Melbourne 2

 


Sisto Malaspina has seen a few changes in old Melbourne in the forty-five years he has been running Pellegrini’s espresso bar. “From time to time I try to make some minor changes inside too. I try to repaint, decorate a bit – maybe a bit of minor renovation you know?” he smiles. “But I get in so much trouble from the locals. They see this as their bar now – and in a sense it is. ‘Don’t you dare change a thing Sisto,’ they warn me!”


Through Pellegrini’s plate glass window we watch tram 96 rumble along the broad tree-lined boulevard of Bourke Street. Sleek and shiny steel trams cruise the main streets of Melbourne’s Central Banking District (CBD). But so too do venerable old vintage trams, in their racing green or oxblood-and-gold livery. They too have become icons of traditional Melbourne and there is little chance that they will ever be replaced.


Today Melbourne boasts the most extensive tram system anywhere in the world. Tram 96 is the most useful for tourists, linking as it does the old city with St Kilda and the beaches of Port Philip Bay. But the City Circle Tram runs in a constant loop around the city centre to take in all the important sights of what is certainly one of Australia’s most historically fascinating spots. Many of the trams are equipped with recorded messages explaining the importance of the landmarks you are passing to ensure that you don’t miss even the most fleeting gem. Moreover the City Circle Tram is completely free, allowing you to hop on and off at will whenever the temptation to explore in greater detail becomes irresistible. 


Melbourne’s city centre consists of just eight blocks along the north bank of the Yarra River. It would, of course, be completely unrecognisable to the Aboriginal nomads who knew this camping spot only as ‘Yarra’ – their name for the waterfall that marked this spot and hence neatly marked the line between the tidal river and the all-important freshwater. But these shady boulevards and laneways, and sunny parks and piazzas constitute a square mile that is as historically rich as you will find anywhere in Australia. 


The forefathers laid their city out on a grid pattern that makes it very easy to navigate. In fact every major road is exactly ninety-nine feet wide because that was the distance needed to turn the huge bullock carts that supplied the gold mines and sheep stations of the interior. The big thoroughfares of Collins, Bourke and Flinders Streets are now the main shopping streets but all along their length they are linked by narrow laneways that have played a famous part in Melbourne’s rising image as art capital of Australia. Abandon the tram for an hour or so anywhere in this area and just take a random wander into a few of the tiny alleyways that link these major thoroughfares and you will come across some fantastic example of cutting-edge street art spray painted onto the walls. The Laneways Commission was set up as a visionary, and ultimately impressively successful, way of brightening these once gloomy passageways. It offers licensed street artists a unique forum for some astounding work.


Melbourne is often touted as Australia’s smartest, chicest, sexiest and most sophisticated city. And it is certainly the most cosmopolitan. Jump off the tram beside Flinders Station and take a stroll across the old Sandbridge railway bridge to get an idea of just how many nationalities were involved in the founding of the Victorian capital. What is now a simple footbridge across the Yarra River doubles as an outdoor museum displaying information on immigrants from no less than 114 nationalities that now call the city their home.  It is said that whether you sit on one of the sunny café terraces or take advantage of an eagle’s eye view from one of the delightful rooftop bars you will, within the course of an hour, have seen representative of half the nations on earth. After the trams have made their last circuit of the day Melbourne’s ‘historical square mile’ becomes the booming quarter for nightlife. Just ask directions to famous rooftop bars like Siglos or Tuscan (or for something quirkier 1806 cocktail bar or The Croft Institute) and you will find that they are all within just a few minutes walk.


Tram 96 will take you southwards to the beaches (and an equally jumping bar-scene) in St Kilda. But for something very original hop off just after you cross Kings Bridge and you will find yourself at what is probably Melbourne’s most interesting dining concept. Colonial Tramcar Restaurant (book on +61 03 96964000) takes you on a rumbling but relaxed two-hour tour so that you can continue to enjoy the ever-changing panorama of some of the city’s most romantic architectural gems even while tucking into a wonderfully prepared meal and a glass or two of VB (Victoria Beer). You take in some of Melbourne’s most prestigious areas and end up back among the casinos and five-star hotels of the Yarra’s southern banks.


This area is perhaps the hub of boomtown Melbourne - a city that has bucked the trend of the global downturn and is actually enjoying what amounts to a new gold-rush era. Within a couple of blocks you have the biggest casino complex and the tallest skyscraper in the southern hemisphere. The Eureka Tower is actually the tallest entirely residential building in the world. It was named after the Eureka minefield and the riots that took place there. The windows of the upper floors are tinted with real 24-carat gold and a streak of red panelling on the outside of the building signifies the blood of the miners who started Melbourne on its tracks to this bright and shining future.    On the Eureka’s eighty-eighth floor you can experience ‘The Edge,’ Melbourne’s greatest modern-day adrenalin buzz. You stand in a small cubicle of smoked glass which is then projected 3 metres out over the precipice. Suddenly the glass clears and you are hovering a dizzying three hundred metres above street-level.


The cubicle is creaking, shuddering and clunking as if it is about to disintegrate and you struggle to remind myself that it is designed to make these awful noises. This is part of the experience. The horrendous grating noises are doubly shocking because by now you have become used to the fact that in Melbourne pretty much everything runs as smoothly and efficiently as it was designed to do. Apart maybe from the clanking, clattering old trams…and by now they are such a venerable part of Melbourne’s identity that it would be a brave planner who would even suggest messing with them!


Great Ocean Road:
For a breath of bracing sea air and a sense of the wildness of the Southern Ocean hire a car (see www.europcar.com.au) and set out to explore the wonderfully winding, cliff-hugging stretch of tarmac that is the Great Ocean Road. Although reachable in a daytrip from the city, you need at least two days to do justice to the area’s diversity: the crashing waves of Bells Beach; the eucalyptus forests near Apollo Bay (home to countless kangaroos and koala); the pristine rainforests (and Otway Fly canopy walk) in Great Otway National Park; and the truly breathtaking Twelve Apostles. For a real once-in-a-lifetime adrenalin buzz take a chopper ride over these spectacular limestone formations and across the pounding Antarctic breakers of one of the world’s most dramatic coastlines (see www.theedgehelicopters.com.au). Break the long drive back to Melbourne by stopping at Ballarat to visit the restored gold-rush town of Sovereign Hill.

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh