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The rites of springbok

Part 2 of a 2008 South African travelogue

by Thor Iverson

[table mountain under cloud]

Invisible table
The unseen wind

The truck shows no signs of stopping. In fact, it might be speeding up. A horn blares. The right wheel is aimed directly at me, the left at Theresa’s glasses, which are still skipping and swirling over the pavement, buffeted by the howling gales that cyclone around us. There’s nothing to be done except save myself, and I leap back onto the sidewalk…just as the glasses are given their most violent wind-whipping yet. They sail skyward, hurdling the truck and crashing to the ground right at my feet. I reach out to grasp them…

…and they’re gone again. But now, they’re out of the center of the street’s tortured wind tunnel, or perhaps the truck’s vortex has confused the current, because they seem to climb straight up a nearby wall, pause, then butterfly back towards the earth. This time, I grab, hold, and don’t let go.

After all the skipping and skittering, after the high-speed impact with the sidewalk, I expect to find a mangled, wrecked disaster in my hand. Remarkably, the glasses have survived relatively intact. There’s a tiny chip, a few scratches…but no more than might have happened after an accidental drop. It’s a minor miracle, really.

It’s also an early lesson that will be repeated time and time again in South Africa: pedestrians, no matter what the law might promise, do not have the right of way. Where there are lights – and there are fewer than one might like – the walk cycles are just barely long enough for a quick sprint. Linger just one tenth of a second more, however, and the danger is immediate.

That is, if the wind doesn’t kill us first.

Wind & wharf

A long flight, a luxuriously-wined lunch…it’s time for a nap. The wind whistles and howls outside our window, and the tall palm-like trees alongside the hotel are bent nearly double. Even the stiff metal flagpoles are compressed into parentheses. But we sleep anyway. What’s wind in the face of such fatigue?

Later, while Theresa gets ready for dinner, I wander downstairs to make some arrangements for the days ahead. I also find out, to our dismay, that one of the centerpieces of our stay in Cape Town – a visit to Robben Island – will not be possible, as its tourist infrastructure is closed for renovation. Alas. I attempt to drown my sorrows in some of the free wine that’s offered in the lobby early each evening.

Blaauwklippen 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Coastal Region) – Sweet and lightly tropical, but far too bland and easy. Characterless.

“Don’t go walking around after 4:30.” That’s the recommendation of the helpful folk at our hotel’s reception desk, and we’re of no mind to question their judgment. In any case, there’s a shuttle that runs from the front door to the Victoria & Albert Waterfront every half hour or so, and that’s where we need to go. So who needs to walk?

As it turns out, we do. We’re dropped in the midst of a wharf full of shops and restaurants, but it’s almost completely deserted. After all, no one still in possession of their sanity would be out in this weather. The wind has escalated from punishment to raw violence, and every moment in its path is one of pain. Inevitably, it turns out that we’re on the wrong part of the wharf.

Each step is an agony. I don’t overstate, either; at one point, we seriously consider making an incredibly expensive mobile call for a taxi service that can bring us the last half-block to our destination. That’s how bad. And yet, at long last, we arrive, beaten and somewhat scarred, but still more or less upright. It’s taken nearly thirty minutes to walk the equivalent of about three blocks, and we’re exhausted. But we’re hungry, too.

Thankfully, we’re here at the Cape Grace Hotel for dinner. Just getting in the door is an adventure – a doorman stands inside each door, bracing them shut against the wind’s attempt to rip them from their moorings – but when we do, we’re immediately struck by the beauty and, yes, grace of the interior. It looks like something out of a different era.

Best of all, there’s no wind.

Shrimp & subtext

Of all the places I’ve chosen to dine on this trip, the most hotly contested by commentators and reviewers is the one we’re visiting tonight. “Best in Cape Town.” “Tourist trap resting on its laurels.” And so forth. But in a way, that restaurant doesn’t exist anymore. What used to be called one.waterfront, and was identified as such on the hotel’s web site when I made the reservation, is now called Signal.

Same people? Same menu? I have no idea. The restaurant operates with the surety of continuity, however, so I’d suspect that no more than superficial changes have occurred. (One thing they might have considered adding to their list of changes: the clear plastic seats at a table under the central chandelier, which look terribly déclassé in an otherwise lovely restaurant.)

