Friday 27 April 2018

Cafes of Bendigo

I was in Bendigo last weekend for my brother John's wedding to his longtime partner Chris, so while I was there I thought I'd check out the cafe scene.

The regional city, 150km north of Melbourne, has a wealth of attractive gardens and buildings inherited from the gold rush era of the 19th century. Now it has a fine collection of cafes too. Here are four I visited...

1. Cortillé, 322 Lyttleton Tce, Bendigo.

There's a bunch of good cafes near the railway station on the west side of the CBD, and this is one of the best. The interior, spread through two shopfronts, is a light-filled space with bricks walls painted white, floral artwork on the walls, and comfortable modern furniture.

Its coffee comes from Axil Coffee Roasters, and it's great stuff. The cafe's food menu is divided into those famous three meals: Breakfast, Lunch, and Waffles. The most interesting breakfast dish is the scrambled tofu with kale and enoki mushrooms, and at lunch there are items ranging from Moroccan lamb to a vegan pad thai.

2. Bay Leaf, 102 Mitchell St, Bendigo.

This cafe with Greek-inspired dishes was my and Narrelle's favourite of the four places we visited.

Mediterranean cuisines are perfectly suited for adaptation to a brunch menu, with their sharp flavours and unfussy ingredients, and the crew at Bay Leaf have cleverly converted Greek standards by adding a few extras: for example, the traditional cheese and spinach pastry spanakopita becomes a breakfast dish by adding a poached egg.

My own 'big breakfast' was an assortment which included some spectacular slow-cooked beans and a zucchini-based fritter. Lovely food from a menu with plenty of vegetarian options.

3. Get Naked Espresso, 73 Mitchell St, Bendigo.

The '90s live again at this grungy cafe, which specialises in coffee rather than food. Its interior off Mitchell St is a pared-down space with old armchairs and quirky posters on the walls. But wait! Step through the back of the space and it opens onto a surprisingly vast outdoor area, which turns into the bar known as Handle Bar in the evening.

The coffee is from Honeybird Coffee Roasters, an outfit based in Mount Beauty, and it's excellent; though I wasn't that fussed by the double-shelled reusable plastic cups the coffee is served in if drinking on the premises. It keeps the coffee hot, but doesn't have the classic feel of ceramic.

The Mitchell Street premises is one of three, and ideal if you're after a quick caffeine jolt rather than a meal.

4. Brewhouse, 402 Hargreaves St, Bendigo.

This is the biggest of the cafes we visited, with a rambling interior decorated by colourful graffiti-like images across its walls. On a Sunday it was heaving with groups of family and friends - including our post-wedding party across two long tables. The service seemed to falter under pressure, but the staff stayed cheerful.

Brewhouse roasts its own coffee and accompanies it with an extensive menu, so this is the place for a leisurely catch-up over brunch. I tried the Smashing Pumpkins: pumpkin and sage smash with feta, kale and dukkah, and scrambled eggs [see image, top right]. It was good, though personally I'll be happy when the kale trend passes and that bitter crunchy stuff can be taken off menus. 

Narrelle ordered the Eat Your Greens dish, which matched eggs with asparagus, broccolini, green beans, spinach, avocado, and pumpkin hummus. It was very green. And good.

For more info on visiting Bendigo, see Bendigo Tourism's website.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2018 (Part 2)

It's the final week of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and Narrelle Harris and I have seen more shows. Here are our final two reviews for 2018...

1.  Ladylike: A Modern Guide to Etiquette
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

In her vintage frock, high heeled bubblegum pink shoes and be-ribboned blonde hair, Louise Beuvink presents as the epitome of womanliness. Then she kicks the shoes off, because who can wear those for an hour without crushing foot pain?

There's a fine tradition of salty women puncturing the ridiculous social standards to which women (and men) are held. With her easy tips for entertaining, how to stay beautiful for your man, and how to keep a smile on your face at all times, Louise Beuvink joins the ranks of the best of them.

Along the way we meet Drunk Louise and a vividly awkward scenario involving a cup in which she seizes the day, a woman's guide to cricket, and musical tips to help ladies get their needs satisfied.

My favourite section is a long riff on how women are so emotional and the flipside of the "Friendzone". A few lines are delivered too quickly, reducing the laughs, but most of the time she rollicks along with the audience right alongside her.

Ladylike is Louise Beuvink's MICF debut and it's robust, full of biting humour, and just a spicy touch of rage.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Summer Camp
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Steve Bugeja doesn't seem the perfect role model for kids, especially the 18 year old version he reflects on in this show. Nerdy and squeaky-voiced, young Bugeja was an unconfident teenager when he went to the USA eight years ago to work at a summer camp for autistic children. Assigned to a challenging child named CJ, he struggled to cope with his role.

There's a lot of awkwardness in this show, but it's not at the expense of CJ; the kid did some funny and unpredictable stuff that made adults embarrassed, but Bugeja paints him as a happy, untroubled soul. The comedian himself is the butt of the joke, as he relates how he tried to figure out the best responses with minimal training.

