City built on goldmines sparkles again thanks to the World Cup
I’ll be there, with an estimated one billion people, focused on Johannesburg from this weekend onwards as the World Cup opens and closes at Soweto’s giant stadium – Soccer City.
In preparation, the city built on gold mines has started to sparkle again after
years of crime and turmoil. There’s always been that feeling of real Africa in “Jozi”, as they call it, with its dark red earth, township culture, singing and shouting on the streets in the 11 official languages.
But what’s new is the explosion of sophisticated restaurants, shops, hotels and artgalleries. I went for my mother’s 80th birthday, a joyous occasion made more special because I fell in love with this vibrant city.
Built on hills, 6,000 feet above sea level, Jo’burg has a fragrance about it – a sweet scent in the air from the plants, brightly coloured birds and dazzling sunshine. It’s a city of trees, the biggest urban forest in the world, the wide streets lined with sprawling jacarandas, eucalyptus, palms and firs.
For the most spectacular view of this sea of greenery head for the terrace of The Westcliff Hotel, a perfect setting for sunset cocktails and a good dinner, with impeccable service and easy atmosphere.
To understand the city a tour of the vast township of Soweto is a must. This is the home of the struggle against apartheid, the centre of the uprising.
It’s the stomping ground of all the liberation icons where you can visit Mandela’s former house, now a museum, the Hector Pieterson Museum charting the death of 12-year-old schoolboy, Hector, at the hands of riot police in the 1970s, and the Soweto Hotel in Freedom Square where the Freedom Charter was signed. Eat at Sakhumzi Restaurant in Vilikazi street opposite the Mandela House and, above all, feel the atmosphere of the new South Africa here still caught in the winds of change.
The hills to the north of the city centre are criss-crossed by wide avenues and lined with gated mansions and security guards, who act as a second line police force. It’s here that you find the glittering malls and best selection of shops, boutiques and restaurants. My favourite restaurants are Bellagio’s in Bluebird Shopping Centre and Linger longer in Wierda Valley. Bellagio’s, run by the lovely blonde, statuesque, Louise Castle, has that secret quality only some restaurants can manage, where you instantly relax, want everything on the menu and find it hard to leave. Set beside an arching willow tree amongst Jo’burg’s hills, it specialises in Italian cooking and seafood, and stays open seven days a week. I’m told Richard Branson steps off his Virgin flight and heads straight there.
Linger Longer also has a hands-on owner, chef, Walter Ulz, offering that personal service and delectable dishes, six of which my elderly mother managed to eat her way through. There I was worrying about it all being too much for her, but what with Walter’s charm and an excellent wine list I ended up more concerned that she might start dancing across the beautiful wooden floors and knock over the exquisite flower arrangements.
For the best Japanese and mouth-watering sushi, Yamato on Oxford Road is a must, run by Cristina. And if you want a cool, nightclub feel and good food there’s Pigalle at Melrose Arch.
I spent hours wandering around this spacious new shopping mall with its quaint, paved piazzas – very seductive in the sunshine. Jo’burg is a city where everyone seems to pride themselves on hospitality and service with a smile.
At Melrose Arch, you will find the best shop for an extensive selection of fine wines and of course South African blends, Norman Goodfellow’s, a family run bottle store with superb service, quality, and export arrangements, all rather crucial for those heading to the World Cup as British drinkers have started choosing South African wines above French for the first time.
Also in Melrose Arch, and don’t forget that South Africa built its wealth on gold and diamonds, is Elegance, a stylish state-of-theart jewellery shop where the owner, Oresti, can advise on bespoke pieces in a private viewing lounge upstairs.
Down the road is the best contemporary art gallery on the continent, the Goodman Gallery, run by the dynamic Lisa Essers, which boasts the renowned William Kentridge among its 40 leading artists.
Fifa has commissioned Kentridge to produce one of the World Cup posters, and his works are currently being shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. South Africa is now far more accessible and Jo’burg is dusting off its reputation as the crime capital, to be reborn as a stimulating, exciting city of opportunity and adventure.
If you’re lucky enough to have a World Cup ticket, there’s so much to explore when you’re there.
And if you haven’t got a ticket, go anyway. There’ll be giant screens in the parks, squares and all across the city to watch among the thousands and share the electrifying atmosphere this month and next.