The main highway between Johannesburg and Cape Town takes travelers through the Great Karoo, a vast desert of reddish-brown earth speckled with scrub vegetation and seemingly populated by nothing more than a loping springbok or two. Few overseas visitors venture off the road.
Yet a 20-mile byway leads miragelike to an oasis of sorts, a dusty Afrikaans dorp, or farming village, in a surprisingly fertile patch watered by a stream flowing down the northern slopes of the soaring Swartberg Mountains. It’s like suddenly coming across Brigadoon while hiking in the Scottish highlands or spying the Emerald City after a long trek on the Yellow Brick Road.
The village, Prince Albert, sometimes has the look of a sleepy frontier settlement out of the old American West, but it is known among travel connoisseurs for pristine examples of 19th-century Cape Dutch architecture, with their signature rounded gables, and for tasty figs and olives, and grazing sheep that are raised for mohair and the most tender lamb. Improbably, in recent decades, a lively colony of artists and crafts makers has sprung up there.
At the urging of a South African-born friend, my wife and I detoured off the N1 highway and spent several days exploring Prince Albert, which was named after Queen Victoria’s consort. We were quickly beguiled by its languid charm, and we recalled the grace notes of Greenwich Village and Chelsea in a compact town that has a dozen art galleries and craft shops, and plainspoken restaurants that let you feel like you are dining in your grandmother’s kitchen.
Of course there’s ambivalence in trumpeting Prince Albert because what makes it exceptional is its aura of being undiscovered. Nevertheless, tourists are increasingly finding their way there just as the village is increasingly finding ways to entice European, Asian and American travelers who can now visit South Africa without the discomfort of spending money in a land under the chokehold of apartheid.
Classic architecture and modern art
Frankly, we didn’t do much more than stroll the colorful main road, swim at our lodge’s pool, and gaze at the backdrop of soaring mountains in daylight and an astronomer’s dream of a starlit sky at night. The adventure of driving the dizzying switchbacks of a gravel mountain pass straddled by craggy pinnacles is a reason some travelers will take the long way via Prince Albert toward the fabled, lush Garden Route on the Indian Ocean coast. We took a similar path, though nervous about driving under the British left-side-of-the-road system along sheer-drop cliffs, we chose a gentler paved mountain pass. My wife, a native who left South Africa 50 years ago but returns every few years to visit family, needs to renew her communion with the landscape whose beauty is lodged inextricably in her soul.
The spine of Church Street is graced with more than a dozen Cape Dutch buildings, some draped in bougainvillea and adorned with tropical plants — fynbos, protea or cactus flowers. But wherever we paused reminded us what a curious and unlikely spot Prince Albert is.
We came across a row of five stout stumps of 130-year-old blue gum trees that are known as “the Burghers of Prince Albert.” They look like lumpy monsters out of Disney’s “Fantasia” and were gently reshaped in 2007 by the chisels of a village artist, Richard John Forbes, and four apprentices so they could become historical monuments and, as a brochure informed us, take “art out of the gallery.”
“There’s definitely one with a tummy, and another, dare I say it, a bottom! Kurt Steiner, a gallery owner, told us. “The townsfolk are very divided in opinion. There are those who believe in Richard’s approach, and others even more fervently think the carvings to be nothing less than desecration.”
We encountered an antique wagon permanently parked in front of the village museum as a reminder of the 18th-century pioneers who crossed the Karoo and the Swartbergs to farm. Nearby we passed the Showroom theater, built in 2013 in streamlined Art Deco by a local filmmaker who worked on the movie “The Long Walk to Freedom,” about Nelson Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid. (It was showing more lighthearted fare when we were there.) We even came across a yoga studio, evidence of the village’s more recent residents.
Cameras that caught history
At the Watershed, a building housing a row of galleries, we studied photographs by Jürgen Schadeberg, a German expatriate who settled in Johannesburg and built a career out of photographing the struggles of South African blacks, particularly such heroes as Nelson Mandela. As a photographer for Drum, a South African magazine, he trained a generation of black photographers who captured such images as the humiliating “Tauza” dance that naked prisoners were forced to perform to show guards they had no weapons.
Silver prints, signed by the artist, were on sale — for $4,800 each. They included the iconic one of Mandela, as the nation’s president, visiting his prison cell on Robben Island in 1994 and a smiling young Mandela outside a 1958 trial in which he and 50 others were accused of treason, though found not guilty.
There were works by local artists like J.P. Martin, who paints blurry, sepia-toned scenes of men and boys in athletic poses. Watershed also sells pillows whose covers feature more whimsical Schadeberg photographs like that of an African jazz trio wreathed in a nightclub’s cigarette smoke. We came away with a shapely ceramic vase whose design of pink flecks was created by Mr. Martin. It now sits in our living room.
Prince Albert is home to 30 painters, sculptors, designers and crafts makers, Mr. Steiner, Watershed’s owner, informed us. They are drawn by the village’s serenity and seclusion. Their paintings and sculptures are available down the main road at the Gallery, which also has a busy cafe.
From rock paintings to typewriters
When I asked Mr. Steiner when Prince Albert became an artist’s colony, his answer was gently admonishing of a Western perspective: “The first artists to make their mark,” he said, “were the Khoi-San who interpreted this arid ancient stretch of territory on the walls of caves and rock faces.”
