Sunday, September 14, 2014

Seeing the Sights of Melbourne

A WANDER DOWN UNDER, CHAPTER 11:  IN WHICH WE LEARN A NEW MEANING OF FREE

Day 12:  Melbourne.  After a bit of catch-up blogging, we left the hotel this morning around 10 and walked a couple of blocks over to the State Library of Victoria, where we would meet up with a representative of I’m Free Walking Tours, who would lead us on a three-hour guided walk in central Melbourne, uncovering the history and showing us some of the sights of the city.  When we arrived at the meeting place, there were three other people there chatting with Matt, our guide.

Tour guide Matt and some of our group at the Old Gaol
By the time we set off fifteen minutes later, our numbers had swelled to 25 and included visitors from the U.S., Canada, Taiwan, Korea, Germany, Japan, Thailand, Poland, and even Australia.  Coming from a country where so few people speak any language other than our native tongue, we were quite impressed to hear everyone in our group speaking flawless English.  It has truly replaced French as the current dominant lingua franca of international travel.

Architectural Fragment
Before leaving the library, we encountered another example of Melbourne public art.  On the sidewalk adjacent to the library, Architectural Fragment, a partial bluestone pediment and column by Dutch sculptor Petrus Spronk, appears to be emerging from (or sinking into) the pavement, as an archaeological artefact might.  Spronk cited the poem Ozymandias by Shelley as his inspiration and expressed a desire to represent an interaction between art, history and place.

Along the way, Matt took us to quite a few places on this ingeniously designed tour of Melbourne's essential sites.  At each spot, he shared a good dose of information and often an interesting or amusing anecdote as well.  A native Melburnian, Matt is passionate about his city and its history and eager to share his enthusiasm with visitors.  Some of the highlights of his tour follow.

Chinatown
Located within the city center, Melbourne's Chinatown claims the distinction of being the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the Western World—only because the San Francisco version was destroyed by an earthquake in 1906 and rebuilt, according to Matt.  He gave us his recommendations for great dumpling restaurants in Chinatown.  According to his formula, all good dumpling places in Melbourne's Chinatown have the word Shanghai in their name.

Royal Exhibition Building
Built as the showcase of the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, the Royal Exhibition Building is still used for events today.  It was the first Australian building to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status, and maybe the first in the southern hemisphere.  Matt cautioned us about this oft-heard description in Australia—the southern hemisphere's tallest, oldest, biggest, etc.  It sounds a bit more impressive until you learn that only 10% of the world's population lives in the southern hemisphere.

Flinders Street Station
Although Matt told us a fascinating apocryphal tale of architectural plans intended for Bombay being mistakenly sent to Melbourne, the actual history of the Flinders Street railway station apparently is more Australian than Indian.  In typical Aussie fashion, a design competition was held in 1899 for a new central rail passenger station in Melbourne.  Seventeen entries were received, and the first place prize of £500 went to two railway employees whose design was altered a bit during construction.

Gog and Magog
Another stop on our tour was the Royal Arcade, a shopping center built in 1869 and featuring a high glass roof and windowed stores, a departure from the typical architectural style of its day.  An exhibit at the south end features a clock that chimes hourly and the mythical figures of Gog and Magog, two giants who symbolize the conflict between the ancient Britons and their Trojan invaders.

Hosier Lane street art
As evident from his commentary, Matt is an enthusiastic fan of urban street art.  In fact, he explained to us how to distinguish street art from graffiti.  Graffiti, according to Matt, is the illegal painting of one's name and 'tag' on walls.  Street art, on the other hand, is legal and practiced only in designated areas.  Business and property owners have consented for artists to display their work there.  Most works of street art last for only a few weeks before someone comes along with his or her own spray cans and refreshes the "canvas."

Federation Square
No tour of Melbourne would be complete without a visit to Federation Square, a mixed-use development that has often been cited on World's Ugliest Buildings lists.  The public spaces there were lively today with magicians, musicians and other street performers entertaining the crowds.

