Down Under Diary

If the highly-esteemed Mr Google is asked to list the world’s most “liveable” cities, it comes as no surprise to me that Australia’s Melbourne is listed by several sources as the Number One city – or in the top four or five in other listings. Various criteria are used when selecting the cities in these lists but on two recent visits to Melbourne I found that I did not really need any lists or check points or boxes to tick: the city just hummed and buzzed and welcomed.

The drive into the city gets this buzz off to a fine start. The Tullamarine Freeway passes huge modern orange and yellow sculptures that loom over a highway that then swoops and swerves around historic docks and suddenly arrives in the towering modern city of over four million people.

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A gondola on the Yarra

Melbourne is built on the Yarra River and is just a rattling tram ride from the port area where the river joins Port Phillip Bay. There are hordes of healthy lunchtime joggers pounding the riverside pathways working off the morning’s desktop double full-cream macchiatos (or were they macchiati?), and even more dedicated sportsmen and women tackling the round-the-bay bicycle race. For a more leisurely approach to the water, visitors can loll about in gondolas along the Yarra into the trendy Dockside area where old warehouses have been replaced with trendy Canary Wharf apartment buildings, endless coffee shops, hotels, restaurants and designer shopping centres.

With its colonial history (the city was founded in the 1830s) the city centre has splendid Georgian buildings and churches scattered here and there – and most strikingly near the newish Federation Square. The splendid neo-gothic sandstone pile of St Paul’s cathedral anchors one side of the square, the Victorian arches and columns of the Flinders Street railway station another corner … and the rest festers under an ugly mish-mash of perforated aluminium clad monstrosities, ungainly clusters of overhead lights and crazily-angled open spaces designed to prevent skate boarders from having too much fun, while simultaneously causing unwary pedestrians unwelcome tumbles and trippings.

Despite the ugliness of the square – specially commissioned after an international design competition to mark Australia’s 100th birthday as a nation in 2001 – it more or less serves as a hub for the city, with tourists taking photos of tourists taking photos of tourists, clusters of private school girls with tiny miniskirts conducting school surveys of passers-by, occasion tramps and bums and buskers and beggars, clouds of smokers who have been banned to outdoors areas (smoking is no longer allowed in any Australian office, bar or restaurant), a huge video screen used at different times of the year to show highlights of special sporting or cultural events, and a stage that frequently features local contemporary musicians.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh – yes – Fed Square is ugly – but perhaps it does link the different eras of the city’s history as it tries to draw visitors into whatever brave new world the future may hold … and the gondolas and the water-spidery rowing eights and quads and coxless pairs (always sounds rather unfortunate for the pairs) and river taxis and sight-seeing boats trundle up and down the river that forms the final side of the square.

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A South Bank Gelati shop

Just over the river is the superb South Bank – a complex of hotels and concert halls and theatres and shops and the NGV – National Gallery of Victoria. Not quite sure why it is called a “National” gallery since it is basically a State gallery – perhaps it’s a bit like the USA’s World Series football competitions … when the USA is the only country participating. When I visited the State Theatre last year there was an excellent exhibition / retrospective on Geoffrey Rush, an Australian actor who has won an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony Award. This year the NGV featured – in addition to its excellent permanent exhibitions – a huge Jean Paul Gaultier fashion exhibition.

“The Cup”

Fashion is very much a feature of Melbourne at this time of the year – not only in the galleries but also at the racecourses: November is Cup Season in Melbourne, and while there is an occasional thoroughbred horse or two, and a jockey or three, the main focus for many people is Fashions in the Field. November’s Melbourne Cup is “the race that stops a nation”: at 2.00 pm on the first Tuesday of November the race is broadcast into every office, school, restaurant, home – and even Fed Square. Those who never bet on anything – not even Australia’s proverbial pair of flies crawling up a window – will often have a “little flutter” on the Cup. With everyone’s attention on the radio or television or Internet, about 2.05 pm would be the ideal time to rob a bank. On the other hand, if you happen to be an alien invader planning a takeover of Australia, this is probably not a good time – you’d simply be told to go away and come back a bit later.

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Fascinators and frocks

Some of UK’s racing events have special and very strict dress codes. For Melbourne’s Cup there are some rules – ladies must wear a hat, for example, but what “a hat” is requires a bit of explanation. Yes – it may be a huge Camilla Parker-Bowels confection of whipped cream and straw and feathers and floating bits of organza, but at Melbourne it may also be “a fascinator” – a hat that is no hat at all.

