The little town that could

Do you drive past or through small country towns and wonder what on earth sustains them? What keeps them ticking over? Why are they here? A lot of country towns in Australia are doing it tough – thanks to drought; debt; lack of employment opportunities; or simply by being bypassed by the highway. Benalla, in north east Victoria, suffered the highway bypass many years ago and became too easily forgotten by many motorists roaring up and down the Hume Highway (or Freeway as it is now called).

Once upon a time the town was known for its beautiful rose garden, but now, through the initiative of some creative locals, it has seized the mantle as the self proclaimed Street Art Capital of Australia.  In 2015 this group of locals got together, and with the help of generous sponsorship from local businesses and residents, created The Benalla Wall to Wall Street Art Festival. The idea was simple and drew inspiration from towns such as Georgetown in Penang – let’s invite street artists to the town, give them a wall, some paint, accomodation and food and let them loose over a weekend. And the result in that first year was 14 murals created by some of the world’s most renowned street artists. Despite some initial resistance from residents, the street art idea has taken root and the Wall to Wall Festival has become an annual event.  But, it is not just confined to street art. Not to be left out, some of the old wheat silos in the region have also been used as large scale canvases.  So, in short, there is now plenty to see in the little town of Benalla, providing a real reason to detour off the Hume Freeway.

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We launch our latest adventure with lunch at Fowles Winery at Avenel (corner of Hume Freeway and Lambing Gully Rd).  Fowles is a routine coffee stop stop for us when making the 5 hour trip up to Mt Hotham, but it has been a while since we have eaten there. The menu offers plenty to choose from, and it was all yummy, and delightfully washed down with a glass of Fowles wine. The winery is undergoing expansion works so the front looks a little barren, but someone in the landscaping department obviously has grand plans as there is now a monumental wooden archway dissecting the carpark. It will be interesting to follow its progress over the years.

From there it is on to Benalla, but we don’t stop in the town. Rather, we are on the hunt for the newly painted silos. First up is the tiny hamlet of Goorambat (population 347, some 20km beyond Benalla), and the painted silo of the Melbourne street artist Jimmy Beattie, known as Dvate. Dvate’s passion is for endangered species, so his chosen subject is a portrait of Milli, an Australian Barking Owl he met at Healesville Sanctuary. The Barking Owl is the most threatened owl in Victoria but Northeast Victoria remains a stronghold for this endangered species, so the silo seemed like a fitting place to put this image.

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But little Goorambat doesn’t just boast a Dvate artwork on its silo. It also has a beautiful Adnate mural, entitled Sophia and painted during the 2017 Wall to Wall Festival, in its tiny Uniting Church. The Adnate mural has helped create an amazingly beautiful space, both physically and spiritually, in this humble chapel.

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Then it is on to the even smaller town of Devenish and the silos painted by Cam Scale. Cam took as his inspiration the town’s connection to WW1, when one in six of this small community signed up to serve. Of the 50 that went overseas, seven did not return.  The town wanted something to commemorate the centenary of the end of the war, but also hoped for a memorial that might draw tourists to this somewhat down at heel little town. The community raised $20,000 to fund the painting of the silo, and are thrilled with the result.

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There is yet another painted silo a further 23km up the road at the town of Tungamah, but we didn’t find that out until the next day so shall have to leave that for another time. Apparently the Tungamah mural is particularly noteworthy for the fact that the artist, Sobrane, painted the mural freehand, working from a one page sketch (more typically, works of this scale are done using either projection of the image onto the surface, or using grid markings to guide the artist’s hand).

We return to Benalla and arrive at our Airbnb as the cold evening air is beginning to take hold.  We are relieved to discover that our host has already turned on the heater, which has taken the chill from the air. We have decided to dine in as we were reluctant to leave the warmth, and we are very lucky in that decision as we discover the next day that the town’s main restaurant, Georgina’s, is closed due to a fire suffered some 5 weeks earlier. Instead, we enjoy a fireside feast of our own making, complete with a bottle of sparkling and a bottle of The Inception Cabernet from Fowles Wines.

Our beds are comfy and we awake to a crisp but bright sunny day, which is fortuitous as we have booked ourselves into a Street Art walking tour, starting at 10.30am.  After a get me started coffee at Rustik Café, we meet our tour guide, Lindsay from Visit Benalla (visitbenalla.com.au), at the appointed time and place. The place is beside the Benalla Ceramic Mural, and Lindsay tells us a little of its history. The mural was commenced in 1983 but was not completed until 2010. While local artist Judy Lorraine had a big hand in its creation, there are tiles made by residents and school children, as well as people such as the famous cartoonist Leunig.  A bakers oven once stood on the spot, and this too has been captured within the mural. Overall, one can’t help thinking of the whimsical work of the celebrated Catalonian artist , Antoni Gaudi. It certainly rewards time taken to explore its nooks and spiralling crannies.

Lindsay was one of the founding members of the Benalla Wall to Wall Street Art Festival committee, so is well placed to introduce us to the key pieces around town, and to let us into the tales behind both the art works and how the Festival came to be. It is quite fascinating to hear the inside gossip; to hear more about the artists and their way of working; and to learn which murals find favour with the locals and which don’t.  We spend a very enjoyable 2 hours wandering the town and admiring the walls.

At the end we are in need of sustenance so head back to Rustik Café for lunch and a much needed sit down, before crossing over the bridge to look inside the charming Benalla Art Gallery, a small gem of a regional gallery sitting beside the banks of Lake Benalla .

The Gallery has its own café, a small shop and two gallery spaces. The first has an exhibition of works from the collection, entitled Ornament and Subject. One beautifully intricate work particularly takes our fancy (but I forgot to take note of the artist, many apologies to him or her).

The other room is showing works by Peter Waples-Crowe and Megan Evans, entitled Squatters and Savages. The works are clever and visually arresting reflections on the impact of colonisers on our Indigenous people. I found it quite moving.

We finish off our Benalla visit with a quick look around NEA, the North East Artisans store on Bridge Street East. We haven’t seen all Benalla has to offer – the artworks in the nearby Winton Wetlands will have to wait until our next visit – but it is time to climb into the car and make the 2.5 hour trip back to Melbourne. But before I go I take another look at one of my favourite civic buildings – the old Benalla Shire offices, built in 1958 and designed by architects AK Lines, MacFarlane and Marshall, which has thankfully been recognised for the modernist gem it is and beautifully restored and placed on the Victorian Heritage Register.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in this town that could take on and own the identity of street art capital of Victoria.

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New York Reflections

This isn’t my first trip to New York.  I started visiting in the 1980’s, thanks to the fact that the man I was living with in London had a sister and niece in NYC. The man is long, long gone but not so his sister and niece, who have come to be considered family – infrequently seen but much loved; the ex outlaws as we call each other.  And, they are the reason for this visit, just to spend time in their beloved company. This is just some random reflections and travel notes from that trip.

The Subway

I haven’t been back to New York for probably 12 years, so it is both familiar and unfamiliar – I have to relearn the subway for a start, those multi coloured arteries that link the different neighbourhoods of this endlessly fascinating city. Being from Australia I envy any city with an underground train system. Sure, it might be a bit grimy down there, but my goodness it is a great way to get around.  I think I cover off a good section of the alphabet this stay. As I am staying in Brooklyn,  the R line is my main focus, but it is the slow boat to China, stopping at all stations and often delayed – or in fact, stopping at only a few stations on the weekends. I learn to leap out and dash across the platform to catch an Express train, hoping like hell I’ve leapt on the right one, but realising that even if I haven’t, as long as I don’t pop my head up gopher like out the subway hole, my Seniors Return fare ticket ($2.75 US)  is good to get me to where I eventually want to go if I need to retrace my steps.

I give up trying to understand what the driver is saying over the intercom. In fact, right from catching the taxi at the airport I have submitted myself to the knowledge that any one involved in transport in this city is virtually unintelligible, at least to me. A fact that results in a couple of embarrassing, on my part, exchanges with people behind glass at ticket counters; and has me studying the subway map clutched in my hand intently as I tick off the stops, as there is not a chance in hell I’m going to understand the verbal recitation of the stops.

I get great pleasure from the busking travelling minstrels on the train, and insist on giving them money, much to the disapproval of my ‘family’. In the course of just a few rides I encounter a mariachi band, a trio of soul singers and a Chinese opera violinist. All bring a smile to the face; well maybe not the Chinese violinist.

The Museums

This city has a museum for everything, and this visit I return to some well loved ones , plus experience some new to me. I start with the Museum of Modern Art; fitting given that our very own NGV has just opened a major exhibition of loaned works from MoMA. This has been achieved in part because MoMA is going through a major renovation and construction to expand the gallery space, which may explain why my visit is not as exciting as others I see this trip. However, I did discover a photographer, Stephen Shore, whom I now Follow in Instagram.

The Guggenheim is virtually closed as they bump in a new exhibition, but the side wing is open and I do a quick whip around a children’s art exhibition and a small exhibition of major pieces from the collection. A warm up to the Met just down the road.

