Cape Town CBD

Published: September 12th 2015
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Cape Town Central Business District

You may have noticed that we've not spent much time in Cape Town during the weeks we've been here. We have spent a lot of time driving around suburbs but very little actually in the centre. We decided to remedy this by taking a few half and full days wandering around the Central Business District and seeing the sights. Rather than give a blow by blow account of these trips I just want to share the highlights and give my general impressions.

There are several main roads into Cape Town which converge close to the centre. This can cause severe traffic, especially at rush-hour. The road we tend to take into town is called Nelson Mandella Boulevard. This route goes up a steep hill which slows the traffic down. The road then sweeps down around the hill and as it does an amazing vista of the Table Bay harbour opens up. Despite the industrial nature of this area the view is wonderful. From this vantage point the container ships look like children's toys. Beyond the built-up portion of the harbour is a long stretch of beach curving around the bay. This gives way to mountains receding beyond the horizon. The boulevard drops down into the city near a huge modern conference centre. Just behind the conference centre there is a road which suddenly stops and is left hanging in mid-air. There was obviously a mix up with the planning or they ran out of funding.

Cape Town is laid out on a distorted grid system. The distortion arises as the grid actually stretches around the mountains of the Table Mountain National Park. I have been struggling to get my head around the layout of the city and I have just realised why - rather than pointing North-South and East-West, the grid is rotated by 45°. No wonder I'm confused!

Once in the city it is impossible to travel more than a couple of hundred metres without being stopped at traffic lights. This isfrustrating but also useful for when we need a bit of extra time to navigate. Depending where you are in the city centre parking can be surprisingly easy to find. Often there is on-street parking, usually patrolled by a car guard or official. Official car parks are more expensive, around R20 an hour.

Long Street

Like many major cities, Cape Town grew organically and has been built over many generations. This has lead to a plethora of different architectural styles. Long Street is a good place to start - architecturally this looks like the buildings you see in a Western movie, though most are multi-storey. The ground floor is recessed with a balcony held up by posts on the edge of the street. There are an interesting selection of shops on Long - several are African markets where you can buy a dazzling array of beaded jewellery, tribal masks and art works created from recycled materials. The shop keepers are engaging but very pushy, they seem desperate for a sale and will do almost anything to get you to fall in love with one of their pieces. Long has an array of higher-end shops such as jewellers and photography suppliers. There are also a scattering of coffee shops. We tried one, Kamili Coffee, on the corner of Shortmarket and Long, which was exceptionally good. They have many different ways of brewing coffee (not just espresso) and must have had at least 15 different types of bean. Strangely they haven't diversified into tea or other drinks but for me that is perfect.

At night Long becomes the busy heart of the entertainment district. It's bars, almost invisible in the day, draw crowds in the evening. Some seem quite seedy but others are quite an experience. Grant and Nathan took me to the Beer House which affords the opportunity to taste a large range of beers in small glasses. At times the decor in here feels over the top (e.g. a sink made from a keg with a beer pump tap) but the selection of beers is wide and interesting. The quality if the food is very variable though - the Camembert en croute was amazing but the flammenkuchen was awful.

The Waterfront

At the bottom of Long, Lower Long leads towards the Waterfront. This area used to be the old working docks but has now been converted to high-end shopping, luxury apartments with marina mooring for large yachts and a general tourist trap. The dry dock and ship yard add some interest and connect the Waterfront with its history as a centre of maritime activity. The shopping centre is a great place to pick up some African craft gifts or unusual luxury food - for example carrot cake icecream (highly recommended) or blueberry fudge (not recommended). Amidst the bustling shops and cafes is Nobel Square where four sculptures stand commemorating South Africa's four Nobel Peace Prize laureates - Luthuli, Tutu, de Klerk and Mandella. These draw crowds of South African tourists to pose with their heros. The Waterfront serves as the departure point for a number of cruises and for tours of Robben Island, the former holding place of South Africa's political prisoners.

Bree Street

Running parallel to Long is Bree Street. Bree is described by the Wall St Journal as Cape Town's "hippest block". The building style here is similar to Victorian era buildings in the UK. Bree is home to a range of restaurants. The one we tried is called "Bacon on Bree" - a restaurant specialising in bacon sandwiches. I love the concept, unfortunately I felt the execution was lacking. The sandwiches are on the petite side and the bacon was overcooked. Also the decor of the restaurant left a lot to be desired - a fridge of hanging meat is not the prettiest sight when eating. Bacon did have a bit of a sense of humour though... the food was served on pig shaped boards and there were two bottles of hot sauce available: "scorned woman" and, in much smaller bottles, "I dare you".