Villiera Méthode Cap Classique Brut Rosé “Tradition” (Stellenbosch) – Soft strawberry with a brace of acidity trailing in its wake. Short, though. Dry, clean, and pleasant, but most certainly not special.

Service is very good (especially from the sommelière, who really knows her stuff), but brings to the fore one of those tricky cultural issues one faces in South Africa. The managerial service, which includes the aforementioned sommelière, is professional and polished. The rest of the staff is no less polished, but the service they give is, at least for our tastes, overly fawning and servile. The managers all appear to be white, and the staff underneath them all black, Cape Malay, or mixed. There’s much that can and has be said about this state of affairs by commentators much smarter than me – and this is a travelogue, not a social treatise – but to the extent that it affects one’s travel experience, I think it’s worth noting here. The level of deference shown to all-white diners by a mostly non-white staff, and the regularity with which that occurs, will be somewhat uncomfortable for some. It is for us, at least, and at times we’ll feel a little more like colonialists than visitors.

I might even go so far to say that, on occasion, the feeling will detract from some of our experiences in this country…as it does, at least a little bit, here. I’m not speaking of the outrages, both blatant and subtextual, of plain racism that one will inevitably witness, nor of the vestiges of the country’s highly regrettable (and, it must be remembered, recent) past, but of a cultural norm that not everyone will see or experience in the same way. And it’s important to make this caveat: the South Africans of all colors and backgrounds that we’ll meet seem to have what is, even by the most genteel of American standards, a formalized and deferent sense of hospitality. That must be taken into account.

Still, the feeling adds to a mood that hangs over our dinner. Today’s lunch, among a younger and hipper crowd, didn’t feel quite this way. First, the woman in charge of the room (manager or not) was not white. Second, some of the diners weren’t, either. And third, the service was pleasant but not fawning. It would seem that a generational expectation is also at work, and in fact most of the diners here are older than us, though that’s no surprise in a luxury hotel/restaurant anywhere in the world. I should also note that most of the diners seem to be Americans, which is also no surprise given that the current exchange rate is one of the few in the world that benefits the American tourist, and they may or may not be having the same reaction as us. Though it would be interesting to find out.

Enough. How’s the food? It’s good, though we note that the enticing and carefully-recited specials are actually on the printed menu, which I’m not sure makes them “specials” in the usual sense of the word. We feel a little bit pressed to order both wine and food at the beginning, but matters soon slow to a lovely pace…just slow enough for enjoyment, just quick enough for two fatigued travelers still not fully adapted to the local time. Massive Mozambique prawns (they taste more like giant crayfish, meaty and rich) in pesto are a fine opener, but a giant bowl of Saldanha Bay mussels is almost overwhelming in its size. The mussels, which approach the gigantism of New Zealand’s green-lipped behemoths, are sauced with an absolutely vibrant Cape Malay curry, which adds complexity, spice, and a light sweetness, but not heat. The bread, too, is very good.

From a fairly long wine list, I choose a much-awarded bottle that I’ve been eager to try. By one critical assessment, this is the best South African wine of its entire year. Can it measure up to such lofty expectations?

Vergelegen 2005 White (Stellenbosch) – 2/3 semillon and 1/3 sauvignon blanc. Ripe, intense, concentrated, and with its eyes firmly focused on white Bordeaux, though I don’t know if it would be easy to conflate the two. Figs, dried straw, and white nectarine, with hints of wood influence and fine acidity. Very powerful, yet balanced, with a slightly leesy texture and a finish of majestic length. Turns creamier as it warms, while retaining its poise. Very, very impressive.

We finish with rooibos tea and a glass of a South African legend reborn:

Klein Constantia 2004 “Vin de Constance” (Constantia) – A dessert wine of vine-desiccated muscat de Frontignan (a/k/a muscat blanc à petits grains), and a wine that made South Africa’s worldwide wine reputation well over a century ago. Klein Constantia is part of the country’s original wine estate, dating back to the late 1600s, and in its current incarnation has resurrected the style and the name. But not, I fear, the quality that made the reputation (though I wasn’t around in the 1800s and thus can’t really know for sure). The nose is gorgeous and openly muscatty, with additional complexities in the form of cooked apple, spiced plum, cinnamon, and nutmeg. But as it turns juicy on the palate, it thins, and the finish is wan and disappointing. Good, but decidedly not great, and much more fun to sniff than to sip.

