The Athens of Australia

Dan suggested Ballarat and I said yes. (A good traveler is like a good improv actor, I guess.) In bed, the morning of our trip, Dan looked through Airbnb listings on his phone. I suggested that a crappy motel might be cheaper (outside of big cities, it sometimes is), imagining a Motel 6 off the highway.

At face value, no, crappy motels were not cheaper than Airbnb. But tack on $20 of Airbnb fees and we did find a more affordable, traditional (we thought) accommodation. And right in the Central Business District of Ballarat, too!

But of course, when you’re looking for a bargain – when you’ve spent many years looking for a bargain – you’re all too familiar with the “too good to be true” trope 1 so I googled around before committing our debit cards to a questionable fate. One of the five Google reviews read “TWO WORDS……BED BUGS.” (Yet that reviewer had awarded Reid’s Guest House 2 stars.)

Reid's Guest House Google Reviews

I pointed out to Dan that if you’ve got two words to say, you’ve already wasted both of them – and so really whenever someone says “two words” they really mean “four words.” Dan said, “yeah, but bed bugs is two words.” I understood his point: we had no time to discuss word-counting accuracy when the car rental place had already called asking if we were still definitely coming to pick up the car. So I back-tracked to the original Google search. It gave me an article about how good a favor the House was doing for Ballarat by hosting the “down on their luck” for extended periods.

But it was the cheapest place and it was in the city center. I booked it. We packed a few pairs of underwear after a brief discussion of how many one needs for 2 days (I brought three pairs – one for just in case), and I packed my camera, and we finally left the house at 10am sans shower (why shower at home when you can shower in Ballarat?) and sans breakfast (we’d save that meal for the limited number we’d have away from home).

Ballarat is just an hour and a half drive from Melbourne. So it’s not really a drive at all. Ballarat’s golden age is past us, as its Wikipedia page’s table of contents clearly indicates:

1 History
1.1 Prehistory and European settlement
1.2 1850s: Gold rush
1.3 Victorian city
1.4 Declining fortunes
1.5 Since the 20th century

In 1851, gold was discovered at Ballarat, and the place then enjoyed an intense gold rush for a long period of time. Longer than most places. Ballarat at some point even had an international reputation! It was proclaimed a city in 1871 and for a time, it was even referred to as the “Athens of Australia”! (By Ballaratian patriots themselves.) But then after the gold ran out, people stopped caring about it, of course.

We arrived at Reid’s Guest House just before 1 in the afternoon. The front door was firmly shut, and we doubted we even had the right door because there wasn’t any signage out front. I pulled up a photo on my phone, and what we were standing in front of was definitely the same classically Australian veranda.

Reid's Guest House

I called the place, and said we were standing outside, and was told that the doors would re-open at 1pm. We had three minutes to kill, so we crossed the street and watched for someone to open the door.

Reid’s Guest House’s has dank entrance and scraping paint and a hushed vibe. The welcome committee often hovering around the entrance is only medium welcoming – they don’t really make eye contact and wear large shirts and mind their own cigarette-smoking business.

Reid's Guest House entrance

Reid's Guest House stairs

Our room had a tv and fresh towels and signs barring us from the dusty balcony. A sticker in the bathroom said to let the hot water tap run for five minutes to let it get warm. We were going to be okay.

"A slice of New York here in the goldfields"
“A slice of New York here in the goldfields”

We sat on the edge of the bed in our hunger-in-a-new-place ritual: on our phones, hopping from app to app, swiping right through photos of food. You can tell a city by the photos in its food apps. I’m not sure what exactly you can tell, but there’s something about a place with really crappy photos of food. 2

Mostly, it’s that it’s really challenging to choose between five places that have mediocre photos of food. If you’ve only ever tried choosing between two restaurants that seem incredible then you’ve never really struggled in your life.

Anyways, we finally chose a place called the Boat Shed. We looked past the poor quality of its visitor’s phone cameras and decided maybe it would be nice to have a view of a lake whilst eating. It was a fair walk away, which was okay: it would be a good intro to the city.

The CBD is small, and we quickly reached the suburbs. Our intro to the city was sidewalks and houses.

Ballarat

Ballarat

There is a Blockbuster still open in Ballarat.
There is a Blockbuster still open in Ballarat.

The Boat Shed was nice, and the food was nice as well. We ate a lot of it, and really fast- because we had underestimated how long it would take for us to walk to the restaurant and our parking spot time was running out. The whole dining experience was so quick that neither of us remember what we ate. One of the things involved pumpkins. I bet I have a photo of it on my phone somewhere.

I also remember that we were sitting in a corner, nestled against two windows, and it was immensely hot in one seat, and so Dan and I switched halfway through.

Bellies full, we jogged it back in and made it right in between the time that our parking meter ran out and a parking officer noticed. We re-parked the car and headed back to the hotel and showered and then settled back on the bed for another game-planning session.

