Monday, November 7, 2011
Johannesburg doesn’t get many visitors. Most people that fly into the airport are either in transit or traveling to one of the famous South Africa safari destinations like Kruger National Park. The city is best known to outsiders as being a dangerous, crime-ridden zone.
I was no stranger to the stereotypes of Johannesburg when I booked a weekend trip to visit a friend there. But I was also privy to his accounts of the city’s revival in recent years. Crime was on the decline, he insisted, and in his four years of living in South Africa, he had only seen things look up.
He wasn’t the only one making such arguments. On my flight from London to Johannesburg there was not one, but two articles about the city in the in-flight magazine. Both John Simpson and AA Gill wrote about Johannesburg’s recent renaissance and how it is worth a visit in its own right, not just on a stopover en route to destinations further afield.
With so much encouragement, I arrived in South Africa excited to explore. I hopped on the Gautrain, an express train from the Johannesburg airport to the city center, and headed to my friend’s office in Melrose Arch.
He was in a meeting, so I had some time to explore the area. It was more of a shopping center than an office park, and its bright new buildings housed everything from high-end shops to restaurants with plenty of outdoor seating.
I met my friend at one such restaurant, Tashas, and we had lunch al fresco. I ordered a huge salad with butternut squash, goat’s cheese, and avocado. The ingredients were so much more fresh than the ones I’m used to in London that I was spoiled by how good everything was.
The produce wasn’t the only thing in season, either. The jacaranda trees that lined many streets in Johannesburg were bursting with purple flowers, bathing the skyline in violet vistas and bringing the whole city alive with spring. It was gorgeous.
Speaking of which, that evening my friend took me to a surprise birthday party. When we arrived, the house was full of beautiful decorations and festive food. From plates full of cantaloupe and strawberries to trays of delicate pastries, every inch of the counter was covered.
We spent the evening there with his friends, all of whom were incredibly welcoming. They talked with me about Johannesburg, confirming what I had already learned about the city being much safer than its reputation suggested and insisting that people in Johannesburg were as friendly as I had already experienced.
The next morning we woke up late and drove into Parkhurst. It was a neighborhood in Johannesburg where several of the people I had met the night before ran businesses on a stretch of several bustling blocks full of cafes, restaurants, and shops. Our first stop was at Vovo Telo, a busy bakery and cafe run by a couple I had talked to at the party.
Every table at the bakery was packed with people enjoying breakfast and watching the world go by. When we bought some cheese and olive sticks to take away, I realized why the place was so popular. The food was divine, so much so that it had recently received a Best New Restaurant in Johannesburg award.
Munching our bread, we walked a few doors down to Egality, a boutique run by our hostess from the night before. She welcomed us and let us take a look around the shop.
It was brimming with beautiful dresses, brightly colored swimsuits, feminine flats, and delicate jewelry. As we walked through the room, my friend pointed out Ninon, a line of shoes that another friend of his in Cape Town designed. This was certainly a small world.
Leaving Egality, we wandered a few blocks down to a restaurant in Johannesburg called Nice. There we had ourselves a feast for brunch. Starting with homemade lemonade, we worked our way to egg baskets, which featured poached eggs, avocado, tomatoes, and bacon in toast cups.
We topped them off with a strawberry concoction for dessert. The decadent cream-filled pastry had hints of rose flavor to it, which was both unique and delicious.
After brunch we did a bit more shopping. My friend needed some new speakers, and I needed some wine. I was lucky, as my friend knows a lot about wine from South Africa, and some knowledgeable reps from Klein Constantia winery were on hand at Makro doing a tasting. One of them took us under her wing and walked us up and down the aisles recommending some of the best South African wines.
In the end we bought a bottle of Klein Constantia’s famous Vin de Constance, a bottle of Warwick Estate ‘Three Cape Ladies’ 2009, a Saronsberg Full Circle 2008, a Mullineux Family Wines Kloof Street 2009, and several others.
Our wine shopping done, we headed back to my friend’s place and got ready for an engagement party at the home of a friend of his. The elegant evening took place under a huge marquee in the back garden, and we celebrated late into the night.
The next morning we went into the CBD, an area that until a few years ago was not somewhere my friend would feel safe going. But there has been a recent revival in the district, and we were about to see several facets of it.
The first place we went to was called Arts on Main. Part market, part art gallery, and part restaurant complex, it was the perfect way to start the day. We feasted on great Ethiopian food in the shade of some olive trees, then took a walk through the other areas.
The market showcased everything from chocolate brownies to woodcarvings. Of particular interest to my taste buds were several giant fluffy marshmallows with colorful candies on top at a stand called The Counter.
The galleries featured the work of local artists, one of whom we talked with briefly about his work. As it turned out, he was doing a joint show with one of my friend’s good friends in several weeks. Once again I got the feeling that Johannesburg was a small world.
After Arts on Main we walked over to the Main Street Life building, which was home to the 12 Decades hotel. The funky, artistic accommodation had a rooftop bar with great views over the CBD. We passed an hour there enjoying cocktails, music, and creative decor before heading back to my friend’s place.
The rest of the afternoon and early evening were spent at the home where the party had been the night before. The weather was so nice that we sat outside under the marquee as friends passed in and out. It was so relaxing and enjoyable that I almost convinced myself to skip my flight from Johannesburg to London and stay in South Africa forever.
But nothing gold can stay, and my sunny afternoon under the jacarandas was no exception. The only thing left for me to do was join the likes of John Simpson and AA Gill in encouraging others to travel to Johannesburg. In doing so, I might just convince myself to return again soon. And maybe next time I really will skip my flight home.