This weekend, my boyfriend & I drove to Ballarat to check out the famous Goldfields town and the Winter Wonderlights show at Sovereign Hill, an open-air museum. In an hour and fifteen minutes, we’d left the city behind for the historic city of Ballarat.
The Goldfields played a major part in Australia’s history. After the discovery of gold in 1851 at Poverty Point (yes, really), the town of Ballarat sprung up almost overnight, reaching a population of 10,000 in around six weeks. Happy-go-lucky gold diggers from around the world swarmed to Australia in the hundreds of thousands. The Gold Rush made Melbourne the richest city in the world and established Australia’s diverse multicultural population.
Ballarat and Bendigo also benefited from the wealth pouring out into the city – out of the ground – and today, both towns are full of elegant 19th-century buildings, distinguishing themselves from the average country town.
Because of this legacy, I had pretty high expectations for Ballarat.
The Victorian houses lining the streets as we drove into town were promising. The first building I saw in town had to be the world’s cutest McDonald’s, in a bright red brick heritage building. Streets of elegant sandstone buildings flashed past out the window as we drove around looking for a car park.
The first thing we noticed about Ballarat was the cold. It was around 5 degrees! The second thing we noticed, as we walked into town, was how quiet it was for a Saturday. We ate at the first place we found, the Beechworth Bakery, keen to get out of the cold.
The Beechworth Bakery is the biggest bakery I’ve ever seen! It’s cavernous halls were full of families, keeping warm with coffee, cakes and pies. Clearly, we’d stumbled upon the right place – this was where everyone was hiding!
We both went for the Beechworth Pie, a simple steak pie. I was tempted by the “Ned Kelly” pie, but a pie topped with bacon and eggs was pushing it.
There is nothing quite like a country bakery. The cabinet was bursting with oversized lamingtons, cakes, pies, buns, pastries, tarts and other baked goodies I’d never seen before. Their entire menu was full of local flavour, with nods to other famous Aussie characters with Dame Ednas (pink lamingtons), bushranger focaccias and bushman’s pasties.
I can’t remember the last time I queued for more than five minutes at a bakery, but it was worth it. Made with meat from the local butcher, you could really taste the difference. The coffee was also very good – high praise from two coffee snobs. Dad used to have a small batch coffee roasting business, and before I even drank coffee, I’d help Dad roast the beans – and developed a very fussy palate in the process. With David’s new job, he lives on coffees – I don’t think it’s possible to not become a coffee snob if you drink Melbourne-made coffees every day.
I was feeling sorry for myself because I was cold, so I talked David into sharing a snickerdoodle with me. I ordered it mostly for the funny name, but it was delicious – baked custard, wrapped in a pastry & topped with blueberries and raspberries. Yum!
Any non-Aussies stopping at the Beechworth Bakery should treat themselves to a Beechworth Pie, a flat white and a Dame Edna pink lamington.
Afterwards, we went for a walk down the main streets to admire the architecture and get a better feel for the town. We saw a few inviting cafes (Red Bird & Yellow Espresso), which I definitely would have “researched” if I wasn’t already full.
Up close, things looked a little different. The streets of Ballarat were nearly empty and the shops on the ground floor of these heritage buildings looked like they were going out of business – many were for lease.
“You can tell a town is in trouble, when there are For Lease signs on the high street,” David told me. One shop was even offering six months rent-free. If this was Saturday on the high street, I can imagine how tough business must be during the rest of the week.
To be fair, the streets might have been quiet because it was really fricking cold. It was about five degrees, but it felt like it was less than zero. Most of the locals were probably too smart to be wandering around aimlessly in this weather – they were obviously all holed up in the Beechworth Bakery.
It was quiet, but Ballarat is still a very pretty city. A narrow park divides the main road, running down the centre. I can imagine how pretty it would be in spring and summer, when the flower beds are in full bloom and the buildings are backed by sunny blue skies.
The middle of winter is probably not when Ballarat is at its best. The Goldfields are famed for their beautiful autumnal foliage, but in winter, most of the trees were bare. The sky was an overcast white, which makes any city look dull. Even Verona in Italy looked pretty lacklustre under smoggy white skies!
In fact, the Edwardian buildings and overcast skies reminded me a lot of the UK. Especially with the state of Queen Victoria outside city hall!
I was only in town for a couple of hours, during the least charming time of year, so it’s too soon to make a call on Ballarat. I really want to visit Bendigo, but now I know to save that trip for spring, summer or autumn…or basically any day when it’s sunny and warmer than ten degrees. Maybe I’ll swing back through Ballarat and visit the art gallery – it’s the best regional art gallery in Australia! I’m kicking myself now because I thought it was in Bendigo.
Either way, I’ll definitely be back for a Beechworth Pie.
Have you visited the Goldfields region? What is your favourite country town?