Nestled between the towering majesty of three mountain ranges, Tulbagh is a town unlike any other. Having survived one of the most disastrous earthquakes ever experienced in South Africa, this historical hamlet emerged from the ashes and is now a characterful destination under two hour’s drive from Cape Town.
Spending a speedy two nights in Tulbagh may seem an inadequate amount of time to explore, but what with a vast wealth of activities on one’s doorstep, experiencing the town in full over 48 hours is altogether possible. Tagging along with my friend Jared, I stayed in luxury at the Tulbagh Hotel – a heritage hotel that dates back to the nineteenth century.
Split into two buildings, the Tulbagh Hotel encompasses both classic elegance and contemporary convenience. This coupling of antiquity and modernity has resulted in a unique accommodation offering that manages to be fascinating in the most restful of ways. Providing guests with a choice of rooms or suites, the latter are divided into Protea and Fynbos rooms – each offering beds in either part of the hotel. I had the pleasure of staying in the heritage section, in a cosy sun-filled cottage with a view over the gardens. Lovingly tended, the gardens themselves are a riot of blossoms – from scarlet bougainvillea to delicate Cape honeysuckle – and one can both see and smell just how fecund a place Tulbagh is. Two plunge pools are conveniently located between the suites, enabling brave folks to take a refreshing autumn dip. I preferred to retire to the enveloping expanse of the four poster bed or lose myself to my thoughts in the terracotta-tiled wet room, the warm water soft and welcoming. A bit of an antiques junkie, I particularly loved the nod to a bygone era with the marble-topped washstand and heavy beamed ceiling.
Making for a very special getaway, the Tulbagh Hotel radiates romance and is an imperative destination for spoiling one’s partner or oneself. I was lucky to take a peek inside the hotel’s honeymoon suite – although the latter term doesn’t quite encompass the majesty of this room. Boasting a magnificently carved four poster bed, jewel-toned lounge suite, dressing room, office nook, separate toilet, a wet room with an enormous bathtub and two fireplaces (one of which is actually in the wet room), the honeymoon suite is more of an apartment. I could happily have lived in there for the next few months, provided that I wouldn’t be required to wash any dishes or indeed move from either bed or sofa.
But what with only two days to spend in Tulbagh, I had more than afternoon naps on my mind.
Explore the town on foot and one is hard-pressed to discover any evidence of the 1969 earthquake today. Only those with a keen eye for historical architecture – like Jason Augustyn-Clarke of Cape Dutch Quarters – can spot a renovation. From restored gables to altered eaves, Tulbagh is a mosaic of building styles; a detail that begun in the 1700s, when the town was an outpost for missionaries bringing the Christian faith into the interior of South Africa. As the community grew, the church gained funds by selling off plots of land – an economical move that resulted in houses built in every fashion – from traditional Cape Dutch to Neo-Classicism. One of the oldest structures in Tulbagh is De Oude Kerk Volksmuseum that can be found settled on the corner of Church Street. Immediately recognisable for it’s ornate baroque gable and slate-paved floors, the church is now a museum containing impressive pieces of period furniture, including the very same table on which the 1806 treaty that passed the Cape over from the Batavian Government to the British Forces was signed.
In the mid to late 19th century, many of the original thatch-roofed homesteads were altered appear Victorian – with intricately decorated wrought iron railings all the rage. While gables were hidden or even demolished, often funds only extended to the exterior of the house and thankfully the original yellow wood doors were spared from fashion’s fickleness. However, almost 100 years later, nature would embark on a renovation project of her own. Tulbagh lies over a tectonic plate, and it’s movement resulted in an earthquake that measured 6.3 on the Richter scale. Still considered to be the worst the country has ever seen, the earthquake had Tulbagh at its epicentre and eleven people – most of whom were small children – lost their lives that day, while hundreds lost their homes.
After the ravages of the earthquake, a committee including Prime Minister B.J Vorster was formed and it was decided to restore the entirety of Church Street to its original glory. Since the government only had enough funds to restore a section in one of the towns affected by the quake, Tulbagh was deemed suitable for its architectural and genealogical heritage. Helmed by a fiercely patriotic Afrikaner government, the decision to preserve historical Cape Dutch architecture was strongly supported and in the early Seventies, the vast job began. The current owners of the ruined houses where given a choice – either sell up or move out and return after the renovation. While many opted to escape the dust and tragedy, those who retained their homes were able to watch as many a grand dame was reborn out of the rubble. Naturally, property prices in Church Street soared and Tulbagh became a sought-after tourist destination. Incidentally, 2019 marks 50 years since the earthquake and the town is commemorating the event through a festival of remembrance over the 27-29 September – a fitting acknowledgement of how Tulbagh has triumphed over tragedy.
