Sunday 26 April 2009

Castlemaine by Pod

The problem with imagining the gold rush era in regional Victoria is one of the imagination: how do you revive the exciting chaos of those days within the peaceful, settled scenery of today?

It's also a challenge for those aiming to popularise history. Static displays of old household objects or photographs just don't cut it anymore (if they ever did). There's nothing more exciting than feeling a real emotional connection to days past, a visceral understanding of what it was like to be there, then. And this is, apparently, where 21st century technology steps in.

I'm in Castlemaine, in central Victoria, Australia, researching a mini guide for The Age. The town was founded in 1851 as a direct result of the gold boom. The gold eventually ran out but it left the place with a fine collection of Victorian-era buildings which mysteriously survived the godawful architectural trends of the post-WWII era.

But what of its evocative rough-and-tumble early history? That's where the tech comes in. The local tourism authorities have commissioned a series of podcast audio tours of the town and its surrounds, which can be downloaded from the Web or listened to via an MP3 player borrowed from the visitor information centre.

On Thursday I was driven to three of the sites on the Gold Rush to Mount Alexander tour. This is what I experienced:
  • Pennyweight Flat Cemetery: Not far out of town, this small fenced-off area feels rather forlorn, surrounded by dry grass and dotted with gum trees. Throughout the cemetery in a seemingly random pattern are tiny circles of stones with faded headstones. They're small because this was a children's cemetery that was only in use for a few years at the height of the rush. Interestingly, there are Chinese markings on some of the headstones, a contradiction of the usually strict racial separation of those days. The commentary, by local resident Jan Wositzky, leads to a folk song commissioned especially for the tour. It's wistful, emotional, and beautifully pitched to summon an impression of the sorrow of those who lost a child here. (Listen to the pod tour segment)
  • Garfield Water Wheel: Further out from town, up a hill in the middle of native bushland, is a bizarre remnant of the gold rush years. It's a pair of towering brick walls in a trapezoid shape, looking like some strange ruin of the Roman Empire. What's even more surprising is to discover they once supported a gigantic wooden wheel more than twice their height, bearing hundreds of buckets that scooped water from the trench below. The pod tour, after explaining the wheel's role in the gold mining process, gives way to an old woman telling a true story of a young girl who once had her head caught in the wheel and survived, but was marked for life. It's an intriguing story, all the more powerful for being heard on the spot, the listener peering up at the stone walls and trying to imagine the scene. (Listen to the pod tour segment)
  • Monster Meeting: I've always liked the term the Eureka Stockade era protesters had for their mass demonstrations against the iniquitous mining licences of the 1850s. 'Monster meeting' summons up images of thousands of humans forming a single angry organism ready to devour the corrupt state. It turns out these meetings weren't confined to Ballarat - the monster meeting held on a slope above a creek outside Castlemaine attracted some 15,000 people, and is apparently still the largest gathering ever held here. The pod tour really gets into its stride here, with a stirring hell-raising speech against the government, complete with shouts from an angry crowd. Then the podcast takes the liberty of bringing Governor La Trobe, who it admits was never there, into the rally to fruitlessly address the miners. Without this fantastically effective element of the audio tour, I'd merely be looking at a dry, bare hillside with a monument. (Listen to the pod tour segment)
All history is, of course, composed of stories about people; it's tours like this which help you reach them through the barrier of time.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

Friday 17 April 2009

Aleppo: Antiquity and the Pistachio

In 1994 we were teaching English in Egypt, and spent our annual holiday travelling overland through Syria and Jordan. Here’s a slice of our experiences in Aleppo...

“Mohamed Ahmed! Mohamed Ahmed!” The passengers in the shed-like arrival area of Aleppo International Airport mill about in robes, jeans and dresses. They take up the cry as a man pushes through the crowd.

A uniformed guard pushes his passport through a glass partition, and it passes from hand to hand until it's finally secured. He sighs with relief and drags his bag through to the outside world.

Everyone else settles back to wait, including Narrelle and myself, the lone Western travellers who’ve just arrived on an EgyptAir flight from Cairo.

