BLOEMFONTEIN, part of Mangaung municipality, is located at the crossroads of South Africa, which means that many travellers break their journey across the country here. Despite its reputation as the hick capital of South Africa, Bloem (or “flower”, as it is lovingly called) is actually quite agreeable, and there’s enough diversion for a day or two. The city’s surprisingly fine Oliewenhuis Art Museum is set in beautiful gardens, while the unmistakably provincial President Brand Street is lined with handsome, sandstone public buildings paying a pick ’n’ mix homage to Mediterranean, British, Renaissance and Classical influences. Bloem is also the seat of the provincial parliament and South Africa’s Court of Appeal.
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As an overnight stop, the city offers good accommodation at reasonable prices, upmarket shopping centres and a couple of nightlife opportunities. In common with other South African cities, the white population has deserted the city centre. Instead, the suburbs just northwest of the city centre have become the place to shop and hang out. The Loch Logan Waterfront Mall beside the stadium and Westdene’s four-storey Mimosa Mall in nearby Kellner Street provide coffee shops, chain restaurants, banks, bookshops and more.
If you’re around in August, visit the Castle Granaat Rock Festival at the Oliewenhuis Art Museum, which sees popular South African bands perform in a very family-friendly atmosphere. In October, try to catch the ten-day Manguang African Cultural Festival (macufe.co.za), which fills the city with storytelling, poetry, art, music and dance, and attracts people from all over the country.
Tolkien in Bloemfontein
Bloemfontein’s biggest surprise is that it’s the birthplace of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, a fact the city seems curiously reluctant to publicize. Tolkien’s father, Arthur, left his native Birmingham to work in the colonies, eventually becoming manager of the Bank of Africa in Bloemfontein. J.R.R. was born in 1892, in a house standing on the corner of West Burger and Maitland streets, a couple of blocks east of President Brand Street. When Arthur Tolkien died three years after J.R.R.’s birth, his wife returned to England with her two infant sons; their house was later torn down to make way for a furniture shop.