Being a geeky young guy among more confident peers means he was also competing for the affections of a female colleague and being outshone at every turn. Unlucky as the young Steve was in love, however, the adult version is a likeable storyteller and his mishaps generate plenty of laughs.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

That's our final coverage for this year's festival. Hope you had some laughs! Back to the regular schedule of travel-related posts next week.

Saturday 14 April 2018

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2018 (Part 1)

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is on again, and Narrelle Harris and I have been seeing shows. Here's our first set of reviews for 2018...

1. Good
Reviewed by Tim Richards

I wish I had a dollar for every comedian I've seen who dumped a career in law for a career onstage. Tom Cashman is another one on the list, and his story about a dire interview with a law firm convinces me he made the right choice.

Cashman is a funny guy who combines the physicality of a skinny nerd (and cartoonish raised eyebrows) with the confidence that comes from not having been bullied at school; he says he went to a nerdy institution and never learned to cower.

The theme of Cashman's show is his attempts to be good, but that's a slight premise for an act that's largely observational stand-up. He has entertaining stories to relate about awkward escapades in his past, including the time he ogled a couple making out on Sydney's Oxford Street, the time he needed to have quiet sex, and the time he had a very unfortunate encounter with a treadmill.

There's the odd joke that falls flat - some of his sexual material is tacky rather than funny - but Cashman is an amusing new comedian. It'd be interesting to see him tackle a show with a more substantial theme.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Don't Worry They're Here
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

John Kearns wears a tonsured wig (he won't tell us why) and false buck teeth reminiscent of those of Gromit's hapless owner Wallace. He has the air of that world-weary, slightly aggressive older blue collar worker at the back of the pub, intent on sharing his take on life with you. You're almost certain that at some point you're going to be horribly offended, yet you'll have to politely endure.

Luckily, John Kearns turns out to not be that kind of philosopher.

Instead, he delivers an hour of seemingly unconnected pugnacious-melancholic philosophy, pleading with us to seize life's fleeting joys. He's full of non-sequiturs and warns that 40% of us will be disappointed by his show, "but I'll take those odds".

Kearns may seem to ramble, but he returns to themes and references, employing bathos and absurdism to low-key yet surprising effect.

His style is odd and thoughtful. While not filled from wall to (as he says, reassuringly dependable concrete) wall with laughs, it's a refreshing comedic take.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. The Bear Pack
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Improvised comedy can be bad. Very bad. Or maybe, when the performers know what they're doing, very good. Lucky for us, performing duo Steen Raskopoulos and Carlo Ritchie are in control of their created-on-the-spot art as they work with two topics tossed to them by audience members: a sinking ship, and a pickle.

What follows is an absurd tale of a second mate leaving a stricken ship for help, and being led across a mysterious island to a throne room where a malevolent king turns out to be a gherkin in disguise. This silly stuff is expertly given a soundtrack by Ange Lavoipierre, sitting onstage and playing the cello.

The plot matters less than the opportunities it presents for the actors to challenge and test each other, often pushing into awkward territory: setting up a situation where one of the actors has to play two conversing characters at the same time, for example; or one performer fleeing the stage for a snack break while leaving the other to carry the show.

It's a fun hour of unpredictable story-telling, and well scheduled at 11pm as a wind-down from more cerebral work earlier in the evening. And each night's story is, of course, unique.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

More reviews next week. Enjoy the festival!

Friday 6 April 2018

Eerie Masuria: Revisiting the Wolf's Lair, Poland

I visited Poland in 2016 courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.
In Poland's northeast lies the beautiful region of Masuria.

It's a land of lakes and forests, but also has a dark past. When it was part of Germany in World War II, this was where Adolf Hitler sited his HQ for the invasion of the Soviet Union.

It was given the overly dramatic name of The Wolf's Lair (Wolfsschanze in German, Wilczy Szaniec in Polish).

Only partly destroyed before the Nazi retreat from the Red Army, the once-hidden forest base is now an eerie collection of monumental broken concrete bunkers among the trees; along with a monument to Von Stauffenberg's 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler (see the first photo below).

The site is a fascinating wartime relic, but also an eerie place to visit, walking among the huge shattered structures.

I first visited the Wolf's Lair in the depths of a Polish winter, when the ruins were covered with snow; then two years ago, I revisited in spring, when they seemed no less strange surrounded by vibrant greenery.

Here's what I found on my second visit...

By chance, on both visits (ten years apart), I was met by the same guide, Jadwiga - you can see her in the photo above. If you're ever visiting Masuria and need an English-speaking guide, I recommend hiring her services. You can contact Jadwiga by email, by clicking here.

And as a bonus, here's another shot of Bunker 13 - Hitler's personal bunker - from my first visit in March 2006, when The Wolf's Lair felt like a very cold and lonely place indeed...