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Likely Lads

Men, on the other hand, have been known not to wear a hat – or clothes at all – as each year there are always several likely lads wearing full morning dress painted on their otherwise near-naked bodies. As the Spring Racing Season is occasionally a misnomer – with winter chills very much still evident – a suit of colours offers little protection from the elements …

Melbourne is a vastly multi-cultural city with over a quarter of its population born overseas. It is the world’s second largest Greek city (Athens / Melbourne / Thessalonica), it has huge Vietnamese and Italian populations and great numbers of Indians, Chinese … and over 150 other countries, and so food is sensational! Little Italy, Chinatown, Little India … and lots of other areas offer other treats. On my recent visits I ate at several different restaurants offering different regional menus – but as a token to the city’s early British heritage I had lunch one day with an old friend at one of Melbourne’s most famous pubs – Young and Jackson’s. While the food was good, this place is probably better known for its infamous portrait of Chloe.

Mona and Chloe

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Chloe in Y&J’s Hotel

Paris may be known for its famous pin-up girl La Gioconda, New York has Wyeth’s Christine, Rome has a Pieta or two … but Melbourne has Chloe. An 1870s painting by a French artist, Chloe toured internationally before immigrating to Melbourne where she was hung to the shock and horror of matrons, clerics and middle-aged men. On the other hand, now that times have changed and she has pride of place in this venerable Melbourne hotel, she has thrilled and teased and pleased scores more.

Just a quick hour’s flight away from Chloe and Melbourne is Hobart, an even earlier colonial city founded on the banks of the beautiful Derwent River, and capital of Tasmania. Upstream from a city of sandstone buildings, huge oaks in city parks, antique gravestones artfully incorporated into the walls surrounding the modern Supreme Court, is MONA – an institution that has by itself revitalised the whole Tasmanian tourism industry and that continues to shock and delight and tease and please its visitors in equal numbers.

MONA, the Museum of Old New Art, is the 2011 creation of a wealthy Tasmanian gambler and is apparently the largest privately funded art gallery in Australia. NBC World News dubbed it a “subversive adult Disneyland” as its exhibitions focus on sex and death, but the gallery is worth exploring in its own right as it has wonderfully rusted sheet-iron walls and other walls carved three storeys deep into sandstone cliffs by the river. Visitors use hand-held audio guides and are invited to “Like” particular exhibits by pressing appropriate buttons on the guide machines. I particularly liked Cloaca Professional – a huge installation that replicates the human digestive system. It is “fed” daily, and naturally enough (naturally!) it produces a daily outcome … Not for the faint-hearted! If too many visitors hit their “Like” buttons at particular exhibits, the delightfully perverse gallery owner will remove from view those exhibits that are too popular, believing apparently that visitors should be challenged by the new and by the unexpected.

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Cloaca Professional

Fortunately, Tasmania and Hobart are both more than and less than MONA.

Hobart – a city I called home for over twenty-five years – is a small place, one where residents used to be able to park outside whichever shop in the middle of the city they were visiting and not worry about parking metres or cruising up and down multi-storey car parks. That has now changed but much remains the same.

You know you are in a small town when its “international” airport (there are no longer any direct international links) has no aerobridges: the pilot simply shoves the plane into PARK when the man waving the red things tells him to do so, and hauls on the handbrake near the terminal buildings. The passengers then walk to or from the buildings. When I left Hobart we all queued and stood in driving sleet while waiting to board, while deep snow glistened on nearby Mount Wellington. My arrival was more pleasant – we were sheep-dogged through a softly drizzling rain into the arrivals area where real dogs – not sheep dogs – are frequently used to sniff incoming passengers and their luggage. I like dogs – but these hounds’ handlers do not encourage any patting or chatting with their charges:

–  Sir – stand still please and do not communicate with the dog

as it sniffs my bags and my ankles, looking not only for illegal drugs or traces of gunpowder or secret packages of C-4, but also for traces of highly dangerous apples or bananas. As an island, Tasmania is fiercely protective of its agricultural and aquaculture industries and so it bans the import of all fruit, fresh flowers, seeds, meat or fish products … the list is almost endless … but then so is the list of great Tasmanian produce that needs to be protected from illegal immigrant bugs: truffles and trout, tulips and tomatoes, single-vineyard pinot noirs and single-vat malt whiskies.

