Freedom Day 2015: A Visit to the Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town (Part 1)

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For me, it seemed particularly apt that my first ever (though long anticipated) visit to the Castle of Good Hope (or, to use its Dutch name, Casteel De Goede Hoop), originally built in 1666, should come on Freedom Day – a day that commemorates my country’s first democratic election – given the Castle’s historical significance* and its positioning, which sets it just across from the ever-busy Grand Parade, as well as the City Hall where former President Nelson Mandela so famously addressed the crowds upon his release from prison.

*(Amongst other notable facts, in 1979 it became one of our National Monuments and it is also the oldest surviving colonial building in S.A.)

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For the past few years, I have been desirous to see and experience the beautiful Castle of Good Hope for myself. Thus, as it and all other Iziko Museums were free to visit on the day (Note: they will all be free again on September 24th, when Heritage Day comes back around) and because nowadays, I rarely have the time for such ‘all-day adventures’, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to do some exploring.

Add to this the enticingly balmy weather on the day – I even ended up with mild sunburn after my few short hours’ exploration – and there was really no way I could pass up such a great chance and even the usual detraction of having to ‘go it alone’ didn’t faze me on the day.

I made my way down to the Castle as early as possible (sometime just after 9:00 a.m., as this is when it opens every day of the week. Please note: Each year, it is also closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s), crossing over from Canterbury Street, and entered the Castle via its back entrance.

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This is mainly where the tour buses sign in and park but when I asked the soldier on duty if I needed to enter elsewhere, he assured me that entrance was fine and was helpful enough to give me directions to the gateway.

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Once you cross the first bridge, leading over the waterplant-filled greenish moat, which I found to be very pretty (it is fed from Table Mountain’s water supply via underground tunnels that run into it) and bypass the parking lot, you head left and follow the road, flanked by green, well-kept grass and neat flowerbeds, as it curls around the lofty Leerdam Bastion, and, within a few moments, you are greeted by the rather impressive Castle Gateway and its accompanying cute, lemon yellow ‘guard posts’.

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I – along with a group of tourists – must have spent a good few minutes there taking photos before I wandered down closer to the main entrance (which is literally across the road from the Grand Parade) and checked out some of the nearby garden’s highlights, which include one of two crosses, made from Delville oak, that are dedicated to the memory of the S.A. soldiers who lost their lives fighting in WWI and the small herb garden/lemon grove.

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The Gateway and Bell Tower, which were both added between 1682-’84 by Simon van der Stel and the then-visiting Commissioner van Goens, are, in and of themselves, well-worth admiring.

The 1678 original sea-facing Strand Street (In Afrikaans, ‘strand’ means beach – hence the street’s name) entrance known as the Waterpoort was replaced by this new entrance that lies between Leerdam and Buuren Bastions, because, as my group’s excellent tour guide later explained to us, the waters used to literally lap against the Castle wall, thus flooding the courtyard.

(Note: Today the Waterpoort entrance houses the extensive Military Museum)

The new entrance, the beauty of which one cannot help but marvel at, is made up of an octagonal bell tower. The tower is made from ‘klompjes’. These are little yellow bricks that were used as ballast in Dutch East India Company (or Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC)) ships.

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As for the bell itself, which is rung during the Key Ceremonies, was cast in Amsterdam in 1697 by Claude Femy and still hangs from its original wooden beams.

The exquisite gateway’s triangular pediment portrays the United Netherlands coat of arms with, “the crowned lion rampant holding the seven arrows of the united provinces.”

Below this, one can still clearly see the arms of all the Dutch cities in which the VOC had its chambers. These run as follows: Hoorn, Delft, Amsterdam, Middelburg, Rotterdam and lastly, Enkhuizen (I found it interesting to see each of the arms and their specific symbols).

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Two VOC monograms (keep your eyes open and you will see many of these scattered across the Castle’s various surfaces) flank these, then the two pilasters – entablature and pediment – above are built from blue-grey coloured stone, whilst the entrance itself is made of tiny yellow bricks – similar to the previously mentioned klompjes – apparently known as: ‘ijselstene’. These make it a decidedly unique Cape example of seventeenth century Dutch classicism.

 

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The two guards on duty here positively made my visit, as they were really friendly and fun. At first – possibly because I was the only person who seemed to be on my own, meaning everyone else had someone to take a photo of them standing in front of the gateway (I’m really not big on public selfies so I had already resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t have personal ‘photographic evidence’ of my visit) – the main guard offered to take a photo of me.

Then, when his colleague joined us, they ended up taking two photos of me standing near the gateway before very kindly and rather amusingly, they agreed to my request to take one of them posing very smartly together there too.

 

 

 

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After that, I finally passed through the gateway and emerged into the Information Centre where the secretary (as the guards had already done) informed me that on the day, the Castle was free, as she ran up an admit for one and handed me the smartly designed and most informative Castle’s Gateway Guide. (To view their other guides, please see: Gateway Guides)

This was utterly indispensable to me and I used it to explore the Castle grounds (and its various nooks and crannies) largely on my own before later joining the (English) Castle tour group. It has all the necessary historical info., helpful photos/illustrations and makes finding your way around perfectly simple, even if you feel somewhat lost and unsure of where to go next, as I did at first. (If that happens, just subtly ‘gate-crash’ one of the unofficial Castle tours…)

However, the Castle offers ample signage, which features excellent drawings and informative facts about the buildings, specific areas and the like.

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(You can also find other pamphlets and maps in the Centre, as well as an ABSA Cash Express ATM.)

