It is the oaks that one notices. They line the road and the river, cluster around farmhouses and dot the fields of farms called La Provence and Joie de Vivre; land tilled by generations of the same family. The vines are bare this time of year but the kegs are full to bursting and the BMW's and Mercedes convertibles are on their way to celebrate a revolution.
It is Bastille Day in the winelands of Franschhoek, a pastoral hour's drive from Cape Town. Well-groomed shops and restaurants are festooned in the red, white and blue and the locals sport rakish red berets. The French connection goes back to the Huguenots - French Protestants who fled Catholic persecution in the seventeenth century. Facing an uncertain future as refugees in Europe, a number arrived at the Cape, taking up the Dutch East India Company's offer of land.
Of those first newcomers, some were settled in a valley so remote that the first track crossing the mountains was made by migrating elephant. From those early farms of La Motte and Cabriere, a village grew, and what was then Oliphantshoek is now Franschhoek.
Belying the bunting and the berets of Bastille Day today, the French at the Cape soon lost their national identity. By the mid 1700's only the old people remembered the language of their homeland. Names once French gradually became more Dutch. The Le Clerqs metamorphosed into the De Klerks. Pinards became Pienaars The religion for which they sacrificed so much was a severe one.
Calvinism frowned upon 'dancing, dicing, cards and indecent songs.' Calvin's 'Blue Laws' required the host of a French public inn to keep a Bible on the premises should anyone wish to read it and his customers were to be put out promptly at nine o'clock at night.
The world has moved on in the last three hundred years. Today, Franschoek's favourite watering hole is not quite as genteel. A mounted poster behind the bar depicts a blue sky and desert sand and two camels enjoying a bonk. The caption reads: One Hump... or Two?
The decor is interestingly non-partisan. The walls are plastered with traditional weapons and trophies of all the tribes of Africa (black and white) rifles and knobkerries and spears; mounted sable and kudu and eland; a snarling baboon's head wearing a cap. Rugby is flickering, inevitably, on the TV.
I am in the company of unlikely drinking fellows. Franschhoek's erstwhile apartheid Chief of Police sits on my left. On my right, Mine Host confesses a fascination for Hitler, an admiration for the intransigence of PW Botha, the ex-president, and volunteers the information that his current bedside reading features Eugene de Kock, an apartheid era killer.
I do not point out that his heroes are all defeated men. The conversation flows freely under the influence of buchu brandy and country hospitality. There is no sign in these drink-sodden shadows of the theme park atmosphere which prevails outside. There are no designer sunglasses in evidence here. Were it not for the coloured rugby team come in to slake their thirsts after a particularly tough game, we could be sitting in the smoky funk of any of the last fifty years. Too much here is all too familiar. But the world moves on and Franschhoek with it.
Tourism has brought affluence and a more exclusive market. Overseas visitors have been quick to seize upon Franschhoek's potential. Many have returned to buy farms and help develop the wine industry; or run guest-houses and restaurants in the village.
They have brought with them an air of sophistication and know-how. They are restoring the old houses and teaching the locals a thing or two about tourism. The town is more cosmopolitan than even its French veneer suggests. The Germans, the Brits, Italians and Americans are not the only newcomers, however.
The well-heeled and hell-wheeled urbanites of Cape Town and Gauteng are also taking to country life. The local council has sub-divided farms and plots to meet the growing demand. Inevitably, property prices have soared and old-time residents are finding it hard not to sell. Many are taking the money and setting up shop elsewhere. Gansbaai, up the coast from the whale-watcher's resort of Hermanus, seems a popular retirement choice.
Franschoek's innkeeper, however, is not one to cry over spilt milk. He is not packing up for the coast. His establishment is undergoing major refurbishments. The bar is moving around the back; making way for a coffee shop and deli and the hotel rooms are being turned into self-catering holiday units.
On Bastille Day, Franschoek's vignerons and auberges, its continental residents and designer tourists, its Gallic guest houses and galleries and horse-drawn carts would seem to suggest that Franschoek has survived South Africa's revolution just fine. But underneath the trappings of festival the old days and the old ways are in decline, overthrown by a shiny, plastic new world order.
The breeze that sweeps over the naked vineyards and winter grass carries the whiff of foreign currency rather than the farmyard. Revolutions do not always begin in the streets. Sometimes, they take to the bistros.
Copyright © 2002 Laurianne Claase. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.