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Bendigo: Built on Gold

If walls could speak, oh, what secrets the splendid structures of Bendigo would reveal. Built on the fortunes of the Victorian Gold Rush, these walls witnessed the sweet successes of the golden age, as well as the trials and tribulations that followed in its wake.

Between 1851 and 1900, Bendigo’s gold-bearing quartz reefs produced enormous amounts of the precious metal (an estimated AUD9 billion worth in today’s terms), and attracted prospectors from all over the world to pastoral Victoria. This newfound wealth poured onto the streets of Bendigo, where boomtown hotels and majestic monuments were erected in an ostentatious parade.

Bendigo’s atmospheric laneways now feature funky cafés and cool restaurants.
Bendigo’s atmospheric laneways now feature funky cafés and cool restaurants. Photography: Chew Win Win.

Bendigo’s gilded grandeur, uncommon in provincial Australia, is a reminder of the city’s halcyon days, when it was, according to certain quarters, considered among the wealthiest places in the world!

The prospectors and miners have long left, and today, gold no longer lures the masses to Bendigo, but in its place, are other treasures – architecture, culture and cuisine, among them – waiting to be discovered. And leading this charge is a new breed of Bendigonians who are working hard to return their beloved city to its former glittering glory.

THE BENDIGO BOOM

Located about 147km from Melbourne, Bendigo is a leisurely drive from the CBD, or as I discovered, just a two-hour train ride from Southern Cross, one of the capital’s major transport hubs. As the train zipped through central Victoria, and into the rural heartland, skyscrapers were fast replaced by barns.

At Bendigo station, I was welcomed by Bendigo Tourism’s executive manager, Kathryn Mackenzie, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the city offered an insightful guide. “In the late 1800s, Bendigo was the second highest producing goldfield in Australia after Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, and the seventh richest field in the world. People came from all over the world to seek their fortune here. Gold production was so high, the city was among the wealthiest in the world,” she said.

The city’s streets are lined with cosy cottages, which feature period architectural details such as filigreed fretwork.
The city’s streets are lined with cosy cottages, which feature period architectural details such as filigreed fretwork. Photography: Chew Win Win.

The gold rush was precipitated by the discovery of alluvial gold along the banks of Bendigo Creek in 1851, not by prospectors or miners, but by a couple of housewives, a Mrs Kennedy and Mrs Farrell. Whether they knew what they were looking for or had unearthed gold by accident, news of their discovery spread far and wide. By June of the following year, and buoyed by similar findings in nearby Ballarat, 20,000 diggers had set up camp in Bendigo.

At the time, gold was so plentiful that, at first, these fortune-seekers panned for gold in creeks and rivers, with only their rudimentary tools.

Immigrants from as far away as China, excited by the prospect of untold riches, made their home in Bendigo, settling in tents close to the goldfields. By the 1860s, 20 per cent of Bendigo’s population were Chinese!

As surface alluvial gold ran out, people dug deeper, and into underground gold reefs. Gold was mostly mined by the sinking of deep shafts into the ground. From 1851 to 1954, the Bendigo goldfields were home to the largest concentration of deep shafts in the world. The Central Deborah Gold Mine (www.central-deborah.com), Bendigo’s last commercial gold mine, offers visitors the opportunity to trace the footsteps of former miners, and explore the subterranean chambers where the metal was mined. Almost one tonne of gold (929kg) was unearthed here between 1939 and 1954!

FROM TENT TO TOWN

As we cruised along Mitchell Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, Mackenzie pointed out the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, Australia’s only provincially headquartered retail bank, and testament to the city’s illustrious history.

By the 1870s, shipments of gold from Bendigo were being sent to Paris and London. Money poured in and the dusty goldfields were soon transformed into an architectural masterpiece.

During the gold rush, banks competing for business commissioned architects to design grand buildings that signified their wealth. Today, these banks – Union Bank, Commercial Banking Company of Sydney, and Royal Bank – among them, have been repurposed, but are an ever-present reminder of the riches that passed through the city.

