Forget Paris

18 January 2011

History, grand architecture, boutique shopping, fine dining – it’s all here in Victoria’s mini Paris: Bendigo

The last time you went shopping, did you trigger one of the world’s largest gold rushes? No? Apparently two Bendigo housewives did back in 1851. Margaret Kennedy and Julia Farrell stumbled across some nuggets along the banks of Bendigo Creek, and naturally enough went to spend their newfound fortune. They can’t have been too discreet, though, because word that there was gold to be found bolted across Australia, and the world. Legend has it that by the time Margaret and Julia returned from their shopping, tents and claims were already sprouting along the creek. Certainly by Christmas there were 800 diggers. Six months later there were 20,000.


The gold rush that Margaret and Julia started would be the second richest in Australia (Kalgoorlie takes the number-one spot) and the seventh richest in the world. Some 22 million shiny ounces of gold have since been extracted, mostly from the underground mines that honeycomb theground beneath Bendigo, forming the densest concentration of deep mine shafts in the world.


When there is gold just lying around for the taking, it’s a powerful lure. Money mightn’t make you happy, but not having any money will certainly make you unhappy. Bendigo struck it rich a second time, because the people that came to find their fortune left behind a legacy to be treasured.


William Charles Vahland was the mastermind behind Bendigo’s stunning European architecture. He designed over 80 of Bendigo’s buildings, some very humble, many of them spectacular. Forget Paris, come to Bendigo instead. The palatial Shamrock Hotel, with its cornices, gables, columns and balconies, faces the clock tower of Australia’s grandest visitor centre, which sits proudly next to the stern façade of the law courts.


From there an avenue leads directly to the magnificent town hall, whose intricate exterior hints at the gold leaf, plasterwork and murals within. Across the park is the Capital Theatre, and its gigantic columns could grace the most splendid of Roman temples.


Vahland not only contributed his architectural skills to Bendigo, but devoted his life to public service and the community in a vast number of roles, including that of City Councillor and Justice of the Peace. However, Bendigo’s thanks to the great man was, in his last days, to brand him as an enemy alien and place him under surveillance. The First World War had broken out, and despite being an Australian citizen for nearly 60 years, Vahland had made the grave mistake of being born in Hanover, a part of Europe that was to become part of Germany. Vahland died in ignominy on July 21st, 1915.


The Chinese that flocked to Bendigo (or perhaps more accurately fled from poverty in China) also left a lasting legacy. Despite the callous treatment they received from the government of the time, the hardworking Chinese persisted and managed to establish themselves in all facets of society. They contributed greatly to the engine of commerce in Bendigo, becoming doctors, herbalists, launderers, clergymen and retailers.


At the Golden Dragon Museum, Bendigo’s Chinese heritage is beautifully illustrated. As you step through the foyer into the museum, you are first struck with the 2m-high head of Sun Loong, the longest imperial dragon in the world. His 100m length is festooned with elaborate decorations, sumptuous colours, 6000 silk scales and over 90,000 hand-cut mirrors.


Complementing Sun Loong is Loong, the oldest imperial dragon in the world. He, too, is a magnificent creation of colourful silks, mirrors, bamboo and papier-mache. In his prime it took 46 men to carry him. Loong gave 78 years of service to Bendigo’s Easter Fair, before finally being retired in 1970 when Sun Loong took over.


Sun Loong greets you and Loong farewells you as you journey through the museum; in between are displayed the history, art and craft of Bendigo’s Chinese community.


Intricately decorated bronzed urns, lions and warriors stand next to carved furniture of exquisite detail; almost living, impossibly delicate jade carvings stand next to panelled screens of carved wood, silk and inset jade. More Chinese heritage can be discovered and enjoyed at the end of the tramline. There sits the Bendigo Joss House Temple, a building of national significance, both culturally and historically.


It was once the headquarters of a secret society as well as a temple for worship. Today it is a museum, and is still used as a temple. Although it is a small, humble building, it is beautifully decorated and quite fascinating.


At the other end of the tramline is somewhere that must be visited if you want to truly feel what makes Bendigo tick: the Central Deborah Gold Mine.


It’s one of the last two mines to finish operations in Bendigo, ceasing in 1954. Today it is an outstanding tourist attraction that allows you to get up close and personal with Bendigo’s history with the heavy yellow stuff.


Some 20 buildings stand to preserve the mine’s operations as well as house interactive displays and enthralling mining trivia. And that’s just on the surface – you can also descend into the mineshafts and try your luck at striking it rich yourself.


