Like most of my relationships, the dynamic between Bendigo and I can best be described as odd, vacillating and a little bit scandalous. In the period spanning late ’08 to early ‘10, I harboured an acerbic hatred for the place that likes to brand itself a ‘city’ when it can in fact be more accurately described as an oversized country town, slap-bang in the middle of our fair state. I’d been shafted there from halfway across the world by my emigrating parents. Having lived my whole life in London, arrogant and angsty adolescent me couldn’t help but feel like a cosmopolitan cosmonaut relegated to the dusty doldrums of the colonies to serve his time. (I’ve never stolen any bread, but when I was six I did accidentally walk out of a supermarket clutching a Rugrats magazine that I hadn’t paid for – was this my penance, cometh at last?) To me, Bendigo represented everything that the rest of the world belittles Australia for: for being too small, too crass, too dry and too dull. I begrudgingly made my home among the gumtrees, but Waltzing Matilda I was not.
However, I eventually emerged from the surly depths of adolescence, and people eventually stopped regarding me as an anthropological curiosity who could be asked to say words like ‘yoghurt’ and ‘pasta’ for their sheer amusement. As this happened, I gradually became more at ease with Bendigo and its peoples; indeed, I actually came to really damn like it. It wasn’t until I ambled on down to Melbourne for uni that I came to appreciate exactly what makes this Central Victorian hotspot so great: it’s small enough to give you a healthy dollop of community (I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve been in the local paper, like, five times) and offers easy living that the Big Smoke just can’t provide. However, it’s not so small as to suffer from crushing country parochialism, small-mindedness or cultural barrenness. Indeed, in recent years Big Bendy has enjoyed a cultural rejuvenation of such magnitude that even The New York Times has sat up and taken notice. Herein lie just a few of Bendigo’s highlights:
The arts: Bendigo’s thriving cultural scene gives Melbourne a serious run for its money. Preeminent among its cultural offerings, Bendigo Art Gallery will satiate any art aficionado. Flanked on one side by Bendigo’s best-preserved Victorian drag (View Street), and by the verdant Rosalind Park on the other (which was, incidentally, ravaged by a terrifying bat infestation in 2011), the Art Gallery draws together an array of work by a range of artists – classic and contemporary, Australian and international. What’s more, it regularly bags exclusive rights to host exhibitions of serious arty gravitas from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Take that, Melbourne. Right next-door is the Capitol, a grandiose Victorian-era theatre that plays host to some hectic productions and artists. The recently opened Ullumbarra Theatre completes this holy trinity of artistic hubs: thankfully, the markedly lower number of convicts now inhabiting Bendigo allowed for the former jail to be converted into this exciting new performance space.
The eats: If, like me, you have a serious penchant for good food, you won’t go hungry in Bendigo. My personal fave is the crochet-clad Old Green Bean, a vibrant café that wouldn’t look out of place on a Brunswick backstreet. Come for the atmosphere, stay for the (insanely well-priced) feta nachos and intriguingly sparkling cold drip coffee. For a more primped-up affair, head to Masons. For perhaps the first time in its history, Bendigo was ahead of Melbourne with this place – it embraced the white, industrial-chic, glass aesthetic way before such a look was Fitzroy-certified cool. And the tapas-style eats on offer look just as good, too.
The beats: If bevving and boogying is more of a priority to you than eating, then shame on you – also, Bendigo’s got you covered surprisingly well. With a substantial student population, the nightclub scene is popping. Admittedly, you will have to be abhorrently drunk to tolerate the shoddy DJs and furiously gyrating guys and gals who can only be described as the illicit, sweaty lovechildren of Jersey Shore and Farmer Wants a Wife. However, tolerating these circumstances is facilitated rather well by the fact that one notable club offers free entry and free alcohol (yep) to uni students from 10-11 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you’re ever in town and feel like a cheap night out (the only cost is your dignity!), Bendigo will indubitably welcome you with open arms.
So there you have it. If Bendigo is enticing enough to (eventually) win over an ex-Londoner and staunch urbanite, it’ll probably win you over too. So I implore you: stop confusing Bendigo with Ballarat, coast down the Calder Highway, and discover why Bendigo really does have a heart of gold.