steak. The giant prawns especially and the thick, aged steaks make a perfect balance of taste and price. When I reach the square, the strains of “Nomvula’ reach my ears, my favorite song by the group FreshlyGround, which plays CapeTown ‘Afro-fusion’ style music. Meaning “after the rain’ in the Xhosa language, the song fits in perfectly with the slight haze in the air. A raft of fascinating live performances on the square include everything from African jazz and marimba to the local fire dance. And I realize once again that nobody but nobody can outdo the Africans when it comes to dance. As I quaff the local ‘roiboos’ tea, believed to have medicinal properties, in a cafe overlooking the sea, a shiny black head suddenly emerges from the water. A family of seals is ensconced opposite me, their coal-black eyes fixed on the pastry I’m eating. I have no choice but to share...
My glance keeps wandering to the red clock tower next to the cafe. As I approach it, I realize it is surrounded by shops and art galleries. The finest examples of African pop art are found in these little shopping centers. Fashioned mainly of reclaimed telephone wire, tin cans, safety pins and beads, these art objects are also reasonably priced. Their counterparts go for far more in the chic shops of cities like London and New York. Right next door is the window selling tickets for Robben Island. One of the world’s most notorious prison islands, Robben is associated forever with the name of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela, and foreigners on the hourly tours to the island listen with rapt attention to stories of the celebrated leader’s 27-year incarceration in a cell here. Meanwhile the antics of the extinction-threatened African penguins that wander over from Boulder’s Bay lighten the mood.
Along the coast road to my hotel, I pass the luxury apartment buildings and villas that overlook the ocean on every bay. A large number of retired Europeans own property here, coming immediately at the onset of winter in their own countries to take advantage of the southern hemisphere’s summer. “Hundreds of different grapes grow just half an hour away,” says one Dutchman, who came all the way here to see the extensive vineyards and Cape-Dutch style architecture left behind by his own ancestors. He explains that the climatic conditions as well as the area’s soil diversity with its granite, limestone and clay make it special. Most of the vineyards also boast restaurants and wine-tasting establishments. For now I am content to gaze at the two clusters of grapes I can see from my ocean-view window on Camp’s Bay, the liveliest bay on the coastal strip. “The grape turns black from looking at other grapes,’ goes a traditional Turkish saying, which means that if you fall in with bad people you’ll eventually pick up their bad habits. I’m busy now on the terrace trying to turn a little darker myself. But I’m careful. Those with experience know that the African sun is not kind to white skin in January.
CAPE TOWN FEBRUARY CALENDER
Soccer Safari: Preparing to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup in the middle of the year, Cape Town has recently enlarged its 18,000-capacity Green Point stadium to 68,000. Tours are being organized to the stadium’s turf and facilities, where the footballers will train and be housed.
Design Indaba Fair: This African continent design fair comprises 260 different exhibition halls with striking examples of every area of design from architecture, advertising, and industrial design to furniture, fashion, jewelry, new media and product design as well as photography and film.
Date: February 26-28 Place: Cape Town International Convention Center
HOW TO GET THERE?
Turkish Airlines flies Istanbul - Cape Town four days a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Returns are on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
WHEN TO GO?
The period from November to March is best. In April the rains begin. January is ideal for sunbathing.
WHAT TO EAT?
Seafood is tasty and plentiful. And Cape Malay cuisine is synonymous with the taste alligator and ostrich meat.