Paarl is the third oldest city in South Africa (after Cape Town and Stellenbosch). The settlement formed just east of the Paarl Rock, which was named for the way its smooth peak glistens after a rainstorm. Today was its OmmiBerg “Round the Rock” festival, marking the harvest season in its many surrounding wine farms, so it was a natural time for my first visit to the city.
Paarl is a city of nearly 200,000 citizens. For OmmiBerg 2016, fourteen different wine farms elected to take part, with a single cover charge of R150 (around $10) for all the visits (and including a wine glass to keep with you). All of them offered wine tasting, of course, but visitors could also take part in grape stomping, petting zoos, tasting challenges, live music, face painting, bounce houses, horse rides, and even an antique tractor museum. My day included visits to the KWV Main Street, the Laborie Wine Farm, the Under Oaks, a complete loop of the Paarl Mountain Local Nature Reserve, and a long-awaited visit to the Taal Monument.
I started at KWV Main Street because I didn’t have a street map, and finding a winery on the main drag of Paarl felt straightforward. The huge banner spanning Main Street certainly helped. The location featured an art gallery with paired wine suggestions, a covered gallery featuring a variety of wine tastings (pictured above), a large eating area before a stage for a live band, and a petting zoo. I am very glad I started there, because this location drew a great crowd, and I got the chance to try treading grapes!
Each of the four participants had three minutes to pop as many grapes off the stems as they could from a provided tub of grapes. After that, it was time for us to jump into the barrels and spend three minutes crushing the grapes into a must. We were evaluated on how much juice was able to pass through a filter into a bucket below. Necessarily, I spent a fair amount of time clearing the filter and encouraging the juice through it. I had a hoot! The nicest surprise came at the end, when each of the stompers was awarded a bottle of shiraz!
Having already had a taste of a pinot noir in the art gallery, I opted to stay for a sandwich. The caterers offered a freshly-made sandwich of fillet steak, chipotle mayo, onion confit and rocket on a ciabatta roll for R50 ($3), and WOW! It knocked my socks off. I joined a table of folks that I think were from the Cape Coloured population. It was good that they were willing to share, because a misty rain had begun to fall. The paterfamilias (wearing an LA Dodgers baseball cap) offered me a bit of the sparkling sweet rose wine to accompany my sandwich. A group of salsa dancers felt inspired by the live music from Ben Dey and the Concrete Lions and began to dance right by our table. It was the nicest lunch I have enjoyed in quite a long time.
Soon I was on the move again, this time to Laborie Wine Farm, within a kilometer of KWV. I had already consumed a couple fingers of wine in the two hours I had been at KWV, so I wandered with my camera around the grounds. The photo of Paarl Rock at the top of this post came from my wanderings. I also saw some of the less happy aspects of wine tastings. I saw a very sozzled visitor nearly fall as he attempted to mount some stairs. Happily his friend caught him, and an employee was quick to the scene. To its credit, Laborie had put together a fun place for children, with a bounce house and a water slide. Where KWV felt like a central hub for a network of farms, Laborie was clearly a working farm, with huge vineyards stretching away from Paarl’s main street.
I ventured north from Laborie, and I realized that Paarl is a pretty substantial city (its 200,000 inhabitants are only one-fifth of Cape Town’s million from 1996). Seeing the Paarl Rock behind the historic buildings in the city center gave it some special flair! I continued north until Main Road intersected the R44 regional road, and soon thereafter I stopped at Under Oaks. I was already a bit sleepy from the exertions of the day, so I received a glass of unfiltered wine in the pizzeria area and then walked down the gallery to a hay bale seat at a table near the stage for live music.
The band, Soft Landing, was perfect for my quiet mood. They played a range of familiar songs with a gentle jazz feel. When they included an Afrikaans verse in their rendition of “Summer Time,” I loved it. I listened to seven or eight songs. It felt like I was getting my own concert! Another fellow came along to listen to Elton John’s “Your Song.” Both of us were singing along with the band. At a break, I asked about some Billy Joel, but it wasn’t in their repertoire. Instead the sound guy and I made an impromptu duet of “Piano Man.” I had a thoroughly lovely time!
After that, I set my course for the “Taal Monument.” I have felt somewhat uneasy about this aspect of Paarl’s history. In 1875, a group called the “Foundation for Real Afrikaners” was founded in this city. At the time, much of Europe referred to the Dutch-derived language spoken in the Cape as “Cape Dutch.” It’s a bit of a derogatory term, reflecting that the Boers spoke a Dutch that had drifted away from its parent country, having some of its sharp edges knocked off and inserting a variety of words from the Khoi, Malay, and German languages. The Foundation for Real Afrikaners declared that the language spoken in South Africa was Afrikaans, a national treasure and something worth celebrating in its own right. The group was mocked, at first, but their newspapers and other publications began to drive the lesson home. In 1974, almost century later, the apartheid government decreed that Afrikaans and English would be the only acceptable languages for education by the end of primary school. This had the effect of making Afrikaans a tool of apartheid, a reputation that it has not yet fully lost. That being said, 80% of the Cape Coloured population considers Afrikaans its first or “home” language. In 1975, only one year after the decree, the Paarl monument to the Afrikaans language was opened.
Getting to the Taal Monument was rather more challenging that it would first appear. I had missed the “Suid-Agter Paarl” road that led back toward the main N1 exit for Paarl, so I had to drive ten km on the N1 to get back to that exit. Then I missed the road that would have given me a paved path all the way up. Instead I turned onto the Jan Phillips Mountain Drive, which looked great at first but soon left me driving cautiously on a red dirt road through several turns and rapid altitude changes. Happily the left turn to head toward the monument rather than the mountain nature preserve was pretty clearly marked, and I passed the last couple of kilometers on modern pavement. The site charged me R25 for entry, presumably to keep up the gardens and the museum.
For once I bypassed the museum. A band was playing in an entirely empty amphitheater. Their amplifiers were set inappropriately loud; the noise was pretty incredible even in the parking lot. I passed the words “Dit is ons erns” in brass as part of the sidewalk (something like “this is our earnestness”). I just kept going until I was at the monument itself. It’s incredibly tall, and when you’re standing at its foot, looking up can make you dizzy. I kept walking into the core of the building. Instead of seeing something harsh and horrific that glorified the Foundation for Real Afrikaners, the center of the monument offered a simple fountain that emptied into a pool surrounding the main tower. Above the fountain, the tower seemed to stretch for an eternity.
In short, it was beautiful. I took a walk through the grounds of the monument. The landscapers are to be commended. The site offers beautiful gardens. From place to place, they’ve posted poetry written in the Afrikaans language (I did not see English translations for most of these signs). I continued walking uphill, and soon I was in what looked like native scrub. I was happy that I could recognize wild protea flowers; my friend Gerard had pointed them out to me at a botanical garden. I continued uphill until I found a place atop a utility manhole where I could take a panoramic photo of the area including the monument.
On my way out, I found a high school group at the steps surrounding the monument, trying to arrange themselves for a group photo. For most of them, Afrikaans is the first language they ever learned to speak. I wandered back inside the monument, where a sudden compulsion grabbed me. I walked back over to the fountain. This time, I grabbed a handful of water and poured it over my own head. As I descended the mountain on the black-topped road, I tried to figure out why I had felt the need to do that. As a former Southern Baptist, I find I sometimes have a knack for out-of-place ritual. In this case, I think I might understand what had happened for me in the monument:
In visiting another place, it’s generally quite easy to keep your separation from the place you are visiting. When you move to another place, though, sooner or later you must make your peace with your new home. I have felt some hesitation and actually some distaste about Afrikaans. The language, though, is rather important to many of the people I care about here in Cape Town. My furtive “baptism” in the fountain may be my idiosyncratic way of saying that I acknowledge that I am now part of this place, with all its warts and imperfections.