I feel a bit like Hansel & Gretel in The Met, wishing I had breadcrumbs to spread behind me to ensure I actually make it out again. The place is huge. But, my focus is the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibition. The exhibition features “the work of designers who for the most part were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition ……….. most acknowledge its enduring influence on their imaginations”. Cleverly, the garments are displayed throughout the Medieval and Byzantine Art galleries, so you are both forced to reflect on the influence of religious art on the fashion, and to look at items in the collection, not just the garments. All the while, hypnotic music is pulsing through the gallery. Unfortunately I don’t make it uptown to see the the display in the Met Cloisters, but thoroughly enjoy what I do see on Fifth Avenue.

I am eager to see the new Whitney building, a museum that has always held a special place in my heart as it was where I discovered the marvellous Edward Hopper. The Whitney is devoted solely to American art, and there are two highlights here today for me. The first is the exhibition of Grant Wood works. Who I hear you say? Well, you will all know him because he is the artist who painted the iconic American Gothic painting.  But, there is so much more to the man than this work, and I discover that I am a great fan. The second highlight was the small collection of Jacob Lawrence war paintings within the An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection 1940-2017 exhibition.

I have a brief but interesting visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, down in the financial district, but it was my last museum visit that was a particular revelation –  the Museum of Art & Design (MAD). A relatively small space, on Columbus Circle, but a real delight (and I gather the restaurant on the top floor is very good also). It is here I discover the work of pioneering feminist artist Miriam Schapiro, whose aim was to spotlight the artistic merit of the so-called female domestic crafts. She pioneered a painting collage hybrid she called femmage, and they are beautiful.  On the next floor I am introduced to the Negro Motorist Green Book, which was an annual guidebook published between 1936-1967, listing businesses across America that were sympathetic to African American motorists and travellers, thus helping (and hoping) to make their travels safer. The artist Derrick Adams used the Green Book as the inspiration for his work in this exhibition. Fascinating.

Walks

I had two walks on my Must Do This Visit List – the Highline, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

No visit to New York is complete without a walk along the Highline. What a truly brilliant idea this was – a terrific example of innovative urban landscaping that in turn has completely revitalised a once down at heel area. The architecture going up is amazing, and the place buzzes. I walk the length of it (2.3 km or 1.45 miles in their money), starting at the Whitney, and then back again.  As I walk the drizzle stops and the sun comes out, thus the crowds slowly build. I stop half way to enjoy a very yummy panini from one of the food carts, followed a bit further by a magnificent ice cream sandwich to reward my efforts.

We tackled the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn side, struggling against the steady flow of walkers doing it in reverse. But, the view is so much better our way, as you are walking towards that famous skyline. A word of warning: whichever way you walk it, the path is also a bike path and the local bikers get very very cross at oblivious tourists intent on taking selfies and ignoring the faded lines delineating the bike lane. If you want to avoid an earful, stick to the pedestrian side.

We continued our walk to the site of the World Trade Centre and were unexpectedly moved by the fountain memorial, which captures so much in its simplicity.

Coffee

My morning ritual always includes indulging in a decent coffee in a cafe, and being in New York is no exception however proves trickier to achieve than here in Melbourne (which is, as I instruct mine hosts, the coffee capital of the world).  The search for a good coffee starts each days outing, with mixed success.  I Google Australian cafes in New York, and there are quite a few, especially in Brooklyn but unfortunately not in my end of Brooklyn. Bluestone Lane is one of the originals to conquer NYC, and there are numerous outposts now, including one just near The Guggenheim so I pop in on my Guggenheim Met day, only to see a queue of people waiting to get in. So, I opt for a take away coffee and prop myself up on the bench outside the neighbouring church and people watch. But, I have to admit the coffee was somewhat disappointing – success gone to their heads maybe?

However, I do come to realise over the course of my coffee journey that Americans seem to like a more bitter coffee flavour, or is it a stronger aftertaste, than we are used to in Melbourne. Maybe it is because they have grown up on that stewed bottomless stuff that passes for coffee there.

I find three brands that hit the spot. Gorilla Coffee, an independently owned micro roaster in Brooklyn (472 Bergen St, Brooklyn). Blue Bottle  is a small chain started in the early 2000s in Oakland California – they were purchased by Nestlé in 2017 but still manage to turn out a good brew, despite the rather soulless environment I find in the Park Slope store (although the brown molasses cookie was delicious and still occupies a corner of my taste bud memories). But both were surpassed by my find on my second last day, Birch Coffee, which has 10 outlets in Manhattan. The one I find is a hole in the wall at 884 Ninth Avenue – I managed to secure a stool, and was a very happy girl.  An honorary mention can also go to FIKA, a Swedish brand with outlets across Manhattan – although it was their chocolate rum ball type thing that really got my attention.

But, whist on coffee I couldn’t help but notice just how much plastic and disposable cups are consumed. Even if you are drinking the coffee in you are often given it in a take away cup. Why???  And then there are all the iced tea, smoothie, frappe and whatever else they drink plastic cups – all with straws. My head was filled with images of the landfill that must be generated by this alone. The keep cup concept hasn’t seemed to have caught on yet, but boy does it need to.

Films

Unfortunately I don’t make it to any shows, but we do manage to see three movies which are yet to make an appearance in Australia. The first was a documentary about the amazing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was before this film unknown to me, but I am now a member of her Fan Club. RBG, as she is fondly known, is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and a truly formidable woman who fights fiercely and intelligently for the rights of the American citizen. She is the voice of sense on what is becoming an increasingly right wing court – which will become more so if she dies and Trump is able to make another appointment. Given she is 85 and has had several brushes with cancer, her ongoing health is of concern to all liberal thinkers.

I followed this with another film about a formidable woman, the fading actress Irina Arkadina, played by the wonderful Annette Benning, in The Seagull. In fact everyone in this film of the play was terrific, with a cast including Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy and Billy Howle. A must see when it comes here.

My last film was not so successful, despite its all star female cast of Dianne Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen. The latter was wonderful, and provided the only laughs. Without her the film would have been completely woeful. Called The Bookclub – predictable cliché ridden waste of talent.

Friendship

Friendship is what brought me to New York this time, and it is what I leave thinking about. The people we meet along our way; the people we keep. I haven’t seen this lot for maybe 8 years, but I slip back through the crack in time and take up my place within the comfort of their beating family heart. My visit is full of dinners around the kitchen table; of school music recitals; of walking the crazy family dog around the local park whilst admiring the Chinese exercise classes; of getting to know the (grand)kids; of errands and doctors visits. And, I couldn’t be happier. The ties that bind are invisible but strong.

And, I have an added bonus in my two Aussie friends who moved to the Big Apple 14 years ago, and have made a hugely successful life for themselves there. I stay the night in their groovy apartment in the financial district and enjoy dinner at a local institution followed by an amazing milk punch (and no, it wasn’t the warmed milk drink I was imaging but instead a highly lethal but delicious cocktail made with clarified milk among other things). A quick coffee and a final hug on my last day sends me on my way.

Hopefully my next visit will not be so many years away.

 

Marimekko and more

The Bendigo Art Gallery is definitely a jewel in Bendigo’s crown, and provides us with a perfect excuse for a mini break in Regional Victoria. We are the intrepid threesome of Hazel, Kitta and Deb; determined to make the most of our 48 hours out of Melbourne. The raison d’être for our trip is to visit the Marimekko exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery, but we of course have to add food, shopping and exploring as added extras.

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First stop in our tour is Moto Cafe in Malmsbury for some seriously good coffee. They roast their own beans; who would have thought that would be happening in this sleepy village bypassed by the highway, and have created a welcoming space in which to enjoy it on this somewhat chilly morning. Next time we will also try something from the menu as it sounded very tempting, but for now it is coffee only to get us up and on our way to the gallery.

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We probably should have eaten in Malmsbury, as by the time we reach the Gallery we are ravenous so stampede into the Gallery café without a glance either left or right. The café is full of like minded ladies, all chattering at full strength. The wait staff rush around the space, ferrying plates and glasses at an amazing speed.

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Hunger satiated we are then able to retrace our steps, purchase a ticket for the exhibition and enter the realm of bold colours and simple, striking designs. Even if you think you don’t know Marimekko I’m sure as soon as you see some of their designs you will recognise them. The company was founded in 1951 in Helsinki, Finland and earned international fame in the 60s, when even Jacqui Kennedy wore their designs. Despite its iconic status the brand fell on hard times in the 80s but was rescued in the early 90s by an ex advertising executive who knew a good thing when he saw it and revived and revitalised the famous brand, bringing back some of the old designs as well as nurturing new designers.

The exhibition showcases Marimekko’s designs and designers from the 1950s to the present day through clothing, homewares, and fabrics. You get to see some of the original  art work for the designs, plus the range of colour ways used.  It is fascinating to see a paper design transformed into a fabric swatch and a garment, but we felt the exhibition missed the opportunity to show this progression in more detail – it didn’t successfully bring to life how a design idea, drawn onto a piece of paper, then becomes a printed fabric, nor how the garment designers work with the designs and fabrics to create the clothing. We left lusting to be owners and wearers of Marimekko, but wanting more from the exhibition.

