One of Cape Town’s most iconic inner city hotels, Taj Cape Town has strong historical influences from both South Africa and India. In many ways, the hotel’s story echoes that of the two nation’s link with each other. It is a story grounded in spice; a story of rich culture, friendly people, strong heritage and exceptional cuisine.
Here is the hotel’s story:
The peacock is known as a guardian of royalty. Originating in the spice-rich lands of India, the blue peafowl is one of the many exotic treasures that snaked across the spice route, all the way from India to the Cape.
This occurred sometime after initial contact between South Africa and India was established in the European Age of Discovery, when the spice trade flourished, pepper was worth more than gold and Vasco da Gama rounded on the Cape during his First Expedition in 1497.
Da Gama’s voyage went on to India, opening up the Cape Route between Europe and the Indian Ocean. This prompted numerous quests as superpowers battled for control of the spice routes in a global game of chess.
In 1644, dangerous seas drove a Dutch ship ashore in Bloubergstrand. The crew was later rescued by a Dutch fleet heading back to the Netherlands from Batavia. Once in Holland, they convinced the Dutch East India Company to set up a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope for ships en route to the East.
The Dutch duly seized power of an important route, and Commander Jan van Riebeek ordered the establishment of a vegetable garden - today known as Company’s Garden. The site opposite the garden was initially a hospital, which was demolished in 1786 and temporarily replaced with housing before being secured as the site for the Reserve Bank.
With the discovery of diamonds and gold, South Africa’s economy rapidly evolved with a succession of commercial banks springing up. Multiple denominations were dealt in, until the Treasury began issuing handwritten gold certificates in 1920. After the 1919 Gold Conference, it was established that a government institution needed to assume responsibility for banknotes and gold conversions, as steep gold prices overseas were driving local banks out of business. This led to the founding of the Reserve Bank, which opened its doors on 30 June 1921.
The Reserve Bank purchased the plot opposite Company’s Gardens and local architect James Morris modelled the design for the building on Florence’s Palazzo Pitti as a symbol of strength. Many legends surround Morris, whose slight neuroticism saw him repeatedly making the Astronomer Royal measure the angle of the sun to ensure optical illumination of the banking hall. Morris nearly lost his marbles over inferior marble and roared at sculptor Ivan Mitford Barberton for the lack of genitalia on the sculpted lions commissioned for the bank’s badge.
Construction finished in 1932 and the Reserve Bank opened on 30 June that same year. In 1968 the building was bought by the Board of Executors (BOE), South Africa’s oldest trust company. Perhaps the BOE’s most infamous contribution to the area was the controversial ‘Widow Twankey’ – a poorly executed statue of a shepherdess that many people incorrectly interpreted as Britannia. People protested her cost and execution and Murray, the architect that commissioned her, had a nervous breakdown.
But she still stands proudly today. As does the vault deep in The Reserve at Taj – once a cage for diamonds and gold and today, a bar for intimate parties and events. The Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces group bought the Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers in 2010, and invested much in restoring the original façade and fittings of the buildings to their former glory.
Today, when you walk through the Greek-cross-shaped lobby you can still see the barrel vaulted skylight the Astronomer Royal calculated so carefully, supported by three Portuguese Skyros columns made from the marble that plagued Morris. A lion heraldry remains on the door, the original chandeliers hang proudly from the ceiling and the same clock from 1932 keeps time.
But the air is fragranced by cardamom and clove, transporting guests back to the spice route, where South Africa and India’s journey began. Taj Cape Town allows two cultures to join – the rich history of Cape Town’s inner city with the hospitality of ‘Athithi Devo Bhava’, the belief that guests are gods and should be revered as such.
Information supplied by The Taj Cape Town.