Arts Centre Melbourne
During the course of the tour, Matt made numerous references to the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney for the role of Australia's preeminent city.  From his perspective, Sydney's decision to build its famous opera house was a direct response to Melbourne's hosting of the 1956 Summer Olympics.  Could it be a coincidence then that after the Sydney Opera House opened in 1973, work began on Arts Centre Melbourne?  We did not have the opportunity to take a tour of Melbourne's signature performing arts center, but based on the exterior design, for us, Sydney took this competition hands down.

Melbourne
Cleverly, the tour ended near the arts center on the Southbank Promenade of the Yarra River, at a spot where we had an excellent view of the Melbourne skyline.  It was also just across the street from the only letterbox planted in Melbourne.  After the tour broke up, we located the letterbox's home as described in the clue, but the letterbox was not there.

Though the I'm Free tour is promoted as being "free," Matt emphasized at the beginning, the end, and any time anyone new joined the tour, that tips would be appreciated if we thought the tour was worthwhile.  It certainly was.

The fabulous and free City Circle Tram even has customer service reps on board to help you find your destination.
After our letterboxing attempt, we rode the free City Circle Tram over to the Comedy Theatre, where we bought tickets for today's 3:00 performance of The Last Confession.  Then we revisited a nearby area we had walked through on the tour and found lunch at Stalactites, a local Greek restaurant.  By the time we finished eating, we had just enough time to walk back to the theater for the matinee.

The Last Confession (photo by Simon Parris)
The Last Confession relates the story of the 1978 election of John Paul I as pope and his mysterious death 33 days later.  The lead role of Cardinal Benelli, who engineered the election of this pope with unconventional ideas, was played by beloved British actor David Suchet, famous for his long-time portrayal of Hercule Poirot on BBC television.  With a large ensemble cast, all of whom were wearing similar religious garb, including headgear, it was difficult to keep up with which cardinals were opposed to which others in this story of manipulation and intrigue.  But all was sorted out in the end as Suchet wound up the second act with a rather unconvincing death scene.

Tomorrow we'll leave Melbourne and drive south to the coast for a ramble on the Great Ocean Road.

Road Noise:

While in Melbourne, we have learned about a surprising traffic maneuver called the hook turn.  Since cars travel on the left side of the road in Australia, a right turn here is against oncoming traffic as a left turn is in the U.S.

With Melbourne's extensive tram system, the center lanes of many streets have tram tracks, so a dedicated right turn lane is not feasible.  In intersections where hook turns are required, a box is painted on the street in the middle of the intersection (see photo below).  This is where a vehicle waiting to turn right waits.  Others can line up behind it as long as they have entered the intersection (quite counter to American convention which discourages left-turning cars from blocking intersections).

While the cars wait, other vehicles continuing straight can move through the intersection in the right lane unobstructed.  The vehicles making the hook turn must wait until the traffic light turns green for the street they wish to enter.  That means oncoming cars and trams whose lanes they will cross have stopped for a red light.  Bicycles are allowed to make hook turns in any intersection in Victoria.

On another note, left turns on a red light are rarely permitted in Australia and only where specifically signposted as legal.


Daily Stats:
  • Started in Melbourne, ended in Melbourne
  • Mileage - 4 (on foot)      (Trip total: 11,292)
  • Weather - 44° to 68°, sunny to partly cloudy
  • Letterboxes - attempted 1
  • Factoids shared by Matt - 78
  • People who thought the tour was actually free - 24
SUNDAY, 14 SEPTEMBER, 2014

More Photos from Today

Eureka Tower, Melbourne's tallest building
Black car in designated hook turn box waiting to make right turn from left lane, yellow taxi continuing straight.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

State of the Art

A WANDER DOWN UNDER, CHAPTER 10:  IN WHICH WE MEET THE BIG CHEESE

Day 11:  Hobart to Melbourne.  With our flight to Melbourne not leaving until 10:30 this morning, we took our time getting to the small Hobart airport.  Much to our surprise, the terminal was a hub of activity.  The line for security screening was longer than we expected because numerous flights were scheduled, and non-passengers, allowed access to the gate area, helped clog the queue.  Again for this domestic flight, no one ever checked our identification and we were not asked to present any documents until we actually boarded the plane.

