Guide books to South Africa tend to describe Bloemfontein, a city of 500,000 people, as being the kind of place where you can buy a cup of coffee on your way somewhere else. Fast.
BUT SINCE the first of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy stormed the box office in 2001, there's been a little more reason for out-of-towners to hit the brakes in Bloemfontein: J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the book that inspired the film trilogy, was born here in 1892.
Over the last year, as hobbit fever has swept across the world, Bloemfontein has tried hard to lure fans of the book and blockbuster series. But it hasn't been easy. Even though Bloemfontein's two multiplexes have been packed with people seeing the "Lord of the Rings" movies, not many people outside South Africa (or even outside this very city) know about its link to Tolkien. Bloemfontein has traditionally been one of the least visited cities in the country, with international tourists preferring the beaches of Cape Town or the lions and elephants of Kruger National Park.
Bloemfontein's leaders want to change all that. The plans start with Hobbit House, a four-star guesthouse with pink walls, lace curtains, stained-glass windows and lots of garden goblins. Each of the 12 rooms has the name and description of a "Lord of the Rings" character on the door, such as "Elrond's Room, mighty among men and elves."
The kindly proprietor, Jake Uys, says his life-long love of all things Tolkien is like a pair of old shoes, too comfortable to throw away. In fact, Tolkien once wrote that a "hobbit-hole" means comfort, and waiting for each guest by their bed is sherry, Belgian chocolate, and a teddy bear. The bear is for adults; no children under 12 are allowed. Hobbit House has been running for a decade now. But since the first movie's release, it's been continually sold out.
Then there's the "Tolkien Trail" through central Bloemfontein. It begins with the Victorian building on Maitland Street, where Tolkien's father, Andrew, managed the Bloemfontein branch of the African Bank. Next to the bank sits the site of Tolkien's first house, which was washed away in a flood in the 1920s. Now all that's left is a furniture store. Tolkien was baptized in the nearby St. Andrew Anglican cathedral, one of the oldest buildings in Bloemfontein. The last site on the "Tolkien Trail" is his father's grave, which lies in the cemetery on Church Street.
Chante Hinds, from Johannesburg, a regular guest at Hobbit House, made a special trip to Bloemfontein recently to watch "The Two Towers" on Tolkien's 111th birthday--or his "eleventy-first," as Bilbo calls it in the book--on January 3rd, 2003. "It was by far the best movie I have ever seen," says Hinds.
She's on to something. Marc Sholtz, director of the city's tourism office, and Hobbit House proprietor Uys are making plans for an annual festival for the whole city on every January 3. It will feature feasts, screenings of the films, expert speakers, and fireworks like those in the first scenes of "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Funny enough, Tolkien's family left Bloemfontein when he was just three years old. A sickly child, his mother took him back to her home town of Birmingham, England, to recover. Tolkien's biographers say the author believed that being born in Africa, then uprooted at a young age and sent to England, stimulated his creative imagination. Everything in England when he arrived seemed "novel and strange," Tolkien once wrote, and he retained that perception into adulthood.
An impoverished professor much of his life, he never returned to Bloemfontein. But Tolkien did write of his vivid memories from there, especially the "very hot" day he was bitten by a rain spider in the "long, dead grass" in his family's garden, when his African nurse saved him by immediately sucking out the poison.
Gleeful Hobbit House proprietor Uys says he can't wait for the third film in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, when the world will discover the most visceral connection between Tolkien and Bloemfontein: He is convinced that Shelob, the giant spider waiting for Frodo in Mordor, was inspired, over a hundred years ago, by that fist-sized spider.
Those spiders--still a big part of life in Bloemfontein--aren't part of the tour. Yet.