Montsalvat in Eltham
The landmass of Australia is very old, as is the culture of our indigenous peoples, but European settlement is still new. None of our cities are truly old; they simply haven’t been around long enough. How then to explain the artist colony of Montsalvat?
Begun in 1934 by architect and artist Justus Jorgensen, Montsalvat is a medieval village carved into the bush of Australia. It should be awful, like a fake movie set, but instead it looks, and feels, like many of the medieval towns I fell in love with when I travelled through Europe as a young woman. I’ve seen old. I’ve seen authentic, and they have names: Perigeux and Rocamadour.
The more scenic of the two is Rocamadour:
You can read about it and view more pictures here.
Much as I loved Rocamadour, it never felt quite as real to me as Perigeux, despite the fact that old, medieval Perigeux is buried inside a rather ordinary, modern country town.
I lived a few miles outside Perigeux for a couple of months and came to know and love the city well. I haven’t been back in decades, but I will never forget wandering the old city at dusk and suddenly seeing a few strands of cooked pasta floating down a bluestone gutter. The medieval house I was admiring was still occupied and someone was cooking dinner!
The following collage of images is what I think of when I think of Perigeux:
Imagine my surprise then, when I first set foot in Montsalvat and saw this:
Some things, like the rusty tin roofs, are distinctly Australian, and the gardens are an easy blend of exotics and natives, yet the feel of the place always takes me back to the mid south west of France.
These are some of my favourite spots in Montsalvat:
The archway leads past quarters that are still occupied. I stole this picture through the window as we walked past:
The kitchen belongs to a pocket of buildings that I’ve named the ‘French quarter’. This is what they look like from the front:
By the time I took these pictures yesterday, the sky had clouded over and the light had become a bit dull, but the warmth of the stone, mudbrick and rammed earth structures should still be evident.
And therein lies the secret of what makes Montsalvat look and feel ‘real’. Every building was constructed using age old techniques that would not have been out of place in my favourite parts of Europe. And many of them were constructed by the artists themselves. By hand. Moreover, many of the oldest features were actually recycled from beautiful old buildings demolished in the heart of Melbourne before we learned to value our past.
But the big thing, the important thing is that Montsalvat is not a museum. Artists live in the tiny, quirky houses and exhibit their work all over the village. Montsalvat is alive, just as Perigeux was alive, all those years ago.
Purists may sniff at how young Montsalvat truly is, but I prefer to think of it as a pocket of history alive and well in the Australian bush.
You can read more about the history of Montsalvat here, and if you want to spend the day there, you can have a picnic on the grass or dine in one of the two, excellent restaurants. No fast food, no Australiana souvenirs of koalas on keychains, just a beautiful place with a short history.