Ballarat may just be the gold standard when it comes to fusing history and modernity, as regional towns seek to add modern chapters to their stories that still feel part of the same book. Ballarat's tome spans its role as the "resting place" of the Wadawurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung people to the meeting place of armed rebels and celebrated courtesans, and now it is reinventing itself yet again.
This new chapter celebrates creativity following the town being crowned a UNESCO Creative City in 2019 and there is a buzz about the city that is attracting talent away from a lockdown-scarred Melbourne as well as nurturing home-grown stars. The changing face of the city is chronicled at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Australia's oldest and largest regional art gallery that embodies the spirit of change with its motto "where old meets new".
Our walking tour starts firmly in the past when director Louise Tegart proudly announces to us her collection of "middling 20th century European paintings" bought back when there was a cultural cringe that forbade the gallery from purchasing Australian artists, instead favouring the Continent's also-rans.
The highlight of these gilt-edged works is Austrian painter Eugene von Guerard's Old Ballarat as it was in the summer of 1853-54. It shows a tent city propped up by gold-rush cash, promise and hard labour. Preserving the gallery's salon of mediocrity is a masterstroke by Tegart and her team because when you cross over into the rest of the gallery it is like changing the TV channel from black-and-white to technicolour. Spread across six buildings are some of the Australia's finest contemporary and First Nations artists such as Deanne Gilson who welcomed us to country in the foyer and whose artwork Bunjil, of the Wadawurrung creator deity, rounds out our visit.
Dinner that night is a reinvented dinner party at Underbar, where chef Derek Boath serves up a degustation from his open, white-tiled kitchen to a single, long table of diners. You might start with Western Plains pork, sweetcorn, cornbread and honey or kingfish with radish, avocado and horseradish; these seasonal ingredients are then treated with some classical skill learned working for US chef Thomas Keller, but with Boath's own playful touch. Our 10-course marathon is paired with wines from Eastern Peake Vineyard, where young winemaker Owen Latta puts his twist on the generational family winemaking business.
The following morning I am heading to Ballarat's biggest attraction, Sovereign Hill, a place that people tend to go to when they are a kid then again when they have kids, but rarely in between. Over dinner the previous night Sarah Quon, CEO of Sovereign Hill, told me that a new master plan aims to bridge that gap. It's a bold reiteration with phase one being the Australian Centre for Rare Arts and Forgotten Trades (CRAFT), designed to celebrate trades that are used at the living museum now such as heritage ironwork, leatherwork and wheelrights (wooden wheel makers). Celebrating and teaching these forgotten trades, much like music purists' love of vinyl, is a way to connect people with Sovereign Hill more intimately and more often. CRAFT launches in June 2022, but one trade you must go back for right now is the raspberry drop candy making which is just as good as you remember from primary school.
Walking back into town from Sovereign Hill, I see yesterday and today sitting seamless side by side all over Ballarat. I grab a coffee at a retro servo that is now Drive café where I indulge in a bacon-and-egg roll with relish and jack cheddar that is dripping like a car in need of an oil change. Later that afternoon I meet John O'Brien from Rebellion Brewing who has taken the ancient art of brewing and tweaked it for the modern ailment of gluten intolerance, and we sip his XPA at Hop Temple, a craft beer joint with enough new brews to tempt Melburnians up to visit where they hangout in what was once an old garage.
The night ends at The 18th Amendment Bar hidden down a lampshade-strewn alleyway. It's a low-lit, louche kind of place where one bartender saws away at a huge block of ice. One of the signature tipples, the Thomas Edison, is rye vodka, melon, lychee and mint served with an electric daisy (a flower that supercharges your tastebuds when chewed) served in a light bulb. This cocktail, and most experiences on my weekend, have been inspired by the past, using skills from the present, and they are a great sign that Ballarat has an amazing future.
Qantas flies to Melbourne from most Australian cities. See Qantas.com
Sovereign Hill has an autumn program celebrating design and tradition that foreshadows the CRAFT master plan. Online bookings needed due to COVID. See sovereignhill.com.au
EAT AND DRINK
Drive café (drive-cafe.com) is a breakfast must. Book in advance to get one of the 16 seats at Underbar (underbar.com.au) Drop in for a craft beer at Hop Templev (hoptemple.com.au) and finish the night with a cocktail at The 18th Amendment. See the18thamendmentbar.com.au
Ballarat's oldest stay, Craig's Royal Hotel, is like a gold rush time capsule; doubles from $260 a night. See craigsroyal.com.au
Paul Chai was a guest of the City of Ballarat.