Seeing the Sights of Melbourne

Sunday, September 14, 2014 Road Junkies 0 Comments

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.

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.

Before leaving the library, we encountered another example of Melbourne public art.  On the sidewalk adjacent to the library, Architectural Fragment (pictured above), 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.

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.

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.

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.

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
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:

The hook turn
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. 
Black car in designated hook turn box waiting to make right turn from left lane, yellow taxi continuing straight.
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