Before exiting the building we had a quick look at the New Histories exhibition, but were left rather scratching our heads with this one. Great idea though – 10 contemporary artists were asked to reimagine  “through the lens of contemporary culture” ten 19th and early 20th centuries works from the collection. Reimagine they certainly did.

Back into the car and a retracing of our steps down the freeway, as far as Kyneton where we had booked an Airbnb for the night. Cowen House proved to be a newly renovated, charming 3 bedroom cottage with comfortable beds, crisp linen and fortunately an efficient central heating system.

We toasted a successful day with rosé and Hazel’s homemade savoury mini scones, before venturing out into the chill night air for dinner at one hatted Source Dining.  As we tumbled through the door, eager to escape the cold, we were warmly greeted by the young man behind the bar – but his charm was the last we were to see. Whilst the room itself was warm and thawed us out, the staff waiting the table set the temperature plummeting. Nary a smile nor friendly word to be seen or heard. I felt I needed to sit up straight, and eat all my greens!  We started with a slice of house baked bread (from a 5 year old starter we are pompously informed), which was delicious – accompanied as it was by some whipped butter – and we would have enjoyed a second slice but that was never going to happen as once entree was finished the bread & butter plates were immediately whisked away.  The meal itself was very pleasant, and excellent value being Thursday Locals’ Night (main, dessert and a generous glass of wine for $49) but marred by the lack of engagement from the people serving it. We are unlikely to return.

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Next morning we browse the shops and enjoy a coffee at Little Swallow Café (again, the food looked excellent, but we had already eaten the continental breakfast supplied by Cowen House), before heading off to Ballan.

Our goal here is the Millrose Quilting Store, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of jewel like fabrics. I wander the shelves, desperately wishing I could sew. Kitta is our quilter, and we happily pour over fabrics helping her to choose just the right shade of background fabric.  It is amazing to find such a treasure trove in Ballan of all places, but word is obviously out amongst quilters as they come to the store from far and wide. Next door is the Millrose Café, and as it had been at least 4 hours since we last ate we felt obliged to step inside.

Fed, watered and stocked up with gorgeous fabrics it is time to hit the road for home. And, time to plan our next adventure.

 

 

Culture in Canberra

Who would have thought that I would visit Canberra, the never missed home of my youth, not once but twice in 12 months (and, have plans to visit again later in the year). Wonders will never cease, but then Canberra today bears little resemblance to the place I grew up in. Nowadays there is a good café on almost every corner, terrific restaurants and fabulous exhibitions to explore. It is the latter that brings me to Canberra once more.

I had managed to spy, via my incessant social media trawling, an article about the Seven Sisters Songlines exhibition at the National Museum of Australia – and had noticed, to my horror, that it had been running since September but only had a few weeks remaining. This amazing exhibition did not get the publicity it deserved – certainly , the advertising for it came no where near the saturation heights of say the (over rated) Versailles exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia last year, or have I just been living under a rock for the past few months?

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Never mind. I had seen the article and quickly organised a short break to our nation’s capital. And am I glad I did. The exhibition was wonderful. I am constantly humbled at the richness of the Indigenous culture, and equally cross that their stories and art are not an integral part of our education system. Australia is definitely the poorer for not embracing and revelling in all that our Indigenous people can offer us.

I knew about the Songlines, thanks to the beautiful book (written in 1987) of the same name by the legendary Bruce Chatwin. A songline is a path across the land (or sky) taken by “creator beings”. The songlines are recorded in art, song, dance and stories. Armed with the songline, a person can navigate this land as the words of the song describe landmarks, waterholes, food sources. Australia has a network of songlines that traverse different mobs and hence different languages, but the rhythm of the song is the same. As the exhibition notes explain: “Like the epic poems of the great oral traditions, songlines are a way of holding and passing on knowledge.”  How lovely is that.

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This exhibition tells the songline of the Seven Sisters, a bawdy tale about seven sisters who are fleeing across the country, escaping the licentious interest of  Wati Nyiru and his special companion, a super sized penis. Some things never change, across cultures.

The Seven Sisters tale is told in the exhibition through paintings, weavings, pottery and very clever use of audio visual technology. For us, it was a 3 hour immersion in a major story about our land. Exhausting but exhilarating and I am so grateful to have experienced it. The exhibition finishes on February 25th – so get to Canberra quickly.

We had walked to the Museum from our hotel (The Burbury, in Barton) and there is no doubt that Canberra is a beautiful city – orderly, ringed by the Brindabellas, crammed with trees, anchored by Lake Burley Griffin.  The National Museum of Australia sits perched at the end of the Acton Peninsula, overlooking Commonwealth Bridge and the lake.  The day is hot, our feet are tired and our minds full of all that we have seen, so we quickly make our escape to the nearby Hotel Hotel and its dark but cool (in more ways than one) bar, where we collapse on a couch and order a cold drink and share a sandwich to restore ourselves.

Fortified we Uber it to the National Gallery of Australia, where we are able to squeeze in a quick hour before closing time seeing the HyperReality exhibition – beautiful in parts, weird in others, and occasionally poignant.

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As an old Canberra girl it continues to surprise me that our capital city is no longer the culinary wasteland it once was. In fact, quite the opposite as there is a plethora of good restaurants to choose from – just not on Sunday and Monday nights, which of course is when we are there. However, we had managed to find a couple of places open, and had enjoyed our meal at Agostinis (situated underneath the East hotel in Kingston) on our first night.

Tonight we were again in Kingston, this time at Otis Dining Hall, where my yellowfin tuna and compressed watermelon entree (whatever that is, tasted pretty much like normal watermelon) was both beautiful to look at and gorgeous to eat. And, the Braidwood lamb to follow was also darn good.  Good thing we were walking back to the hotel!

Next morning we returned to Maple + Clove for a scrumptious breakfast, followed by coffee at Hideout which touted itself as the best coffee in Canberra. I’m afraid we disagree – in fact, we both left our coffee sitting on the table unfinished. However, it is certainly a popular spot – with 5 barristers pumping it out, and what I’m sure was an out of work actor calling the names of the take away punters as he had the most fabulous voice, which he was putting to great use. Fascinating to watch.

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Not quite properly caffeinated we then set off to walk to the Australian War Memorial, admiring the various memorials adorning ANZAC Parade leading up to the Museum. Looking through the museum can be a daunting task as it is huge, so we decided to join a tour of the WW2 section, taken by one of the voluntary guides. Apart from the exhibits there is an amazing archive of information held at the War Memorial, which allows people to trace and track their serving family members. All in all it was a sobering experience.

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For a complete change of scene we then took ourselves to the National Portrait Gallery to see the excellent Starstruck exhibition – an exhibition of still photographs from the Australian movie industry. Not only were the photographs terrific, but it was grand reliving all the movies we have seen over the years.

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We then hightailed it back to the hotel for a much needed drink, before dining at Lilotang, one of two restaurants downstairs at The Burbury – delicious and different Japanese food.

Once again, a very successful sojourn in our nation’s capital, with body and soul well satisfied and replete. I shall return.

 

The last hurrah – the three Bs

The clock is ticking as the road trip must eventually come to an end. We have two nights left. Where to go? Pete spots Putty Road linking Singleton and Windsor, bisecting the Wollemi National Park and Yengo National Park. How about we drive down that he says. So, off we go.

The start is less than promising as we battle the traffic beyond Maitland. Rather than veer off to the motorway bypass I had been lured by the romantic sounding townships of  Lochnivar and Greta. Mistake. Then we are confronted by the Rio Tinto open cut mines at Mt Thorley, which stretch either side of Putty Rd as far as the eye can see. Happily, it is not too long before we are engulfed by beautiful eucalyptus and native pine forests. Putty Road is very popular with motorbike riders as it winds its way through the forests, but it is obvious that several did not make it through the bends as attested to by the roadside floral memorials.

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We make it to Windsor unscathed, then have to battle the traffic to link up to the Hume Freeway. We have decided to spend the night at Berrima, a decision based on restaurant choice. Our first B.

I remember when the highway used to go through the centre of Berrima, but now it is bypassed, so we turn off the Hume and head into this historic hamlet. I have booked us into the Berrima Bakehouse Motel which turns out to be a delightful, renovated Motel a short walk from our dining destination for the night, Eschalot.

There is almost no one to be seen on the street of Berrima, and it is freezing cold. In fact, during the night the inverter heater has to go into defrost mode as it freezes on the external part (so ends up sounding something akin to a lorry going past on the highway!).

But, Eschalot is toasty warm, both in temperature and welcome, and we have a delightful evening in this one hat restaurant.

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We breakfast in the General Store Café, a new venture opened by a young Italian couple. We are only the second table there, so I wish them luck as they are very charming, and eager to please.

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After a walk round the township admiring the beautiful sandstone buildings, we hop into the car, heading towards our second B, Beechworth, for our last night of the trip. Lunch is taken at the rustic but excellent Long Track Pantry in Jugiong. I used to love the drive down into the valley surrounding Jugiong on our drives from Canberra to Melbourne, and it is still lovely.