The flight took less than an hour, and we were soon picking up our rental car at the Melbourne airport.  On the drive from the airport into the city on the Tullamarine Freeway, we couldn't miss seeing some of Melbourne's vast collection of public art.  First came the Melbourne International Gateway, better known to locals as the cheesestick and the grater (or the ribcage), the kind of work that provokes remarks like, "What was that?"  The landmark consists of a 230-ft yellow beam cantilevered to loom diagonally over 8 lanes of traffic, coupled with a collection of 39 red beams lurking nearby.  According to those responsible for its installation, the yellow beam is meant to commemorate Victoria's gold rush, while the red beams symbolize the state's wheat industry.

Melbourne International Gateway (photo by Mary Ann Adair)
As we were still scratching our heads over what struck us as a giant french fry reaching out to some streams of catsup, we entered what appeared to be a widely spaced mesh tube covered with transparent skin arched over the freeway.  Constructed as a sound barrier to reduce noise pollution in nearby housing towers, the Flemington Bridge cleverly effects an artistic combination of form and function.

Flemington Bridge sound barrier
Arriving at the Oaks Hotel on William Street just after noon, we checked in and stowed the rental car in the hotel's garage before heading off to the Queen Victoria Market just a block away.  Known locally as "Queen Vic," this historic landmark first opened its doors in the 1850s as a fruit and vegetable market.  Over the years, it gradually expanded until it now encompasses two city blocks.  In addition to the original fare, market vendors today sell gourmet foods, cosmetics, clothing, souvenirs, household goods, and many other types of merchandise, both manufactured and handmade.

Traders like this one contribute to the colorful atmosphere at the Queen Vic.
The Vic's food court offered a large variety of cuisines from many different cultures.  A Malaysian style of fried rice was our choice for lunch, and its bold flavors separated it from the familiar Chinese fried rice of our previous experience.

Owned by the city, the Queen Vic is one of Melbourne's top tourist attractions.  Last year the city committed to the largest investment in its history to preserve and renew the beloved landmark.  After the renewal, Melbourne intends to petition UNESCO to grant World Heritage status to the market.

This trader was selling some amazing handmade books, complete with handmade paper for the pages.
Leaving the Queen Vic, we walked over a couple of blocks to Melbourne Central, a large shopping, office, and transportation complex, to pick up some supplies.  Inside, we found another example of the city's preservation efforts.  When the central complex was planned, an 1881 shot tower, used in the manufacture of ammunition for firearms and retired in 1961, stood on the site.

Shot tower inside Melbourne Central
Nine stories tall, the tower was saved from demolition and incorporated into the design of Melbourne Central with a conical glass roof built over it.  Much of its original equipment remains, and a museum has been installed in the tower to showcase its historic role in the city.

As we have committed to do on this trip, we built some relaxation time into this travel day, spending the remainder of the day resting in our apartment.  Tomorrow, we plan to hook up with a guided walking tour of the city and take in a bit of Australian theatre.

Road Noise:

At the Melbourne airport, officials are keenly aware of the international mix of passengers entering  the city.  This includes visitors from cultures where the sanitation norm is squat toilets with used paper thrown into a trash bin.  Just in case the airport's restrooms offer a guest's first experience with western style toilets, signs offer guidance.


Daily Stats:
  • Started in Hobart, ended in Melbourne
  • Mileage -  403     (Trip total:  11,288)
  • Weather - 41° to 66 °, sunny to partly cloudy
  • Shoppers at Queen Victoria Market - 44,178   
SATURDAY, 13 SEPTEMBER, 2014


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