The meal is expensive by the numbers but a fraction what one would pay for an equivalent dinner in the States. Despite any nagging concerns, there are definitely reasons to like this country. And when we take a taxi back to the hotel, it’s just $2, which includes a rather extravagant tip.

[iziko south african museum]

High colonial(ic)
Yes, reasons to like this country indeed.

Back to the cave

To yesterday’s wind has been added an occasional, but decidedly horizontal, rain. It pounds against the windows of our hotel’s top-floor breakfast lounge while we enjoy a fine buffet that runs from oysters and bubbly, through a wide selection of meat, cheese, bread, and fruit, to some rather exotic yogurts, and even sushi. The coffee’s lousy, but the tea is good, and the views are marvelous. At least in theory. Today, Table Mountain (even more blanketed than the day before), Lion’s Head (visible, but mistily), and the waterfront aren’t quite so vivid, and the ocean and its horizon are an unbroken haze of grey.

One site to which we do have a clear line of sight is Cape Town’s as-yet unfinished soccer stadium. The country and its people are betting an awful lot of money, and placing what seems to me an inordinate amount of hope, on the success of the upcoming 2010 World Cup. And yet, looking at this still-skeletal stadium, and listening to the wind that’s preventing even a suggestion of progress towards its completion, one wonders. The consequences of failure are too awful to contemplate, but the many stadiums, the airports, the public safety issues…it’s all an awful lot for a still-fledgling democracy, and one that’s not exactly rolling in unlimited cash, to take on.

Well, the best of luck to them. We just want to survive the day without being blown into the Atlantic.

Our morning survival strategy: go nowhere. Theresa works while I finalize some plans on the hotel computers. A few hardy but foolish tourists stagger into the lobby, drenched and beaten, while suited types sprint back and forth between the hotel and the convention center right across the street, hoping (sometimes against hope) to arrive with some portion of their body left unsoaked.

Eventually, stir-craziness sets in and we head out – via the safe confines of a taxi – to do a little touristing. The Iziko South African Museum is fine for a rainy-day visit, with good exhibitions on rock art, native rituals, and languages, but the bulk of it is a series of borderline-offensive bushman dioramas (the problematic nature of which the museum openly acknowledges as relics of an earlier time and mindset) and a natural history museum full of rocks and skeletons, in which we’re not all that interested. As for the Company Gardens outside…well, they’d be eminently pleasant in different weather. Today…

Anyway, it’s long past time for lunch. And now, we do something we almost never do while traveling: we go back to a place we’ve already been. But the ever-changing menu at Caveau, and the vast unexplored territories of its wine list, prove too compelling to risk alternatives. Anyway, who wants to wander around in this weather?

Except for the raw bar, the menu is 100% different than yesterday’s, as are the wine specials on the chalkboard. Oh, this place is dangerous. Today, we start with a delicious bacon and quail egg salad dotted with micro-tomatoes that explode with flavor, then move on to beautifully rare cubes of beef over more greens, and succulent gnocchi with, yes, more greens. They do like their salads here.

Signal Hill 2006 Rosé de Saignée Blanc de Noir (Constantia) – Sources differ on what this is made from. Some say petit verdot, while the usually definitive Platter’s Guide has it as shiraz with pinot noir and cabernet franc. But I’m going to go with the winery’s web site, which says it’s cab franc. If it was no good, it wouldn’t matter…but it is. Very flavorful, with dark strawberry and cherry, hints of blacker fruit, and a good layer of spice (but not of wood). Casts a significant shadow. Wavy and delicious. The winery claims aging potential, and I wouldn’t bet against it.

Signal Hill 2005 Syrah (Stellenbosch) – Very confident, with a grainy structure, solid leather, blackberry skins, and a welcome hint of bacon. Balanced, long, and promising, but there’s just a little something missing. Perhaps it’s that the wine’s initial swagger isn’t quite matched by its raw materials, which are a little more timid than the wine’s proud bearing seems to promise.

Peter Bayly 2004 “Cape Vintage Port” (Calitzdorp) – Tired, roasted, and dried-out. Already. Less actively unpleasant than just…eh.

Lost signal

Everything else we want to see in and around Cape Town is outside. Everything. We consider some of our third-tier options, but ultimately choose to head back to the hotel; there’s some work still needing completion before the vacation can truly begin, and why leave it until deadlines intrude on nicer days?