This time I opened up a million tabs on my laptop on the theme of things to do in Ballarat.

Which really isn’t much – not when you don’t really know a country and expect that cities in it are all like the single one that you’ve ever been in. But, lo, Ballarat is not like Melbourne at all, and there are not just gigs you can look up or bars you’d want to chill in or natural history museums you can meander around until you’re not glassy-eyed and not even looking at anything anymore.

There especially isn’t much when it’s 4pm – the hour everything closes. Dan rolled over on the bed, and said, “We came all the way to Ballarat to eat at the Boat Shed really quickly.”

Which was a funny observation, so we laughed at that for a few minutes, and then I returned to my tabs. A hopeful option was the Ballarat Observatory (those are open late as a requisite, no?) – but the website really refused to give us any information on how/when/why to visit. 3 Dan called, and asked if/when we could come, and the lady asked when we would want to, and he said, “8pm?” and she said, “Okay, see you at 8pm.”

We spent the few hours we had to kill at the only bar that had “people like us” in it: Mitchell Harris Wines. It has lightly graffiti-d exposed brick walls and the windows were large and opened out onto the street. The black olive salt edamame there were such a great snack that we even noted them in our joint Evernote.

Mitchell Harris Wines Review

Mitchell Harris Wines

Post-edamame-wine, we began the 40-minute trek to the Ballarat Observatory. (There are more hills than you’d expect!) And then we got there and there were a bunch of gates and all of them were locked and the sun had set and the observatory was dark. It was 8pm.

Ballarat Observatory

And then it was 8:15pm, and we were getting cold, and we started walking back, defeated by the Ballarat Observatory. It was about ten minutes in, when we had managed to inebriate-on-the-go with supplies we had brought just in case, when we got a phone call asking where we were because our guide came and no one was around and so the guide left. The lady on the phone said maybe she could call our guide and he’d come back, if that’s what we wanted.

Dan put the phone down near his thigh, and we looked at each other, and I stopped giggling and said very seriously, “Let’s do it.”

Our guide at the Observatory was an aeronautical engineering PhD student who was particularly fascinated by telescopes and the sky, and was excited to learn that we were, too. It was twenty bucks that couldn’t have been better spent than on a personal tour with a guy who’s excited to show you telescopes the size of a small, sideways lighthouses.

Ballarat Observatory telescope
Ballarat Observatory telescope

The next day, we had enough time to visit Sovereign Hill, which is the place that everyone asks if you went to see if you say you’ve just been to Ballarat. Sovereign Hill is reminiscent of your fifth grade social studies trip – “an open air museum and historic park” a.k.a. a place that is built up like an old mining town, with hired actors and you can sieve for gold or go 9-pin bowling or watch a blacksmith make horseshoes.

Soveriegn Hill gold

Soveriegn Hill New York Bakery

Soveriegn Hill mine

Soveriegn Hill

It’s pricy fun, but it’s fun all the same. I’ve been playing the video game Red Dead Redemption, and Sovereign Hill was like a real-live version of that, except that there weren’t any bandits or anything. You can meander on dusty streets or have a drink at the bar and stand in the doorway watching 19th century degenerates yelling at each other out on the street. You can go down a mine, or you can go down a second mine that you have to pay extra for, and is totally not worth it. (You go down a deep shaft to watch a weird movie where faces are projected onto large rocks and then you come back up.)

We finished the day with scones – which are a big thing in Australia. 4 Then we got into the car and drove the hour and a half back to Melbourne.

Sovereign Hill scones

And so, that was Ballarat.

My morals of the story about Ballarat:

  1. Reid’s Guest House is not the worst place to stay, but it is the cheapest.
  2. Repark your car before going somewhere far to eat.
  3. The Ballarat Observatory website is worth a visit.
  4. It would be fun to get drunk in Sovereign Hill.

 

Notes:

  1. For example, my “cheap bedroom in the Lower East Side” in New York City one year was multi-critter infested (eventually you get used to falling asleep knowing for sure that the roach did not make an exit journey from your closet) and had two windows pressed up against the tenement next door (though the windows did fit a tiny AC). It was not located in the LES but actually in a neighborhood called Two Bridges, which I’m sure will one day soon be seen as immensely desirable but at the time was just the leftovers of Chinatown
  2. Food porn cities ranked: 1. Melbourne 2. New York City 3. Ballarat
  3. It’s a gem of a website, though. If you’re ever in Ballarat looking for something to do, visit the Ballarat Observatory website and try to decide whether you do or do not want to go to the Ballarat Observatory. For example, the About Us tab has two links: History and Stained Glass Windows.
  4. This always surprises me. Australians eat scones with cream, and they are always talking about how lovely or fresh the scones are at this place or that place, and if they aren’t just having them for breakfast, they are having them at high tea, which is another thing that surprises me all the time. It surprises Dan that it surprises me – “It’s British, of course we like it” he said, “what’s so surprising about that?”.

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