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Bloemfontein, or “Bloem”, as the locals like to call it, is the judicial capital of South Africa. It’s pretty much in the centre of the country in the Free State province, and also happens to be where the author of The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien was born. So it’s safe to say there’s more than a little magic here.
It’s unique in that it is the size and heft of a large African city, yet has the feel of a small country town, with thousands of rose bushes colouring the streets. The literal translation of Bloemfontein from Afrikaans is “fountain of flowers”, which gives the city its nickname, “The City of Roses”. Hence, the annual Rose Festival is a popular local event.
Bloemfontein is also filled with history, where museums and military buildings remember the Anglo-Boer War (also known as the South African War). If you’re a history buff, you must know that The National Museum and Anglo-Boer War Museum are highly regarded among historians.
The South African Armour Museum displays tanks, weaponry and an original military hospital. Overlooking the city is Naval Hill, with a striking white horse marking its slopes. The horse was laid out during the Anglo-Boer War as a landmark for approaching horsemen. Naval hill is also home to a statue of Nelson Mandela which is placed to look directly at the birth place of the ANC in Bloemfontein. It is also home to one of the most advanced planetariums in South Africa which has undergone a massive refurbishment.
Sure, it may have a dry and dusty appearance, but Bloemfontein is home to the Free State’s only botanical garden – the tropical oasis, Orchid House. If you need to put some spring in your step, colourful flowers are always in bloom at King's Park, where you can take in the popular monthly art markets and all that they offer.
While in Bloem, you also have to pop by the Windmill Casino, and the zoo for some brilliant outdoor picnics.
It doesn’t stop there, if you’re fan of architecture, you have to see the only twin-spired Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, built in 1880. You should also visit the Oliewenhuis Art Gallery – a neo-Cape Dutch manor house. Then there’s Freshford House Museum, which brings to life the 1890s. To complete your architecture tour, the magnificent City Hall, the Supreme Court of Appeal and Fourth Raadsaal buildings are also impressive in their own right.
Beyond the city, the Franklin Nature Reserve is home to a dynamic array of wildlife; and the Cheetah Experience is another must-see.
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Macufe is a cultural-based festival that showcases a wide range of African arts and culture to the world. It is held in Bloemfontein every year. Macufe, the ten-day Mangaung African Cultural Festival, showcases the cream of African and international talent. It features jazz, gospel, kwaito, hip-hop, R&B, rock and classical music, as well as dance, drama, cabaret, musical theatre, poetry, fine art and traditional arts and crafts. First held in 1997 before an audience of 30 000, Macufe now attracts over 140 000 people from South Africa, Africa and the world. The festival is presented in late September and early October by the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State.
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Mining in South Africa has been a contentious issue since 15-year-old Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs discovered South Africa’s first diamond, the Eureka, in Hopetown in 1867.
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It’s often worth it leaving behind the big lights and taking a road tip to explore small-town cuisine, or even making a trip of it and spending a night or two and exploring what else is on offer.