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Onward to Beechworth, through the beautiful countryside, including wind farms, standing proud on the hill side.

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Our arrival into Beechworth got off to a slightly shaky start when I presented myself at the Motel reception. The genial owner could find no record of our booking. No wonder, wrong Motel – we should have been at the other end of  Camp Street. Whoopsies. But, he was very gracious! Our Motel, the Carriageworks, was yet another example of 1970s motel decor – wood panelling galore, but a very effective heater, which was needed as Beechworth was seriously cold.

We had a short walk to 2 hat Provenance. I had booked online and had originally requested 7pm. That time is not available was the automated response – 7.30? So, I booked for 7.30, only to find only one other couple sitting lonely in an empty dining room. Go figure. In the end only 4 couples came to dine that night. The restaurant is in an old bank building, with soaring ceilings, which proves very difficult to heat. I was frozen as we were seated by a window, which didn’t help the enjoyment of the evening. The waiter was pleasant but a bit Lurch like, and each dish was brought to the table by the chef himself, and very seriously introduced, with no other engagement. The food was okay, but the overall experience was stilted, and cold. And our dessert was, to our palate, inedible. We ate only a portion of it and gave our feedback to the waiter, but it was still included on the bill. Not a restaurant I would return to.

The next morning we had to scrape the ice off the windscreen before we could leave. As our neighbour in the next room said: It would freeze the balls off a bull.

We drive on to our third, and final B, Benalla. For the past 3 years, this Victorian township has invited world renowned, and local, street artists to do their best with walls in the township over a three day street art festival. The charming lady at the Tourist Information office arms us with a map of the locations of the art works and off we set, via an excellent brunch at Rustik Café. All and all, a great end to our road trip. Do go and see the Benalla Street Art for yourself.

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And now, it is back to wintery Melbourne. I wonder where to next?

 

Dark Mofo 2017

We all know about The Guggenheim Effect, and how an outstanding piece of architecture, housing an amazing array of art, managed to transform a once struggling industrial town in the Basque Country into an international tourist destination. Here in Australia we have the MONA Effect. The vision of David Walsh and his team of curators has managed to put Hobart front and centre on the cultural tourist map of every Mainlander. 

To spread the joy across the Year, we also have MONA FOMA (Museum of Old and New Art:Festival of Music and Art), held in summer – which has become more fondly known as MOFO – and Dark Mofo, which is the reason I find myself in Hobart this June.

Dark Mofo is Hobart and MONA’s celebration of the winter solstice and all things dark, and light. This is its fifth year, and its growing popularity is evident in the packed flight heading out of Melbourne, as why else would you be going to chilly Hobart in the middle of Winter?!

We are eight, eager to experience as much as we can over our 3 days. Our Airbnb house is perfectly located within easy walking distance to all the action. The only drawback being the fact that it sits right on Davey Street, the main drag in town – and even though this is a small city it would seem that the total population of Hobart likes to spend their time driving up Davey Street. The constant sound of traffic roaring past is not exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep.  But, this is only a small dampener on our enjoyment of the festivities.


We ease into our stay with a delicious dinner at Peacock & Jones, admiring the Dark Mofo red light theme as we walk along the harbourside.


Friday morning we wander down to Salamanca Place in search of breakfast, and settle on Tricycle Cafe in the Salamanca Arts Centre, blending in with the locals who favour this quaint little spot. Browsing in the shops and galleries that line the precinct finishes off the morning.

Come afternoon we toy with the idea of walking up Mt Wellington, but quickly banish the thought when we actually look at the mountain, and hop into the car instead. And wouldn’t you know it, the cloud descends just as we reach the top. We linger in the chill long enough for a brief parting, enough to get an idea of how magnificent the view could be.


We have a date that night with Paul Kelly and the very sexy Camille O’Sullivan in their show Ancient Rain, but first we must eat, so walk down to Princes Wharf, which has been transformed into the Winter Feast site. Shooting flames and a light forest beckon you into a wharf shed packed with food and drink stalls, and lots of very jolly people enjoying a veritable cornucopia of choice.



In fact, the people you encounter are one of the joys of Dark Mofo. Tasmanians are an extremely friendly bunch anyway.  Add into the mix visitors all there for the same reason, determined to enjoy themselves, and you have the right ingredients for goodwill to all. Strangers happily sit cheek by jowl, striking up conversations about all manner of things (next day we meet one young Sydneysider who had us in hysterics with her dating stories). It is at the Winter Feast that we meet a couple (who we find out met 7 years ago at the Melbourne Cup) who tell us about a fab little cafe, Small Fry,  that we visit later in our stay. The mood at Winter Feast is upbeat despite, and perhaps because of, the crowds. And the food on offer is terrific. 

The Federation Concert Hall is heaving with people. Ancient Rain does not appeal to all. Given it is based on Irish poems and letters, it is hardly surprising that the overall mood is fairly dour (let’s face it, they are not the cheeriest bunch), but Camille O’Sullivan sings like an angel and she draws me into her world – I emerge blinking in the light, slightly in love.

We devote Saturday to MONA, and the opening of its latest exhibition by the Museum of Everything but first a visit to the Salamanca Market, held every Saturday morning. We have great fun browsing the stalls, chatting to stall holders and shoppers alike. 


Catching the ferry to MONA is a great way to start an amazing visit – excitement and anticipation builds as you travel up the beautiful Derwent River.


To quote the MONA brochure: From June 2017, MONA will be crammed to the hilt with an astonishing assortment of artworks from The Museum of Everything: the world’s first and only wandering institution for the untrained, unintentional, undiscovered and unclassifiable artists of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. It certainly was crammed – we spent about 2 hours just in the Museum of Everything, some of it wonderful, some of it not. But, it was fascinating, and I am intrigued as to how and where they discovered this stuff.



We were on the 11am ferry there and the 5pm ferry back – it is so easy to spend a whole day at MONA, particularly on opening day when there is a passing parade of entertainment thrown into the mix. We need a hot whisky punch to revive us before climbing aboard the Mona Roamer ferry back to Constitution Dock.



Straight off the ferry and into the Winter Feast shed, along with everyone else. Food, drink and a singalong round the fire. 


We could have lingered longer, but Dark Park beckons, so off we trot to admire the laser light show, and enjoy a whisky tasting in the shed.


Sunday morning we head off to the Farm Gate Market in Bathurst Street, via an excellent take away coffee at Small Fry – where we drooled over the menu, and admired the focus and care of the chef in the tiny kitchen.

The market was full of very yummy things – so, we bought most of our evening meal requirements: veggies, fruit pies, cheeses, cream.


Then, down to Consitution Dock to buy the fish:


And, a quick admire of the sculptures at the Dock:


before dumping our bounty to undertake a brisk walk, under grey skies, through Battery Point to the Wrest Point Casino and back. At the Casino we are delighted to see a seal doing a solo swim, just for us.


A quick change and off to the Theatre Royal to see Sleeping Beauty, a collaboration between Victoria Opera and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. I am definitely not an opera fan, but this production is lots of fun – telling the story of Sleeping Beauty via puppets, and singing of course. 


Home then, red wine and our wonderful home cooked meal of local Tassie produce. A very fitting way to end our Dark Mofo experience, as we fly home tomorrow (an experience marred by the Jetstar flight being delayed by 2 hours).

Thank you Hobart, Dark Mofo and MONA for a terrific long weekend. A bientôt.

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Walking in the Asturias 

Inntravel call our walk the Picos de Europa, but I feel it is more accurate to call it The Asturias walk, as we turn our backs on that impressive mountain range,  and the Picos National Park, as we walk out of Arenas de Cabrales and into our 6 day walk. The walk will take us from the mountains to the sea, through a verdant green landscape with many ups and downs as we traverse different mountain ranges.

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The name Asturias comes from the region’s Celtic origins, and helps explain the predilection for cider, and the Celtic music that is on repeat in one of the restaurants we visit. Apparently, the local Celts, or Astures, were subdued but never completely conquered by the Romans. Or, indeed the following Moors. The mountains and the rugged life involved was not for the faint hearted of any kind. And that is probably still the case.

However, it has become a very popular area with Spanish holiday makers. The combination of rugged mountains, deep green pastures and beautiful beaches, plus a plethora of stone houses and cabins dotted through the countryside, has resulted in booming local tourism and the buying up of property to restore as holiday houses, or chalets as they tend to be known. We get the impression that there is more money in this region than we have seen elsewhere – villages and hamlets may be quiet and empty but they are not neglected, with many beautiful traditional homes to be seen.

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We spend our days accompanied by the constant harmony of bells – the deeper clang of the cow bells with the goat, sheep and horse bells adding a higher note. We are never far from their clanging, tinkling and jangling. Combined with the mountain backdrop, I keep expecting Heidi and Grandfather to appear round the next bend. But, to my disappointment we see virtually no else on the tracks we follow, however we do come across a lovely Maremma dog guarding a herd of goats one day. He is torn between his desire to say Hello and protecting his flock. The flock won out, and he shepherded them away from the path, so no photo I’m afraid.