Many of Bendigo’s illustrious buildings were designed by William Charles Vahland, a German immigrant who arrived in Victoria in pursuit of gold. When, thankfully for the citizens of Bendigo, his dreams of striking gold did not pan out, Vahland turned his attention to architecture. Credited with laying the foundations of modern Bendigo, Vahland, along with his partner Robert Getzschmann, and later his son Henry, stamped his mark on over 100 buildings in the city!

Among his most compelling conceptions is the remodel of the Bendigo Town Hall. Vahland added balustrading, towers and mansard roofs to the existing town hall building, giving it charm and character. Adorned with mythical figures and gold leaf designs, the building’s interiors are just as impressive.

Displeased with the plain appearance of their municipal building, Bendigo elders commissioned W.C. Vahland to redesign the Bendigo Town Hall in the late 1880s to refl ect new wealth pouring into the city. Transformed into a grand monument with the addition of a clock tower and mansard roofs, as well as decorative plaster adorned with 22-carat gold leaf on the interior, the building is a Bendigo icon.
Displeased with the plain appearance of their municipal building, Bendigo elders commissioned W.C. Vahland to redesign the Bendigo Town Hall in the late 1880s to reflect new wealth pouring into the city. Transformed into a grand monument with the addition of a clock tower and mansard roofs, as well as decorative plaster adorned with 22-carat gold leaf on the interior, the building is a Bendigo icon. Photography: Chew Win Win.

Along Bendigo’s Pall Mall promenade is another Vahland redesign – the opulent Shamrock Hotel. Fashioned in the elaborate ‘boom style’, the hotel features detailed stucco mouldings, and a double storey wrap-around verandah decorated with filigreed iron lace-work. Since its establishment in the late 1880s, the Shamrock Hotel has hosted dignitaries and celebrities including Britain’s Prince George (later King George V), as well as Aussie operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba, who once famously requested that the chimes from the clock tower of the nearby former post office (now Bendigo Visitor Centre) be silenced in order for her to snooze!

Around every corner of the city lies one architectural treasure after another; to delve deeper into Bendigo’s glorious built heritage, visitors can sign up for walking tours at the Bendigo Visitor Centre, or download the Beautiful Buildings Walk, a self-guided walking map from www.bendigotourism.com

FOSSICKING FOR FOOD GOLD

After the quick history lesson during our drive, Mackenzie signed me up for The Bendigo Food Fossicking Tour (www.foodfossickers.com.au), a walking tour of artisan food stores, cafés and restaurants in the city centre. With a tight schedule, and less than 36 hours to sample the city’s offerings, Mackenzie wisely decided that this was the ideal route to learn more about Bendigo’s close-knit community, and their love for exquisite eats.

“The city is slowly being revitalised. Young people who left for Melbourne and other larger cities are now returning to invest in local bars and cafés.“With this renewed interest, people are keen to eat and live local, and fortunately for us, Bendigo and its surrounds are home to amazing produce,” she enthused.

We began our food tour in The Epicurean Delicatessen (www.epicureandeli.com.au), a family-owned deli operated by the Ciancio family. Hailing from Italy, the Ciancios were the first to introduce Mediterranean staples such as sun-dried tomatoes, salt cod and espresso to Bendigo.

Zeppole, a sweet snack traditionally served during festive occasions such as birthdays and christenings are a special treat at The Epicurean Delicatessen.
Zeppole, a sweet snack traditionally served during festive occasions such as birthdays and christenings are a special treat at The Epicurean Delicatessen. Photography: Chew Win Win.

Serving up a variety of home-cooked Italian dishes made from fresh, seasonal produce, The Epicurean Delicatessen is a great place for hearty meals and good coffee. Much to my surprise, I found a little doorway at the back of the deli that revealed a tiny Italian-inspired courtyard with potted olive trees. Here, I savoured a Calabrian specialty – zeppole – deep-fried dough balls coated in cinnamon sugar – along with thick, strong Italian coffee.

At the Good Loaf Bakery & Café (www.thegoodloaf.com.au), Bendigo’s former mayor and co-owner of the bakery Laurie Whelan showed me how to prepare the outlet’s signature sourdough bread. Each nutritious sourdough loaf starts from a master white bread leaven, and takes about three days to make, from proofing to production. The bakery, which is located in a heritage-listed service station, also serves other healthy bites including granola.

