Stellenbosch is a stately town. From the starched linen cloths on the tables outside the restaurant to the wide roads lined with ancient oak trees, the whole of South Africa’s second oldest town has a period feel to it. And, as I found out, exploring by foot is the best way to discover the town’s heritage, with one or two surprises along the way.
The Historical Buildings of Stellenbosch
One of the pleasures of walking through Stellenbosch is the number of old buildings. They come in a variety of architectural styles, reflecting the long history of the town, but the result is surprisingly harmonious. Stellenbosch was built as a European type village in the 17th century but suffered a series of fires, leading to later rebuilding in varying styles. So the buildings are a mixture of early Cape Dutch, Victorian and Art Deco architecture, with a 20th century revival of classical Dutch features.
Some of the older buildings (such as the jail) have now been converted to private use, but there are still lots of historical buildings that you can visit. Some of these are in use as hotels or restaurants; others are museums. Then there is Oom Samie se Winkel (“Uncle Sam’s Shop”), the oldest shop in Stellenbosch and a reminder of a bygone age.
Architectural Features in Stellenbosch
It is worth taking time to look at the architectural details. Not just the splendid gables that are a feature of Cape Dutch buildings, but the ornate wrought iron balconies on the Victorian houses, and the occasional building with a style all of its own, such as the neoclassical Hofmeyr Hall with its Greek pillars and symmetrical frontage. And there are the clocks – the official town trail lists 22 antique clocks, from wall clocks and church bells to 18th century long case clocks. The sundial on the side of St Mary’s on the Braak was transported from a village church in England, but never managed to show the right time in its new home!
Colonial influences are not confined to the architecture; the town is also famous for its oak trees, first brought from England in the 17th century. These lined every street, earning Stellenbosch the name “Town of Oaks”. Unfortunately fire, disease and the need for timber destroyed the earliest plantings but there are still a few trees that are almost 200 years old.
Stellenbosch may be steeped in history but it is very much a living, vibrant community, particularly evident in the modern town centre with its smart shops and cafés.
There is a flourishing art scene too; the streets were full of sculptures, designed by the Outdoor Sculpture Trust to make people more aware of the urban environment. The current theme was “Come Sit” and featured brightly designed or unusual benches for people to sit on as they explored the city.
I looked at the figure sitting on a bench, modern but perfectly at home among the old buildings of Stellenbosch. It seemed to sum up the town for me: a fusion of different cultures, both past and present.
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