Twelve Things That Surprised Me About South Africa

Twelve Things That Surprised Me About South Africa

Whenever you travel you always find things different from what you expected, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. For better or for worse, our expectations of what to expect when we travel is formed by what we read and hear in books, media and word of mouth. As a first time visitor, I found these twelve things an unexpected surprise in South Africa. These 12 travel tips for South Africa will help you make the most of your visit to this beautiful country.

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12 Things you should know before you visit South Africa for the first time

Travel Tips for South Africa

We spent 2 weeks in South Africa of which we did what many first time visitors do. After a few days in Cape Town, we hired a car and travelled along the Garden Route. We went as far as Plettenberg Bay before looping back and visiting the vineyards near Cape Town.

In no particular order, here are some of my observations and tips to help you navigate South Africa.

Sometimes You Really Don’t Want To See The Doctor

That Cape Town wind is strong! The Southeastern wind nicknamed The Doctor whips through the area in the afternoon. At lower levels it’s refreshing on a hot day but at higher levels, you can hear the ringing in your ears!

We read at the museum for the Castle of Good Hope that Lloyds of London for a while refused to insure ships going to Cape Town because the wind was so unpredictable.

Cape Town harbour

Where Your Home Can Be Your Fortress

The divide between the richer and the poorer areas are clearly visible. The wealthier houses have concrete fences with electric wires and on-call security services protecting them. Each house is effectively a little fortress. The wealthier areas and the townships sometimes exist right next to each other too.

electric fence sign

Not All Township Homes Are Equal

Even in the townships, you can tell there are some nicer areas than others. Lots of the small houses in the townships seem to have satellite receivers.

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Township in South Africa

As one of our guides explained to us, people remain in townships because they still can’t afford the non-township areas. Even if people do move out of the township, they always return to see their families in the townships. This community aspect of the townships reminded me of the favelas of Brasil.

A Country With Growing Pains

South Africa is an interesting amalgam of first world country and developing country. For example, the water is fine to use, and driving on the roads is very easy. Locals have an excellent command of English. We had no problems feeding the children with non-ethnic food which was widely available. Taxis were plentiful, efficient and cheap to use. We had no issues either with vendors trying to hassle us to buy things.

On the other hand though, the WiFi was very patchy. Ironically, the Cape Town service was called Always On but from what I can tell, it should be called Intermittently On.

Feets Don’t Fail Me Now

The transportation infrastructure outside of central Cape Town seemed poor. We barely saw any buses or trains. People were either walking, cycling or hitchhiking on the motor ways in order to get around. In fact, we saw people dodging cars on the motorway to get from one side to the other.

South African bus

Image: Pieter van Marion

Time Really is Relative

The country does seem to run on Africa time (always a bit later than advertised!).  For example, the New Year’s carnival in 2015 was several weeks after its originally advertised date of January 1st.  There were transportation issues with getting the revellers to the parades (see point 5 above!).

A Lush Landscape

I don’t know about the rest of the country but Cape Town and its environs is very lush. We were told that the Europeans had imported trees to plant.

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Green fields in the South African landscape

You Rediscover What The Word Massive Means

South Africa is a huge country! I mean huge!! If you look on the map, it occupies the tip of the African continent.

It isn’t until you start driving around though that I realised the country is massive and has a lot of different types of terrain. Driving along the Garden Route we came across forests, mountains, beaches and farmland all within hours of each other.

South Africa is a great place to do a road trip if you have the time to spare to cover the vast distances. The most popular South Africa road trip itinerary is from Cape Town to Johannesburg which you can do in 1 month. We did part of that road trip with the Garden Route over the course of a week.

South African countryside

A Celebration of Cultural Diversity

South African culture is very diverse. We found influences from the Dutch, the English, the Portuguese, other African countries, the Indians, and the Cape Malay everywhere. The most colorful part of Cape Town were the Cape Malay homes of Bo Kaap.

south african flag

For example, I frankly didn’t even know that the Portuguese had made much of a cultural impact on South Africa because their explorers hadn’t really stuck around as settlers. Yet, we kept coming across Portuguese-influenced cuisine such as peri-peri and trinchado. The rainbow nation moniker really is very apt and not just a marketing tool.

