Under African Skies


Years ago, I found myself studying German at the Berlitz school in Rockefeller Center. My classmates were a fascinating lot: international business people, Austrian Airline workers, diplomats and their significant others, all learning German for love or money.

They were also a well-traveled lot, so one day when the teacher was late, the conversation fell to favorite travel destinations. Would the consensus be Paris, Italy, Hawaii? Not even close: to a one, they all replied, “Cape Town, South Africa.”

It’s not hard to understand why that city is so compelling. There is the romance of its location at the southern edge of the African continent, swept by the swirling currents of two mighty oceans, the last port of call until Antarctica. There is the singular drama of its signature topography: Table Rock, the vast, flat-topped plateau that looms over the urban basin, imparting a wildly rugged feel to an otherwise civilized metropolis. Museums and fine dining aside, this is a city where even the most urbane traveler sets aside time for a vineyard drive, a mountain climb or wildlife-spotting.

Then there is the intrigue of a land whose diverse demography, distorted under apartheid, is reinventing a modern multicultural society. Jews, mostly Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe, form a community of about 17,000; their long history of social and economic prominence here is evident in a rich network of museums, archives and South Africa’s premier kosher winery.

Racial and economic tensions still simmer, of course, but public safety is greatly improved in the wake of this year’s World Cup here. With a good exchange rate, beefed-up public security and a new spirit of optimism, Cape Town is more beguiling than ever — and the Southern Hemisphere summer, when daily highs are a balmy 80 degrees, is an ideal time to visit.

For most Americans, the Jewish history of South Africa is far less familiar than that of Europe, making a tour of Cape Town’s Jewish sites all the more rewarding. Start where the country’s first synagogue came together: at the South African Jewish Museum, an 1863 edifice now known as the “Old Synagogue.” In the heart of the modern city center, the Old Synagogue was the nexus of Jewish worship until the 1905 construction, next door, of the still-thriving Gardens Synagogue — and the gradual transformation of the original temple into a Jewish museum.

Today, both are part of a Jewish cultural complex whose newly renovated museum was dedicated 10 years ago by Nelson Mandela, and whose multiple facilities include the kosher Café Riteve, a Jewish archive and a Judaica shop. Throughout the complex, you’ll find a uniquely South African perspective on Jewish life — with particular emphasis on the parallels between apartheid racism and anti-Semitism. The Jewish Museum has a daily screening of a documentary dedicated to Mandela and his civil rights movement. Alongside a permanent collection of Jewish artifacts and exhibitions on South African Jewish history are temporary shows, which often feature a multicultural bent: currently on display is Japanese art from the Isaac Kaplan collection.

Next door, the Cape Town Holocaust Centre is worthwhile not only for its thoughtful, engaging multimedia exhibits on 1930s Europe, Anne Frank, and the Final Solution, but also for a gallery devoted to apartheid and the problem of racial discrimination. While you could spend all day in the Jewish Museum complex, it’s just one of several noteworthy institutions along Cape Town’s Museum Mile. The South African National Gallery, a short stroll away, has a collection that reflects the country’s colonial roots: strong holdings of British, Dutch, and Flemish painters, along with a current exhibit on African art from both the continent and the diaspora.

If the strong African sunlight is calling you, step outside and explore the Company’s Garden. Cape Town’s central park has roots that are literally 350 years old, dating to the British settlers who first planted pear trees here. Some of those historic plants still remain, now joined by lush flower gardens, bench-dotted lawns, and even a tea room where the nostalgic can take a proper British high tea.

As pleasant as Cape Town’s city center is, the perimeter tempts with a choice of beach, mountain or wine country. The urban area has no shortage of windswept, scenic beaches, lined with golden cliffs and awash in fierce, cold surf.

But most visitors get their first taste of the shore at the V&A Waterfront, a formerly down-at-the-heels harbor that was recently transformed into a shiny, bustling dining and entertainment center along a rejuvenated port. On a sunny day, it’s perfect for strolling amid the tall masts or shopping the boutiques — a testament to Cape Town’s ongoing urban renewal.

From the center, take a five-minute, jaw-dropping cable car ride up to the top of Table Mountain, where, on the windy plateau, you can stroll on a series of paths and take in the views. The mountain’s velvety eastern slopes also provide a dramatic setting for the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, a lush spectacle of native flowers, bushes and trees. Just a 15-minute drive or taxi ride from the city center, the botanical garden is a particularly worthwhile outing on summer Sundays, when it hosts outdoor concerts on its sprawling green lawn.

Most Cape Town visitors include an excursion to the wine valleys just west of town, home to some of today’s most popular wines worldwide. For kosher bragging rights, call the Zandwijk winery to make a reservation for a wine tasting of the Kleine Draken kosher wines. Prepared under strict rabbinical supervision, Kleine Draken’s chardonnays, cabernets and sauvignon blancs were kosher African pioneers, and the winery recently released the continent’s first kosher sparkling wine.