Just over 50km inland from Port Alfred, GRAHAMSTOWN projects an image of a cultured, historic town, quintessentially English, Protestant and refined, with reminders of its colonial past in evidence in the well-preserved architecture.
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Dominated by its cathedral, university and public schools, this is a thoroughly pleasant place to wander through, with well-maintained colonial Georgian and Victorian buildings lining the streets, and pretty suburban gardens. Every July, the town hosts an arts festival, the largest of its kind in Africa, and purportedly the second largest in the world.
As elsewhere in South Africa, there are reminders of conquest and dispossession. Climb up Gunfire Hill, where the fortress-like 1820 Settlers Monument celebrates the achievement of South Africa’s English-speaking immigrants, and you’ll be able to see Makanaskop, the hill from which the Xhosa made their last stand against the British invaders. Their descendants live in desperately poor ghettos here, in a town almost devoid of industry.
Despite all this, and the constant reminders of poverty, Grahamstown makes a good stopover, and is the perfect base for excursions: a number of historic villages are within easy reach, some game parks are convenient for a day or weekend visit and, best of all, kilometres of coast are just 45 minutes’ drive away.
The Grahamstown Festival
For ten days every July, Grahamstown bursts to overflowing as the town’s population doubles, with visitors descending for the annual National Arts Festival – usually called the Grahamstown Festival. At this time, seemingly every home is transformed into a B&B and the streets are alive with colourful food stalls. Church halls, parks and sports fields become flea markets and several hundred shows are staged, spanning every conceivable type of performance.
This is the largest arts festival in Africa, and even has its own fringe festival. The hub of the event is the 1820 Settlers Monument, which hosts not only big drama, dance and operatic productions in its theatres, but also art exhibitions and free early-evening concerts. While work by African performers and artists is well represented, and is perhaps the more interesting aspect of the festival for tourists, the festival-goers and performers are still predominantly white.
The published programme – spanning jazz, classical music, drama, dance, cabaret, opera, visual arts, crafts, films and a book fair – is bulky, but absolutely essential; it’s worth planning your time carefully to avoid walking the potentially cold July streets without seeing much of the festival proper. If you don’t feel like taking in a show, the free art exhibitions at the museums, Monument and other smaller venues are always worth a look. For more information and bookings, contact the Grahamstown Foundation (046 622 3082, www.nafest.co.za).