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Birdsong is also constant, as there are many forests. I hear my first cuckoo, much to my delight. And birds of prey are often gliding above us, enjoying the updrafts from the valleys.

The tracks we follow are often little more than animal tracks. Compass and close examination of maps is occasionally required. Thank goodness for the detailed walk notes provided by Inntravel, and the bush walking ability of The Husband (except for his spectacular map misreading on one day – more of that later). Some sections we are forced to do battle with gorse bushes and blackberries, and have the scratches to prove it.

The food is probably the only let down of the walk. The Asturians seem to believe in quantity, of very basic meals. The portions are invariably huge, but several times we just push it around our plate and leave most behind. And oh for vegetables.

Day 1: Arenas de Cabrales to Pandiello, 18 kms, total ascent 1108 m, total descent 700m.

Our first day, through birch, oak and sycamore forests, affords us many views back to the Central and Western Massif mountains that make up the Picos. We even manage to get another look at the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes, or Urriello, as the clouds part for us.

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The morning starts with a consistent climb up the hills that we could see in the foreground from our room at Hotel Torrecerredo. In fact, at one point we can spy the hotel from our hilltop.

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We then drop down into the little village of Carreña, where we stop for a coffee, and a slice of cake kindly provided by the owner. He has gone to a lot of trouble decorating his bar, and his pride in the establishment is evident. I had visions of the coffee and cake scenario being repeated on subsequent days, but this proves to be the only village we pass through with either a bar/restaurant, or one that is open. Much to my disappointment. Lucky it was such a nice one then.

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After coffee it is back to walking up again, as we climb towards the top of yet another mountain range. In fact, over the course of the walk I come to dread downs, as I know they will be followed by more ups and I feel I have just wasted all that effort to get the top. But, the reward for the hard slogs uphill are the vistas of the mountains all around us, and later, the sea beyond.

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Our destination for our first night is the tiny hamlet of Pandeillo, perched on the side of a hill and the Casa de Aldea la Portiella del Llosu (the name is almost longer than the village). Our host, José, has meticulously restored an old stone house, and has also been partly responsible for designing the walk.


After showering and changing, we tell José that we are going out to have a walk around the village. He says that he will see us back in 5 minutes, and he is not far off. There is little sign of life, although many of the houses have been lovingly restored. We suspect many of them may be weekenders or holiday homes, as having a chalet (or holiday house) in the Asturias seems very popular.

So, we return to our cosy little hotel and settle in with a bottle of red wine. José cooks an enormous meal that evening, and uncommonly serves it to us at 8pm. Thank goodness, as we are more than ready for bed after the day’s walk.

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Day 2: Pandeillo to Bobia de Arriba, 18 kms, total ascent 803m, total descent 800m

Although this reads like a less strenuous day than yesterday, it was actually much harder going as the climbs were much steeper. I felt at the top that we were in the eagles’ lair itself, with views across to the Bay of Biscay, and mountains everywhere you looked. We were bombarded with colours of green and blue. Beautiful. Breathtaking – in both senses of the word.

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The day started innocently enough with a walk to the next village of Canales. As we walked through the village a car came to a grinding halt. It was Jim, mine host from Hotel Torrecerredo! A quick chat, and off we go in our different directions. Ours takes us up a dirt road, past a disused mine, before we start to rise steadily.

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Our notes warn us that the mid section of the walk, where we tackle the Sierra Gustaselvin, requires good visibility as the tracks are indistinct and the drops down into valleys are vertiginous in parts. Our day is clear blue in all directions, so onwards and upwards we press.

Up at the top we share the view with the Asturias ponies grazing on the pastures, and the birds of prey. We think they are buzzards, but are not sure.

But, all this up makes for a long, slow walk down to our base for the night, Bobia de Arriba and Hotel Rural El Rexacu, and we arrive grubby and weary; falling  upon a glass of wine before tackling the stairs to our room.

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Bobia is a tiny hamlet, made up of two parallel rows of houses, all facing yet another mountain range. Despite its small size, the hotel is relatively substantial – with 15 rooms, a bar and restaurant. That night, it is obvious that the bar is something of a meeting spot for visitors and locals alike. We join in, chatting to a lovely lady who has excellent English thank heavens, as our Spanish continues to be virtually non existent.

Our room has a little sitting area, with views across the village to the distant mountain range. Lovely.

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Day 3: Covadonga Lakes to Bobia de Arriba.

This was the day Himself got it wrong. We were supposed to walk about 14kms, with an ascent of 410m and descent of 1080m. But, we managed to walk 20kms, with an ascent of 910 metres!!!

It all started innocently enough with a 40 minute taxi ride to the Covadonga Lakes. The drive up is windy and steep, and today there was a bike/run/walking race on up the mountainside. I was very very grateful to be doing the climb in the back of a taxi, and not on my feet. Crazy people. The ascent from Covadonga to Los Lagos is a key stage in the Vuelta a España. At 12.6 kms, it has an average gradient of 7.3%. In one section this increases to 15% over 800 metres. This hill climb has broken hearts, little did I know that I was going to join them!

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As the car climbed we caught glimpses of the amazing views we would see once at the top. And then the gorgeous Our Lady of Covadonga Monastery came into view. More wows. The basilica was built to house a statue of Mary that is believed to have helped the Christians defeat the Moors in an 8th century battle. The current Monastery dates back to the 16th century, and is a place of pilgrimage.

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When we finally reach the lakes themselves I am already punch drunk from the beauty we have seen, but there is more to come. Los Lagos de Covadonga consists of two glacial lakes, Enol and Ercina, and are actually in the Picos de Europa National Park. Lake Enol is 1,070 metres above sea level and Ercina tops it at 1,108 metres above sea level. Behind the lakes are snow covered mountains. In the distance is the Bay of Biscay. Stunning.

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We are dropped off beside Enol, and then walk over the lip to Ercina, where we stop into the restaurant for a coffee. It is over coffee that we hatch the plan to abandon the walk notes and take a shortcut up beside Ercina, with the intention of joining back into the intended walk just behind the hill in front of us.

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Our problem is that there are two paths, initially travelling in similar trajectories. We miss seeing the second path and head off, at a brisk pace, away from where we thought we were. And despite me saying, on several occasions, We are doing a lot more climbing than I expected, we keep making like mountain goats ever upwards. As we almost reach the top, Himself calls a halt and we finally agree that we have gone wrong somewhere. Problem is, we are not exactly sure where we are, but we do know we have to go down. So down we go, then regroup in a valley basin.

We finally place our trust in the Maps.Me app and let it guide us down the mountain over non existent tracks. After half an hour we finally get back to the spot we should have been 3 hours earlier. From there it is a slow and very tired trudge down, down, down. I refuse to talk to himself until finally back at the Hotel and have been revived with a very big gin tonic.

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It’s all I can do not to fall asleep in the soup that night. But, it has given us a tale to tell for years to come.

Day 4: Bobia de Arriba to El Allende, 13.5 km, total ascent 580m, total descent 710m.

Thank goodness today was a shorter, easier day as the legs were  feeling a little tired.  We were driven to the hamlet of Cuerres to start walking, which made the section more than manageable.

At one stage we were walking through a eucalypt forest, with a thick carpet of leaves and bark. The smell of gum trees transported us back home, albeit home with the clang of cow bells.

We stopped for our picnic lunch in the small town of Riocalente. Here we sit amongst the cluster of hórreos and a charming sculpture of a market woman, with an attendant, and very hopeful, puppy.


Hórreos are everywhere in the region, and are essentially a wooden food storage shed on a raised platform, supported by 4 pillars, each with a rodent barrier to keep the precious food supplies safe. We have seen them in all states of repair, from derelict to beautifully restored. They are quite beautiful.

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Our home for the night is Casa Rural Montaña Mágica, or Magic Mountain. The source of the name is twofold. One is the view of the Picos we get from our bedroom window. This will be our last view of this magnificent mountain range, so we sit on our lounge chairs and drink in the view. The other influence on the name is the novel Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (not one I’m familiar with).

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The setting is just lovely, but the evening meal is a low point in this culinary journey through the Asturias. I watched as other tables pushed their food around the plate also – a plate of admittedly soft but completely tasteless octopus (boiled perhaps?) with slabs of boiled potato, and an Asturian version of a parma, with soggy chips.

Day 5: El Allende to La Pereda, 19 kms, total ascent 690m, total descent 870m

This was a day of choices as 3 different routes were on offer: a lift to the coast then walk along the coast to Llanes; an easy walk along the valley; or the high route option, up into the hills to reach a pass overlooking the sea. The last route was only recommended in good visibility as once more it was on indistinct paths. As it was to be our last day in the mountains, and the weather was fine, we opted for the high route.

We caught a lift with the luggage down to the village of Vibano, which saved us a 2km descent. We hop out and then stand looking at the map and walk notes, trying to work out where exactly we are. A lady hanging out her washing on her balcony spies us and comes down, in her housecoat and slippers, to ask whether we need help with directions – in Spanish. Somehow, between us, we manage to communicate, with many hand gestures. The one thing I clearly understand, when she works out where we are headed, is Mal camino (bad path). This does not inspire confidence, but it turns out that, although indistinct in parts and we do have to battle gorse and blackberries in a few spots, the path isn’t too mal and we find our way through.

