Franschhoek (French Corner) takes its name from its first white settlers, French Huguenots who fled to the Cape to escape Catholic persecution in France in the late 1600s. By the early 18th century about 200 Huguenots had settled in the Cape; today their descendants—with names like de Villiers, Malan, and Joubert—number in the tens of thousands. With their experience in French vineyards, the early Huguenots were instrumental in nurturing a wine-making culture in South Africa.
Franschhoek is the most spectacular of the three wine centers: a long valley encircled by towering mountain ranges and fed by a single road that runs through town. As spectacular as the valley is today, it must have been even more so in the 17th century, when it teemed with game. In calving season herds of elephants would migrate to the valley via the precipitous Franschhoek Mountains. The last wild elephant in the valley died in the 1930s. Some leopards still survive high in the mountains, but you won't see them.
What you will see today is an increasingly upscale village with beautifully renovated cottages and gorgeous gardens. Although it can get very busy during the summer season, you will always be able to find a quiet spot with a view of the mountains, roses, and swaths of lavender, which do well here. Franschhoek has developed into a culinary mecca, with some of the country's best restaurants and cafés lining the pretty main street. In May the fabulous Franschhoek Literary Festival (www.flf.co.za) features local and international writers. Bastille Day (www.franschhoek.co.za/bastille.html) is a huge draw, when the town is decked out in red, white, and blue, and events commemorate the town’s French history. The town is more touristy than agrarian, although you will see the occasional wine farmer steaming into town with his dogs on the back of his bakkie (pickup truck), looking for tractor tires or other essentials. It's a great place for lunch or for a couple of days, as there are excellent small hotels and guesthouses to choose from.