50 towns in 50 days: Avoca is a Pyrenees treasure

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AVOCA has long offered a little taste of France in Australia and not just because the picturesque town is nestled among the vines at the foot of the Pyrenees ranges.

The modern Pyrenees wine industry has its roots with the French cognac house Remy Martin, which acquired the site now famous as the Blue Pyrenees Estate and planted vines there in the 1960s.

And former Avoca postmaster Noel Jess says petanque remains as popular as a sporting pastime in the town as the more traditional Australian pursuits of bowls and golf.

And former Avoca postmaster Noel Jess says petanque remains as popular as a sporting pastime in the town as the more traditional Australian pursuits of bowls and golf.

However, it is the wine industry that has long lent Avoca it’s European style charm.

Vines were first planted in the region in 1848 - five years before the discovery of gold in the area - and wine was being made and sold there in the late 19th century.

But it was not until the final years of the 20th century that it became the thriving industry that now attracts crowds of weekend day trippers to the area to sample what the region has to offer.

Early explorer Major Thomas Mitchell named the Pyrenees after the French mountain range where he served time as an army officer and urged settlers to take up land in the area.

By 1850 there were several large sheep runs but it was not until the discovery of gold in 1853 that Avoca’s population boomed.

In June 1854, it was home to an estimated 16,000 prospectors.

Following the gold rush, agriculture once again became the town’s main industry before dwindling again in the late 20th century.

Mr Jess, who was born in the town and started and finished his career in the local post office, has witnessed both its decline and its revival.

“There was three banks, now there’s only one and there’s no more trains since the rail closed,” he said.

“But then there has been the sundry industries - the wineries and the pipeworks and a fair transport business that employ a few.

“On weekends you get a lot of visitors going through and here to the wineries.

“It’s probably a full day’s tour.”

Mr Jess lost the house he was born in when bushfires swept through the town in 1985 but rebuilt on the same site.

A life member of the Avoca Turf Club, he said the town’s thrice yearly race meetings were also attracting a lot of visitors to the town these days.

“Our Caulfield Cup day meeting can get five to six thousand,” he said.

The basics

Municipality: Pyrenees Shire

Population: 951

First settled: Early 1840s

Main industries: Wine growing, tourism, sheep, cattle and grain farming, concreting.

Claim to fame: Avoca is the hometown of John Jess, who played 223 games for Richmond, including the 1980 premiership.

Five fast facts

1. The Avoca River, which flows through the town, was named by Major Thomas Mitchell after Vale of Avoca in County Wicklow, Ireland.

2. The first major gold strike near Avoca came in 1853. By the beginning of December 1853 the population had increased from 100 to 2200 and by June the following year it had swelled to 16,000

3.  Avoca boasts the oldest operating chemist shop in Victoria and the oldest continuously operating butcher shop in Australia. Both were established in 1854.

4. The French cognac house Remy Martin established the first of the modern Pyrenees vineyards at Avoca in the early 1960s, naming it Chateau Remy. It is now one of Victoria’s most recognised wineries, Blue Pyrenees Estate, renowned for it’s full bodied red wine and sparkling wine.

5. A major bushfire burned 58,000 hectares of land around Avoca and Maryborough in January, 1985. Three people died and 180 houses were destroyed. 500 farms and 46,000 stock were also lost.

Five things to do

1. Experience true country racing. Avoca Turf Club has a fairly impressive backdrop in the Pyrenees mountain ranges and hosts three major race meetings each year, on Anzac Day, Caulfield Cup day and on the first Saturday in December.

2. Try petanque. The French game of petanque has become a hit in Avoca and anumber of competitions are held each year.

3. Go on a winery tour. There are more than 20 vineyards in the Pyrenees area and a number of tour operators who will help you sample their wares. The Pyrenees climate is said to be very similar to the celebrated French wine making region of Bordeaux.

4. Get outdoors. Avoca provides a great base for exploring the Pyrenees, either on foot, horseback or by mountain bike.

5. Explore Avoca’s history. Discover the town’s rich history on the Avoca Heritage Trail. A guide to the region’s historic landmarks is available at the visitor information centre.

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