By Lesley Stones
Walking down the main street of Parys is rather like walking through a film set.
Scenery built to film a genteel romance where the heroine owns an antique bookstore and is wooed by the owner of an art gallery. They’d stroll by the river, laugh at monkeys playing on a historic footbridge that leads to nowhere, then dine in the quaint restaurant with secret little rooms lit by flickering candles.
Although if you pick the wrong day to visit Parys you’ll be deafened by the throaty growl of Harleys as bikers pull in to drink on the balconies after whizzing down the country lanes.
You have to assume that the German land surveyor who chose the name Parys was blessed with a great sense of humour rather than clairvoyance. Even now it’s just a little country town that often falls asleep by 3pm. In the mornings the modern shopping centre is lively, with long queues waiting to draw cash from the ATMs because some of the shops don’t take these new fangled things called credit cards.
It’s a pretty little place, with the neat houses in its small suburbs boasting a distinct lack of razor wire and electric fences. It’s a place where everyone has time to chat, and a fascinating story to share about life at this enchantingly slower pace.
You’re also likely to bump in to erudite geologists analysing the Vredefort Dome, a vast, shallow crater surrounded by hills from a massive meteor strike 2-billion years ago.
Parys stands in the oldest and largest meteor impact site in the world, and I’d expected to pick up leaflets explaining the history and maps to show me where to find the best views of the crater.
Instead I found that the four large buildings of a multi-million rand Meteor Interpretation Centre had been abandoned without ever being used. No one seems sure why, least of all the professional guides who you have to hire privately if you want to know more about this fascinating big bang.
I wangled a hugely entertaining tour by arriving at the Interpretation Centre at the same time as two other cars also seeking enlightenment. The gate guard clearly spotted an opportunity to double his salary and sneaked us in as if we were on a naughty secret mission.
He spun fantastical yarns about marks in the stone being dinosaur footprints, got his dates wrong by 2,021-million years and told us the meteor had obliterated all humankind for 40km. In the days when Earth’s only form of life was primitive green slime? We gave him a tip just for his chutzpah.
Most people come to Parys for the more recent history found in its dozen or more antique shops. The whole of Bree Street is devoted to arts and crafts, junk shops and highbrow antique emporiums.
The classiest display is in Pines, a lovely shop in a prime position on the corner. The manager Gideon Pienaar tells me that his grandfather started the antique shop in 1976, so it’s a third generation family business. A lot of the pieces are modern replicas, because sourcing enough genuine antiques to fill a shop this large – and all the other antique shops in Parys – would be impossible.
One of the more unusual galleries is Kikis, where photographer Belinda Elrix dresses customers up in vintage outfits and takes deliciously atmospheric portraits. It ties in beautifully with the antique theme, because you can make yourself look like you come from that era too. She holds up a long slinky flapper dress from the 1920s and a sassy little hat, and says that would suit me perfectly.
Kikis is popular with couples and bachelorette parties, with the girls enjoying cocktails in the courtyard before getting a glamourous make-over. There’s nothing old fashioned about the service though, with a CD or printed portrait ready within an hour.
The Information Office on Loop Street has maps and brochures advertising other attractions including cycling, hiking, canoeing and rafting. We had luckily turned up on the first Saturday of the month, so the information lady directed us to the monthly craft faire at Egweni, a lodge by the river.
The faire is a festive little gathering and a lovely way to spend the day. We bought drinks and snacks and flopped on the grass to watch an Afrikaans band playing Euro pop songs. The stalls sell an eclectic range of crafts, food and drink, and there’s a potters wheel where kids can shape their own bowls.
One of the nicest restaurant in town is O’s, in a rambling old house by the river. O’s is run by Willem Boshoff and Tommy Tompson, a financier and a policeman who decided they’d rather run a restaurant. In summer you can dine al fresco but in winter there are fires blazing in rooms that can seat 100 diners. The toilets are proper bathrooms, so if you have to wait a while, you begin to think another patron is taking a dip.
The menu is big on meat and fish, with a pizza selection and kid’s menu too. A traditional bobotie at R85 was huge and delicious, while deboned and basted lamb chops at R119 were also a treat.
One thing that isn’t by the river is the small Parys Museum, where the curator Iris Andrew may show you around personally. The museum closed for a lack of funding in 1994 and Andrew reopened it in 2012 as a volunteer. It once told a decidedly white story, but Andrew is building up the content to reflect the history of the indigenous Sotho people and local anti-Apartheid activists.
The Edwardian-style building was erected in 1904 as magistrate’s court during the Anglo Boer war, and the original prisoner’s dock is one of the exhibits.
She opens a hefty old record book that lists how the area’s farmland was first divided up into plots to create the town. “There’s not much difference between today and then, because the judges and officials got all the best plots,” she says.
If you want to stay in Parys for a night or two, try Carryblaire Guesthouse 14km from the centre, or the Art Lovers Guest House in the town itself.
We chose the Carryblaire, a lovely place on the River Vaal. Guests stay in individual cottages, and meals can be booked in the old wooden-beamed dining room. A lounge looks out over the river and there’s a small swimming pool in the garden.
Parys is just over an hour’s drive down the N1 from Johannesburg, so it’s perfect for a weekend away. It’s also close enough for a day trip to immerse yourself in a gentler pace of life, partake in a spot of lunch and track down the perfect antique for your home back in the city.
Book a private guide, who will jump in your own 4×4 and direct you around. Jan Fourie of Dome Impact Tours also covers some gold mine tunnels, an Iron Age site, Anglo Boer war sites and Bushmen etchings. Tel: 056-811-2078 www.domeimpacttours.co.za.
Christo Meyer of Kopjeskraal Country Lodge includes a video show explaining the geology. Tel: 083 406 0841 www.kopjeskraal.co.za/tours.htm
O’s Restaurant, 1 De Villiers St.
Kiki’s Vintage Studio, 75 Bree Street.
Tel: 076 485 9385
Art Lovers’ Guesthouse
Tel: 056 817 6515
95 Bree Street.
Parys Museum, Liebenberg Street.
Open 9am-1pm, closed Wednesdays