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Posted on: Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Worcester – the town that fell off the map

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Worcester

Worcester

I can understand why the recent edition of Time Out Cape Town Weekend Breaks chose to shun Worcester. The town, which is easily three to five times the size of other little towns in the valley, like Robertson and McGregor, fails horribly to excite the visitor – whether this is the town’s practically non-existent tourism, or a distinct inertia that has settled like a palour over the town, isn’t immediately obvious.

As one approaches the major intersection on the N1 just past the huge Shell City that indicates that one has reached the town of Worcester, there are no sign boards indicating the beautiful ‘old town’ that is the centre of Worcester, no sign that there is a Worcester Wine Route just waiting to be discovered, that the town is part of Route 62, or that the Karoo National Botanical Gardens is a slight detour off the N1 well worth taking, although in this case there is at least the obligatory brown board signalling the way …

Instead, the length of Worcester along the N1 is lined with 1950s and 1960s houses that are bland, unimaginative and a sadly misleading estimate of what Worcester is about. Considering that Worcester is the unofficial ‘capital’ of the Breede River Valley (that gorgeous valley one enters after passing through Du Toitskloof tunnel), that it has 360 degree mountain views, and an impressive cultural heritage, there should be more to draw the average visitor to explore its reaches.

To crown it all, the town has an improbably unsolvable curiosity. There is no restaurant worth mentioning. No café culture spilling out onto its more than beautiful old town streets, which cry out for black boards advertising café au laits and Mediterranean fare accompanied by local wines. Nada.

Karro Desert Botanical Gardens

Despite its 75 000 residents, the only restaurant that manages to exude something close to ‘ambience’ is St Gerain and its menu is severely limited to seafood and steaks (at least it was humming to the strains of Midnight Oil, rather than David Essex’s Winter’s Tale to which we were subjected during our junket at De Kelder, in the town’s monolithic mall perched next to the N1!).

We jokingly blamed the predominance of churches in the town – there are at least five different denominations and religious orders – for the derth of restaurants, but it remains an anomaly (and a business opportunity for anyone brave enough to take on the town).

Worcester is beautiful. It is surrounded by the Brandwacht, Overhex and Langeberg Mountains, whilst tree-lined Church, Russell, Trappes, Tulbagh and High street (which ends at the Drostdy, home of Worcester’s first magistrate) are lined with charming, gabled buildings that date back to the 1840s and 1850s. Such is its unique architecture that the Worcester gable is now recognised in its own right. The width of its streets hint at the wagon drawn carriages that graced the avenues, and the size of some of the buildings, particularly uptown, indicate a former wealthy and prosperous community.

Worcester was the site of the new magisterial seat during the 1820s, after Tulbagh, and its houses have Victorian and Cape Dutch characteristics, typical gables and wonderful verandahs. Whilst many of the thatched roofs have been replaced, most of the buildings are in beautiful condition, and there are historical walks one can take through the town. The Dutch Reformed Church, also a national monument, is a particularly beautiful example of Gothic revival architecture, complete with a peaked steeple made of tin that was added later. But head down to the downtown end of Worcester and there is as much character, such as the mosque and the old synagogue on Durban Street.

Worcester’s Wine Route that includes around eleven different cellars is divided along the R60 to Robertson and R43 to Villiersdorp from town. Neither of these routes is adequately sign-posted or advertised, unless you stop off at the town’s Info Centre to pick up brochures (assuming there are any), even if it is closed on much of Saturday afternoon and Sunday. Neither is the fact that the Worcester Wine Route is not only the largest wine route (producing a fifth of the country’s wine), but also one of South Africa’s most important wine-making areas, and home to the world’s largest brandy cellar in the form of KWV.

Worcester Architecture

We left Worcester via the R43 where it heads up the valley through beautiful, unfrequented parts of the country that are not nearly as well marketed to the well trodden lanes of the Franschhoek Wine Route, for instance. For those of you who enjoy the ‘not so well trodden’ routes, this is well worth exploring. It continues through Villiersdorp, their claim to fame is a tractor museum, and on where one can either head off to Franschhoek and beyond, or on to Grabouw.

Our hostess for the weekend suggested we dine at the Kokerboom restaurant at the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden, when we pressed her for restaurant ideas. This beautiful, if small, garden lies off to the left of the main intersection at Worcester. We were to discover that this part of Worcester is as lovely. Out here lie various farms and suburbs about which one is totally unaware when on the N1. Most people only pass through Worcester, turning right briefly through the old town, over the bridge and en route to Robertson.