Bo Kaap

Not far from Bree is the old Cape Malay quarter, Bo Kaap. To get there you walk up steep cobbled streets. When you arrive you are faced with an array of vibrantly coloured houses, no two the same shade. The houses are well maintained and most of the paint is fresh. We only walked down a couple of streets but it was well worth doing. We paused outside a mosque and were greeted by a local man who said he enjoyed talking to tourists. It seemed to us that he had only one agenda: to attempt to prove to us that not all Muslims are terrorists - not that we needed convincing. Every time we asked him a question, such as "What does Islam mean to you?" his response was around being peace loving, only fighting just wars and not harming non-combatants. The exchange left us a bit dazed.

The Company's Gardens and Parliament

Also parallel to Long, in the opposite direction from Bo Kaap, is the Company's Gardens. These gardens are the historical site of the gardens planted by the Dutch East India Company. The neatly arranged gardens are beautiful in their own right but also have stunning views of Table Mountain in the background. The atmosphere in the gardens is laid back and it seemed a nice place to just wander around and relax a bit. Of course it helped that we were there on a lovely Cape Town winter's day with blue skies and the sun shining warmly. Running alongside the gardens is the very understated, but nonetheless pretty, neoclassical Parliament building. Without the map telling us what the building was we would never have guessed that this was an important part of South Africa's fabric.

Around the corner from parliament is St George's Cathedral; a pretty but unimposing church. Behind the cathedral is a second-hand bookshop. As book addicts we have never been able to pass a bookshop without entering. We found a little gold-mine inside. We didn't want to buy much because it would just have to be shipped at some point. I did find a book published to mark Winston Churchill's death wih an original newspaper tucked inside. As a collector of Winston Churchill first editions this was an interesting find. Even more interesting was the person serving us. This was a little Coloured gentleman who had definitely missed his calling as a stand up comic. I handed him the book and his response, in an absolutely perfect Churchillian accent, was, "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few". We were already in stitches. He then told us a story which started, "I have this mad friend who married a vicar". He went on to tell us the vicar had died and she had remarried, this time to someone as mad as herself. By this point I was wondering where the story was going and why it was being told. He then got to the point... the second husband had a parrot and it turned out he had been teaching it Churchill's speeches. Apparently the parrot, with a high voice, was confused to be taught the deep resonant tones of Churchill. This last statement was accompanied by impersonations of both the mad second husband and the parrot saying, "We will fight them on the beaches". We were still laughing half way down the street.

Long Market Street and Green Market Square

Long Market Street cuts across Long and Bree. This street doesn't have much character but does have interesting shops and eating places. One restaurant we went to was Eastern Food Bazaar. This is a really bustling and atmospheric fast-food place specialising in curries. we took our opportunity to taste a local speciality - Bunny Chow. To make bunny chow you basically take a loaf of white bread and cut it in half. The soft bread is hollowed out and filled with curry. apparently this is eaten without cutlery, as none was provided. It's quite a challenge to eat delicately! We chose a lamb curry and decided to share our meal and added samosas and chilli-bites. The whole thing cost us about £3. The curry was good and the experience unique.

Part way down Long Market is Green Market Square, a thriving market selling African art works. The stall holders tend to be the artists and are friendly and happy to speak about their work. There is a feeling that the market is set up to entice tourists. The beggars have obviously identified this too - they are numerous, unrelenting and generally target foreign visitors. It can be quite heart breaking to see and leaves you feeling powerless to genuinely help.

De Waal Park

One other small area I want to mention lies just a bit further away. If you continue all the way along Long Street you eventually start to go up hill quite steeply. Part way up this hill is the very small De Waal park. With Table Mountain looming in the background, Stone Pine trees reaching up to the mountain, and views down to the city below De Waal is in a lovely position. It is not on the tourist trail so is very quiet. The park is intersected by a couple of streams. It appeared that some people had set up an informal camp between the streams and were doing their washing and cooking when I arrived. Despite this, the park is a nice place to take a stroll and I saw many species of plant and lots of butterflies there.

We have spent a few days wandering around the CBD but still not seen everything. I really love walking around Cape Town, it is a city like no other I have been to. There are cultural gems, beautiful buildings, pretty open spaces and very friendly (and sometimes entertaining) people. Importantly for me there is always good food and excellent coffee. The city feels vibrant and thriving but doesn't have the intensity of London or Paris - it feels more like Vancouver in its relaxed attitude and it's eclectic mix with an outstanding natural backdrop.

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