Saturday, March 15, 2008


After 5 weeks in Sydney, and a palate-cleansing four days on the road, it was time to taste the delights of Melbourne. Comparisons are odious, but so is this blog, so I'm not going to avoid comparing the two cities. But before I do, let me point out how wildly inaccurate any of my conclusions are bound to be. (You probably knew that though.) We were to spend a paltry 5 days in Melbourne, we were mostly interested in catching up with our friends Jamie and Francesca (who also kindly hosted us for the duration of our stay, and for whom those 5 days must have been anything but paltry - thanks again guys) rather than 'doing' Melbourne. I also had the pleasure of catching up with my first cousin Carol, her husband Andy and daughter Jasmine. And on top of that, we also had the undiluted pleasure of Darragh Ballesty's company, and his friend Caroline. What I'm trying to say is that our stay was all about meeting friends, and Melbourne in a sense was merely the backdrop.

The city feels entirely different to Sydney and simply doesn't make that kind of instant emotional impact we experienced in Circular Quay. How could it? There may be no other city on the planet capable of that effect. I am told by those who should know (and whom I unquestioningly believe) that you need to live in Melbourne to appreciate it. It offers a different pace of life to Sydney, but at the same time a higher percentage of cultural and artistic activities. To me, it seemed much more like a town with a British identity. The St. Kilda sorts the kind of pier you'd expect to find in Blackpool or Brighton (and not the Brighton located a few km south in Melbourne itself).

Walking around the city centre, near Federation Square and Collins Street, the difference with Sydney is clear. The people are whiter, the pretty buildings are prettier, (the ugly buildings are uglier), the streets are narrower and more intimate. Cafes are tucked into the even narrower alleyways, so you never quite know what you are going to see next: A jazz band, a street performer, another ethnic eatery (Melbourne's cuisine is reputed to be the best in the Southern Hemisphere). Trams move up and down the streets - as opposed to Sydney's trannys - some of them old and beautiful, others modern and menacing (the trams, not the trannys).

I had heard about Melbournes megalomaniac trams, that brook no resistence and take no prisoners from cars or pedestrians. Their absolute priority at some junctions has led to strange right-hand turn rules for cars. In Oz, you drive on the left, but instead of waiting on the innermost lane to turn right, you pull all the way over to the left, leaving space for the dreaded trams, until the traffic lights allow you to complete your manoevre. The detail that I was missing was that the signal to complete the righthand turn is the amber light. This means that if you are going straight on through a Melbourne traffic light, you better not do it on amber. I got a brake-screeching, heart-flopping lesson in Melbourne's rules of the road on our first day. Our rental car had Queensland plates - I think I haven't done the reputation of that state any favours.

We were based in Albert Park, a city suburb named for its principal feature: the public park that once a year plays host to the F1 Grand Prix (this weekend in fact). I never did get to drive the course in my rented Hyundai Elantra (where do they come UP with these car names!!?) but I did walk across it on the way to the playground with the kids. If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have given you very long odds indeed on such a reversal of priorities.

Jamie and Francesca's house is located on a street that has everything they need: park, school, shops, cafes. In this regard, life in Melbourne is very much like that in Sydney - people tend to stick to their own village. J&F can't go beyond the front door without meeting people they know. Walking from their front door to the bottleshop (off-license) and back with Jamie, I felt I had been caught up in a scene from West Wing. Characters came in from the left, words were exchanged on the hoof, then exit, stage right. All we were missing was a steadi-cam operator in front of us - and probably, let's face it Jamie, a sharper dialogue ;-)

Like Sydney - and Canberra - Melbourne has a lot of excellent museums. Regular readers of this blog might think that we - especially the children - have had our fill of museums, but nothing could be further from the truth. The quality and variety of museums here is very high, but the cost is low, in some cases zero. In a county like Ireland, with a wealth of social and natural history behind it, and hopefully a future tied to high technology in front of it, there really should be a lot of public money put into creating environments like these. Especially for kids.

In Cork, there is one small science museum, and a new observatory museum in Blackrock. But there are a dozen or more indoor playgrounds which dwarf these museums. On a rainy day, wouldn't it be wonderful to check out an undiscovered corner of a museum as a viable alternative to a playground? The entry price of Aussie - and especially Melbournian - museums makes this possible. Kids get in for free in many places, and adults pay just 6 australian dollars (4 euros). A museum, which despite the name can be an exciting place for kids if built and run properly, can inspire researchers of the future.

We left Melbourne on a Monday morning, the first Monday of March (have we really been on the road since December!?) and headed back to Sydney, this time via the coastal route of Princes Highway. It would take 3 nights to get to Sydney where we would get to spend one last evening before heading to Queensland.

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