The Karoo Botanical Garden, in the heart of the Small Karoo, is quite beautiful, although we chose the worst time of year to visit – gusting winds and the hottest weather of the year are probably not conducive to a thriving garden. Come here in spring and it will be a different story. Nonetheless, it was still worth exploring and alive with succulents, aloes, quiver trees, and over 300 species of rare and endangered plants. The garden’s pathways are thick with shale stone from the area, and we stopped briefly to explore the traditional cooking shelter, used in the arid Richtersveld area.

Suffice to say that the Kokerboom’s kitchen was closed by 5pm.

Restaurants and coffee shops aside, Worcester, despite the winds, is well worth visiting at any time of year.

Worcester Architecture

Useful Worcester Links:
Worcester Attractions
Worcester Map
Worcester Wine Route
Worcester Accommodation

Wanda Coustas

About 

Wanda Coustas has written in one form or another for 10 years, seven of them as a copyblogger. She has travelled the Western Cape extensively and the rest of the country in protracted road trips that have given her both joy and an ongoing relish for experiencing what she writes about first-hand. She is a trained opera singer, poet, eurythmy dancer, philosopher, and bee whisperer.

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What Others are Saying

7 comments about Worcester – the town that fell off the map
  1. June 18th, 2010 at 02:26
    Sheldon Ede says:

    I really liked Worcester.

  2. September 3rd, 2010 at 14:41
    Arthur Preston says:

    We have lived in Worcester for almost 3 years and are loving the fresh air, the country lifestyle and the relaxed atmosphere of the place.

    Friends from Joburg and Cape Town visit regularly as they too enjoy the country break-away. I do believe that more could be done to market the town but isn’t the fact that it is understated part of the attraction in the first place?

  3. January 14th, 2011 at 12:51
    Michelle Cupido says:

    We love living in Worcester but the meaning of the name tells a story in itself – Worcester means ” War-castle / house of tyranny!”
    Such a beautiful town with so much potential, that could be fabulous if everyone worked together : )

  4. April 30th, 2011 at 04:21
    Sheldon Ede says:

    Worcester is a great town, Situated perfectly, between Capetown and Jo’berg kinda. its real South Afrika.
    As far as mountain scenery, simply unmatch, be sure to find Elephant face rock it’s is clear as a bell if you look from Hugeinnoot St the last road in Wocester-West.
    Don’t forget The Worcest-West superette a fun and friendly store second right across the N1.
    While most folks are friendly there are are some grumps.
    If you enjoy brandy, your in the worlds capitol.
    If grapes are your passion you can’t go wrong here, vinyards unriveled by none, anywhere.
    If you like real beef and lamb chops, there is no place i’ve been that compares to Wocesters.
    Farming here is unbelievable, from the Hex and Breed river Valleys and i can testify, you can’t let your walking staff linger in the soil too long-it will sprout roots, my sweet corn was the biggest seen in the area and so sweet it hurt your teeth.
    For all the goods you’ll need the Mountain Mill Mall offers all you could want, and liz at the Travel Center is the best agent i’ve had.
    Now for the adventuous, Durban and High street offers anything you could want from groceries to bed sheets at lower prices.
    This is also the gateway to the karoo, this desert speaks to you if you listen carefully.

  5. September 17th, 2011 at 01:23
    Hardus says:

    I love Worcester

    If you think Worcester is a town that is dead think again. There is World Class schools to go to and Hospital service that Chris Barnard would be proud of. Infact Worcester Hospital will overtake even the private hospitals by.

    If you want to see big 5 game then you just need to drive 5 km upstream. Gholf is here, world class.

    Drive the golden nile (N1 between Rawsonville and Worcester Second Turn offs] The Golden Nile consists of Goudini Spa, Olofberg, Golden Valley Casino and Lodge, Gary Player Gholfcourse, Mountain Mill Mall and Waterfront and also along the way you will find Farms and guesthouses, Botanical Garden and much more.

    Schools are great, Hospitals ar great its a real family town. Where you and your kids can grow up together. With enough entertainment to keep you company.

  6. February 17th, 2013 at 22:27
    Hector says:

    True. My favorite part of town is Durban Street. The old main road before appartheid. I hope that one day Worcester may become the first stop for visitors to South Africa and the rest of the continent.

  7. March 5th, 2013 at 11:08
    Lesley says:

    I was born in Worcester and enjoy to walk in Durban street on a Saturday morning.It feels like a festival