Popularity Has Its Issues

I know South Africa is very popular but we were surprised by just how popular it was. We couldn’t visit Robben Island because the tickets to visit it were sold out for 4 months in advance. People book tickets very far in advance!

We thought we were organised booking hotels in September but we really had a tough time getting reservations for December.

Robben Island

Image: Mads Bodker

Don’t Expect American-style Service

Tourism in South Africa is clearly booming. Service, however, is not the greatest. For example, even Parisians who are notoriously snooty greet you with a polite “bonjour” when you enter a store.

South Africans don’t seem to greet you as a matter of course when you enter their establishment or pass them on the street.

Cape Town tour bus

Image: Danie van der Merwe

I wondered to myself if I’d been in England too long when people we let pass us on the roads didn’t acknowledge our courtesy. How rude!!

One Language to Rule Over Them All

I erroneously assumed that everyone spoke Afrikaans as well as English. I was told, however, that Afrikaans was only spoken by white South Africans. There are actually 11 official languages in South Africa – English, Afrikaans and 9 of the African languages. At school, everyone studies English and their local language.

Afrikaans flag

 

Practical Considerations

Transportation

We hired a rental car through Hertz from the airport at Cape Town for the duration of the trip. In Cape Town itself, we hired a car and driver to take us around or used local taxis.

Accommodation

In Cape Town, we stayed at the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa  and the Hyde All Suites Hotel in Cape Town. We had to change hotels because we left booking so late that there was no availability for all of our days in one hotel.

On the Garden Route, we stayed at the Schoone Oordt Country House in Swellendam, the Tsala Treetop Lodge near Plettenberg Bay and The Garden Route Game Lodge near Albertinia, all of which were excellent. You can read a review of our stays at Schoone Oordt Country House and Tsala Treetop Lodge .

In Stellenbosh, we stayed at the Spier Hotel in what was ostensibly a family room. We loved the wine tasting and landscaped grounds. My children also loved the grounds and the pool. I was unimpressed with the mattress on the floor which was supposed to be the bed for our children. Needless to say, we crammed in all together on the one actual bed in the room.

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Have you been to a country that surprised you in some way?  Do tell.

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Sainte Chapelle: The Parisian Jewel in the Crown

Sainte Chapelle: The Parisian Jewel in the Crown

In a beautiful city such as Paris, you know that something has to be really special to be listed among its most beautiful buildings.

My favourite church in Paris, Saint Chapelle, is tiny in comparison to other Parisian monuments but it is like stepping into a jewel box.  This church has the largest collection of 13th century stained glass in the world that is still located on-site.

The History of Ste Chapelle

Saint Chapelle is a 13th century Gothic chapel created for King Louis IX of France for his collection of royal relics.  Louis IX took his Catholicism seriously, went on a couple of Crusades, and eventually was sainted for his efforts.  Louis IX also wanted a chapel where he could worship without leaving his palace. Besides, the chapel would also solidify his position in the Christian world as its pre-eminent king.

Icon on the wall of lower level of royal palatine chapel, Sainte

Louis’ collection of impressive relics, purchased from the Emperor of Constantinople,  was very important to medieval Christians.  The collection included the Crown of Thorns and parts of the True Cross.  In fact, these relics and the cases built to house them cost a lot more than the building of Saint Chappelle itself!

The Paris 3D website has a very cool 3D artist’s digital reconstruction video of how Saint Chapelle would have looked in the 14th Century.

The Inside of Ste Chapelle

From the outside Saint Chapelle looks fairly ordinary. It’s a completely different matter though when you go inside.  Louis IX wanted bling and he got it! The inside is covered in stained glass, paint and gilt.  Built to house the relics, the inside was grandly decorated to resemble the inside of a reliquary itself.

Interior view of the Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France.