Khoi-San is the catchall term for two groups of southern Africa’s indigenous blacks who are not speakers of Bantu languages, as the majority Zulu and Xhosa are. Known for the clicking sounds of their consonants, they had herded, foraged and hunted along the Swartberg slopes for thousands of years until they were gradually displaced by Bantu expansion some 1,500 years ago, and then pushed out by musket-wielding white settlers in the mid-18th century. The settlers derogatorily called them Hottentots (Khoi) and Bushmen (San). Their descendants today number about 400,000 and are scattered around southern Africa, principally in arid areas like the Kalahari.
The Fransie Pienaar Museum has photographs of rock paintings but is short on Khoi-San history. Rock paintings, which were done with ingredients like eland blood and egg white, depict elephants, eland and other animals as well as processions of hunters and other scenes of daily life. For those who have the time, there are a number of areas across South Africa where a visitor can see actual rock paintings, a prime location being the Cederberg mountain range two hours north of Cape Town. It has more than 500 painting sites, including a two-and-a-half mile rock-art trail and others accessible by hikers.
The rooms of the Pienaar museum chronicle the story of Prince Albert’s “founding” in 1762, a century after Dutch traders first came to this part of Africa, and are stuffed with 19th- and early-20th-century tools, dishware, telephones, typewriters, musical instruments, guns and other settler gadgets. After crossing the Karoo (a Khoisan word meaning desert) by wagon, the farmers Zacharias and Dina De Beer planted fruit orchards, vineyards and wheat fields. Other farmers followed and by 1855 the village could support a Dutch Reformed minister. A steepled church was built 10 years later, and it still dominates the village.
A land of sharp contrasts
You learn from the museum that a nearby railroad line from Cape Town, the carving of the tortuous pass through the Swartbergs, a short-lived boom in ostrich feathers for Europeans and a gold rush that fizzled all contributed to the growth of the village, which today has 7,000 inhabitants, roughly 86 percent of mixed-race, 11 percent white and 2 percent black.
Back outside, it is hard not to be struck by the sharp contrast, even in the new South Africa, between the comfortable routines and living quarters of white residents and tourists, and the more pinched lives and flimsy shacks of the mixed-race and black residents who work in the hotels, shops and farms that are owned and managed by whites. On the streets, barefoot children sometimes pose for photographs, hoping for a few rand.
Prince Albert is known for its food and on our strolls we indulged. Sitting in the shade of a quiet side garden of the Lazy Lizard cafe, we munched on crisp loaves of homemade bread and a Karoo Plate, stocked with a cornucopia of the Karoo’s offerings — lamb, cheese, Bulgarian yogurt, figs and olives.
The source of the yogurt and cheese is Prince Albert’s landmark Gay’s Guernsey Dairy. Gay van Hasselt welcomes visitors with a jaunty flair, recalling how she started the farm, in 1990 with three cows and a stone kraal (barn). She now has 50 cows. She is proud that the villagers got used to thinking of yogurt, sometimes sweetened with flavors like strawberry — not as vrot melk — milk gone bad, but as a tart treat.
When the January desert heat proved enervating, we returned to our inn, De Bergkant Lodge, built in 1858 for a newlywed couple, one of 14 local buildings declared historic monuments, and swam laps to the sound of birdsong. The Swiss owners, Michi and Renate Soennichsen, dote on their guests.
Both the restaurants they recommended were of high caliber and cost no more than an inexpensive Manhattan spot. At the Olive Branch, a cozy, unpretentious room, Hendry Olivier, the chef, explained how he slow-cooked the lamb for four hours. After tasting it, we concluded there must be a virtue in grazing in a desert.
Somewhat more offbeat was Karoo Kombuis — or Karoo Kitchen — which is in a simple cottage on a back street. It has just three tables with checkered tablecloths in the front room and three in the back room. A blackboard on the narrow patio serves as the menu but offers only three entrees — though you can order any two in smaller portions. The restaurant’s other rules are cash only, bring booze and find the toilet through the kitchen.
The Olive Branch
Gay’s Guernsey Dairy
By The New York Times
The place is run efficiently and with zest by veterans of South African Airways, Theunis Botha, who was a purser, and Denise Potter, who was an air hostess. Now he does the cooking and waits on tables while she, always outfitted in a colorful caftan and head scarf wrapped around her forehead, is the maître d’, greeting diners and asking their preferences.
The eclectic décor looks like it was salvaged from a vintage clothing shop, with one wall flaunting a line of high-heeled shoes and another flamboyant sun hats. My wife had a chicken pie, I some roast lamb and lamented not having room for the baboutie, a South African spiced meatloaf. We finished off the meal with a spongy cake called malva pudding, a national specialty. The flavorful dishes and relaxed, quirky ambience made for an exceedingly pleasurable experience.
For our entire stay, the pace was restful, the charms small but exquisite, the scenery and flora enchanting. A middle-aged couple from Lincolnshire, England, whom we schmoozed with over breakfast, informed us that they have come to Prince Albert for three weeks every year for the past 15 years.
At first, we wondered how anyone could spend three weeks in such a remote, sleepy backwater. But after a few days in Prince Albert, we emphatically understood.
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