The ghostly whispers in the corridors of Karoo hotels
The inns we find in our meanders through the old Garob bring us their stories and their ghosts. Some of them reveal more than others.
Pianos tell stories. In the cool breeze of the long corridor of the Royal Hotel in Willowmore, you seem to hear the ghostly tinkle as the fingers of people long dead danced along the keyboard while others stood and watched, ears rapt. The piano that stands solitary sentinel along a wall of the passage is a Brinsmead. It guards a green wall in the lonely passage lined with doors in and out of which spirits may roam. Maybe you’ve landed in a Coen Brothers movie, or is Kubrick here and slasher Jack Torrance is about to stick his head through a door with a cackling “Heeeere’s Johnny!”
This stately old piano, made once upon a Victorian time by John Brinsmead who established his piano manufacturing company in London in 1837 and built a reputation for some of Britain’s finest pianos, famed for their stylish use of complementary woods and hand carved scrollwork, perhaps was brought here by a past owner of this Karoo hotel, reached from Graaff-Reinet along the Camdeboo plains. The fingers of old ladies and little girls must have tripped along its keys, and of young men impressing their girls; every note ever emitted from the echoing case as pin block and hammer rail, pedal rod and strings did their work still resonates in the ether; the mysterious, unseen and scarcely heard energy of the memories of the dead.
It was at a Royal Hotel that I’d wanted us to start our post-pandemic holiday to visit our family at the Cape via Arniston; and to build into it a pair of Karoo mini journeys, one through the Klein Karoo, the other via the Great Karoo en route home. We’d spotted this Royal on previous saunters through Willowmore on our way here or there. We should stop over next time, we’d said.
Which brings us to a stark contrast. This was your old-style inn. It took me right back to the small town hotels of my Sixties youth, and I’d hoped for that, so this was in no way a disappointment, although for some the place would be a tad below their “standards”. My own standards are just fine with something as genuinely old school as this. The following night, by way of stark contrast, would see us in trendy Barrydale and a fine place called the Karoo Art Hotel which is all very “done”, and beautifully so. But the depth, the character and the heart, for me, was this old and timeless Royal, where the bar, ominously named Die Laaste Watergat (the last watering hole), was every bit the kind you’d expect David Kramer to be singing about in that old song of his. You felt you should have another one for the road in case you didn’t make it home.
At this kind of hotel, back in the day you’d order a mixed grill from the dinner menu. And lo, so it came to pass. It was an icy night, a night in need of a fire and a striking fireplace, and there it was in the bar, surrounded by one of the most beautiful art deco mantelpieces I’ve seen. Not a newfangled one brought there and installed to create a certain effect, but the original fitting, steeped in the building’s bone marrow. But there was more: in the adjacent dining room, back to back, was its identical twin, and both fires were lit. We did have to ask for the second fire to be lit, but the staff were on it immediately and kept it going.
There was even a hound, a handsome fella named Jakkals who made himself at home at our feet in front of the fire in the bar before we went next door for the mixed grill which, if not presented with anything approaching flair, was cooked well enough though I could have done without the inexplicably de rigueur steakhouse sauce. Jakkals by now had sauntered through from the bar to check out my supper. They say he wandered in off the street one day, someone gave him a piece of cabanossi dried sausage, and he never left.
Things kind of fell apart a bit when the InterCape bus stopped outside, the hotel’s forecourt being the town’s stopping point for embarking and disembarking. Wisely, the hotel takes advantage, making takeaway meals for some of the passengers. But it’s a pity this takeaway trade is conducted right in the dining room where their guests are having supper; the main lights are turned on, bright as hell, and any vestige of atmosphere leaves the room until the bus has departed. This could easily be fixed with a simple management decision; the bar right next door, for example: the bus passengers are likely to order a pint while they’re there too. At the very least, leave the atmospheric lighting intact while the trade is done.
Next stop, Barrydale, reached via De Rust, Oudtshoorn, Calitzdorp and Tannie Maria se Ladismith along Route 62. It’s a charming little town, utterly beautiful, and very sought-after as a truly special retirement choice. I am torn, I confess. Nothing wrong with the place, it’s just me. I like the hardness of the greater Karoo, which the ancients called Garob, and how it contrasts itself with beautiful little surprises. The rose growing in earth that looks dead, yet ablaze with blooms; the succulents lying grey and fallow in their lonely winters, yet bursting forth with a million crazy flowers in Spring.
The best thing about Barrydale for ages has been that top road with all its multicoloured funky good looks and cool vibe, mad milkshakes and all. But there’s a place worth turning left for now. We stayed at the famously redecorated Karoo Art Hotel which is awash in art, as it should be given its name, but more than that it is filled with gorgeous furniture, fabulous rugs and tastefully upholstered sofas and armchairs; it’s all just-so and clearly done with a tasteful eye. The art that adorns the walls is a part of the story and fabric of the place.
The board, to use the old term, is excellent. I chose the Springbok Carpaccio, then the Cape Malay Karoo Lamb Curry, a very happy choice. The dining room with its lovely Aga is grand and warm, and next morning the Eggs Benedict were as excellent as the manager had promised they would be when I asked for her recommendation the previous evening.