Passionate producers like B&B Basil, a family-owned business that grows edible fl owers, microgreens and herbs, supply Bendigo’s outstanding eateries with fresh, seasonal produce.
Passionate producers like B&B Basil, a family-owned business that grows edible flowers, microgreens and herbs, supply Bendigo’s outstanding eateries with fresh, seasonal produce. Photography: Chew Win Win.

Next on the tour was Indulge Fine Belgian Chocolates, a chocolaterie run by Hayley Tibbett whose handcrafted sweets are every chocolate-lovers’ fantasy! When I visited, Tibbett was adding the final flourishes to Marilyn Monroe’s lips – yes, you heard that right! The ‘chocolate lips’ – white chocolate with a raspberry ganache filling – were set in lip-shaped moulds, and were being specially made to celebrate the opening of an exhibition dedicated to the blonde bombshell. From Bendigo shiraz to Castlemaine rock (rock candy from a neighbouring city), Tibbett often relies on local ingredients to flavour her confections.

Our morning romp culminated with lunch at Masons of Bendigo (www.masonsofbendigo.com.au), an award-winning restaurant located in a historic glassmakers’ building. Run by Nick Anthony – whose 20-year culinary career spans cheffing stints in Melbourne, London and Singapore – and wife Sonia, this sleek eatery showcases the bounty of central Victoria.

Masons of Bendigo dishes up inventive options that spotlight local ingredients, such as this smoked beetroot arancini, prepared with heirloom beets, fromage and greens from local farms.
Masons of Bendigo dishes up inventive options that spotlight local ingredients, such as this smoked beetroot arancini, prepared with heirloom beets, fromage and greens from local farms. Photography: Chew Win Win.

The menu at Masons focuses on sharing plates, which enables diners to taste the seasonal offerings from local producers. I sampled McIvor Farm Berkshire pork belly skewers, Asian-style barbecued pork basted with a divine caramel sauce, and pan-fried ricotta gnocchi, with whipped cheddar and smoked tomato vinaigrette, among other inspired entrées.

Steamed buns are among the Asian-inspired entrées at The Dispensary Bar & Diner, one of Bendigo's new crop of eateries.
Steamed buns are among the Asian-inspired entrées at The Dispensary Bar & Diner, one of Bendigo’s new crop of eateries. Photography: Chew Win Win.

The Anthonys’ appreciation for paddock to plate eating reflected a commitment to the integrity of ingredients and sustainability, twin passions shared by many of Bendigo’s food purveyors.

BOHEMIAN BENDIGO

After my epic epicurean adventure, I strolled along View Street, Bendigo’s thriving arts precinct, in search of a memento to remind me of my weekend, when I spied Marilyn Monroe, white dress billowing up around her, and a cheeky glint in her eye!

But this was neither a blonde-wigged impersonator nor a mirage; it was Forever Marilyn, an eight-metre tall sculpture of the movie star by US artist Seward Johnson. Inspired by the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, the larger-than-life display depicts an unforgettable scene from the movie, where, while standing over a subway grate, Monroe’s dress billows up around her.

Forever Marilyn arrived in Bendigo this year to commemorate an exhibition dedicated to Marilyn Monroe.
Forever Marilyn arrived in Bendigo this year to commemorate an exhibition dedicated to Marilyn Monroe. Photography: Chew Win Win.

The sculpture was on loan to the Bendigo Art Gallery (www.bendigoartgallery.com.au), one of Australia’s finest regional galleries, in conjunction with the Marilyn Monroe exhibition – the first time it had left the US. This piece of information may seem unremarkable, but to me, it meant that Bendigo, a city of only 100,000 people, was on the map once again!

In recent years, the city has experienced a cultural renaissance, and due to its easy accessibility, is emerging as a weekend getaway for Melburnians. Along with The Capital – Bendigo’s Performing Arts Centre (www.thecapital.com.au), and an eclectic collection of boutiques and galleries, the city’s passion for the creative, and perhaps, quirky, is certainly evident.

