We’ve been away for a couple of days, escaping the pressures of Sydney, slipping into that lovely temporal state, the Mind of the Traveller, where peace and centre is at the heart of one’s existence. That’s been my view of travelling for a long time now, that it is about the mindset travelling provides, rather than the destination. Unlike many in my generation, I haven’t had the opportunity nor the means to travel overseas, due to my father’s view that he preferred driving in Australia and being the only salary earner in my marriage made it hard to go on any holiday, let alone one overseas. Hence, I have long liked visiting NSW. Where we went this weekend also raises some challenges for us as city people who visit the west of NSW.
This weekend it was Cowra and Canowindra that was the place to be. Both towns are interesting places to visit, even without the wineries, which was the main motivator for us. Cowra has the unenviable position of being the home of a POW Camp during WW2, from which Japanese POWs staged a breakout, killing 4 Australian soldiers and losing 231, with a combination of suicide dashes towards gun placements and suicide out in the fields of Cowra. It’s still an eerie place to visit, the field in the middle of virtually nowhere. However, what it did create was a dedication in Cowra towards peace and reconciliation with that past. This culminated in Cowra, not Canberra, receiving a replica of the World Peace Bell and building Australia’s largest Japanese garden – which really does provide a piece of zen calm.
Cowra is also a rural hub, pastorally significant, all part of the rural megabusiness written about so enthusiastically by neo-liberal champion Chris Berg. Possibly as a result of this, Cowra has a sameness about it, when compared to other rural regional hubs. Because the two of us are more of the mushy romantic type, we were left a little underwhelmed with the rest of the town.
I had booked accommodation at The Old Vic Inn in Canowindra for a couple of basic reasons. The main one was that I was a little slow in planning the holiday – six weeks before, and my plan to get somewhere in Orange (a favourite from last year) or Mudgee (we haven’t been there yet) yielded few good accommodation options. I later found out from one vigneron in Orange that this is an emerging problem for Orange – that the city faces an accommodation problem, where there won’t be enough beds for the increasing number of Sydney tourists who have realised that the area is beautiful and worth visiting.
What I didn’t realise was how beautiful Canowindra is. It’s almost the opposite of the flavourless, colourless megabusiness hub that we normally associate with the Central West of NSW. It’s determined to stay stuck in the past, with its lack of chain stores, takeaway joints and other economically prudent choices. The Old Vic was more like an old style guesthouse, where people didn’t stay in their rooms (there were no TVs in those rooms), instead chatted around the open fire. Or, like us, chatted or surfed the web on our free wifi-powered electronic devices. The main street, Gaskill St, is made of buildings still from Victorian and Edwardian times and feature small shops filled with nice household items and jewellery – as well as good coffee.
The wines of Canowindra, while possibly uneconomically sound, are an undiscovered gem and easily as good as any we have had from wine factory regions like the Hunter or the Yarra Valley. We spent time visiting one winery – Wallington – where the attitude of the winemaker, Margaret Wallington, summed up on one level what Canowindra can be seen to represent. She only had the wines that were in her shed, so it was a limited range. She put into bottles wines that she thought would work, based on the quality of that year’s vintage. She has also installed solar panels as well as biodynamic practices – not to save money or to provide a point of difference – just because it is the right thing to do for the environment. And the wines are indeed special – and that’s an objective view from two people who have gone to most of the wine regions of NSW and Victoria these past two years.
The other wines of Canowindra can be tasted at The Taste of Canowindra – which is also a great place for lunches and the occasional dinner. The birthday dinner we had was wonderful, because not only was the food fantastic – and locally sourced – but the chef was cooking everything from scratch and was ranting and raving in the kitchen, oblivious to the outside world. As far from Masterchef as I can imagine.
But there is something instructive in Canowindra for people interested in cultural trends. I have long suspected that people who have the money to spend for holidays away might be getting sick of the sameness of world cities and the dullness of homogenous globalised centres. This is where towns like Canowindra can work as a tourist destination. It has a gallery, it has new shops run by locals – locals who can see the value in getting a web presence like Bendy Street Emporium. With the Old Vic now starting to get booked out, there is room for more accommodation options, a bakery, a pizza restaurant, a bookshop, perhaps a brewery. There is a future in harkening back to the past – we saw quite a few people in their 20s having a wander through Finn’s Store, as well as people in their 40s and 50s.
Another positive of not flying off to New York, London or Bali and instead going to Canowindra is that after you come back, the money you’ve spent hasn’t gone to an airline company, instead it’s gone into the pockets of people you now know, with the products ending up in the wine cellar and jewellery box. Certainly beats trooping off to Dan Murphy’s to buy a bottle of the 20 or so fake brands they have made up.
Yes, Canowindra is about as far from modern economic wisdom as you can get. And I love it.