Cape Town is a coffee drinker’s dream. From the endless options on Long Street to celebrity-sighting hotspots in Camps Bay, there is no shortage of cool restaurants and cafés ready to serve the jolt-iest java and the most elaborate lattés. Like this one, which the lovely folks at Rcaffé on Long Street prepared for me and my friend.
This cappuccino was delicious, but I had an even more extraordinary one at a small café in the basement of Cape Town’s St. George’s Cathedral.
St. George’s and the surrounding area already has plenty to attract visitors, being located next to the Company’s Gardens, and just up the street from Cape Town’s iconic museums.
The cathedral is best known internationally as the home parish of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and played a pivotal role in Cape Town’s struggle against apartheid.
I’m getting ahead of myself. While I was wandering along Wale Street, a large sign for a free photographic exhibit at St. George’s Crypt caught my eye:
The exhibition was incredibly powerful. Large, blown-up photos from a series of marches around South Africa on September 13, 1989. The images show a regime grasping to retain its control over a nation that had decided it was time to change. In his remarks in the exhibition brochure, Archbishop Tutu describes the day, a day in which the decision had been made that peace would bring about fundamental change in South Africa:
Nothing, nothing can overwhelm the spirit of a people that yearn to be free. They are unstoppable.
September 13, 1989 was God’s tipping point. When we gathered in the Cathedral to mourn the loss of yet more lives, we knew that the time had come to throw off the yoke of oppression. We would be free because we were created for freedom. We could no longer tolerate the pervasive evil of apartheid that had corroded our beloved country and had torn apart our people. We were at risk of losing our humanity.
And so we came to the Cathedral to pray, Muslim, Jew, Christian, black, white – our rainbow nation – and as we walked out into the streets of Cape Town it was exhilarating to be joined by thousands, swept along in the realisation of the dream that freedom is possible. Freedom was within our grasp because we knew that God was in charge and that all we had to do was claim our God-given right and be free.
While I was pondering Archbishop Tutu’s words and taking in the hope captured in those images from September 13, 1989, a young man approached me, “Excuse me, m’am, would you like to try the best coffee in Cape Town?”
His name was Kenneth, a barista at Café St. George, a lovely café located in the crypt. In need of a caffeine fix after a busy morning, I was sold the minute I saw the exotic cupcake display and smelled hot, fresh coffee.
I picked a lovely cupcake topped with marshmallow, chocolate and gold, and took a seat by the windows with their hottest cup of coffee to enjoy the peace and solitude of the café.
Kenneth was a man of his word, the coffee was probably the best I had in Cape Town. I quickly learned that coffee and cupcakes were only a small part of the story.
The Whole Story
As I was enjoying my coffee, Kenneth and his co-worker told me more about the extraordinary history of the café’s space.
In its early years, the crypt served the usual purpose, storing ashes. There are still stone markers around the perimeter of the room describing some of its original inhabitants. As apartheid took hold in the country and evictions and relocations persisted throughout the 1970s, evictees took sanctuary in the crypt. As anti-apartheid efforts started to grow in the 1980s, hunger strikers protesting the government stood their ground there. After apartheid ended in the 1990s, South Africa’s newfound freedom came with harsh economic realities and the crypt served as a soup kitchen. Into the 2000s, the crypt was a restaurant, then a club, taking us to its current incarnation as a café.
I listened to them and took notes furiously, trying to wrap my head around the remarkable space I sat in. Furthermore, the man himself, Archibishop Tutu, had just been in earlier that week for coffee and some vigorous debate at his usual table. Like St. George’s itself, the remarkable crypt stands as a testament to Cape Town’s history and watches as an uncertain future unfolds.
Café St. George is an unexpected delight, a refuge from the hustle of the Mother City and a rare opportunity to sit and sip the most historic coffee in Cape Town. Do not miss out.
See for yourself:
Café St. George at St. George’s Cathedral
5 Wale Street, Cape Town