IF you want to position yourself more or less smack bang in the middle of the city centre, in a place that is rich in history and vibrantly exciting, you should be on Greenmarket Square.
The square was built in 1696 when a burgher watch house was erected. It was demolished in 1751 and the Old Town House went up on the site. That still stands today and is home to the Michaelis Collection and part of Iziko Museums. If looking at 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings rehung in the way they were in Dutch homes in the 1600s is your idea of fun, then you must certainly visit. Info: 021 481 3933
The cobbled Greenmarket Square itself has been a slave market, a vegetable market, a parking lot and a flea market.
Once upon a time, it was the coolest place to shop in Cape Town, full of the kind of things you’d never find in conventional shops. People, I am talking about nearly 30 years ago, when this country was still deeply mired in the conservative dark ages so you can imagine how thrilling it was for a teenager who had just moved to the City Bowl. Now the market sells, as far as I can tell, only African curios, souvenirs and crafts from all over the continent. It’s great for tourists who want nothing more than a carved wooden giraffe.
One of that teenager’s fondest memories was partying all night at an infamous club in Bree Street, then wandering up to the square and sitting on the veranda of the hotel, having breakfast and watching the traders set up their stalls at dawn. Although I’ve lived in Cape Town all my life, that was probably the day I fell irrevocably in love with the City Bowl.
Last week I got to relive that long ago morning when I spent the night at the hotel, which is now the Inn On The Square. It used to be a Shell House when it was first built, and is a replica of those in London and Sydney.
It’s been a hotel since the 1970s, and is a heritage building. This means the exterior has to remain unchanged but it did get a lick of paint last year, and the rooms were all refurbished.
So what you have is the historic façade but thoroughly modern and comfortable rooms, with all the facilities you need. The service is friendly and personal and I felt right at home. The fact I was staying about two kilometres from my real home is beside the point.
I sat on the couch outside with a glass of wine (okay, two glasses) and watched the traders pack up their stalls in the evening, and the following morning I had my breakfast out there while they set up again.
I had fully expected the noise to wake me up but the birds got there first. At 3.30am. But I did have my window open…
Once the traders have cleared the square, it becomes one of the quietest places in the city because the hotel doesn’t face on to any streets with traffic.
The trees in the square are festooned with twinkling fairy lights and if you want to walk anywhere close by, CCID (Central City Improvement District) officers are there to escort you.
The hotel has a cute little rooftop deck with a heated swimming pool and a view of Table Mountain, Signal Hill and the cityscape. There is also a sauna and a gym, but reclining by the pool with my new Deon Meyer crime novel which is set in Cape Town seemed more appropriate and much more to my taste. Oh, and the room service from the Dish restaurant downstairs is superb – a true test for any hotel. For info: www.innonthesquare.co.za or call 021 423 2050.
Greenmarket Square is the perfect starting point to start exploring. Directly behind the hotel, in Long Street, is the Pan African Market (021 426 4478). It’s a stunning Victorian building with a balcony full of plants and colourful wooden statues, not to mention the treasures inside. Another place in Long Street (diagonally opposite Pan African Market) which I have been past but not inside is Madam Taitou.
It looks like an exotic jungle inside, and on the pavement are roughly hewn chairs and tables sliced from tree trunks. Apparently Madam serves a good variety of vegetarian dishes, and she is calling my name.
Staying with the theme, head up Long Street towards the mountain until you find the African Music Store on your right, for the best collection of, well, African music in the city. If you miss out or run out of holiday spending money you can also order from them online (www.africanmusicstore.co.za)
Last but not least, you should definitely, without fail, and as soon as possible, go and see the festive lights in Adderley Street. Maybe I am still a kid at heart and maybe I will never grow out of it (I hope not) but pretty lights always make me happy in such a sweet and innocent way. This year’s display is particularly beautiful, and is guaranteed to bring a little magic into your life.