Claustrophobes and mobility impaired need not despair, as there is a gold panning area conveniently provided above ground too.


From the Central Deborah Gold Mine you can also catch a Talking Tram Tour. The tram will take you on a hop-on hop-off trip throughout the city, and is a great way to get an introduction to Bendigo’s impressive streetscapes and gracious buildings.


Of an evening you can catch the ninesevensix tramcar restaurant. It’s a beautifully restored 1952 Melbourne W-class tram with its original number – 976, of course. Bendigo by night is magical, and I can think of few better ways to experience it.

Another experience that is worth catching is a tour of the Town Hall.


This building is another masterpiece from William Charles Valhand. It is still a working council premises, and is almost completely restored. As you stand within the vast, two-storey formal hall, with its elaborate plasterwork and gold leafing, consider this: in the 1970s, the whole building was marked for demolition.


The heart of Bendigo beats to the rhythms of nature. Rosiland Park is a stately triangle of green framed by the impressive rooftops of the Art Gallery, Capital Theatre, Tourist Information Centre, Law Courts and more. A grandcanal runs along the park’s base, and the Observation Tower stands at its highest point atop a hill.


A cool, luscious fernery has been constructed in Rosiland Park’s eastern- most corner, and is dedicated to all good mothers. Pathways twist their way around gullies and over bridges, all within the shade of a vast canopy of green.


Bendigo as a wonderful city for strolling. It’s not just the architecture that makes it so, but the shops and eateries that you can explore. View Street, perhaps the city’s cultural hub, even has its own website. Some of what you’ll find on View Street includes chocolate, the Bendigo Art Gallery, antiques, wine banks, cafés, fine dining, fashion, hair salons and pubs. And that’s just what came off the top of my head.


The View Street experience is reflected throughout the city centre. Books, bakeries, ice-creameries, spas, gifts, antiques, jewellery, hats, fashion and art are all wonderfully present, and representing wonderfully.


My stay in Bendigo included a Sunday, so I forced myself to endure an unpleasant task. Market shopping. Apparently there are readers who enjoy this sort of activity. Shopping, unless it’s for a big boy’s toy, is not for me.


You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered the experience wasn’t entirely unpleasant. The Bendigo markets take place over a huge arena at the showgrounds, spread liberally across the car park and throughout the huge sheds. It’s not on the scale of Melbourne’s Victoria Market, but it has a red-hot go at it.


With the backdrop of vintage buggies careening across the showgrounds, you could buy almost anything – wheels, golf clubs, wooden skis, toys and giant stuffed panthers, to name but a few essential RVing items.


If you want to enjoy Bendigo thoroughly and properly, I’m afraid you’ll have to move there. I’ve really only touched on some of the highlights, and haven’t even attempted to cover the extensive delights of the surrounding region, including some 30 wineries.


There is so much to see and do that each time you come back to Bendigo, the experience will be, dare I say it, golden.




From Melbourne, follow the Hume north and continue along the B75 (Northern and McIvor Highways). From the north, join the Northern Highway southbound from Echuca.




51-67 Pall Mall, Bendigo
Open every day from 9am-5pm except Christmas.
(03) 5434 6060
E: [email protected]




362 High St, Golden Square, Bendigo
(03) 5443 6937
E: [email protected]




Australia’s oldest working pottery. Pottery lessons, art galleries, clay play for kids, café, interpretive museum
Open 9-5, 7 days
146 Midland Hwy, Epsom.
(03) 5448 4404
E: [email protected]


Imperial Dragons, Classical Chinese Garden, art and history.
Open 7 days, 9.30am – 5pm.
5-13 Bridge St, Bendigo.
(03) 5441 5044
E:[email protected]


An exposition of the wheel, the English language and fine confectionary.
Open 7 days 10am – 5pm.
1028 McIvor Highway, Junortoun.
(03) 5449 3111
E: [email protected]


Fresh coffee and culinary delights.
Bath Lane, Bendigo
Open seven days: Mon-Fri 7am - 5pm, Sat 7am - 3.30pm, Sun 8am – 3pm.
(03) 5442 2676
E: [email protected]




Take a walk around town and marvel at the gracious European architecture.


Enjoy the fernery, and take in the view from Observation Tower.


Experience one of Australia’s finest regional art galleries.
42 View St, Bendigo
(03) 5434 6088


121 View St, Bendigo
Wednesday to Sunday 10am - 5pm.
(03) 5441 8724
E: [email protected]

By Sean Cummins