Drinking, eating, being creative or adventurous, relaxing by a log fire in a high mountain chalet, walking an unpeopled east coast shoreline or bush walking through wildflower-dusted highlands, or sailing on antique wooden boats down to the mouth of the Derwent and beyond: anything and everything is possible in Tasmania.

Fifty Shades of Grey Green

I had a quick three-day escape from the delights of Hobart to drive north to Deloraine where friends were performing in a drama festival – friends who eventually won Best Director and Best Production of the festival.

It’s a pleasant drive up the Midlands Highway, going through or by-passing pretty little Georgian villages, each about a day’s drive in a horse-drawn carriage apart, and seeing the vibrant countryside studded with superfine merino sheep and their newly born lambs, bright yellow fields of rape seed alternating with crops and pastures and poplars still holding onto last season’s autumnal hues creating a countryscape with too many shades of green even for the finest set of Lakeland colouring pencils. The highway has subtle attractions, too, including a series of rusted iron silhouettes showing highway robbers at work, shepherds looking after their flocks or draughtsmen planning new roads. Near St Peter’s pass there are several topiary sculptures that delight those keen-eyed enough to see them.

In Deloraine I stayed at the lovely old B&B named Bonney’s Inn – where a phenomenal breakfast was served – and from which it was just a short walk to the theatre where the drama festival was being held. The following day I was reminded, as I drove east along the coast heading for the small fishing village of Bridport, of the man at the hire car agency who had asked if I wanted to take out extra insurance in case I hit a wallaby. I had laughed at the idea, figuring that there was little chance of doing so in the city … but along country roads there were dead animals almost every hundred metres: wallabies, wombats, possums – all native animals – but animals which are not used yet to speeding cars or log-carrying behemoths.

A jam factory that became a hotel

On my last morning in the city I went for an early-morning run. After a few minutes I realised this was not a good idea as there had been a heavy overnight dumping of snow on Mt Wellington: a certain crispness in the air was chilling my exposed bits – and even some not-so-exposed bits.

I returned to the hotel, put on quite a few more clothes, and went for a stroll around Hobart’s exquisite Constitution Dock and Salamanca Place.

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Tasmanian Museum and Constitution Docks

Stately wooden boats such as the Lady Nelson and the May Queen are berthed here, as is the 1896 Steam Yacht Preanna. The old Henry Jones IXL Jam Factory has been converted into a stunning five-star art hotel and the Tasmanian Centre for the Arts. Early-morning workers in restaurants were scrubbing out their premises as fishermen started loading crayfish pots or checking their nets before following the new CSIRO Antarctic research ship – the Investigator­ – into the slowly rising sunlight.

A flathead fillet’s throw away are several fish ‘n’ chip barges permanently moored in the harbour. I watched in delight and with some sympathy as a young couple bought fresh fish … and were then followed relentless by a screaming mob of diving and swooping and squawking seagulls that tried to pluck the fish from the couple’s hands. Alfred Hitchcock could have had a field day with this scene.

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Salamanca Place Market

Salamanca Place hosts a wonderful Saturday market with hand-made leather or silver or pewter goods, soaps, used and new clothes, wine, all sorts of Tassie timber products, caravans selling Chinese or German or Indian foods, fresh coffee, fruit, flowers and plants. There are buskers ranging from professional musician such as guitarist Cary Lewincamp to school kids scratching out tunes on their first violins, and people selling antiques or the latest device for doing thirty-three different things to a cabbage.

Salamanca Place is a wonderful area that links a superb row of sandstone warehouses (now galleries, restaurant, workshops for silversmiths, bars and yet more restaurants) with the harbour and its water-side pavilions where Hobart’s inaugural Oktoberfest was being held: lederhosen, dirndls and drunken “abbots” at 10.30 on a Saturday night are not a frequent sight in downtown Hobart. Fortunately.

Down Under may once have been a bit of a joke for northern hemisphere residents. It may even have been a bit of a challenge for non-English speakers (my request in a country pub for a glass of pinot grigio was interpreted as a request for a stubby of Boag’s beer) but with a top world-ranking liveable city and a city that offers everything from a gourmet dinner on a beach to an art installation that farts … what more can one ask for?

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  • Two journeys in October 2013 and October November 2014
  • Text and photographs  © Christopher Hall 2014
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