Little has changed today and this resilient little town still attracts visitors looking for a taste of cultivated country life. As for me, I was looking for a taste of something else – namely warming winter fare – and fortunately didn’t have to go too far to find it. Having first met Jason and his husband Marcel after I got rather nosy about the Church Street Kitchen Garden, we discovered that the community allotment provides the Tulbagh Hotel with all of it’s fresh vegetables and some fruit. Not only catering to hotel guests, the garden has embraced the neighbourhood’s appreciation for agronomics and now sees volunteers, gardening enthusiasts and the occasional butternut scrumper all lending their talents to keeping things thriving. Back at the hotel that evening we were treated to the most delicious meal of roasted pork belly with apple and root vegetables, unctuously rich lamb pie and sinfully decadent cheesecake and dark chocolate fondant to finish. I had paired my pork with a glass of local wine, igniting my enthusiasm for the following day’s tastings.
Although perhaps not as vaunted as other wine-producing regions of the Western Cape, Tulbagh is no less successful with the cultivation and creation of exceptional wines. Fringed in on three sides by the Obiqua, Winterhoek and Witzenberg mountain ranges, the basin enjoys a Mediterranean climate that is ideal for viticulture, with a range in terroir resulting in an impressive diversity of distinctive wines. Embodying just that are the wines of Lemberg Estate. Located a mere 5 minutes drive out of central Tulbagh, Lemberg was established in 1978 by maverick winemaker Janey Muller – one of the first women to be actively involved in the South African (and male-dominated) industry. While always known for their vibrant Sauvignon Blanc, Lemberg’s real star is their Hárslevelü – a Hungarian varietal known for it’s golden hue and aromatic sapidity. Including the Hárslevelü, current owners Suzette and Henk have since released a range of award-winning wines, all named after the family’s prized bulldogs. My personal favourite was Lady – an enchantingly complex blend of Viognier, Hárslevelü, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc redolent of dried peach, white pear, almond and floral notes. I simply had to have a bottle and I can’t wait to pair it with a very special recipe.
Next up was Krone – that king of bubbly – and I was left in awe of the sheer spectacle of Twee Jonge Gezellen’s riddling hall and subterranean cellars. Not only celebrated for their expertly crafted Method Cap Classique, Krone now does a delicious Chardonnay Pinot Noir that we enjoyed on their elegant tasting terrazzo. Accompanied by assistant winemaker Tanya Fourie, we sampled the estate’s selection of MCC with the Borealis Vintage Cuvée Brut standing out as my personal favourite.
If sunlit country rambles through russet leaves are your thing, then no weekend in the Boland area is complete without a visit to Theuniskraal. Boasting a beautiful avenue of autumnal trees for an entrance, the estate makes the perfect setting for an afternoon tasting. With a genealogy in viticulture that dates back to the eighteenth century, Theuniskraal has been one of South Africa’s top white wine producers since the late Forties. Specialising in European cultivars, Theuniskraal is particularly known for their Riesling, with the estate’s sandy-loam soils providing an ideal terroir. Unique to the area, Tulbagh wine estates are known for enjoying both a hot and cold climate – a detail that yields some of the most intriguing wines. I was drawn to Theuniskraal’s Semillon Chardonnay for its delicate peach and apple notes and lingering citrus flavours. And what with most of Theuniskraal’s wines retailing for under R60.00 a bottle, one simply can’t leave without purchasing a case of your favourite varietal.
Not only appealing to oenophiles, Tulbagh will soon be hosting their annual Christmas in Winter – a celebration of seasonal fare, crafts and events. Running over the 22nd and 23rd of June 2019, the festival will include warming winter food, markets, art galleries, craft beer, glühwein and local cheese, olives and chocolates.
From rosy winter sunsets that set the Witzenberg mountains alight to the plump tartness of a ripe gooseberry surreptitiously stolen from the Kitchen Gardens, Tulbagh is a town that’s filled with delights both great and small. And I would wholeheartedly suggest spending more than two days enjoying them.