Roses among the thorns: a guide to Bloemfontein

We sent Justus Visagie on a near-impossible mission: find the roses among the thorns in Bloemfontein, the Free State’s bristly, dry capital. Photographs by Landi Volschenk.

 
Bloemfontein Map
 
The afternoon sun stretches my car’s shadow far across the golden veld as
 I approach the outskirts of Bloemfontein. Radio Rosestad plays an Afrikaans treffer on the stereo. Dusty Springfield would be the perfect name for a singer from this town – the ‘Spring of Flowers’, I muse. And she would have a song called ‘Bloemfontein Blues’. I take the off-ramp and join a road with a name 
I don’t recognise.

I’m here to rediscover the treasures of my hometown. There are two or three that I can count on, but I know that those who expect this town to roll over and expose its soft belly like a lapdog, would do better to move along. It might carry the benign label ‘City of Roses’, but it’s a prickly, knotty old thing and prone to dishing out a few scratches to those who decide to dig for its gold.

But if you can punch through its hard, clay soil, you will find it. Others did. They sunk their roots in Bloemfontein and prospered; like the National Party and the ANC. The former was established here in 1915 and the latter too, in 1912. My Bloem period began in 1972, when my parents returned from France with my brother (two) and I (17 days old) in tow. It lasted for 27 years: nursery, primary, secondary, university and my first two jobs.

Other things were more transient. Lively bars such as Déja Vu, good restaurants (Fish Paste), clubs and langarm dance halls (Cocomo) would open and then close almost as fast as a Cheetahs backline.

Luckily other establishments were more resilient, like Oliewenhuis, the former official residence of South Africa’s visiting state presidents, that has become one of the country’s best art galleries. 
In its permanent collection you’ll find Pierneef rubbing canvas with Kentridge or discover young talent upstairs, where promising art students exhibit often.

On its sprawling front lawn I mingle with legends: captivating statues of Dingane, Charlotte Maxeke, John Langalibalele Dube, Olive Schreiner, Steve Biko, Helen Suzman, Sol Plaatje, Pixley ka Isaka Seme and many others, all on a long march to freedom. Round the back you can be Alice in a garden-art wonderland where the Penis Fairy (don’t worry, it’s not obvious) blows water through a trumpet and into the pond.

It seems something of JRR Tolkien’s spirit is still present in Bloemfontein, even though he left town just three years after his birth here. Children can ride on what’s arguably the most surreal merry-go-round in the universe, while the grown-ups sip cappuccinos with obligatory whipped cream on top. Or enjoy Free-State-size hamburgers under the tree canopy at The Terrace at Oliewenhuis.

 

There's always time to eat a burger in The Terrace at Oliewenhuis, while the bar at Seven is a mainstay of Bloem. - Photos by Landi Volschenk

There’s always time to eat a burger in The Terrace at Oliewenhuis, while the bar at Seven is a mainstay of Bloem.


About two kilometres to the east lies Naval Hill in Franklin Game Reserve. The road winds up the sunset side of this flat-topped hill that’s still famous as the wildlife reserve surrounded by a city. 
I used to come here when the world was too heavy and I didn’t have the time or money for a getaway to the Karoo or Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
 It’s really wild too: a colleague and I were once chased by a big bull giraffe when 
we tried to take pictures. But this only happened once and there are no predators up here either.

Park your car near the observatory and wait for the springbok and wildebeest to stroll past on the small plain towards the east. Shift your gaze upward and see cream-yellow clouds in the endless sky. Drive south for approximately three minutes, to a tall statue of Nelson Mandela. It’s a novelty and locals make a mini-pilgrimage to Tata Madiba and pose proudly, hugging his legs.

 

Photo by Landi Volschenk.

Photo by Landi Volschenk.


May I suggest that you return to the observatory, which has become a digital planetarium, and see a show such as ‘Secrets of the Solar System’. This old charmer used to be the Lamont-Hussey Observatory, then became a theatre (where the Voëlvry tour once performed), before adopting its current status.

The next day I take the car down President Brand Street and drive past the city’s magnificent and quite famous sandstone buildings: the city hall, the Fourth Raadsaal, the appeal court and onto the Old Presidency Museum. The man in charge looks somewhat bemused to see a tourist and hands me an info sheet with faded, illegible text.

Next door, at the tourism office, they seem as unprepared and I receive a booklet that lists the annual arts festival, Vryfees, under the heading ‘Flea Markets’. The landmark Wesleyan Church, which nurtured a young ANC, is inaccessible and the young man at the counter in the next-door building, who might or might not work there, blames the ANC… This is the Bloemfontein that says ‘I’m just a crash pad on your way north or south – nothing else to do here.’ It’s both wrong and right.

