THE chill wind is slapping my face like a jilted lover and the crisp air is transforming my breath into dragon smoke. It’s a grey, old mid-winter day in Toowoomba, where the mercury is fumbling to reach double digits and failing miserably. In fact, if I combine the weather, graffiti art, and cacophony of cool coffee shops I might just be in Melbourne. But I’m not; I’m 90 minutes west of Brisbane, visiting the darling of the Darling Downs.
I should be hating on this day. I despise bleak, cold days made even worse if you have to be out in the elements. But I am having a ball in spite of myself. I’m on foot, exploring Toowoomba’s street art scene, and every few metres am torn in a different direction as my eye catches a splash of colour down a hidden alley way. It is said that Rome is one of the best cities in the world to become lost. Toowoomba is another.
This is a tale of art deco delights. Of a city brimming with hole-in-the wall coffee nooks, great cafes, ambitious chefs, organic food and an equally organic evolution. There’s still the odd haberdashery shop and ancient facades redolent of the Toowoomba of old, including at the Quest Apartments in which I am staying, and whose reception area is in a charming old church. It’s a very Toowoomba thing, to combine old with new and Quest offers six levels of modern, fully equipped serviced apartment accommodation right in the heart of this city. And what a beating heart this is.
I meet First Coat Festival Director Grace Dewar in The Firefly café, a converted warehouse and art space. The third First Coast Festival has just been staged and there’s now more than 80 urban artworks within a 2km radius of Toowoomba’s CBD. Grace says graffiti art has strong links with Toowoomba, as this was where the coal trains rattled through the city, inspiring the tags of some of Queensland’s early graffiti vandals.
“Toowoomba has been well known for that. We are fostering that energy to provide a home for that culture,” Grace says.
“The whole street art culture is well documented with graffiti writers coming out of the 80s. It was that whole idea of putting your name of things and having that peer respect.
“The word graffiti has a lot of negative stigma. But we are sitting in a new place, we are in the thick of a movement.”
And the First Coat Festival is at the forefront of that change. During the event, the city transforms into an outdoor art gallery with works by overseas, national and local artists. Visitors can view artists live at work during the festival, and when it’s over can download an App (First Coat) or a self-guided map (www. firstcoat.com.au) and experience the city’s artwork bursting out of walls or hidden in secret lane ways. Grace believes unlike Melbourne, whose urban art grew around the Victorian capital, Toowoomba is actually evolving around its graffiti art.
“You don’t have to seek it out, you stumble upon it. It’s a really easy belief because it is coming from a real place. It is not a ‘wank fest’ which I really like. It is a public gallery that’s available 24/7,” she says.
“It’s that idea that people can experience a country town that offers so much culture, not just in public art but coffee culture and the restaurants and bars that are opening up. We’ve got a pretty great scene.
“It’s a different look community and a smaller version of Melbourne. It’s interesting that it’s referred to as a little slice of Melbourne or Melbourne’s little sister.”
It’s lunchtime by the time I reach The Finch and meet owner Dan Farquahar. This modern Australian eatery, opened a year ago, is in a former bakery with restored pressed metal ceilings and exposed brick walls. A bench at the front is made from recycled wood from the Bundaberg Distillery.
“A lot of people come in and say ‘it’s very Melbourne’ but this is typical Toowoomba with the high ceilings and original floor and walls. It is quite beautiful, we’ve tried to keep the integrity of the building,” Dan says.
“Toowoomba has seen a few waves. For a long time from a food perspective Toowoomba has been a fast food town. But now people expect and are looking for better quality products and ingredients.
“I like to think we are serving good quality locally-sourced food with our own slant.”
I pause for coffee at Ground Up Espresso, a laneway cafe consistently voted one of Toowoomba’s best, browse through Bunker Records & Espresso, and check out Toowoomba Regional Gallery before dinner at Kajoku Korean and Japanese Restaurant where I meet Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers Event Manager Mel Kite. Mel says even the festival, which started in 1949 and is Australia’s longest running, has evolved with the city.
The event now embraces “earth-art” projects and this year’s festival, to be held from September 16-25, will focus on bamboo and orchids. Celebrity chef Miguel Maestre will stage a paella kitchen and there’s a food and wine event within the festival.
“There will be several sustainable gardens and other things on trend. This year there will be a smoked barbecue pit and a barbecue competition,” Mel says.
“At night time we will have a concert series that showcases a lot of female artists who are dynamic and front row at the moment.
“It is a true celebration of spring and there is something for every age group.
We are constantly looking for ways to reinvigorate and create interesting things.”
There’s a Jack the Ripper fog the next morning when I drive down the Great Dividing Range back to Brisbane. I monitor the mercury as it rises every few minutes, climbing from 12 degrees to 23 degrees by the time I’m back in the Queensland capital. But things are hotting up in Toowoomba, and Melbourne, well, watch this space.
The Global Goddess travelled to Toowoomba as a guest of Southern Queensland Country Tourism. http://www.southernqueenslandcountry.com
• Check out First Coat Festival artworks at http://www.firstcoat.com.au; Quest Toowoomba at http://www.questapartments.com.au/Accommodation/478/Australia/Queensland_Regional/Quest_Toowoomba/Welcome.aspx
• The Finch at http://www.thefinch.com.au
• The Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers at http://tcof.com.au