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!
During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was the only official church in Europe, radiating on the continent. The Renaissance brings reforms, discoveries and renewal. The new technology of printing makes the Bible accessible to the common man, and the protest grows against the seemingly unlimited power of the church and its great wealth.
It grows so much that in 1517, the German priest Martin Luther publishes his 95 theses against corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. With the fast spreading of his teaching through prints, he is soon backed up by many: this is the start of the Protestant Reformation. In France where his teaching is spread by John Calvin (1509-1564), both the church and the king are afraid of losing power as more French people convert to Protestantism. At its peak, the Huguenots, as the French Protestants are called, account for about 10% of the population. This triggers the Wars of Religion (1562-1598).
To unify the country, the French Queen Catherine de Medici marries her daughter Marguerite de Vallois to Henri de Navarre, a Huguenot Prince. A first (and last) in catholic France! During the feasts of the wedding, the night of Saint Bartholomew on 24 August 1572, as many Huguenots are gathered in Paris for the celebrations, 7,000 of them are murdered by Catholics. Mayhem follows, and many Huguenots flee the country.
The Huguenot prince converts to Catholicism and becomes the beloved French King Henry IV. If he brings peace thanks to the edict of Nantes in 1598, this peace lasts for less than a century: Louis XIV, his grandson cancels the edict. An intense persecution starts again. Almost half a million Protestants flee France…
At the same time, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) has been repeatedly requesting more settlers for their Cape colony in South Africa. The VOC refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope was just a small settlement that was not meant to grow. However, sailors on their way from Europe to the Far East were hit by scurvy due to the lack of vitamins on such a long journey. It was necessary to resupply passing ships with fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. The VOC needs more inhabitants to develop a farming industry.
Between 1688 and 1720, 277 Huguenots settle in the Cape region. The trip is risky. Some die on the Dutch ships during the 4-to-6-month journey. The ones who make it are transported in wagons to the farms up dangerous mountain passes. Then, they are scattered among the Dutch farms and the Dutch language is forced upon kids to prevent any uprising (tensions between France and The Netherlands are rising back in Europe). The VOC’s strategy is so efficient that the Huguenots are assimilated into the Dutch community fast and the French language disappears within three generations.
Upon arrival, the Huguenots have to start all over again in a hostile and unforgiving land. They hardly have any belongings with them as they were fleeing France, often via the Netherlands where there were not enough job opportunities for all these refugees. Thousands of kilometres from home, thanks to hard labour, dedication, and faith they rebuild their lives and become 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 passion. The luxurious hotel and estate Mont Rochelle for instance is owned by Sir Richard Branson. In the designed interior of the Country Kitchen, well balanced white and red wines are served to us by a smiling waiter in engraved glasses. The tasting is relaxed and riders are enjoying their wines. Being in the environment where the wine is produced definitely enhances the tasting experience.
A bit further in the village of Franschhoek, French names mark good restaurants in the gastronomic capital of South Africa. Where some of the best wines of South Africa are crafted, some of the most talented chefs are working on their Michelin stars to provide an unforgettable experience to their guests.
If just sitting at a terrace sipping wine and savouring French-influenced food is a must in Franschhoek, horseback riding the area is a fabulous way of discovering the terroir and stunning land where 277 Huguenots originally settled and have had a long-lasting influence on South Africa’s future developments.
Marcella & Claire
- 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 this 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, make sure to 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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