Article updated on June 8, 2021
Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
Franschhoek, or the “French corner” has a fascinating history. Because of the wars of religions in 17th century France, a small number of French Protestant refugees settled in South Africa establishing a successful farming and wine making industry still recognised today as one of world’s best. Get off the beaten path and discover not only the famous wines of Franschhoek but also its stunning outdoors, and favourite restaurants!
A bit of history…
During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was the only official church in Europe, radiating on the continent. The Renaissance brought reforms, discoveries and renewal. The new technology of printing made the Bible accessible to the common man, and protests grew against the seemingly unlimited power of the church and its great wealth.
It grew so much that in 1517, the German priest Martin Luther published his 95 theses against corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. With the fast spreading of his teaching through prints, he was quickly backed up by many: this was the start of the Protestant Reformation. In France where his teaching was spread by John Calvin (1509-1564), both the church and the king were afraid of losing power with the waves of conversion to Protestantism. At its peak, the Huguenots, as the French Protestants are called, accounted for about 10% of the population, triggering the Wars of Religion (1562-1598).
To unify the country, the French Queen Catherine de Medici married her daughter Marguerite de Vallois to the Huguenot Prince Henri de Navarre. A first (and last) in catholic France! Huguenots flocked to Paris to attend the celebrations. On the night of Saint Bartholomew on 24 August 1572, 7,000 of them were savagely murdered by Catholics. Mayhem followed, and many Huguenots fled the country.
The Huguenot prince converted to Catholicism and became the beloved French King Henry IV. If he brought peace thanks to the edict of Nantes in 1598, it lasted for less than a century: Louis XIV, his grandson canceled the edict and intense religious persecutions resumed. Almost half a million Protestants fled France then…
At the same time, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had been repeatedly requesting more settlers for their Cape colony in South Africa. The VOC refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope was resupplying passing ships between Europe and the Far East with fresh fruit, vegetables and meat to fight scurvy. The VOC needed more inhabitants to develop a farming industry.
Between 1688 and 1720, 277 Huguenots settled in the Cape region. The trip was risky. Some died on the Dutch ships during the four-to-six-month journey. The ones who made it were transported in wagons to the farms up dangerous mountain passes. Then, they were scattered among the Dutch farms and the Dutch language was forced upon kids to prevent any uprising (tensions between France and The Netherlands were rising back in Europe). The VOC’s strategy was so efficient that the Huguenots were assimilated into the Dutch community fast and the French language disappeared within three generations.
Upon arrival, the Huguenots had to start all over again in a hostile and unforgiving land. They hardly had any belongings with them as they were fleeing France, often via the Netherlands where there were not enough jobs for all these refugees. Thousands of kilometres from home, thanks to hard labour, dedication, and faith they rebuilt their lives and became successful farmers.
So successful that they have pretty much established farming and wine making in South Africa. Today, orchards and vineyards still compose the landscape of the dramatic Franschhoek. As we are horseback riding from wine farm to wine farm, we notice the challenging terrain as we bend forward climbing steep up, and backward going steep down to make it easier on our horses. These settlers had to be very brave to tame such a nature that used to be populated by wild animals: before being named the “French corner”, the area was called the “elephant corner”. The elephants are long gone, and the vineyards have remained. If a few descendants of the Huguenots still run their farms, most have been bought by foreigners and wine making has become a rich man’s hobby.
If today the only thing that seems French in the gastronomic capital of South Africa is the name of restaurants, these 277 Huguenots who originally settled in Franschhoek have had a long-lasting influence on South Africa’s future developments.
How to appreciate Franschhoek
Go wine tasting
It is kind of a must in the French corner! Many wine estates are based out of Franschhoek, and if you do not feel like horseback riding between the farms, you can even take the wine tram! Whatever you decide, make sure to visit Boschendal. The beautiful setting of the historical estate is ideal to enjoy its wines during a tasting or its locally-grown products for a picnic or meal there.
Go gallery hopping
Thriving on the high-end positioning of Franschhoek, many private galleries have opened and the Main Street is lined with either French-named restaurants or modern art in windows. The galleries are all open to the public, and often local boutique hotels also exhibit their sculptures in their gardens.
Experience gastronomy in Franschhoek
Choices are many and the number of restaurants for the 18,000 inhabitants is quite impressive. Our favourite by far: the Chefs Warehouse at Maison. Chef David Schneider has taken the concept of the Capetonian restaurants of gastronomic tapas to share to Franschhoek. A must!
Where to stay
To fully appreciate Franschhoek, spending a night onsite is preferred.
When it got established, Franschhoek was at the forefront of innovation in South Africa with farming techniques that lead to a successful agriculture in the country. Today, many estates leverage this glorious past, proposing luxurious stays at often indecent prices. To experience innovation without breaking the bank, theLAB Franschhoek is a smart concept where new technologies meet today’s environmental challenges: voice controlled artificial intelligence to assist you with all your needs and operate automated systems, photovoltaic solar-derived electricity without batteries (as they are very environmental unfriendly), water solar heating of the pool, no plastics, filtered tap water, and smart energy management to make the most of the 140 solar panels installed on the roof tops of this high-tech boutique hotel. With this set up, theLAB runs on its own power during the day pushing onto the grid its excess electricity and pulls on the grid at night in a country where power challenges are the norm, often resulting in load shedding schedules.
If you have time in between playing with “Echo”, the artificial intelligence running your room, either discussing its religious views or asking it to prepare your coffee or change the colour of your lighting, you can enjoy the pool, the jacuzzi, the spa and even the movie theatre with its amazing sound system!
- Franschhoek is an easy day trip from Cape Town or lovely week-end getaway. Make sure to drive the stunning Franschhoek mountain pass!
- To live the horseback riding adventure and ride purebred Arabian horses, get in touch with Paradise Stables. Paradise Stables is one of these very few farms still owned and managed by some of the descendants of the Huguenots.
- To learn more about the fascinating history of the Huguenots, visit the Huguenot Museum in Franschhoek.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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