TRAVEL: The cultural and historic oasis of Bendigo
BENDIGO, Victoria. Best known for its 19th century Gold Rush history, its Chinese Museum and unique Bendigo Pottery.
And maybe the famous Shamrock Hotel with its wide verandas peering down on the main street delightfully called "Pall Mall"... the early Colonial settlers certainly had a sense of humour. Irish, no doubt.
But what of today's Bendigo? We decided to find out for ourselves, so after driving less than two hours from Melbourne we're sauntering along Pall Mall observing the rejuvenated heritage listed buildings as well as a smattering of more recent architecture, and lots of green space.
Surprisingly, some trendy boutiques and streetside cafés as well. First impressions are important, and it seems to be a relaxed visitor-friendly place.
So far so good. Next we check in at a new hotel, the Schaller Studio not far away (in fact next to the hospital) and are immediately struck by the artwork and sculptures dominating the entire building, including all the guest rooms. It's like walking into a gallery of modern art, plus a studio section in the lobby where guests (and their children) can use the provided art materials and even attend art classes.
Mark Schaller, after whom the hotel is named, is a contemporary Victorian artist well known as one of the founders of the expressionist group, Roar Studios.
His colourful and sometimes provocative works include a painted Bendigo tram which gives a hint of what the city is all about, with its new emphasis on arts and culture and "lifestyle" in general.
Schaller says: "Bendigo is really romantic...the vibrant art centre for regional Victoria... (growing) into a unique destination for art lovers around the world".
The Bendigo Art Gallery is proof of this. With its long history dating back to 1887 and modern, well-lit extensions, it's arguably Australia's finest gallery outside a capital city.
There's a fine collection of 19th century Australian and international works as well as contemporary exhibits and Indigenous art... even two "ku" pieces (wooden camp dogs) now becoming famous overseas.
Another example of an arts-related project embraced by the community is the Ulumbarra Theatre complex. Built in and around the bones of the 1860s Sandhurst Prison, this is as attractive an arts venue as we've found anywhere. There's a busy programme of theatre, film, music and other events and especially educational activities, as the high school is an integral part of the complex.
The Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation played an important role during the building of Ulumbarra and the opening of the theatre. The name means Gather Together or Meeting Place, as the hill on which it stands was a significant meeting place long before a gaol was ever constructed there.
Getting a feel for the city's pulse has proved a thirsty enterprise, so next we turn our attention to the city's culinary offerings. It's not difficult to find wine bars and restaurants mirroring the Melbourne scene in miniature... but here the emphasis is predictably on locally-sourced food and wine.
We have pitstops at places like Wine Bank, Mr. Beebe's and Rocks on Rosalind, sampling wines and tasting plates. All very delicious, convivial and relaxing... no city hustling here.
Amy Moylan, Hotel Manager at The Schaller Studio tells us about an interesting food and wine experience run by highly awarded chefs Nick and Sonia Anthony at their restaurant Masons of Bendigo.
From their fine dining venue in the city centre, they run a "Market to Paddock to Plate" tour in which guests visit the various farms and organic suppliers and wineries to select food and wines for the evening meal. Guests then help with food prep and enjoy the results at the restaurant. Operated on a limited number of dates, this has proved to be overwhelmingly popular.
Too soon we bid a fond farewell to this Central Victorian oasis, thinking about a future visit to include the triangle of Bendigo, Castlemaine and Kyneton. There's a spirit about these places which makes "treechange" start to sound like a good idea... all the benefits of a big arts-conscious city without the hassles, and the rents!
- Phil Hawkes was hosted by Art Series Hotels - The Schaller Studio