Aleppo (Halab to the locals) is claimed to be the oldest settlement in the world, and has been part of every empire in the Middle East. Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks and French have all ruled here at one time or other, adding their own layers to its history.

Syria's Cold War friendship with the Soviet Union has also left its mark and added to the city’s mystique. Traders from the former Soviet Union pack out Aleppo's seedier hotels, hoping to barter goods to take back to Baku, Erevan, Tbilisi or farther afield. Some shop signs are in Russian, contrasting exotically with the vendors selling French pastries early in the morning to the smell of Turkish coffee.

European architecture nestles beside classic Arabian styles and discordant Soviet-style concrete structures. Devout Muslim women here wear not the headscarf, but a thin black cloth which encompasses the head and looks eerily like a bag. Add all this to the regular bustle of an Arab city and you have a place with an intriguing atmosphere.

One of Aleppo's gems is the Baron Hotel. It once hosted Agatha Christie, as all grand hotels in the Middle East seem to have done. The front bar still has all the old fittings, and in the lounge is a framed copy of TE Lawrence's bill.

On the more traditional side of town is a magnificent covered souq (market) leading upwards to the Citadel. Cloth is Aleppo's specialty, but a stroll through the meat section reveals more uses for animal parts than we had ever thought possible.

There are also pistachios, fustuq in Arabic. Aleppo is famous for them, and almost every pastry we try includes the green nuts as a vital element among the honey, nuts and wheat.

Aleppo's other attraction is its closeness to a number of ancient ruins in the beautiful countryside near the Turkish border. One of the most impressive is the former Basilica of St Simeon, now known as Qala'at Samaan. We get there by paying a bonus to the minibus driver whose route ends at a village a few kilometres from the site.

St Simeon was an early Christian monk who decided to renounce the world and live atop a series of lone pillars. His final pillar, where he spent the last decades of his life, became a place of pilgrimage and an enormous, graceful basilica was constructed around it. Today the pillar is just a boulder on a pedestal, but much of the ruined basilica's walls remain, along with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

Then we realise we haven’t planned how to return to Aleppo. While we’re pondering by the basilica’s gate, a truck full of Syrian army engineers pulls up and offers us a lift. We’re dropped off at the village, just in time to catch the minibus. Sweet as a fustuq.

Further south from Aleppo, a minibus ride from the city of Homs, lies the Crac des Chevaliers. This magnificent Crusader Castle would be a renowned tourist drawcard in Western Europe, but like other Syrian tourist sites it’s not overcrowded and costs a pittance to enter. The sprawling structure, 800 years old, is in excellent condition and sits atop a hill with an impressive view of Lebanon's distant mountains.

The castle has survived earthquakes and invasions over the centuries, so what we see is close to how it must have looked in its heyday. Clambering up to the ramparts, unfenced and open to all, we feel how much more immediate tourism is in this part of the world; it's often possible to get right up close to the things you've come to see. If somewhat precarious.

Back in Aleppo later in the day, after more fustuq-laden pastries, I’m sucking on an apple-flavoured nargile near the souq. The only occasions I’ve ever smoked have involved these water pipes in the Middle East, and entirely for their visual effect. My head spins, I nod to my fellow patrons, and feel myself sinking slowly into the rhythms of this very old place.

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current security situation before travelling to Syria.

Friday 10 April 2009

The Sound of Wanderlust

Melbourne singer and songwriter Andrew McUtchen recently released his debut album, Down With Wanderlust. A provocative title, I thought, as I regularly bang on about the love of travel right here on this blog. So I asked Andrew to explain himself...

Q: Why the title? What inspired it?

A: The title refers to what I had to do to make the album. It was Down with Wanderlust, and Up with Songwriting, Recording and Sitting Still! Travel is phenomenally inspiring, but I suppose as a writer, or a creative generally, you have to watch that you don’t end up with a shelf full of notebooks and no finished works.

Travel provides the flashpoint of inspiration, but returning home for me is about processing what you’ve seen and experienced and then re-expressing it in words or music.