 

Liedjiesbos lounge is crammed with good art. - Photo by Landi Volschenk

Liedjiesbos’ lounge is crammed with good art. Photo by Landi Volschenk.

 

Getting to Bloemfontein

You’re up for it, then? Bloem is
 a 400-kilometre drive from Joburg on the N1. Mango flies to Bloemfontein’s Bram Fischer airport from Cape Town and CemAir has recently launched a 35-minute flight from OR Tambo from R1170.

 

Things to do in Bloemfontein


1. Swim in the Olympic-sized
 Stadium Swimming Bath

It’s on Park 
Road, and it’s where Ryk Neethling 
competed in many school galas. Its length makes it a perfect training ground for that Robben
 Island swim you’ve been planning.
 Alternatively, just have a dip and 
grab an ice cream. There’s also
 a kiddies pool for toddlers.

 

2. Visit the Free State National Botanical Gardens

It’s gorgeous, with its big lawns, thatch-and-stone picnic shelters, enormous karee trees begging to be climbed and easy trails over stony koppies. It’s good for a gaze over the savanna and getting bonus steps on your Fitbit. Amateur botanists will probably see semi-arid species they haven’t encountered before. Zizi Restaurant serves regional boerekos, like pumpkin fritters, bobotie and leg of lamb. Booking is recommended. Tel 0823946747.

 

3. Step inside the National Museum


Here, like a mini Smithsonian,
there’s a bit of everything: 
dinosaur skeletons, meteorite 
pieces, live snakes and realistic
 historical street scenes. I used to 
marvel at photographs of the
 beautiful buildings of old
 Bloemfontein that were knocked
 down to build shopping malls.
 Tel 0514479609, nasmus.co.za

 

4. The Anglo-Boer War Museum 
and the National Women’s
 Memorial

This is a must for history and
 war enthusiasts. Tel 0514473447, anglo-boer.co.za

 

At Liedjiesbos you can even catch the outdoor screening of an art-house film if you're there on the right evening. - Photo by Landi Volschenk

At Liedjiesbos you can even catch the outdoor screening of an art-house film if you’re there on the right evening.

 

Places to eat in Bloemfontein

  1. Bella Casa Trattoria is tucked away in the old suburb of Westdene. It prides itself on its Black Beast fillet, cooked in brandy, butter and peppercorns, but the Kitchen Sink pizza is the meal to have (if your momma says you can have carbs). The crumbed pork chops are a local favourite and good service wraps it up. Tel 0514489571, facebook.com
  2. Stereo Cafe is all about coffee. I went for the single origin, roasted by the owner, radio DJ James Kilbourn. You might even find him at the machine making it for you. Tel 0514301135, stereocafeza.wix.com
  3. Longhorn Grill serves arguably the best steak in town. And in a city where chicken is considered the vegetarian option, that’s saying something. The service is great too. Tel 0514465552, longhorngrill.co.za
  4. Seven, also known as Seven on Kellner, is located on the quiet edge of the inner city. I (re)visited this mainstay of Bloem on a quiet Tuesday night and found the same slightly dreamy ambience 
I remember from five to 15 years ago. Try the smoked salmon
 on creamed lentils and salsa starter. Tel 0514477928, sevenonkellner.co.za

 

Places to stay in Bloemfontein

The Urban Hotel offers style and convenience. - Photo by Landi Volschenk

The Urban Hotel offers style and convenience.

1. De Akker

De Akker sets itself apart from the wide range of Bloemfontein guest houses that either feature bad decor or inflated room rates. From R430 per room (two sharing). de-akker.co.za

 

2. Liedjiesbos

Liedjiesbos is located in a picturesque neighbourhood of smallholdings called Groenvlei. The owner converted two large sheds into a modern-style lounge, kitchen and rooms. I drank an ice-cold beer on the long stoep, and soaked up 
the last rays of the sun before dinner at Bella Casa. B&B from R490 per person. Book on safarinow.com

 

The long stoep at Liedjiesbos is perfect for alfresco writing, reading and sundowners. - Photo by Landi Volschenk

The long stoep at Liedjiesbos is perfect for alfresco writing, reading and sundowners.

 

3. Urban Hotel

Urban Hotel is a minute’s walk from De Akker. It’s similar to a chain hotel, but shuns tourist-trap safari chic in favour of contemporary design. R757.50 per room (maximum two people). urbanhotel.co.za

 
 

This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.

Get this issue →

All prices were correct at time of publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before travelling.

 

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