Undoubtedly, it’s one of the finest hotel stops in the Karoo, if the fine end of things is what you want. I especially loved its magnificent bar and the superbly friendly efficiency of the staff. If I have a reservation, it’s only that it lacks even a tinge of that hard edge of the Karoo, and that rustic mood that the Royal in Willowmore isn’t even trying to attain. But the Constantia set who were in Barrydale that Saturday night should steer clear of Willowmore’s Royal, it is not nearly royal enough for them.
Our family time in Cape Town and Arniston is not a part of this little traipse through the Karoo, but while I was visiting my sister and brother-in-law in Piketberg up the West Coast we did drive to Riebeek-Kasteel for lunch at another Royal Hotel. And this one got everything just right. It is “done” but has managed to retain all of its old charm while building on top of that. It’s a class act bar none, a true find. I was not expecting this at all; all I knew was that the Royal in Kasteel was a pleasant place to go to. It’s way more than that. Oddly, locals call this the Rooi Karoo, of which I’d never heard. The Karoo is never without something new in its antiquity. Rooi Karoo appears to be one name for the dryland Western Cape of this Swartland terrain, though whether it’s a part of either the Klein or Great Karoo at all is moot.
While waiting for our food, I was photographing this particular Royal Hotel bar when my boet, Gerry, spotted a staff member opening a trapdoor and disappearing down it. “Tony, get your camera down there, quick,” he said. It was the bar cellar, a little subterranean underworld of mystery and wonder where surely spectres linger, watchful. A giant, ancient wine barrel is a vintage contrast to the boxes of liquor stacked along the sides and in alcoves where past treasures once might have been hidden. A beautiful example of something remaining what it is while a bit of lighting and trickery make it a bit of a museum piece as well.
The menu at this Royal is full of interest. Stoep food like bitterballen, kingklip goujons, prawns pil pil; mains such as their house burger with aged Cheddar, beetroot pasta with burnt sage butter and Gorgonzola, and my choice of kingklip with prawn velouté and fennel butter. A most excellent lunch for a fish-starved Karoo boy.
The route home called within days, after precious time with family and friends, not least a visit to the Labia theatre in Gardens which is looking so grand with its new plush red and gilt trim, and a splendid lunch with an old friend who treated me to fine fare and even finer companionship and conversation, but the road home beckoned soon enough. Ghosts linger there too, shifting and sighing in the old cinema seats, puzzled by the themes of modern movies. When you’re the only person in the auditorium for a Labia screening, you’re not.
In Matjiesfontein, where nothing much ever changes no matter how hard any new management may try (this is a good thing), Johnny Theunissen was in situ with his bugle to blow us all onto the red London bus, and in the Lairds Arms again after the world’s shortest bus tour he honky-tonked his bounteous charm and love around the place as he has done thousands of times. Johnny Theunissen, the one and only, a true treasure of the Karoo.
Our GrandBoy had his first Matjiesfontein bus tour this time, Johnny having decided he was the great grandson of Lord Milner himself, God forbid. But I’ll explain all that to him when he grows up. I remember other pianists at the Lairds Arms, and always the ghosts, Kate who idles in the card room in the turret, the ethereal Lucy, and the mysterious Lady in White. One of our party saw her that night, in the early hours, at the foot of her bed, though it will be her own story to tell, one day.
I had, as ever, the Karoo lamb chops, and this kitchen is on top form right now. They were sublimely tender and delicious. Best I’ve had in that dining room, and we’ve been going there since 1982, although back then they would have looked blank if you’d asked for it to be served with a “rosemary jus”, as it is now.
On to Prince Albert to see old friends, so we would not have dinner in the Swartberg Hotel where we were staying but instead enjoy Elaine Hurford’s fine home fare, which I wrote about here. The “Mont d’Or” Swartberg Hotel struck me as being more winelands than Karoo in style, perhaps a consequence of one of the posh boutique hotel chains having got hold of it. It’s smart and efficiently run.
Inns can lose more than they gain when the hand of decoration knows no bounds; the personal loving touch dissipates as every new thing is brought in; and in time, people look around and mutter that something’s missing; though they’re not quite sure what it is. It’s the mysterious essence that’s missing. What the Swartberg does have, they say, is a ghostly pair of paintings in which, in candlelight, diners may see a woman murdering her feckless lover, but not having dined there I cannot of course vouch for it. I did photograph them, though (the paintings, not the ghosts), and they certainly have mood and mystery about them.
The Royal in Willowmore has not been “done” in any way and I suppose could benefit from it, but I fear that if someone did get hold of it, it would soon lose that which it now has; an indefinable flavour of the old times and the ability to make you feel you’ve slipped back to another era. The Royal in Riebeek Kasteel has been “done” with taste but also restraint; it is so careful and nuanced that it seems always to have been as it is now. The Karoo Art is greatly impressive in the way that a smart new car is; but offer me that or a vintage Zephyr in mint condition and you know which I’d choose. Matjiesfontein’s Lord Milner is, thankfully, as eccentric and fallible as it ever was, and may it always be.
The ghosts that linger in the old corridors have their own tales to tell, and their thoughts about us as they see us come and go. We might wonder what they would make of it all. I suspect there is much ghostly muttering in the corridors. DM/TGIFood
Read Biénne Huisman’s take on Barrydale here.
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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