Sunday, March 05, 2006


I spent from Tuesday evening to Friday afternoon last week in Melbourne on work-related business, and it was my first visit there. What a great city! It's a place which comes close to living up to the platitudes from the tourist brochures.

The first thing you notice, coming into the city centre from the freeway which sweeps in from the airport, is the mix of grand, aspirational architecture, Victorian and modern. Walking around at ground level, you then discover the generous areas apportioned to well trimmed and watered parks and gardens.

Trains and trams loop around the central quadrant and out to their suburban spokes with what seems like unflappable logic, leaving the inner-city traffic thin and tolerable. Wandering through the CBD, you find both shady Old World backstreets with little cafes, and futuristic multi-level plazas and galleries hedged between skyscrapers.

The weather was great, too: clear and sunny all four days, and heating up later in the week. It hit 34 degrees on Thursday and 35 degrees on Friday. I find genuine heat invigorating; it speeds up the blood and makes you feel more alive. If Wellington could manage just a few weeks of such hot weather every year it would be a much more atractive place.

When visiting a new city, I can't help trying to find points of comparison with places I already know. My first impressions were that the generously broad sidewalks shaded by drought-resistant oak, maple and plane trees had touches of Argentinian cities like Cordoba and Mendoza. Something of Toronto, too, in the evidence of forward-thinking urban planning to integrate the historic and the modern, plus the wide choice of excellent food.

Later I saw little old pubs that would fit seamlessly into a London street, and 19th-century apartment blocks which gave a distinctly Parisian feel to some areas (part of Collins St in the eastern CBD is actually known as the "Paris end").

People have often told me that Melbourne is "like Wellington", both in ambience and weather. Well, maybe it's the obvious trans-Tasman comparator, if we assume that Auckland chases after Sydney. And both places have a good standard of coffee. But beyond that, I don't really see it.

The overall feel is more like how Christchurch would be in its wildest, most grandiose dreams - if only it had the imagination. As for the weather, Melbourne is known to be fickle by Australian standards, but let's face it, they're not quite the same as New Zealand's. Suffice it to say that if Wellington ever had a minor heat wave like Melbourne last week, it would be unprecedented.

Of course, there wasn't enough time to get a real feel for the ambience and personality of the place, but as far as I could tell it had a confident, friendly vibe. The conference dinner on Wednesday was a small but riotous affair at a cheery Greek taverna which rolled out Atkins-sized quantities of meat, fish and cheese, tempered by lashings of artery-clearing red wine.

On Thursday evening I went out with some fellow conference attendees for dinner and what we thought would a quiet drink or three in an inner-city Irish pub.

About 10:30pm the place was invaded by an entourage of orientation-week students from Monash University. They had a theme of "the Commonwealth Games" for their party, and there were many risque variations on athletes, netballers and hockey players.

For the next couple of hours the students swarmed through the pub indulging in flesh-baring, cross-dressing, and gratuitous public displays of canoodling, while we all sat there feeling old. Apart from the fact that some of the students didn't look a day older than twelve, I was a bit perturbed that they seemed to be having the kind of uninhibited, decadent fun that we dreamt about, but never quite managed, during my time at university.

Is this generation more liberated and in touch with their hedonistic impulses? Or do Australians just have a better time?

With most of Friday free, I had a chance to wander further. I walked down Flinders St to Flinders St station, cavernous and painted in creamy yellow, preserved in its Victorian pomp, and with a palpable aura of nostalgia despite the throngs of people which still pass through it.

Across the road I admired the rather daringly Cubist buildings of Federation Square, which include the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. I crossed the Yarra River, looking upstream to the floodlight towers of the MCG, and walked a little way into the Alexandra and Victoria gardens in the "Yarra Green Belt". I strolled a way down the riverside promenade of glass towers, nouveau riche bistros and boutiques on Southbank and crossed the bridge back to Flinders St.

I didn't make it far out of the central city area. The tourist guide (as well laid out and coherent as the city itself) and acquaintances had suggested a trip either north to retro Brunswick or south to trendy St Kilda. But there wasn't really time.

My one indulgence was a free guided tour through the Victorian Parliament. I thought it might give me some insight into a city which gives the strong impression of never having been short of money, nor afraid to spend it.

The Parliament buildings form a broad, slate grey-edifice fronted by a row of Doric columns. They are made of Grampian stone, named after the hills in eastern Victoria from which it is sourced. Inside is a rather breathtaking opulence; ornate vaulted ceilings are lined with genuine 23-carat gold leaf.

Our tour guide Tony explained the sweet irony which accompanied the establishment of the colony of Victoria. On July 1, 1851 the state gained its independence from New South Wales, which had been "robbing us blind". Six days later, gold was discovered, the start of a forty-year rush which pumped wealth into the region.

The houses of Parliament were started in 1856, and this year is their 150th anniversary. The original design was even more grandiose, and called for the eventual replacement of the vaulted ceilings by huge glass domes. But by the 1890s the gold was running out, and further construction was canned. In fact, the buildings have never been completed to design. Apparently, Premier Jeff Kennett had a plan to finish them off in 1996, but balked at the $300 million cost in an election year.

I left thinking that Melbourne was well summed up by the name of the state of which it is the capital. As far as I could tell on my brief acquaintance, it seemed to have grown up in accordance with distinctly Victorian philosophies. Conservative in the sense of wanting to preserve tradition and believing in a hierarchy of values, but embracing progress and modernity. Materialism tempered by a strong sense of the public good.

I'm not sure that any New Zealand town has consistently struck that balance - though I also suspect that none has been quite so rich.

Maybe Melbourne doesn't have the "edge" and sense of excitement of the few truly great cities. And I've no idea what kind of job you need to be able to live anywhere close to the centre. But with its strikingly cheap public transport, along with everything else going for it, my impression is that it's close to the most complete and liveable city in Australasia.

NB - will add photos to this post later in the week.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know any New Zealanders who don't like Melbourne. I am ashamed that I haven't been there yet in a classic case of not visiting your own backyard.