TRAVEL opens up so many more experiences than you could ever imagine. On a trip to Bloemfontein, I learned a treasure trove of information about our country’s history, experienced different cultures existing side-by-side, and discovered its residents are extraordinarily proud of their city.
My accommodation was the three-star BON Hotel Bloemfontein Central which is, as its names suggests, conveniently located right in the middle of the capital city of the Free State. Even so, vehicular transport is required to get around (there is no Uber) and luckily the hotel offers all its guests a complimentary shuttle service around Bloem as well as to and from the airport, which is only 10km away.
Opened in 1972, the hotel underwent numerous name and ownership changes until it settled in its current guise in 2016. In the lobby is a display of memorabilia in a glass case – newspaper clippings, photographs, souvenirs, and menus. Notes from yesteryear always make us marvel at how inexpensive things were, although at the same time we conveniently forget incomes were proportionately low. However, even today, Bloemfontein will offer you much lower prices for food, drink and accommodation that you’ll be used to in other medium to big cities around South Africa.
The comfortable style of the hotel is distinctly retro, from décor to menus, and has a legal theme in its Judges Bar; Bloemfontein (Afrikaans for “fountain of flowers”) is the judicial capital of South Africa.
BON Hotel Bloemfontein Central has 115 rooms and suites in various configurations to suit different needs. All have en-suite bathrooms and complimentary wi-fi. Good old fashioned hospitality and an eagerness to please provide the traveller with a warm welcome. Grab your breakfast and/or dinner in The Courtroom Restaurant (meals are also available in the bar), and the Sunday lunch carvery buffet is a winner with locals.
You can arrange your sightseeing through the hotel; a city tour is recommended. I was driven around by one Dr Johann Hattingh, a lecturer in the department of Tourism and Event Management at the Central University of Technology, who picked me up in a Land Rover in which the famous explorer Kingsley Holgate crossed Africa – which is in itself a story.
Hattingh is a history buff with a particular interest in the Anglo-Boer War, in which Bloemfontein played a significant role. The museum here is the only one in the world dedicated solely to this event, and is a well-curated monument to the ravages of this conflict.
On our way to the museum we stopped off at a small, nondescript building with bare facebrick and corrugated iron roof. This unremarkable structure bears enormous historical weight as it is the Wesleyan Church where the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) was founded in 1912, which of course later became the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923.
A place full of surprises, in the middle of Bloemfontein is a large flat elevation which locals proudly refer to as their “Table Mountain”. Its real name is Naval Hill and from the summit are immense sweeping views, watched over by a 6.5m-high bronze statue of Nelson Mandela.
Open to the public for jogging or walking, there is a digital planetarium (shows presented in Afrikaans) up there, as well as the 250-hectare Franklin Game Reserve which one of only two nature reserves in the world to be located in the middle of a city.
Fleshing out the cultural diversity of Bloem included a meaty lunch at Street Corner Braai in one of the townships; a visit to the weekly Boeremark in Langenhovenpark, a farmers’ market that takes place every Saturday, celebrating Afrikaans heritage with dozens of stalls selling homemade bakes, arts and crafts, jewellery, clothing, books, and more; and a night of wonderful smooth live jazz and whisky at Moods & Flavors, a popular nightclub where the snack menu comprises mainly of Russian sausages and chips in assorted shapes and forms.
One of Bloemfontein’s most well-known residents – although only up until he was about three years old – was JRR Tolkien. Today’s celebrities include winners of season one of the reality cooking show My Kitchen Rules South Africa on M-Net 101 in 2017, Jamandi and Machiel Bekker, known by everyone as the “LekkerBekkers”.
“Boemfontein is definitely the best kept secret in South Africa. What makes Bloemfontein special is the authenticity among the people – it is just so real – we love everything about it,” says Jamandi.
“Definitely worth a stop, come and check it out for yourself!”
Where: Bloem Plaza, East Burger Street, Bloemfontein Central
Telephone: 051 403 8000
- This story first appeared in Independent Travel on February 9, 2019
PHOTO CREDIT: BIANCA COLEMAN ©