Pretty Bloemfontein bang smack in the middle of the country, give or take a few kilometres, tends to get the cold shoulder when it comes to travel through no fault of its own, except that there is no apparent reason to go out of your way to visit the city, unless, like me, you have relatives living there. But one is sorely mistaken to take the city at face value.
You’ve no doubt heard the origin of the judicial capital of the country’s name, but for the sake of posterity – it is Dutch for ‘spring of bloem’, ‘flower spring’ or ‘fountain of flowers’. The reason for this description might not become immediately apparent, if like me you visit out of season, as the abundance of roses in the city of roses tends to happen only during the annual rose festival in October.
Bloemfontein’s saving grace is that it is a university town, has a number of very visitable historical buildings in the city centre, and a burgeoning nightlife along Kellner Street in Westdene that gives this part of the city a distinctly alternative character. It’s also got the largest fire service museum in the country, if that kind of thing excites you, and over R221 million has gone into upgrading the Free State Stadium in preparation for the 2010 World Cup.
As a consequence of all this preparation, which has the city’s potholed streets in some confusion, construction has all but placed the neighbouring Waterfront Shopping Mall’s parking into a state of disarray. Known officially as the Loch Logan Waterfront, although everyone knows it simply as ‘the waterfront’, it is the largest shopping centre in central South Africa (not much of a claim if you consider that this refers to the Karoo), with more than 100 shops, 17 restaurants and coffee shops, fast food outlets, movies etc.
And Wouter of Exclusive Books.
I wonder if the book store realises Wouter’s worth. His true calling should be to represent Bloemfontein’s sadly lacking tourism office on Park Road in the Willows. He could start a blog entitled ‘Wouter’s Bloemfontein’ such was the quality of his advice. Wouter should be requisite for those stuck in Bloem without a compass.
The tourism information office, by comparison, lies firmly entrenched in amongst government offices, and is not only difficult to find but has virtually no information on Bloemfontein. And the map, of which they are obviously proud, that was thrust in our hands, is so ill-conceived as to be impractical – buildings and sights are arranged alphabetically not numerically, which makes finding the corresponding numbers on the map virtually impossible. When asked about the night life and where to go with children, we received polite but completely vacant stares, and whilst I could pick up a brochure on other parts of the Free State, Bloem obviously hasn’t heard about the imperatives of marketing.
Not one to accept the obvious, I headed off in search of an internet café to unveil a website that might lead us to the inner sanctum of the city, hence our arrival at the Loch Logan Waterfront. Finding next to nothing, our next port of call was Exclusive Books in search of a Time Out Magazine – surely Bloemfontein featured somewhere? All of our avenues finally thwarted, we slumped against the till where stood Wouter, who took it upon himself to represent the city in all its finery to us. A couple of calls to his mates, and he had a list of things for us to do.
Bloemfontein, said Wouter with a smile on his face, is for braaivleis and sex. No seriously, there is plenty to do, if you just know where to look. And he rattled off a list of promising sounding buildings, admittedly listed on our acquired tourism map – the difference being that Wouter made them sound worth visiting.
Bloemfontein benefits from being fairly compact and in a relatively small area (you can get out of your car and safely walk down tree-lined President Brand Street to see the sights) are a series of historical buildings like the First and Fourth Raadsaal, government buildings like the Appeal Court, the Bram Fischer Building, City Hall, the Twin-spire church – the only twin-spire Dutch Reformed church in Southern Africa – and the National Afrikaans Literature Museum. The Twin-spire church it turned out, is also across the road from a now hawkers trading area and impossibly difficult to photograph, unless you stand in the middle of traffic. But that’s another story.
Wouter went on to highlight a couple of art and culture venues, such as the Sand du Plessis Theatre, where PACOFS reside, the Wynand Mouton Theatre, part of the university complex, and the Johannes Stegmann Art Gallery which he considers really worth a visit.
When I explained that we were there on a whirlwind tour, he put together a list of highlights for us:
Of historical note:
- President Brand Street – take a walk for incredible examples of 19th and 20th century buildings that include City Hall, and the Magistrate’s Court
- The Fourth Raadsaal (definitely better than the First), opposite the Court of Appeal, a Renaissance-style building with a monument of Christiaan de Wet outside
- The Twin-spire Dutch Reformed Church
- The National Museum, including a complete fossil skeleton and a typical 1900s street scene
- Freshford House Museum, gorgeous example of Edwardian architecture, restored by the National Museum, and located on Kellner Street in Westdene
- Women’s Memorial – the lone sandstone shrine created by Anton von Wouw in memory of the 36 370 women and children who died in the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War
To do with children:
- Oliewenhuis, where children can ride on the African Carousel and run in the gardens
- Cheetah Experience at Emoya Estate, north of the city, where children can interact with hand-reared orphan cheetahs
- Orchid House in Hamilton Park, not far from Oliewenhuis
- Pretty Gardens Lifestyle Centre – jungle gyms, trampoline, see-saws, battery driven cars, restaurants and more
- Gwen Bali Water World at the North Ridge mall
Zany nightlife in Westdene:
- Mystic Boer
- Iewers Nice
- 7 on Kellner
Thanks to Wouter’s insider guide we had an amazing time in our two days in Bloem, including a visit to Oliewenhuis and a whirlwind drive through town and neighbouring suburbs. We did not get to sample any of the night life, so we’ll be back!