Q: Do you think a love of travel can be a harmful thing?

A: I reckon travel is an intoxicant and should be treated as such. Travelling keeps you in a childlike state of awe at the world, which is so refreshing after a period of routine. But for me, the movement needs a counterpoint to have real value.

Was it Wordsworth who said “Emotion recollected in tranquillity”? I think it only becomes harmful if your love of travel, like your love of single-malt whiskey or hard drugs, is just an escape from boredom, responsibility, or real, deeply rooted relationships with the people around you.

Q: How can you balance travel with putting down roots? (And would you agree it’s ironic that you left for South America just after the album was launched?)

A: Some pointers:
  • Get a job that relates to travel;
  • Get a girlfriend who loves travel as much as you do;
  • Find a vocation that can be developed on the road;
  • Write quality, PERSONAL emails to your best mates and family (CCs do as much damage as good, I hate getting CC:ed travel emails). I actually became closer to one mate of mine through our epic correspondence. He ended up writing our joint memoirs into a novel.
Yes, true, I left for South America less than 12 hours after my record launch at Pure Pop in St Kilda! I designed a quick international getaway in order to feel like a rockstar on a world tour. But no, I beg to disagree, it’s not that ironic, it was my first major OS trip in ages; I’d managed to push my wanderlust down for three whole years!

Q: Which of the tracks on the album address travel most directly?

A: Probably Freedom Hymn. The chorus has a chanted refrain of “Freedom is anywhere you want it to be”, which is intended to mean that true freedom is a mental state, not a dusty suitcase, a plane ticket and a passport. Though these things, in concert with an unencumbered mind, is the ultimate combination.

Sand Dunes
is the epic travel song though, in the sense that it’s really long, and is, lyrically speaking, a travelogue about a guy trapped inside Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road (incidentally, probably the best song ever).

Q: Does your day job involve travel?

A: Yes, I’m the managing editor of two high-end in-room hotel magazines: Destinations Victoria and Destinations Australia.

Q: Where have you travelled most recently?

A: Uruguay. I much preferred it to Argentina. Cleaner, greener, less corrupt and the coastline is studded with great little Mexican-style seaside villages. Did I mention the horses? Lots of horses!

Q: Is there a place you long to return to?

A: I probably shouldn’t mention it, because it’s quite busy enough, but my mind always goes back to Český Krumlov in the south of the Czech Republic. There’s something about the softness of the light in summer, the taste of the beer and the way the afternoons pass as slow as the waters of the Vltava River that runs through it; it’s just magical.

Not to mention that if you get a room with a wooden windowsill you are looking, every day, at a real-life Van Gogh painting; all those rustic golds, fields and swirling blue skies!

Q: How has the album been received so far?

A: So far so good. For me, the best thing about reviews is hearing who people think my influences are and what my music ‘sounds like’ to them. False humility aside, as a singer you honestly have no idea how the sound that’s coming out of your mouth settles in other people’s ears.

Some references are difficult to take (John Mayer always smarts a bit, but I know it’s the “air” my voice) and some are flattering (Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Nick Drake, Ryan Adams), but all interest me for their subjectivity.

More info:
  • Down With Wanderlust can be purchased online via iTunes; or order the CD from Rare Records.
  • In Melbourne, the CD is also available from Rare Records, 82 Acland Street, St Kilda; Pure Pop Records, 221 Barkly Street, St Kilda; and Greville Records, 152 Greville Street, Prahran.
  • You can read more about Andrew and his music here.

Thursday 2 April 2009

The Unpublished 5: Indulgences of Margaret River

The wine, chocolate and cheese of Australia's Margaret River region - how could that combo fail? But an inflight magazine decided this piece wasn't quite their cup of tea, despite it answering the brief. Judge its pleasures for yourself...

Wine. Chocolate. Cheese. For centuries, these have been indulgences that make life worth living.

Wine predates ancient Egypt. Long before the Pharaohs thought of building their famous pyramids, their Neolithic forebears were fermenting wine in pottery jars. Over the millennia, wine helped build communities. It had a role in religion, trade and social events. Above all it, was a social lubricant and a source of pleasure.

