Thirty years ago, Franschhoek was sleepy hollow personified, and very little had changed in the preceding 70 years. It was a farming dorp which attracted a few city folk on a Sunday drive to escape the city and the only attractions were the Huguenot Museum (which was — unusually for a small country town — open on Sundays after church) and Swiss Farm Excelsior for tea and scones.
Very little of its French heritage remained, apart from place names. In fact, the French influence of the Huguenot settlers had completed disappeared 100 years after they arrived in 1688. Today, after a sustained marketing strategy, it’s French roots are inescapable. Investment in the Valley has been phenomenal. How did this all happen? Arthur McWilliam Smith, who was close to the centre of events over the past 30 years, tells the story.
When he arrived, Franschhoek had three accommodation places; today it has over 150. So, he points out right at the start of the interview, “the changes have seen a massive increase in employment.” So Franschhoek is the model that every aspiring tourism town needs to examine very carefully.
The forerunner of change was the late Michael Trull, a Capetonian who had been an advertising executive in the UK, and erstwhile owner of La Bri Vineyards. Capitalising on the introduction of the Wine House liquor licence that had been introduced, he opened the restaurant “1688”, taking its cue from opportunities for the town’s imminent tercentary date. (He also founded Vignerons de Franschhoek at a time when there were very few wineries in the Valley.)
But he couldn’t make the restaurant work with a weekends-only clientele and sold it to Arthur, who bought it for his first wife. (She was a real food lover and he had offered to buy her a restaurant in Johannesburg where they lived. Her reply was “anywhere but Johannesburg!”)
So, they settled in Franschhoek with Arthur commuting to Johannesburg on the days he needed to be there. He had been involved in local politics in Johannesburg so it was inevitable that he would participate fully in the Franschhoek community.
The first burning issue in the town he became involved in was when a proposal to build retirement homes — “like those you find in Hermanus today” — had been approved by the local Council. (Franschhoek still had its own municipality then and there was no party politics in municipal government.) It became a big election issue — with a 90% turnout (unheard of in those days) — and Arthur’s Johannesburg experience in local politics saw him being elected to the Council without too much difficulty.
That saw the establishment of an aesthetics committee at the municipality which, with the majority of councillors focused on carefully controlling the town’s development, placed aesthetic and environment issues centre stage.
Another mover in the town was Shirley Parkveldt at the Franschhoek Conservation Trust (who also planted the avenue of trees into the town). In the late 1980s. with some council funding, Todeschini & Jaffe was appointed to prepare guidelines for conservation and development (which won a Cape Times Centenary Award) and was later extended to cover the whole valley with funding from the Regional Services Council.
With aesthetics becoming the winner, the town started attracting people in search of a quality lifestyle. It was becoming a very sophisticated country village. Maybe encouraged by Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, a significant number of advertising executives moved to the town along with the beginning of real money, and lots of money. Of course, this changed what the town had to offer because the demand was growing.
When Arthur sold his restaurant to Susan Huxter after the death of his wife, Le Quartier Francais became one of the places to eat. It became a destination in its own right. More and more people flocked to Franschhoek.
Franschhoek’s tourism very successful organisation focused on the valley’s French roots and an annual events calendar targeted a clearly defined audience. One wonders what the original Huguenots would think of Bastille Day? The storming of the Bastille in 1789 happened 101 years after they arrived in the Cape!
Part of the town’s charm stems from the fact that it is a narrow valley, and views of the mountains dominate wherever one looks. The retail form of the main street, with its alleys and courtyards, happened by accident. The main street was originally lined mainly by residential properties and those building footprints largely determined the retail spaces that followed.
The incorporation of Franschhoek into Stellenbosch Municipality saw the town lose its independence but it also meant more money for the town. The two towns share similar philosophies, with the same focus on heritage issues and environmental quality, and both have very active (and vocal) citizens. Franschhoek could have been far worse off.
What led to the success? Arthur says “it was the right people at the right time… the right leaders. The village was small enough to make a difference possible. And there was luck.”
In conclusion, Franschhoek drove its success by focusing on quality — the aesthetics, the environment and the activities offered. Success attracts further successes, or at least facilitates them. One can’t overlook the glory that local-boy-turned-chef Reuben Riffel brought to the town with Reuben’s restaurant. And after selling his restaurant, Arthur turned to accommodation, and Akademie Street Boutique Hotel was voted one of the best in SA. (He has since sold it.) The Rupert family, usually associated with Stellenbosch, almost has stronger ties to Franschhoek after the late Dr Anton Rupert bought the first of several farms in the valley in 1969 at L’Ormarins. He was also the patron of the Franschhoek Conservation Trust.
And, unlike Stellenbosch and Robertson where tourism and wine run parallel marketing organisations, Franschhoek has a single organisation embracing everybody — arguably one of the best around.