It is a slow but steady climb for several hours, up the hills towards a lovely hidden valley. We pass only one other person along the way – an elderly farmer coming down the hill, using a crutch to help him. His grizzled look tells us he is used to this trek, so we had better man up and stop puffing.

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We use the cabañas, in various states of repair, to help guide us. A cabaña is a stone hut, used as housing by the shepherds and mountain farmers. Some we have seen through this journey have been lovingly restored, probably to be used as weekenders. Others have seen better days. But they make good way markers in the walk notes.

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After about 2 and a half hours of steady ascent, on tracks made by horses and cows, we finally emerged at the very end of the valley and stood at the edge of the cliff face, looking down to the coast spread out before us. Unfortunately, a sea mist blurred the view but it was still a great feeling of achievement.

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The zig zag path down the face of the cliff wasn’t quite so much fun, nor was the hour walk through the slightly spooky forest at the base, riddled as it was by paths made by pesky dirt bikes.

But, we finally made it through the forest and back into civilisation. Tiredness was starting to set in, but spirits revived as the path took us through some charming villages complete with the grand homes of the Indianos. In the late 1800s, early 1900s much of the population emigrated to South America to make their fortune. Having made their money, many then returned to the Asturias and built grand mansions. These returnees were known as the Indianos, and they have left behind a legacy of magnificent houses that are slowly being restored to their former grandeur by a new generation of wealthy migrants to the region.


Our home for the next two nights, Posada del Babel, sits in the charming village of La Pereda, just outside the seaside town of Llanes. It comes as something of a surprise as whilst the main house is a simplified recreation of more traditional architecture, the owner’s home that sits in front, and the separate guest accommodation behind, are a vision of modernity – and well before their time as they were built in 1997.

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The Posada is a delight – simply but beautifully decorated , dotted with some fabulous works of art. There is currently a photographic exhibition on the walls, by a famous Spanish photographer and his daughter. Our hosts are Blanca and Lucas, but sadly Lucas is currently in hospital awaiting surgery. Whilst it is a worrying time for Blanca, she does not let this interfere with being a charming hostess and we are graciously welcomed, muddy boots and all.

Lucas is the chef so evening meals are not currently available. No matter, as Blanca has booked us into their favourite restaurant in Llanes, La Cuiera, for dinner both nights – and acts as our chauffeur there and back. It is in fact the best food we have had since leaving San Sebastián, although I am sorry not to have been able to sample Lucas’s cooking.

“We” has become 4, as another couple had been on the same walk from Bobia. An American couple, originally from Seattle but now retired in Hawaii. Once we established they were card carrying Democrats, we got on fine.

Day 6: La Pereda to Llanes and return, 10km, flat.

Our last day was a day of rest – sleep in, late breakfast and stroll into Llanes for a look and lunch, stroll back. Very pleasant.

The walk in is both easy, and pleasant. Llanes is a fishing town that is making the most of being a tourist attraction for locals and foreigners alike. It is also on the Camino Norde route, so there is the constant tramping through of Camino pilgrims.

We have a good look around the medieval centre, and go down to the port to admire both the fishing boats returning with their catch, and the Cubos de la Memoria – the painted concrete cubes that are part of the breakwater. They were painted by artist Agustin Ibarrola, a now elderly Basque painter and sculptor. We had come across him on our visit to Spain in 2015, as he is the artist that created the Painted Forest of Oma.


Lunch is taken by the river – sharing an anchovy & endive salad and a delicious plate of lightly fried prawns, with crispy, crunchy shells. Washed down with a glass, or two, of vino. An excellent way to finish what has been an interesting, occasionally challenging, walk through yet another region of this diverse and fascinating country.

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And wonder of wonders, apart from the one day of rain when we walked the Cares Gorge, we have managed to do this walk with no rain. That is a miracle for us, particularly given this region is a deep, deep green for a reason. So, I send a big Thank You to the walking Gods. Perhaps the curse has been lifted!

Four Days in Madrid

Madrid is a first for both of us. We arrive around midday, and quickly and easily negotiate the transfer from Renfe to the metro at Atocha station. We are only 2 stops away from Gran Via, on the blue line. Travelling makes us once more envious of the public transport systems overseas – frequent; networked with interstate trains and airports; easy to use ticket machines in multiple languages selling single tickets and providing change; clear signage; and accurate notification of upcoming stations (how often have I seen incorrect station information on the Sandringham line? Lots. Why can’t we get it right?!). The only thing I don’t like is that there are always stairs that you have to lug your case up, or down. I usually end up in a slather. But, enough grumpy old lady whinging.

We pop up like moles into the pedestrian mall of Calle de la Montera, where it intersects with Gran Via. Our hotel, Praktik Metropol, is just there. Not very encouragingly, just above McDonalds. However, it turns out to be a perfect location and we can easily walk to everything, and get to and from our train station. Also turns out to be an interesting location, as working girls (and I don’t mean the secretarial kind) throng the street. Pete, bless him, comments on how many girls with tight clothing are clustered around the street.


First impressions – a little bit grubby, at least where we are. Lots of street vendors of jet black skin. An array of different architectural styles, with many grand buildings. A more organic street layout – we miss the grid pattern of Barcelona. Harder to get a handle on where you are, and the different neighbours. After 4 days however we start to get the hang of it, and the different identity of the various neighbourhoods. Only feel uncomfortable once, in the area around the Lavapiés metro station – I think some deals might go down there.

As in all the cities, we walk and walk. The only time we actually use the metro is to and from the train station. Walking allows us to get more of a feel for a city, and we can appreciate the different architecture. Over our few days in Madrid we see beautiful examples of Deco, Art Noveau, Baroque, and modern.


After checking in we put my cafe research to good use and head off to the Malasaña district, and the Federal Café. You could easily think you were in Melbourne, and we probably tripled the average age of customer, but didn’t let that deter us.


Lunch done, we continue to the Temple of Debod, the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral. The sun is blazing forth and there is not a cloud in the sky. The temperature hovers around 28 C. Hot. Not surprisingly, the gardens around the Temple are littered with people, some soaking up the rays, others seeking shade and relief from the heat. The park affords views across the city, and we realise that there is a massive green wedge right in the middle of the city, stretching as far as the eye can see. Our map tells us this is the Casa de Campo – 1.7 hectares of greenery, named for the fact that it was once the Royal hunting estate.


They are changing the guard at the Royal Palace and we just catch the horses trotting off for their off duty time.


I, of course, go into the Cathedral. Himself abstains. The interior is quite a surprise as the decorations are very bright, and modern. Not at all what I was expecting. Almost tribal.


We have booked into an Urban Adventures Tapas Walking tour that evening, starting at 7pm. Our meeting spot is the statue in the centre of the Plaza de la Villa. We are a group of 7- a family of 3 from Armadale, NSW and an elderly European couple who are residents of Calgary, Canada. Our tour guide is the lovely Andrea, a resident of Madrid who is enthusiastic about both her city and its food. We learn a lot about the history of Madrid in between eating and drinking.


I thoroughly enjoyed the tour for what we learnt, but I have to say I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about much of the food, and drink, although felt it was very authentic. It is no wonder we have seen a lot of overweight Spaniards – bread, fried food, salty food, sweet food. I wonder what their diabetes and cholesterol rates are. Pete and I dumped several of our samples surreptitiously into nearby bins, whilst I shuffled my drink along the bar.

We start off  in the Mercado de San Miguel, which is full of people, although it is apparently relatively quiet as it is a Monday. This is not a produce market, rather small food outlets. You buy food, and drink, to have here – if you can find a spot to perch in the central seating area – or to take away. Andrea says it is more likely to be a tourist haunt than a locals spot, although she was here with a group of friends on Saturday night. Here we sample olives, and cheese. And vermouth (akin to drinking cough medicine is my verdict) with the olives and a rather nice vino blanco with the cheese. One of the olive Tapas is a skewer of olives, pickled pepper and salted anchovy – it is called The Gilda (but pronounced Hilda), named after the character Rita Hayworth played in the film Gilda. Apparently she asked a bartender for some olives with a bit of spice to go with her drink. He created this Tapas in response and it was christened The Gilda/Hilda.


Walking the streets we learn that the street signs will usually have a picture of what the street name means, and that dotted throughout the town are plaques embedded into the pavements in front of significant buildings. Andrea tells us to look out for both as we walk around the city.


We pass by the famous Botin restaurant, the oldest restaurant in the world and famous for its suckling pig. Unfortunately it is not on our itinerary as we are partial to pig in all its forms. There is a queue of tourists outside, waiting patiently to be granted entrance. Botin has its own plaque in the pavement.


We move into the La Latina district, an area that is frequented by locals, as well as tourists.


