When we booked our accommodation and restaurants in Beechworth for the Easter long weekend, we did it early because we reckoned that being a long weekend, and the last one before winter sets in, it might be busy. Little did we know how busy! Maybe if we had done a bit of homework, we would have…
Every year on the Easter weekend, the town of Beechworth grows from about 3500 people to…well, this year they estimated somewhere between 15000 and 20000. Over the weekend, they host the Golden Horseshoes Festival, celebrating the day that some guy shod a horse with golden horse shoes way back when…blah, blah, blah…we didn’t actually pay that much attention to what was going on. Whatever it was that happened, the real importance of it is that it is actually a celebration that doesn’t involve Ned Kelly. That part of north eastern Victoria is very tied to the life of Australia’s favorite bush ranger (their term for criminal!) and everywhere you go you see references to him. The Beechworth Bakery even has a Ned Kelly pie and Ned Kelly Damper (spinach and carrot bread…quite tasty!). But this weekend he was sort of in the shadows.
So, what happens at the festival in this small ‘mountain’ town? A market. Another market down the street. Some street performers and buskers. A music stage. Some sausage sizzles. Another market. A parade. A motorcycle muster…just your typical small town Aussie weekend really, but with a lot more people and a lot of energy. And another market.
The first market was your typical Australian morning market: gold coin entry (that’s $1 or $2 coin) to wander around a flea market environment with everything from grannies selling home-made jam to people selling Chinese-made crappy toys. What sets them apart from Canadian flea markets is that there is usually a winery or two offering samples…what more could you want at 9 am on a Saturday morning? This is where we bought our chestnuts (which are a bit of a pain in the ass to prepare, but make a damn fine risotto!). Second market was the ‘food market’ – much smaller, a lot more wineries! We bought some really good wine, which we were later told was a bit controversial because the people were from Heathcote, which is about 225 km away, and they were seen as interlopers in the Beechworth wine region! Oh well, it wasn’t like the best of the Beechworth wineries were there, and these interlopers were the best of the bunch at the markets.
At noon was the highlight of the festival: the reenactment of the shoeing of the horse. Completely hokey! But entertaining and enlightening for someone who has never seen a farrier in action. The horse was a bit anxious about performing in front of the crowd, but took it all quite well really. For his troubles, he got to lead the parade. Unfortunately, we missed the start of the parade because we were having ice cream and listening to a bluegrass band.
The parade. Wow! Another highlight of the festival. It was, again, a bit hokey, but you could really see how much effort and enthusiasm the people put into this event. The floats and other ‘entertainment’ in the parade were creative and fun, and the audience was having a ball. It went for about 3 blocks…that covered pretty much the whole town.
It was far superior to any small-town parade we have seen in Canada, and probably better than most big city ones even, and we will attribute that to the lax (or lack of) alcohol consumption laws in Australia. Parade participants are much more interesting when they are drinking!
After the parade, things calmed down a bit. The crowd at the main stage drifted away, the market vendors packed their wares, and the street performers headed to the pub for a pint or two or twelve. As the sun set, the streets were noticeably quieter. The main stage area, on Camp Street (one of the main streets) looked like last call at a wedding reception: tables full of empty bottles and parents stagger-dancing with their tired children. It was actually a bit sad for the Canadian ex-pat musician who got stuck with the closing time slot. And then there was a night market – the first time they had done this. Pretty much an assortment of vendors from the earlier markets, with a couple of new ones (including a new winery…yay!).
Sunday was a lot more low-key. Probably 2/3 of the crowd was gone…though we didn’t go to the outdoor church service, which might have been very busy. We went birding instead, though it might have been interesting to attend a service on a large (very large) rock in a park, beside a historic jail, with cannons on it. Strange. There was also a motorcycle muster and show, a family bike ride (we avoided that, though later in the day, while cycling to a winery, Lisa did almost run over some little raggamuffin who couldn’t quite figure out how to share the trail), and mountain bike races. And maybe the saddest part of the weekend was that there were still music stages set up…we felt really sorry for the guy playing solo at the end of one street, with an audience of two. And one of them was the sound man. And then it got even sadder when we walked by again and realized that the other person in the audience was the next performer, and when she went on he didn’t even stick around to hear her. Bad planning on someone’s part. By mid-afternoon Sunday, Beechworth was back to its sleepy self; the streets were open to traffic, the ATMs were working again, you could get into a coffee shop. All that was left was a special Easter Monday farmer’s market (where we got some good produce for the week, including some dirt cheap apples).
So it was an odd event. Totally unexpected, but something that we think we will go to again. It wasn’t that the festival itself was anything spectacular, but it made a fun vibe in the town at a great time of year to visit that part of the country.
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