I like to think everyone has those days when a gentle stroll amongst the shops turns into a cross-eyed, hobble-legged search for a loo. Just the other day I found myself once again misjudging my essential tea/bladder ratio in the middle of Greenmarket Square.
This hubbub of colour and activity dominates the centre of town to such a degree that, regardless of where you started, you will at some point find yourself there. There are numerous coffee shops and restaurants surrounding it, but I always feel uncomfortable taking advantage of the Ladies loos in such places without also sitting down for a drink, a familiar situation which it seems to me only perpetuates the problem.
As my brain reached a critical stage of limbo my eye was drawn to a large black cat, sunning himself on the stoep of the Old Town House, a building overlooking but generally overlooked by the bustle of the square. Large doors opened onto a marbled gallery, which somehow offered hope, if only to be out of the sun.
Curious, and feeling slightly silly, I poked my head in. Instantly the noise of the street outside receded and I was welcomed in to the cool interior.
The receptionist greeted me kindly despite my self-conscious smirk and awkward gait. She continued to smile as I looked around me in amazement at a series of pictures which, somewhat alarmingly, appeared to have been hung back to front. Two old ladies with cemented hair – the only other visitors in the gallery – were muttering with a discontent that can only be mustered with years of practice. I decided that nodding wisely and appreciatively was probably the best cover for my confusion and bought myself a couple of seconds by feigning a fascination of the pamphlet I found clutched in my fist.
It appeared that the building I had found myself in was in fact an art gallery housing the Michaelis Collection of mainly Dutch 17th century paintings. What I was seeing was ‘Flip’, a short-term ‘curatorial intervention’ with the idea of allowing the visitors to see the backs of the paintings – ‘fascinating visual objects in their own right, normally accessible only to historians or their own curator’.
That explained it then. Max the cat wound his way between my feet before throwing himself into a heroic pose in the middle of the gleaming marble floor. At the other end of the gallery one of the groaning matrons crossly scrabbled at a frame with her scarlet talons in an audacious attempt to turn it around. Defeated, they left in a huff. It was marvellous.
Just to have discovered such a place in the heart of the shopping area was delightful, let alone to find such a wonderfully quirky exhibition. There is a plethora of magnificent art to be discovered in Cape Town, much of it in similarly historic buildings. But for me, this display will remain one of the most memorable. Slivers of new wood became testament to years of restoration, old labels indicated the changing ownership of each painting and original marks by the artists themselves stung my imagination into action. Moreover, the building was cool, it was small (just four beautifully proportioned, stunningly elegant rooms) and it was free. Perfect. It even had a little café in the courtyard outside. Incidentally, the lavatories are dead ahead of the entrance, on the right hand side under the staircase.