Our destination is Casa Lucas, where we have 3 Tapas – a local ‘salami’ on bread;  a kind of ratatouille, topped with a fried quail egg, on bread, with matchstick chips; and oxtail meatballs on a bed of mashed potato. All of which were yummy, and washed down with a vino tinto.


Next up is the Cerveceria La Campana, which is famous for its bocadillo calamares, a speciality of Madrid. The place is packed, but we manage to squeeze in down the back. Pete & I elect to share one between us. Good thing we did as it turns out to be a soft, unappetising bun filled with overcrumbed and slightly chewy calamari. We eat the calamari and leave the bun. I gamely try the local wine mixed with lemonade that is a common accompaniment to the calamares. One sip is all I manage. There is no accounting for taste as this restaurant goes through 7,000 kilos of calamares every 15 days!!!


Our walk takes us through Plaza Mayor, which is full of people enjoying  their evening meal al fresco.


Andrea points out Chocoleteria San Gine, which she insists makes the best chocolate and churros in town, and makes us promise to return and try them. We end up breaking our promise (Alex would be very disappointed in us).


Our next stop is Casa Labra, famous for its cod croquettes and fried pieces of cod. There are other items on the menu but Andrea says that people rarely order anything else but cod – rather wonder why they bother then if that is the case. Casa Labra is an institution in the city, and was the spot where the Socialist Party was founded in 1860. But it is here that Pete & I sidle up to the bin and dump our croquettes, which are full of  gluggy bechamel sauce and sparse with lumps of cod. Quite awful really.


Our last stop for the night is La Casa de las Torrejas, via bustling Puerto del Sol. Andrea points out the plaque in the pavement marking Kilometre Zero. From this point all roads leading out of Madrid are measured.


At Casa de las Torrejas we are to have the Spanish version of French toast. Pete and I err on the side of caution and say we will share one between us. I also opt for a glass of vino blanco rather than the traditional glass of sweet wine. A mistake on two counts, as the postre (dessert) is delicious – like a custardy , vanilla, French toast – and the sweet wine comes in shot glasses and is a bit like a light fortified wine, and goes nicely with the dessert. I could easily have scoffed the whole serve, and drunk the glass of wine rather than the sip from a fellow guest that I actually experienced.


Andrea escorts us back to Puerto del Sol and bids us farewell, after checking we all know how to get back to our respective hotels. It has been a delightful 3 and a half hours, despite some of the tapas, as we have learnt about Madrid and its inhabitants from a charming and knowledgeable guide. It takes us no time to walk back to the Praktik, and our bed.


Day 2 has been earmarked as our cultural day, but first coffee and breakfast at Hola Cafe, where we are served by a set of charming and funky young men.


Then, on to the Prado. Luckily I had purchased a Paseo del Arte ticket (a 3 museum pass) online and a Reduced Price ticket for Pete. This lets us skip the long line queuing for tickets and into the short queue for prebought tickets. The Prado is huge – 2 full floors of works, plus a small section on Level 2 and another in the basement. Not to mention the Temporary Exhibit, which in this case is paintings from Old Budapest. I have to admit that we skipped the few rooms on Floor 2 and the basement, and the Temporary Exhibition. But, we went into every other room, of which there are at least 100. Towards the end I started to get the same panicked feeling I get at Ikea- would I ever get out of there alive. After about 3 hours we emerged, staggering into the light and never wanting to see a religious painting again. Food and drink was desperately required.

La Sanabresa, one of Madrid’s dying breed of casa de comidas (basic restaurants) provided the solution. We were extremely lucky to snare a table as soon as we arrived at this bustling local restaurant, and I would say we were the only English speakers, although not the first. There is a menu in English, although none of the staff speak it. The tables are covered with paper that is replaced with each new customer. 3 courses, bread and a bottle of wine for 11.50 €. The food is simple home cooking, and the wine a very drinkable house red, and we loved it.


Fortified, we were ready to tackle Museum 2, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which turns out to be the case of duelling collections. Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, and his Dad, had amassed a huge collection of paintings spanning from the late 13th century to the 1980’s. HH’s Spanish wife persuaded him to establish the collection in Madrid, plus, she too got bitten by the collecting bug and started to build her own collection of paintings. Thus, the Museo contains two collections – His and Hers, often with overlapping artists. Overall it is considered to be one of the world’s foremost private art collections and certainly gives one a look at art through the ages.

Our day spent in galleries, together with Thursday’s visit to the Regina Sofia Museo, leaves me pondering the question of who decides what is great art?  How is it decided that a particular artist is worth collecting, and displaying to the public? How is it decided that an artist is a genius, or a particular work is a masterpiece?  How does the art world work? Over 3 galleries I have seen some work I loved, but more that left me cold, even so-called masterpieces. Interesting isn’t it.

After all that culture we needed to retire to our hotel and gather our strength i.e. have an exhausted tourist nap, before heading out one block to Al Trapo restaurant in the Iberostar hotel. I was a bit anxious about the choice as it is in a hotel, and was almost empty when we arrived at 8.45pm. But, it is mentioned in the Guide Michelin, and the food was terrific, and reasonably priced for this level of quality. Small serves, but that suited us perfectly given our big lunch. Even the butter was beautifully presented, and the bread was delicious. We shared 2 of the starters – scallops in a passionfruit vinaigrette and the green vegetable salad with ricotta cream. Then shared 2 ‘mains’ – the wood pigeon Rice and the grilled skatefish. Everything looked wonderful and tasted even better. I could not resist a dessert, and chose the Forest fruits, Greek yoghurt, frozen herbs which was sublime (luckily Pete did not want any as he may have had to wrestle the spoon from me).  So, so good.



Day 3 was a day of walking. We decided to use the numerous city markets as our navigation points, and worked out a route that took in 5 of them, each in different neighbourhoods so we could get a better feel of the city.

We started at Mercado San Anton, our local market in the trendy Chueca district. At this hour (10am) the stalls were just getting started, but we followed the locals and ended up at a bar serving a small bocadillo and a coffee for 2€.  Jamon for me, calamares for him (and a much better one than we had on the walking tour). A good start.

On to Mercado de Barceló, situated in a very modern piece of architecture (I suspect the building might glow with light at night), but opposite a glorious old Deco theatre.


Next one was the Mercado de la Paz, in the very upmarket Salamanca district. We had a coffee in a very authentico bar before heading back into Chueco for lunch – nothing to write home about.


On then to Mercado de San Fernando, in the more seedy and downmarket area of Lavapies. Unfortunately, the stalls were all closed up by the time we got there. I say unfortunately as it looked slightly different, with perhaps more of an African influence. Never mind.

Back then to Mercado de San Miguel, that we had visited on the food tour. At 4pm it was heaving with tourists. We did a circuit then got the hell out of there. Back to Hotel Praktik Metropol and some quiet time, and a cup of tea, in their lovely lounge area.


Dinner tonight is at Celso y Manolo, recommended by Madrid Food Tours as her current favourite spot. Obviously very hip and happening, with young, groovy waiters and tiny tables. But, our booking isn’t until 9pm, so we fill in time at the Angelita wine bar. Propped up at the bar, with a glass of cava followed by a vino blanco, and complimentary Tapas, we feel very Spanish.

At dinner we order a bottle of red that turns out to be de-lic-ious. So despite the fact I have had 2 glasses of wine at the wine bar I proceed to demolish half the bottle of red. Subsequently I thought the food was fantastic, but I may be an unreliable judge!


Oh, bed did look good that night. Our final day was grey and cold, with rain predicted later in the day. We packed up and left our bags in reception, then headed off to Pum Pum Cafe, not far from our destination of the Reina Sofia museum. Again, we could have been in Australia – a funky cafe, serving avo on toast, and a Canberra salad!! Lovely smiling staff to boot. Breakfast and coffee done, we head to the Museum.


Our main goal was the Picasso Path to Guernica exhibition, which was commemorating the 80th anniversary of Guernica’s first showing. The exhibition focuses on the roots of Guernica’s imagery, and Picasso’s immediate post Guernica work. For those who don’t know, on April 26th 1937, the small town of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain was totally destroyed by German bombers at the request of Franco. For the first time in military history an attack was aimed specifically at the civilian population. Market day was chosen in order to ensure the most casualties. More than 1,600 people were killed, and another 1,000 injured. Picasso had been asked in early 1937 to produce a painting for the Spanish Pavilion but he had struggled to find a subject. The destruction of Guernica became his inspiration to produce a painting about suffering and war.



It was a fascinating exhibition, marred somewhat by the crowds, particularly of school children as young as 5 or 6. Not really what I would have thought was a suitable exhibition for littlies.

A quick lunch at the museum’s restaurant and a brisk walk back to the hotel to collect our luggage.  Metro it to Chamartin and catch our train to San Sebastián – a 5 and a half hour trip. And unlike the train from Valencia to Madrid, no free beverages or food. Very poor Renfe! We had to buy our own vino Tinto and crisps.


We have enjoyed our time in Madrid, but feel we have ticked that box and feel no need to make a return visit. San Sebastián here we come.