Usually, the Castle entrance fees are as follows: (Adults) R30; (Note: For S.A. card holders only – pensioners/students/children 5-16 years) R15; (Booked school groups) R5.

 

This price list is really reasonable and to be honest, I expected the standard price for Adults to be at least R50 so I really think it’s wonderful value for money as there’s so much to see and enjoy inside and out!

The secretary also informed me that the Key Ceremony was due to take place at 10:00 a.m. and advised me to hang around the area if I was interested in watching it. So, along with a few other people, I lingered most happily in the amazing Outer Court for a few minutes before the ceremony got underway and more crowds gathered.

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As I had arrived at the Castle relatively early, there were not too many people there at that stage but later in the day, especially around noon, there must have been close to a hundred, if not more, people in and around the Outer Court alone. (I honestly thoroughly enjoyed experiencing it with such a large number of people but it was great to explore most of its main attractions – largely on my own too, another good idea in retrospect – before the crowds really flooded through the Castle’s gateway.)

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When you step out of the Centre and leave Block A’s protective pillars (originally made from wood, they were cast from iron and painted to look like marble, which they really do!) behind, you encounter the large and immaculately maintained Outer Court, which, aside from its neat lawn, is dotted with cleverly placed benches and trees.

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It’s hard to fully express in words just how amazing the sweeping 360-degree panoramic view of Cape Town’s famous trio: Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head that the Outer Court (and even the Inner Court to a lesser degree) affords one truly is – but I hope my photos do it some small justice.

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When you face the main entrance that you have just passed through, be sure to take note of the Inner Gable with its “allegorical trophy of arms” (the original of which can apparently be found in Block F’s grain cellar) carved in teak… It’s quite something.

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The two figures on either side of this have been “reconstructed from Lady Anne Barnard’s paintings.” (As are many other things found at the Castle, including the uniforms – worn by the present day guards – which were based on her illustrations).

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Next, there’s the charming De Goewerneur Restaurant (I stopped by it before I left to sample their coffee and ‘cake of the day’… to see my review on it, please hit:Restaurant Review: De Goewerneur @ The Castle of Good Hope) that offers Castle visitors glorious sit-down seating indoors and out, as well as a kiosk. It’s really worth visiting if you the time before or after your explorations.

If you cross over to Block F (my personal favourite part in the whole Castle), there’s the beautiful Kat (Puije) Balcony, where part of the Key Ceremony takes place and where the excellent Iziko William Fehr Collection (it includes the most amazingly well-preserved and breathtaking antiquated furniture, paintings and ceramics from the 18th to 19th century) can be viewed.

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All important proclamations were made from this balcony, which, though it was originally created in 1695, was changed in 1786 to the lovely Baroque version we can admire today.

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(It is also home to the Lady Anne Barnard Banqueting Hall and in the past, the Governor’s quarters used to be situated here.)

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Just alongside it, you find the Inner Archway that leads into the Inner Court. Highlights herein include: the Castle Well and the aforementioned second WWI Memorial, whilst directly above the Archway is the rather large Vertical Sundial (it was used for official afternoon time. The one across at Block B was used for morning time-keeping purposes), which I will elaborate on in Part 2 of this post.

At this point, I feel it’s important to mention that, at the time of my visit and no doubt for the foreseeable future, the Castle will be receiving some restorative TLC and is “undergoing extensive renovations” at the hands of ‘Siya Zama GVK Building & Renovation’.

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The Castle and its staff do apologise for any inconvenience this may cause visitors because, as a result of this, certain parts of the Castle were and still are closed to the public.

When I visited, this included: the Secunde’s House (essentially, this used to be where the Deputy Governor, or second in charge, used to reside), the Granary and the Cape of Good Hope Gallery – as well as the Dolphin Pool.

However, later in the year, the William Fehr section will have its turn but as our tour guide later joked, this should not be a determent but rather an added incentive for you to return to the Castle in a few months’ time – I for one will most certainly be going back before the year’s end to see the places I could not visit in April!

Then, because I had some free time on my hands and I’m not usually a fan of public toilets, I decided I had better locate the bathrooms and see what state they were in.

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They are located just past the Governor’s Quarters, near the so-called thoroughfare that leads to the Dolphin Pool and Inner Court (note: There is signage directing you to the cellar where they are situated) and I’m pleased to report that the Ladies’ at any rate receives a firm stamp of cleanliness from me.

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After that, at 10:00 a.m. sharp, the Key Ceremony commenced. At first, everyone gathered around the small bronze cannon just off from the Outer Court’s main pathway, in quiet anticipation of the firing of the Signal Cannon but the man in charge of the cannons (he and his assistant were both from the Cannon Association) told us that the cannon would only be fired after the Key Ceremony.

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The Key Ceremony – a modern re-enactment of the original ceremony performed Monday to Saturday – was pretty fun but one small problem I had with it was the female announcer on the day…

Her voice sounded incredibly monotonous and unenthusiastic over the loudspeaker during the first ceremony (the 12 o’clock ceremony was an improvement but it might have been another lady narrating then) and even the French tourists around me looked somewhat disappointed with the narration.

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Still, I quite enjoyed watching the handing over of the key and the marching of guards as they went open the main gate and ring the bell (at noon, it tolls 12 times).

 

If you’re interested, please keep an eye out for Part 2 of my Freedom Day 2015 visit to the Castle of Good Hope! 🙂

Many thanks to www.castleofgoodhope.co.za and Gateway Guide’s The Castle of Good Hope for the additional info. used in this post.

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