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Good Country:
Paris or Penola?

Margarita Zelenskaya
Raidis Estate

To encourage South Australians to travel within the State during COVID-19 restrictions, Premier Steven Marshall asked us to “substitute Paris with Penola”. So how do the two locations stack up?

Like Paris, Penola is a magnet for culture and multiculturalism. Penola’s main street, Church Street, has its own Panthéon, with busts of renowned poets Adam Lindsay Gordon, John Shaw Neilson and Will Ogilvie. All three poets lived in Penola and wrote poetry that expressed their love of the land. Gordon, a distant relative of Lord Byron, worked in Penola and Mt Gambier and was renowned as a trainer and steeplechaser.

Penola also has SA’s oldest amateur theatre group, the Penola Players. Kat Searcy, who works at the Penola Coonawarra Visitor Information Centre, is a member. “We once did a play called In My Lady’s Chamber. I played Monique, the French Wench. Guy [Detot] was very happy with my French accent.”

Enter Guy Detot. Perhaps no-one’s better placed to compare Paris and Penola. The affable Penola sculptor was born in Paris, grew up in Paris (“in Passy, where you can see the Eiffel Tower”) and studied art and ballet there. He became a professional dancer and modelled for Vogue. In England, he fell in love with an Australian ballet dancer and followed her to Australia.

Says Detot, “I don’t like big cities. When I came here in ’82, driving from the airport to Echunga, I thought, ‘This is home’. That drive changed my life. I’ve never seen so beautiful trees. Just having breakfast and the parrots coming. And an eagle. The rosella and the cockatoo. I thought, ‘This doesn’t exist!’”

Michael X Savvas
Guy Detot

Detot later converted a tools and fodder warehouse off Church Street to Detot’s Le Max Gallery, where he now lives and sculpts wood.

The ‘Le Max’ in the gallery’s name is Detot’s tribute to one of Australia’s greatest literary figures, Max Harris. “Max’s daughter, Samela, opened the gallery 25 years ago. Max said that Penola was a hub of writers in Australia.” With five art galleries, an art festival and even a meticulously constructed fantasy model railway world, Penolaraya, Penola inspires visual artists too.

Max Harris’s legacy is also evident in Penola’s various memorials to its most famous resident, Mary MacKillop. Harris was a staunch advocate of Australia’s first saint.

Another interesting settler in the district was William Wallace, a descendant of Scottish warrior William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace.

Detot’s artistic medium, wood, is apt, as Penola derives from Pinchunga words pena (wooden) and oorla (house). Local farmers give Detot wood. Pointing to one of his redwood sculptures of a woman, Detot says, “A farmer would call that ‘Guy’s wood’ and give it to me because it has something different in it.” That makes sense, as farmers and artists presumably share a heightened feel for nature. Such gestures are at the heart of why Penola enables artists and writers to create on a different – more soulful – level than in Paris. The creative types living in the unspoilt natural surrounds of Penola can combine nature with culture in a way that uber-urban Paris doesn’t allow.

And unlike the Champs-Élysées, the Coonawarra has a rich strip of terra rossa soil, perfect for producing quality wines, particularly cabernet sauvignon. One example of an excellent Penola winery is Raidis Estate. Owners Steven and Emma Raidis use a trip of goats to keep the grass down and eat any excess grapes, which, says Emma, “alleviates disease for the following years”.

“Australian wines are just better than French wines,” says Emma, “but we rarely get to see the best French wines – just the bulk produced stuff.” When asked if the Coonawarra cabernets are the best in the world, she says without hesitation, “A hundred per cent. Most are really elegant, vibrant, beautiful to drink, and they can age.”

Emma rates Penola as “a really great town. Lots of people here are from all over the world, which is unusual in a rural town.”. A case in point is the stylish Café Lito, run by Argentinian Jose Silverio Veron.

Detot, wearing a black beret, sips one of his many daily espressos in Café Lito. We could be in Paris. A jazz version of The more I see you plays, recalling Peter Allen, another successful blend of creativity and rural Australia. Admittedly, Paris has some things over Penola, one being that smartphones don’t change ‘Paris’ to ‘Penile’, as they do with ‘Penola’.

But in some ways, Penola outshines the City of Lights. Really.

Michael X Savvas

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