Canberra Revisited

Late last year one of our Library Club gals had the bright idea of a group excursion to Canberra to see the Versailles exhibition. I joined in the affirmative chorus, whilst inwardly quaking. Canberra is the home of my youth – a place I fled from the minute I finished my Arts degree at the wonderful ANU. Canberra represented to me a boring, monochromatic township, full of public servants and absolutely nothing resembling a beating heart. But, in the interests of group solidarity I girded my loins and found myself boarding an early morning flight to our nation’s capital last Friday.

We had decided to stay at the renovated, and heritage listed, Hotel Kurrajong – walking distance to the lake, the Gallery and Parliament House (old & new). Given its proximity to Old Parliament House, it was not surprising to hear that in its heyday the hotel had a strong political association. Most notable being that it was the residence of Ben Chifley – in fact, he suffered his fatal heart attack in Room 205. The only thing that died during our visit was the wedding band on Saturday night, who for some reason thought that “I will Survive” was a suitable song with which to end the night! 




All eight finally assembled, our first act for the day was coffee and brunch. Local knowledge was thoroughly tapped as part of the pre trip research, so it was with confidence that we set off to the Kingston Foreshore development. This was my first hint that my Canberra of old might have changed, as here was something more akin to Melbourne’s Docklands – fancy apartments overlooking the lake; boat moorings; and a whole array of cafes and restaurants facing the water. Oh la la, very fancy, Canberra.


Our inside knowledge directed us to Local Press, a funky, waterside cafe serving good coffee and very yummy food. We settled into an outside table and enjoyed what remained of the morning. 


Refreshed and refuelled, we ambled beside the lake to the Australian National Gallery, admiring the views and trees along the way. There is certainly an abundance of greenery in Canberra, even if the roads are relatively deserted.



Whilst the Versailles exhibition was the trigger for our visit, it proved to be but a small part of our overall Canberra experience. All credit to the Gallery in trying to create some of the mood and feel of the palace, with the highlight being the recreation of the famous Latona fountain, complete with water sounds and cascading water imagery. So peaceful that one of our party actually fell asleep momentarily in the room. But, overall I am not a huge fan of Baroque art  – too fussy for me. In fact, the most fascinating aspect of the exhibition was the story of the engineering feats involved in getting water to the grounds to make all the fountains work. 


Emerging from the exhibition we did a quick tour around the rest of the Gallery, admiring the eclectic range of art on display.


Sensory overload and fatigue was taking its toll, so the vote was for a wander back to the hotel for some R & R, before heading out for drinks and dinner. Our original plan had been to wander around the Night Market near Hotel Realm before dinner, but to our dismay, we discovered the market had been cancelled – lack of interest maybe? No matter. We grabbed a table and a bottle of bubbles from the bar and toasted a successful first day in Canberra. And finished off the evening with a meal at the famous Ottoman Cuisine restaurant – all within easy walking distance of Hotel Kurrajong. It was a happy and tired group of women whose heads hit the pillow that night.


Day 2 arrived with overcast skies and the threat of rain. Our day started with a walk around the lake (or run for two of our hardier members). Even I, the great Canberra detractor, have to admit that the natural setting for our capital is beautiful – trees and parkland abound; and the varying blue hues of the surrounding Brindabella mountains make a glorious backdrop. The 6km walk around the water’s edge, looping over King’s Ave bridge and across to Commonwealth Ave bridge, provides a visual check list of Canberra’s major institutions: the Carillon, Captain Cook’s Memorial jet, the National Museum of Australia, the National Library, the High Court, Old & New Parliament House, and the National Gallery. Not to mention a sighting of Robert Menzies along the way.


Our walk had worked up an appetite, so we headed to another terrific café, Maple and Clove (http://www.mapleandclove.com.au), for a delicious brunch and truly excellent coffee. Happy ladies.


To give those unfamiliar with Canberra more of an understanding of the layout of the city we headed off to the National Arboretum, which was planted in 2005 after the devastating bushfires of 2001 and 2003 burnt out much of the forest and  radiata pine plantations in the area. The idea for an arboretum dates back to Walter Burley Griffin’s plans for Canberra – the fires provided the catalyst for turning the idea into a reality. The site covers some 250 hectares and the idea is to plant 100 forests and 100 gardens featuring endangered, rare and symbolic trees from around the world. Plus, it provides beautiful views across Canberra (well, it would have if the rain had not arrived just as we did).

Next stop was the ANU Drill Hall Gallery (http://dhg.anu.edu.au) , a gorgeous and little known space tucked away on campus beside Toad Hall. The building itself is beautiful, with its polished boards and sinuous curved brick walls.


The Gallery was showing a retrospective of Elisabeth Cummings, a graduate of the National Art School in Sydney in the 1950s and founding member of the Wedderburn, NSW group of artists. Now, this is more my sort of art – the colours are glorious, and make the heart sing.


The Drill Hall is also the permanent home of Sidney Nolan’s magnificent Riverbend series – a 9 panel work (1.5 x 10m overall) depicting the banks of a river in the Victorian bush, complete with outlaws and bushrangers. Beautiful.


It was then on to Art of a different nature – the art works and cocktails at the newish, and very funky, Hotel Hotel in New Acton (http://www.hotel-hotel.com.au/). A reviving drink was enjoyed whilst we admired the ambiance and tried to blend in with the hip and happening younger things of Canberra.


Exhausted yet? We almost were, but had one more stop to make before heading back to our hotel – the National Portrait Gallery. Boy, is that one impressive building, but the collection on display was smaller than the Gallery size suggests. However, an extra treat was in store for us as we stumbled into a recital by Clarion, a local vocal quartet. So calming and uplifting.


Then it was back to the hotel for a much needed rest, a cup of tea and a read of the Saturday paper before heading out into the night for dinner. We headed back to the Kingston Foreshore, and discovered where all the Canberrans were hiding. The place was teeming with people, and it was hand to hand combat in the parking lot. Luckily we had the foresight to have booked a table at Morks, a popular (and therefore noisy) Modern Thai restaurant. Day 2 was then done & dusted.


Our final morning we woke to clear blue skies and a predicted high of 28 degrees. We check out and leave the bags in the hotel’s care before walking across to the Kingston shops and breakfast at another recommended café (thank you Virginia), Penny University.

Again, an interesting and different menu. Boy, has the food scene in Canberra made a drastic change from my Uni days in the mid 70s – I still recall the dancing in the streets when Gus’ Cafe in Garema Place put tables outside! Now, Canberra is worth a visit just to eat.


Food and coffee needs satisfied, we amble down to the Foreshore yet again, but this time to wander through the Old Bus Depot market, which is largely a lot of tat if truth be known, but some cash was exchanged by our party of 8. Spotted this lovely old factory on the way:


Back to the hotel to collect the cars and a drive to the Botanic Gardens, where the rainforest gully provides a welcome respite from the heat before we venture into the Red Centre garden.


We drive to the airport via a stop off to visit groovy Lonsdale Street, Braddon where boutiques jostle with cafes, all in a street that used to be home to mechanics and car repair shops in my day. We discover Frugii Dessert Laboratory (  http://www.frugii.com ), selling some of the yummiest ice cream I’ve had in a long while. That took care of the heat exhaustion.


Our 3 days in Canberra have come to an end. Thank you to my lovely travelling companions who provided many a laugh.  I have been forced to reappraise my image of my old home town. I still wouldn’t want to live there, but would be happy to visit again. So, I’ll be seeing ya Canberra.

The Art of Banksy

Who would have thought that an English street artist would become a household name? A guerrilla artist with the intriguing allure of anonymity – the Elena Ferrante of the art world. An artist whose subversive wit drives his appeal. So, it was with great excitement that we awaited the arrival of The Art of Banksy exhibition in Melbourne.

Actually finding it is your first challenge as it is tucked away in a circus tent behind the car park at Federation Square. Walk along the Yarra until you get to the back of the car park and then follow the signs.

Once there you are greeted by a phalanx of t-shirted security guards, somewhat disconcerting. The works on display are mainly from the private collection of Steve Lazarides, Banky’s former agent and a pioneering champion of street art and street artists.  Lazarides and Banksy have famously fallen out, and this exhibition is brought to us without the artist’s sanction. Not that he is above displaying his works in galleries, nor is this the first time his “indoor” work has been exhibited gallery style. I guess it is just the blatant commercialism of this exhibition that sits uncomfortably with me.

From the security guards to the large indoor outdoor bar, this is obviously an ‘event’, where they are hoping you will linger longer, and spend more money. This may well appeal to the young people who were attending the exhibition at the same time as we Seniors (drastically skewing the average demographic I must admit), but leaves somewhat of a funny taste for us. And, is it irony on display that you exit via the (heavily stocked) gift shop?? Mind you, it is pretty good merch. Combine all this with the hefty entrance price of $30 (plus booking fee – don’t get me started on booking fees, bane of my life) and you can but look at Banksy’s images skewering commercialism and laugh.



Is it worth the price? Hmm, the jury is out on that one. There is no doubt that this is a seriously talented man with a ferocious sense of humour – some of the work makes you laugh out loud. And, it is good to be able to see so many of them on display. But, who is exploiting who here?