Eventually, though, I’m a little restless and decide to try a tasting at Cape Town’s only in-city winery, Signal Hill. I’m pushing up against the pedestrian strictures recommended by our hotel, but figure the destination is close enough, down major and well-trafficked streets, that I’ll be OK.

That said, their advice is not unwarranted. The streets are a lot more deserted than they would be in most cities’ afternoon rush hours, and those who’ve joined me out and about hurry towards their destinations with eyes forward. From some, I draw surprised stares. Businesses are already closing up – it’s not even 5 p.m. – and those still with clientele have burly guards at their doors (a pretty common sight in South Africa). All this said, I’m only hassled once…by a wiry young man outside the tax office, who asks for money yet pleads his harmlessness by noting that he “just spent seven years in prison for murder,” and doesn’t want to get in trouble again. Does he usually find this to be a convincing argument? I continue on my way, and eventually he falls behind. But I do quicken my steps, just in case.

Just a few blocks later, I arrive at my destination. Curiously, there’s no sight of the winery at the indicated address, though there’s a sign for it on the exterior of the building. I enter, wandering around what seems to be a series of shops and restaurants underneath a well-guarded luxury hotel. No winery. Eventually, I ask someone, but they’ve never even heard of Signal Hill. It turns out – though I don’t find this out until several weeks later – that the winery recently escaped the confines of the city and moved to a new facility. Oh well.

I take a slightly different route back to the hotel, but – having ignored any and all warnings – become a statistic along the way: I am the triply-marked victim of an unprovoked assault. From somewhere above me – and given the gales, probably several dozen meters upwind – my pants receive not one, not two, but three kindly gifts from what must be a large, incontinent, and tourist-hating avian.

[company gardens tree]

Stompin’ at the Savoy

To avoid hazards both street-level and airborne, we take a taxi to dinner. The wind, which had seemed to abate a bit in the late afternoon, has returned with brutal force, and we have difficulty standing upright as we exit the cab. Stepping inside Savoy Cabbage, even though the restaurant is doing a brisk business, feels like passing into a silent realm.

According to some local critics, this restaurant was an early member of Cape Town’s modern dining renaissance. Ten years along, and despite the open, warehouse-like design of the room, it feels comfortable and well-worn; the tension of aspiration is gone, replaced by the sort of warm feeling a place can only achieve with time and continued success. Service is calm and quiet, and so is the food. I start with an inspiring tartare of beef in a truffled sauce that does not overwhelm the rich, almost exotic animalism of the meat. This is followed by a fan of springbok loin (cooked a little past my requested rare) with spätzle and green cabbage, dressed in a sweet-tart sauce that’s a little much for the meat; still, the dish is a success…and I don’t get to eat a team mascot every day.

In celebration of a decade of business, the restaurant’s wine list features some 1998s at very reasonable prices. The rest of the list is well worth a peruse, but the all-too-rare opportunity (for an American) to taste older South African wines is too tempting to pass up.

Bouchard Finlayson 1998 Pinot Noir Galpin Peak (Walker Bay) – Soft fruit, grey minerality, drying structure, and a keening sweet-fruited character that is, for me, often found in New World pinots as they develop. It’s balanced, but showing indications of fading, and there’s no sign of the lovely autumnal complexity that makes aged pinot so compelling. Good, but just barely hanging on to that status.

After a rather late lunch, dessert is not an option. Local spirits are a different story.

Wilderer Pinotage Grappa (Paarl) – Like wines made from the grape, a giant explosion of fruit. Kind of a doofus spirit, or perhaps it could more charitably be termed a beginner’s grappa, and yet it ends up being appealing despite its simplicity.

The restaurant is a fine value, and quite relaxed and welcoming. It ends up being Theresa’s favorite in the city. And in contrast to the previous night’s meal, it not only features a general absence of fawning service, but – albeit alone among the Cape Town restaurants we’ll visit at dinner – a few non-white patrons. Progress!

The driver for our taxi back to the hotel is, like all we’ve had so far, chatty and fun. Better yet, here is a job that seems to reflect the true diversity of the population, based on our experience thus far. Tonight, we’re peppered with questions about Barack Obama, and then regaled with a story of the last group of Americans he transported. Apparently, they were quite put out by his questions on this same subject, firmly insisting that “an African can be president in Africa, but an American should be president in America.”

Alas, that progress isn’t universal.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson