If there’s a “heaven on earth” Franschhoek must be as close as you get! The traditionally French town is one of the oldest in South Africa. Embraced by three mountain ranges – Franschhoek, Wemmershoek, and Groot Drakenstein – the beautiful valley is a few miles east of Stellenbosch and Paarl and a short drive from Cape Town. Franschhoek became part of the Municipality of Stellenbosch.
French Huguenot settlers arrived in the valley during the 17th and 18th centuries when France outlawed Protestantism in their homeland. The Dutch government gave land to French settlers. The area was originally known as Olifants Hoek (elephants’ corner) because elephants crossed into the valley to calve.
Most wine farms in the valley retained their original French names. The buildings are examples of beautiful unspoiled Cape Dutch architecture. To preserve the spirit of the original settlers, there are restrictions on renovations and new construction. The area has miles and miles of vineyards and Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve with scenic hiking trails and sweeping views of the fertile valley.
“The name of the area changed to le Coin Français (the French Corner) and later to Franschhoek (Dutch for French Corner). Many surnames in Franschhoek are of French origin and settlers named their farms after the areas in France from which they came. La Motte, La Terra de Luc, La Dauphine Champagne, La Cotte, Cabrière, La Provence, and Bourgogne, were some of the first farms.” They are now renowned wineries, many with famous four and five-star restaurants.
Got a late start and missed the last “wine tram” of the day. I drove the isolated vineyard route getting lost on back roads trying to find La Bourgogne’s outside restaurant. Instead, I stopped for late lunch at Café BonBon at La Petite Dauphine off Excelsior Road. It was almost 3 pm and only a few people were dining on the peaceful, quiet patio. The food and beautiful scenery were so amazing I lingered for hours!
To honor Franschhoek’s heritage, the Huguenot Monument stands at the end of the town and a nearby museum chronicles the history of the area’s first French settlers. Each Huguenot farm has a fascinating story.
In 1904 a secondary train line was built between Paarl and Franschhoek to replace the ox drawn carts farmers used to get their produce to market. “Steam locomotives operated along the route until diesel locomotives took over in the 1970s. In the 1990s railway service ended. In 2012, a clever private operator reinstated the tram line. Now known as the Fanschhoek Wine Tram, it transports tourists between wine estates in open-sided Brill Trams of circa 1890.”
The popular hop-on-hop-off wine tram is a great way to tour the wineries. The area experienced a boom in the 1990s that never stopped. “Ideal summer weather, snowy mountain peaks in winter, and a location near Cape Town made Franschhoek a sought after address.”
Franschhoek Valley has similarities with Northern California’s Napa Valley. It boosts some of the top restaurants in South Africa. This, together with “the strong wine culture and pristine natural and architectural beauty,” turned Franschhoek into the “food and wine capital of South Africa”.
Shops in Franschhoek village include art, antiques, galleries, and restaurants. Cozy cafés line the main thoroughfare. It’s easy to lose yourself in this place. The valley is a “springboard to other wine routes and the Four Passes Fruit Route,” of which Franschhoek is also part. The four magnificent passes include Viljoen’s, Sir Lowry’s, Franschhoek, and Helshoogte.