Across the oceans, the Aztecs of South America were brewing up a drink from the beans of the cacao tree. “Chocolatl” was a bitter, frothy beverage that could be spiced up by the addition of wine, vanilla, or even chillis. For the invading Spaniards it was an acquired taste, but innovators back home hit upon the idea of adding sugar and heating. Chocolate was soon to conquer the world.

Cheese has a humbler story. Its origins are lost in the mists of time, but it surely started when an ancient herdsman discovered that milk curdled if left too long in the sun. Soon, the spirit of experimentation discovered various methods for producing this dairy product. Popular in ancient Greece and Rome, cheese reached its pinnacle when taken up by the crowned heads of France. Today, over 500 varieties are made in that country.

Even the thought of these indulgences sets the taste buds tingling. What would we do without them?

Luckily, the traveller to the Margaret River region of Western Australia has each of them within easy reach. Famous as a wine centre, the south-west town has embraced other culinary delights, all made in the region.

For a region that’s cornered a sizeable portion of the premium wine market, Margaret River’s wine-growing history is surprisingly brief. The first commercial vineyards were established in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, including names now famous in the world of wine: Vasse Felix, Moss Wood, Cape Mentelle and Cullen.

Less well known is Rivendell, a family-owned concern in the northern part of the wine region. Situated near Yallingup, the vineyard takes advantage of its sheltered position on the Leeuwin-Naturaliste ridge which parallels the nearby coast. Like most Margaret River wineries, Rivendell is noted for its white wines, including semillon and sauvignon blanc.

“It’s hard to say which is our most successful wine,” says manager Wendy Standish. “The verdelho has always been popular, along with our semi sweet white wine called Honeysuckle. In the reds, the blend known as The Cabernets is the most successful.”

What makes Rivendell stand out as a tourist destination, however, is its graceful garden trailing down the slope from its restaurant and tasting room. Factor in the homemade preserves and the bush accommodation, and the indulgence factor is high.

“We make wines which we enjoy,” says Standish. “The same goes for the preserves and restaurant meals. We’re also focused on making it a child-friendly place, which are becoming few and far between.”

In bushland north of the township stands the Margaret River Chocolate Factory. There’s nothing humble about this business: they describe their product as the “food of the gods”. But let’s face it, a lot of people think of chocolate that way.

Creating quality chocolate is not as easy as you think. Though the raw materials are imported from Europe, they must then be blended and tempered to bring out flavour and texture. It’s not unlike the art of coffee blending and roasting, and requires the services of a skilled chocolatier.

The beautiful native bushland, with its gum trees and birdsong, provides a distinct contrast with the skilled European tradition practised within. Large bowls hold pellets of dark and milk chocolate for visitors to sample, while glass cases are lined with the finished product. Through a window, the process of chocolate-making can be viewed in action. Approaching Easter, the busiest time of the year, chocolate rabbits rotate at the end of steel rods, cooling down after being formed.

On the nearby Bussell Highway, more gleaming equipment is churning away. There’s no chocolate here, however. The location is Fonti Farm, home of the Margaret River Dairy Company, and the product is cheese.

Margaret River’s dairy industry is a legacy of the group settlement scheme of the 1920s, which aimed to lure migrants to new farming areas. Although now overshadowed by the thriving wine industry, it still has a presence around the small town of Cowaramup.

As in the Chocolate Factory, visitors can watch the experts at work. This is where Western Australia’s only locally produced bries and camemberts are made, along with a range of hard cheeses flavoured with chilli, pepper, chives, onion, garlic and parsley.

Oscar Wilde once said “I can resist everything except temptation.” Wilde would approve of modern-day Margaret River. From a struggling settlement in the Western Australian bush, it’s become the indulgence centre of the south-west.

Wine. Chocolate. Cheese. What else is there?

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current wine/chocolate/cheese situation before travelling to Margaret River.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

(Photo © Western Australian Tourism Commission)