There are 15 huge stained glass windows that are 50 feet high and show scenes from the bible.  At one end of the chapel there is a giant rose window.  The chapel contains almost 8000 square feet of stained glass!

sainte chapelle rose window

It’s very clear that the stonework is there simply to show off the stained glass windows.  The stone columns appear very minimal and fade into the background.

stained glass window saint chapelle

Saint Chapelle is located on the Isle de la Cite in Paris next to the Conciergerie.  The chapel just about survived the French Revolution but had to be reconstructed.  Many of the relics and reliquaries got dispersed or melted for their gold.  Some of the relics got sent over to the Notre Dame Cathedral, including the crown of thorns and true cross.  During World War II, Hitler visited Saint Chapelle during his one and only visit to Paris.

The Restoration of Ste Chapelle

The restoration of Sainte Chapelle has taken 40 years. Restorers wanted the chapel finished in time for the 800th anniversary of the birth of Louis IX in 2014.  Each of the stained glass windows was carefully dismantled and laser cleaned.  Although most of the chapel has been restored, much of what you see is still the original chapel.

Sainte Chapelle interior

Here’s a clip of the statue of the Archangel Michael being replaced on top of the chapel in 2013 as part of the ongoing restoration.

Visiting Ste Chapelle:

Sainte Chapelle is located close to the metro stop, Cite.  It is open every day from either 9-5 (winter) or 9-6 (summer).  Adults pay €8.50 a ticket and children under 18 enter for free.  It is included in the Paris Museum Pass if you have one (children under 18 and EU residents under 26 qualify for a free Paris Museum Pass).

A visit to Sainte Chapelle won’t take very long but it shows that great things come in little packages.  If you can only take your children to one Parisian church before they start a mutiny, I think Saint Chapelle is your best bet.

You can also visit the Concergerie next door which has some parts of the old medieval palace remaining.  Older children may be interested in seeing the cells where prisoners from the Terror, including Marie Antoinette, were kept prior to their date with the guillotine.   If your children are anything like mine, they are fascinated with ghoulish things.

Touring The Houses of Parliament in London

Touring The Houses of Parliament in London

Did you know that as a resident of the United Kingdom you could tour The Houses of Parliament for free?  You need to be sponsored by a member of Parliament or the House of Lords.   There are also guided tours of Parliament for non-residents but these tours you have to pay for.   So I was lucky to be part of a group that went from our area courtesy of our local MP.

The Palace of Westminster which houses the two houses of Parliament is a pretty impressive building with a history that covers almost a 1000 years.  Part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the palace is one of the iconic images of London.  The Palace is fronted on one side by the River Thames.

parliament house on the Thames

On the land side of the building, this statue of Richard the Lionheart (King of England from 1189-199) presides over a courtyard which has now been turned over  to being a car park.  Ironically Richard only spent about 6 months of his reign actually in England because he was off fighting the Crusades (using revenue raised from his English subjects).  I can’t decide if having Richard presiding over a car park is a bit of that famous English irony that I still don’t really get.

King richard the lion heart

Hands of the Prius you cur!

The oldest part of the Palace you see is Westminster Hall which was built in 1097 and is an impressive piece of medieval architecture.  It survived a fire in 1834 which destroyed most of the rest of the building.

Most of the Palace you see today is from a Gothic Revival rebuild of the palace by Sir Charles Barry after the fire.  Like any good architect, Barry’s estimates were way off for the project.  He thought it would take 6 years and about £700,000 when in fact it would take 30 years and over £2 million (in 19th century money).

parliament_head

What a result!  The building is a frothy concoction of vaulted ceilings, stained glass, stone and wood carvings, and other details that are designed to impress upon the viewer the solidity and mightiness of the British government.  These corridors of power were responsible for the British Empire which in its heyday covered almost 25% of the world’s land mass.  Don’t you forget it! The British certainly haven’t.

I always love looking through gift shops at these tourists sights.  And, frankly, most of the time you can’t exit a monument without going through the gift shop.  So you might as well enjoy it.  My pick from the Houses of Parliament gift shop? House of Lords Chardonnay and House of Commons Sauvignon Blanc.  Presumably a career in politics requires a stiff drink at the end of each day.

Details:

The website for the UK parliament has more information on guided tours, both for residents and non-resident.  I also like the option of having a tour that is followed by afternoon tea on the Terrace Pavillion.  I have a soft spot for a British Afternoon Tea and can’t think of prettier surroundings to scoff scones.