In this NSW village, you can hold your breath until you’re blue in the mountains – you’re still going to struggle to find the quaintness so heavily advertised. Jack Marx drops in for an attitude adjustment.
Nestled among the Blue Mountains, just 90 minutes due west of Sydney, is the “quaint” village of Leura, depicted in all the free travel brochures as the charming little sister of the comparatively flamboyant and big-bosomed Katoomba.
The postcard prettiness of the town was no act of God or nature, but man, and foreign men at that. With names like Sorensen and Van de Velde, Leura’s jazz age pioneers brought art deco to these hills – their own trees, too, from Europe and the Americas – and there must have been a time when Leura seemed very much the European hideaway in the hills.
Though Leura is home to some 4000 souls, the dependable waddle of tourists through town renders this figure quite useless. News of the quaint village in the mountains has spread so that now it resembles but a quaint village theme park, the main street crowded on weekends with families who smile at the local drunk as if he’s part of the exhibit. Close your eyes in The Mall on a Sunday afternoon and the slapping sandals, squeaking prams and Crazy Frog ringtones take you all the way back to the rat race.
That Leura has become a walk-thru attraction for suburban knuckleheads is a mixed blessing for the locals. For many years these hills were the retreat of choice for Sydney’s self-appointed artistic elite, who came in search of the quiet inspiration that seemed to elude them at lower altitudes. Today, spotty art students trek here to breathe air recycled by the late Norman Lindsay, who lived and worked at nearby Springwood, while up the road at Katoomba, literary groupies loiter in the grounds of Veruna, a shambling old mansion that the late Eleanor Dark called home. Their well-kept secret thoroughly compromised, the luvvies of Leura capitalise on the situation by selling the precious local muse to the plebs – galleries full of “art” and “craft” and piles of junk labelled “antiques” line the footways, while invitations to a galaxy of creative “workshops” flutter from the community noticeboard. For a fee, wannabe authors can even take a room at Veruna, where the night air is thunderous with the clatter of old typewriters as roomfuls of tryhards attempt to channel Eleanor’s muse.
As if to celebrate the town’s own cultural pretensions, a French flag flaps from a pole in Leura’s main street. There’s no French connection in the town scriptures and Bastille Day was weeks ago, yet nobody can tell me what this means, the best answers being “Why not?” and “Parlez vous Anglais?” − the latter drawing howls of laughter from the utterer. I should have appreciated the good cheer while it lasted.
Almost without exception, the teahouse madams of Leura and surrounds are frosty-haired 50-somethings with chips on their shoulders the size of small nations. They squint through spectacles or sheepdog fringes as if we’ve invaded their cafes uninvited, their perfunctory, closed-eyed smiles betraying their true feelings better than any raised finger could do. One gets the impression they deserted their posts at city primary schools to indulge those middle-aged craft shop fantasies that kept them sane all those years they were sticking it to the kiddies. Now they’re here at last, only to find that we dirty little buggers have followed them, and they don’t like it one bit.
At one such establishment, the sight of my five-year-old son munching on a sausage roll purchased next door is reason enough for an emergency staff meeting during which the proprietor, in a voice loud enough for all, proclaims to the wait staff that children bearing sausage rolls will be welcome in the establishment no more. Elsewhere, my desire to pay a bill is dismissed as a rude interruption to what sounds like a phone conversation with Sybil Fawlty. A request for directions to the bathroom yields sing-song, “for-the-very-last-time” theatrics, and a call for extra cutlery brings a sharp lecture on the evils of “meal sharing”, evidently the P2P crime of cafe society. Orders go missing, coffee goes cold, patience is demanded and none returned, and always it’s the fault of the goons from the lowlands – the customers polluting the local joie de vivre.
What the hell is wrong with these people? This toxic attitude persists from one end of town to the other, and I’ve since discovered that it’s quite well known; every Sydney publican has a tale to tell of the muffin-faced grouches in the Blue Mountains. Perhaps the mood, like everything else around here, is commodified too – the ill-mannered huff of the artistic genius, delivered piping hot to the delighted plebs. Or perhaps its roots go deeper . . .
A town isn’t just about people, of course − especially true when you’ve got uninterrupted views of the Jamison Valley waiting at the lip of God’s own gorge – and so I decide to forget about the locals and take a stroll to the nearby lookout. But alas, the commodification of Leura continues, a maximum-security fence telling us that “the best view in the mountains” is beyond a turnstile demanding “only $2.” A view, for crying out loud! Let it be known that a skirting of the fence in a westerly direction outflanks this piracy, if you can handle the guilt.
Across the road from that view is what makes all of this nonsense worth the trouble. Leuralla, “The Showpiece of the Mountains”, is worth the $15 cover charge. A heritage mansion set within some pretty impressive grounds, Leuralla is also a Toy and Railway Museum, the many rooms crowded with old tin toys and antique dolls with that horror movie stare. Outside, a model of the Matterhorn mountain railway toots and chugs for a $2 fee. But it’s around the back of a nearby shed, tucked away from the other exhibits, that I find something altogether spooky – behind a pane of glass, in a room all its own, lives a lively Nazi rally, complete with The Fuhrer, lovingly modelled to scale. And it’s while I’m pondering the meaning of this that I notice them: up the back, behind the marching, goose-stepping soldiers, little men are toiling away. They appear to be building a town . . .