A conversation with Esther La Rovere, one of the owners of Broken Hill’s iconic Palace Hotel.
For many locals, the feature they most miss when they move away from Broken Hill is the sky. “It seems so close and is such a wide vista with nothing blocking it,” says Esther La Rovere, who was born and raised here. “I used to lie upside down, look up at the sky and watch the sun rise and imagine it was setting over the ocean.” The daughter of Italian immigrants, Esther left Broken Hill at 18 and for two decades pursued an interest in the visual arts, played music in a band, became involved in festival and event production and travelled.
Twelve months ago, like many Broken Hill expats who successfully forge lives and careers elsewhere, Esther returned. Drawn back, in part, by the sky and other elements of the quintessential outback landscape, she’s joined a surging local tourism industry.
Well before the drought broke, Broken Hill’s tourism numbers were rising despite a downturn in domestic tourism elsewhere. In 2008–09 a record 203,000 people passed through the doors of the city’s Visitor Information Centre. The rain has helped keep the industry vibrant since, and figures from small tourist attractions indicate it remains buoyant.
Swept up by the positive mood, Esther joined family and friends to buy and reopen an iconic Broken Hill establishment known from the 1970s as Mario’s Palace. It was built in 1889 during Broken Hill’s earliest boom period when the town produced one-third of the world’s silver.
Today it’s best known for its eccentrically flamboyant interior design with walls covered in renaissance-style images: notably, a second-floor ceiling interpretation of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus that featured in the 1994 Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The hotel is rumoured to have a direct underground connection with tunnels worked by miners on the line of lode during the late 1800s. It’s not surprising early miners may have sneaked across to the Palace during shifts to make their working life a little more tolerable. Without air-conditioning, ventilation and other technologies that make modern underground mines less hostile, early miners faced a dirty, sweaty, rat-infested 12 hours in candlelight hundreds of metres underground.
*Originally published in Australian Geographic magazine.