Welcome to the modern Free State

Published Mar 19, 2008


Until a few years ago, Rosendal was just a dot on the map in the Free State. You could pick up a house in the centre of the village for under R10 000. How things have changed in this charming little Clarens-in-the-making!

It may still have only one tarred road but Rosendal, set against the backdrop of the Witteberg mountains, has become South Africa's latest "in-place".

According to the village's promotional leaflet, this "undiscovered gem" of the Eastern Free State is a place where "calves bleat for their mothers and hares hop along the streets as surely as children may safely play in the unpaved streets. Come to Rosendal - if you are unafraid of being held in beauty's custody".

Poetic words indeed. And, among those captured by beauty, was Chris van Niekerk, of soapie 7de Laan fame. The actor opened a 120-seater theatre in Rosendal and over the past three years has attracted some of the country's top performers.

The likes of Lizz Meiring, Elzabé Zietsman, Elize Cawood and Winston Dunster have already trod the boards at the Rosendal Theatre. Chris and his business partner, Frik de Jager, run Die Ou Handelshuis en Koffiestoep restaurant adjacent to the theatre. Now you can shop for antiques and supplies at the Handelshuis and chat to total strangers over "long table" pre-show dining on boerekos as Ouma used to make it.

Along with Van Niekerk's initiatives, Rosendal's other pioneering establishments include the Meer-katkolonie Art Gallery belonging to "functional artist" and photographer Dahla Hulme, and artist Michele Nigrini; and Turksvy Trading, Pierre Lombard and Sandra Lemmer's quaint and busy shop crammed with "retro kitchenalia", antiques, bric-à-brac, porcelain and textiles. Next door to this almost bewildering array of goods and Afrikaner memorabilia cramming every corner of Turksvy Trading, Sandra has built and opened spacious premises for a new and totally contrasting venture, Suzani.

Suzanis are artistic cloths, painstakingly created by hand by the people of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in Central Asia. Former airhostess Sandra told us that by the turn of the century, Suzani production had just about been destroyed by mechanisation and commercialisation and its machine-made cotton cloths, synthetic dyes, and repetitive designs.

"These beautifully embroidered Suzani floral pieces were only made from the mid-19th century and are now sought-after collectors' pieces. Often members of an Asian family took turns in the embroidery work. Notice how this section has a slightly different look to it… probably another member of the family took over from this point," she said, showing a slight but distinct variation in the style - which I would not have noticed otherwise.

A valley of great floral beauty

The embroidered cloths were used for a variety of decorative purposes: tent hangings, bed covers, tablecloths, curtains and wall hangings at celebrations. They also served as decorations in mosques and emir's courts, as royal gifts or as bier drapes at funerals.

Sandra's suzanis are not cheap but, for those who can afford it, make exquisite décor. It's a brave venture selling such relatively obscure artistry in a little hamlet in die Vrystaat, but Sandra's stock is so off-beat, it could just pay off.

A new addition to Rosendal's attractions is The Rosendal, an upmarket country retreat that opened its doors in December. It is officially situated on Erf Number 5, Anna Maria Johanna Street - with a mouthful like that, it's just as well the lady's surname remains a mystery. The lodge's stoep - a delightful setting for our lunch - overlooks hectares of green veld and a small swirling windmill determined to divert attention away from some impressive cuisine.

The new lodge has seven luxury en-suite rooms, a top-class restaurant and kitchen and terrace bar. Only a few days old when we lunched there, management were so proud of the new establishment they just about welcomed guests in the parking lot, and the waiters were almost ridiculously attentive. The menu was innovative, the setting tranquil, the experience exceptional. I'd love to go back there one day.

After lunch, we popped in to Kobus Kotzé's art gallery. Kobus uses his camera to capture landscapes, trees and cities.

Then he combines the photographs "with his emotions and traditions" for oil and water colour creations. The art on display was impressive and affordable and the gallery seemed to complement the appeal and atmosphere of Rosendal.

As in so many South African platteland towns, the NG church dominates architecturally. Rosendal's sandstone house of worship dates back to July 1914.

The gardens around the church are immaculate and the place resembles a country shrine in sandstone. Ah, to be a pastor here - away from strip clubs, sex shops, prostitution, and bottle stores to tempt the congregation.

Although property prices have soared in recent years, the local population continues to grow, bringing professional expertise.

There are already architects, guest houses and accommodation for backpackers and hiking trailists, manufacturers of handwoven textiles and aromatic herbal soaps, producers of music and corporate videos, artists, and - predictably - estate agents. Being close to the Lesotho border, day trips to the spectacular mountains and Katse Dam are within easy reach.

Also in the district, is Feathers and Friends, an organic farm, populated by hundreds of geese fortunate enough to provide raw materials for goose down, duvets, pillows and hand-made gifts - but not the cuisine. Lunches and afternoon teas are served in a tranquil setting enjoyed by parents and their offspring while the geese are encouraged to refrain from squabbling.

Rosendal became a municipality in 1914. The widow of one Phillip Botha was entitled to use the farm on which the town was founded so she could also choose a name for the settlement.

She and her little boy, Hansie - how the Free State seems to grow Hansies by the dozen - came up with the name Rosendal, which means "valley of roses" inspired by the reports of two hunters who back in 1837 already had returned from an expediting raving about floral beauty such as "their eyes had never seen before".

It's safe to assume they had not really seen roses, per se, out there in the veld but never mind: their experience bestowed a splendid name on the village - and might just have saved the lives of a springbok or two on that hunting excursion.

- Rosendal, about 320km from Joburg, is situated on the R70, between Senekal and Ficksburg. It's also near the Lesotho border for day trips to Katse Dam. For more information, visit www.rosendalinfo.co.za

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