Entrepreneurial Bendigonians have found ways to combine business with pleasure, by providing opportunities for visitors to sample a slice of the city’s charming culture. One such example is the Bendigo Blues Tram, an hour-long excursion on one of the city’s historic trams with live music! I enjoyed the musical arrangements of legendary Aussie blues maestro Doc White, as we trundled through the city, passing monuments such as the Vahland-designed Alexandra Fountain and the magnificent Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Bendigo’s iconic vintage trams are restored at the city’s tram depot, which is the oldest operating tram depot in Australia.
Bendigo’s iconic vintage trams are restored at the city’s tram depot, which is the oldest operating tram depot in Australia. Photography: Chew Win Win.

In operations since 1890, Bendigo Tramways (www.bendigotramways.com) is an integral part of the city’s heritage. Today, visitors can explore the city on a vintage talking tram, or like me, experience the Bendigo Blues Tram.

On the tram itinerary is a pit-stop at the historic depot, a must, I discovered, to learn the history of this Bendigo icon, and cuddle the unofficial Tramways Superintendent – Birney the rescue cat! Birney is such a popular fixture at the depot that a book has actually been written about his exploits!

Blues musician Doc White entertains passengers on the Bendigo Blues Tram, a special tram that combines music and history.
Blues musician Doc White entertains passengers on the Bendigo Blues Tram, a special tram that combines music and history. Photography: Chew Win Win.

I capped my tour on the Bendigo Blues Tram with lunch at Rocks on Rosalind (www.rocksonrosalind.com), a restaurant housed in the former confines of a bank, and overlooking Bendigo’s Rosalind Park. The restaurant’s name alludes to ‘The Rocks’, the area of Bendigo Creek where Mrs Kennedy and Farrell first struck gold. Built in 1863, the heritage-listed building was once occupied by the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney, and was the first smelter in Bendigo. Inside, the owners have retained the original charm and character, including stone clad vaults that have been turned into private dining alcoves, and a bullet hole-riddled window from an attempted robbery during the gold rush years!

It was fitting that the three-course lunch was served in an underground chamber. As I sunk into a leather chesterfield, a glass of local rosé in hand, I reflected on the prospectors and miners who made the best of what they had, for it was their courage and dreams that built this city.

ALL THAT GLITTERS

The dizzying heights Bendigo once achieved on the back of the gold rush, may once again be within reach – this time, through its reserves of history and heritage, and the pioneering spirit of dedicated Bendigonians who are forging ahead to build a future for their families.

Now, that’s gold.


BIG GOLD MOUNTAIN

In the mid-1800s, economic strife in China prompted many Chinese to venture outside of their homeland in search of greener pastures. When news of a gold strike in Bendigo reached China, waves of Chinese immigrants arrived on Australian shores. The majority of Chinese who came to the goldfields originated from China’s Canton (now Guangdong) province. To these new immigrants, Bendigo was Dai Gum San or Big Gold Mountain. The Chinese miners brought their treasured traditions with them, and today, their unique heritage lives on in Bendigo. Built on the site of the Ironbark Chinese Camp in the 1870s, the Bendigo Joss House Temple (www.bendigojosshouse.com), a traditional Chinese shrine, is dedicated to Guan Di, the God of War and Prosperity. And, since 1871, the Bendigo Easter Festival has featured an impressive imperial dragon in its parade. Stretching 60 metres, Loong, the original dragon, was retired in 1970 and is now among the exhibits at the Golden Dragon Museum, a repository dedicated to the preservation of the history and culture of the Chinese who immigrated to the region.

Chinese Museum
Photography: Chew Win Win

THE SCHALLER STUDIO

Inspired by the working studio of respected Melbourne artist, Mark Schaller, The Schaller Studio is one of the coolest accommodation options in Bendigo, a vibrant centre of art in regional Victoria. The 128-room Schaller Studio is managed by the Art Series hotel group, whose themed hotels celebrate Australian artists. Decorated with Schaller’s colourful landscapes, still life paintings, and with a neon sign bearing the artist’s signature in every room, this design-savvy hotel exudes contemporary chic.

Art Series Schaller Collage
Photography: Chew Win Win

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