Country town treasures

Sue Wallace explores Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine, finding trinkets, quirky cafes and other curiosities.

I am staring at a bright yellow vase with hideous green and pink trim that looks exactly like the one I sent to a country garage sale a few years back.

Over a delicious noodle and dumpling salad, I can't help wondering if the vase in question actually survived to find a loving new home in Ballarat's Eclectic Tastes cafe (2 Burnbank Street, 5339 9252).

The cosy cafe is a rabbit warren of five rooms filled with "objects d'kitsch" and the Asian-inspired menu is presented in children's Little Golden Books featuring titles such as The Poky Little Puppy.

The cafe is just one ofmy discoveries on a tour of Victoria's three historic goldfield towns - Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine - featuring Australian history, funky shops, restaurants and innovative art galleries.

Lunch over, I visit the Ballarat Art Gallery (40 Lydiard Street North, 5320 5858, artgallery ballarat.com, open daily 9am-5pm), which is Victoria's oldest and largest regional gallery. Centre stage is the original tattered Eureka Stockade flag that flapped in the wind at the gold miners' revolt on December 3, 1854. It still draws a crowd.

Alexa's Treasures (46 Sturt Street, 5333 7377) has finds including jewellery, trinkets and teapots. For great second-hand antique and collectable books, head to The Known World (14 Sturt Street, 5332 8114).

Next stop is Castlemaine and it doesn't take long to fall under its spell. The vibrant town is the home of one of Victoria's premier regional arts events, the biannual Castlemaine State Festival.

Over a coffee at Togs Place (58 Lyttleton Street, 5470 5090) director Martin Paten discusses the planning and execution of the next festival, on April 1-10.

For a step back in time I head to historic Buda House and Garden (42 Hunter Street, 5472 1032, budacastlemaine.org, open Wednesday-Saturday noon-5pm, Sundays and public holidays 10am-5pm).

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It was built by Hungarian-born Ernest Leviny, a silversmith and arts lover. A tour provides an insight into life here in the late 1800s. Leviny's five unmarried daughters grew old together in Buda House, which is now a museum of the embroidery, metal craft, photography and woodwork collections of the artistic family.

The Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum (14 Lyttleton Street, 5472 2292, castlemainegallery.com) features a collection of Australian art works and historical items in the 1931 art deco building, with many items donated by locals.

But it's the old market building (44 Mostyn Street) housing the visitor information centre that's my favourite. Produce markets were held there until 1967.

Intriguing shops include Habadash, (2 Templeton Street, 5470 6476, habadash.com.au) an emporium of exquisite buttons, lace and ribbon from around the world.

Basil and Gertrude (60 Mostyn Street, 5472 2740, basilandgertrude.com.au) has vintage, European and home treasures. For a great range of books, head across the road to Stoneman's Book Room.

Dinner is at The Good Table, (233 Barker Street, 5472 4400, thegoodtable.com.au), once a tumbling-down pub it is now a smart restaurant where chef Alexander Perry, who worked at Melbourne's MoVida, is doing great things. The tapas dishes are excellent but it is the tasty gorgonzola ravioli with confit of pear and butter sauce that leaves a lasting impression.

It is a brisk walk home to the Empyre Boutique Hotel (68 Mostyn Street, 5472 5166, empyre.com.au), where I sink into a comfortable bed in one of six antique-filled suites featuring French provincial furniture from the 1800s, chandeliers and gilt mirrors. Owner John Ganci has created a haven in the former Albion Hotel, built in 1860. There is also a restaurant with an extensive collection of regional wine.

For a treat, try Apple Annie's Bakery Cafe (31 Templeton Street, 5472 5311, appleannie.com.au), where Annie and John Stekerhofs, of Carlton's French Lettuce fame, tempt you with pastries, cakes and breads.

Just outside Castlemaine, you will find Bress Winery (3894 Calder Highway, Harcourt, 5474 2262, bress.com.au), where owner Mark Adams makes award-winning wines and cider in methode-champenoise style.

The winery is named after the white leghorn chicken breed poulet de Bresse but don't be surprised if you are greeted by snow-white geese and guinea fowl. The biodynamic winery also has an extensive market garden.

Bendigo is the next stop and I drop into the Bendigo Art Gallery (42 View Street, 5434 6088, see bendigoartgallery.com.au, open 10am-5pm), where free daily tours of the permanent collection are available at 2pm. It is a walk down memory lane at the iconic Bendigo Pottery (146 Midland Highway, Epsom, 5448 4404, bendigopottery.com.au) as I spot kitchenware from my past.

It houses the world's most significant collection ofwood-fired kilns and I even trymy hand at the potter's wheel where I create my own little treasure - a slightly lopsided vase. (Lessons with a skilled potter are $12 a half hour or $18 an hour.)

Feeling hungry, I head to the Dispensary Enoteca (9 Chancery Lane, 5444 5885, the dispensaryenoteca.com), which in its former life was a pharmacy. Chef Rory Cowcher now dispenses Italian-style cuisine daily from 8am with dinner Tuesday to Saturday.

Wine Bank on View (45 View Street, 5444 4655, winebankonview.com) is perfect for a nightcap before heading to bed in a snug renovated miners cottage at Terrace 112, (112 Barnard Street; bstbendigo.com.au).

Before leaving, I visit Passion for Design (109 View Street, 5443 6055) for glassware, lamps, art, jewellery and gifts and for handcrafted jewellery.

Bendigo Wholefoods (314 Lyttleton Terrace, 5443 9492) features produce sourced strictly within a 100-kilometre radius and The Good Loaf (404 Hargreaves Street, 5444 2171) has great breads.

My last stop is Heathcote, now famous for its Snag, Beer and Bubble Festival featuring artisan butchers, winemakers and microbrewers.

The iconic Cellar & Store (105 High Street, 5433 2204, cellarandstore.com.au), a former saddlery opened four years ago by local graziers Eleanor and Adrian Dempster to support small local wineries and producers, is an ideal lunch provider. Step inside and the aroma of warm bread, delicious cheese and the day's excellent "one pot" meal entice you to pull up a chair.

After three days in the goldfields, I return home with one question: will my lopsided vase one day end up in a trendy cafe.

Sue Wallace was a guest of Victorian Tourism and Goldfields Tourism.

More information: see www.visitgoldfields.com.au.

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