Monthly Archive for June, 2008

Melbourne – Intriguing City Precincts

Just as the great sporting nations enjoy a healthy rivalry, so too does Melbourne enjoy a respect among the great city destinations of the world.

With her annual Formula One Grand Prix engaging many millions of television viewers from around the globe, the fast-paced, cosmopolitan face of Melbourne is front-and-centre on the world stage. However, so much of what Melbourne has to offer will always remain hidden from cable channel surfers and TV sports fans. Even Melbournians themselves are only now beginning to uncover some of the secret nooks and crannies of their own city.

To get an idea of this unseen urban terrain, hold your breath as you dangle almost 300 metres above the streetscape from Skydeck on Level 88 of the awe-inspiring Eureka Tower. It’s the highest viewing platform in the Southern Hemisphere and the Edge Experience, where visitors enter a glass-floored chamber, is one of the Melbourne’s home-grown heartstoppers.

Almost straight down and to the immediate north and northwest, you’ll see one of the oldest and least-developed parts of the city starting across from busy Flinders Street Station. Ornate 19th Century Victorian buildings, old warehouses and little shopfronts call back to a time before the growth of the mighty glass and marble monoliths just up the street in the big end of town.

Fiona Sweetman

Fiona Sweetman

To properly explore this historic sandstone-walled, mini-jungle, you can pop into any of the information centres and collect a Melbourne Walks No.4 leaflet. Take a 90-minute self-guided tour into the narrow back-alleys of Degraves Street and into the myriad lanes and arcades, or join the popular Hidden Secrets Tour for a full four hour exposé.

Born-and-bred Melbournian, Fiona Sweetman, is your stylish and vivacious guide. Follow her as she swirls and glides along the narrow courtyards and alleys pointing out the history and significant architectural features of the old buildings and shops now transformed into trendy boutiques and irresistible cafés.

“This started a few years ago as a shopping tour for the girls,” says Fiona, “but it’s just grown as people want more. I also do an Art and Design tour that attracts couples and a few single guys too. Everyone seems to have great fun.”

The tour group assembles at the Melbourne Visitor Centre in Federation Square, the new arts and entertainment hub across from Flinders Street station. Anything but secret, Federation Square was completed in 2002 to celebrate the Australia’s “coming of age” in 1901. It houses the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, the state-of-the-art Australian Centre for the Moving Image plus 20 bars, restaurants and cafes centred around the city’s most vibrant public space.

But we’re about to go underground with Fiona, figuratively and literally. She guides us down a set of stairs that takes us below the pavement of busy Flinders Street. Once virtually abandoned, this pedestrian tunnel is part art-space, part funky retail.

“After languishing for many years, these shops have been reclaimed by some innovative designers and retailers,“ says Fiona pointing to racks of racy vintage wear in the memorably named boutique, Lola von Lixx.

We surface in Degraves Street proper, a typically rejuvenated alleyway, now overflowing with cool chic and the unmistakable aroma of freshly ground coffee. A healthy throng of patrons fills the seats, engaged in animated chatter and obviously enjoying the ambiance. Melbourne is a social city, where people eat out, promenade and engage with a sense of community not so common anymore. Fiona throws waves, kisses and greetings to the shopkeepers and staff like a flower girl throws confetti at a wedding.

Our group ogles shoes, handbags and frocks; many are totally unique creations, handmade by the budding designers and fashionistas that make Melbourne famous. Il Papiro, on the other hand, sells an exquisite assortment of stationery and specialty paper products. This delightful store could be just as much at home in the lanes of Venice.

Beyond Degraves is Union Lane. Upon first inspection, you may recoil at the vast graffiti murals, but in this lane at least, the spraycan artform is celebrated. Artists tag their vivid, oversize and abstract portraiture with their street personas: EFC, FT, Trance, SWB TGC, ID Boys, Siloe, Na, Sub rock and Deb.

Homegrown stores with such evocative names as Aesop, Manvious, Shag and Fat perfectly capture the ingenious and irreverent style that gives their products unique flair. Be sure to stroll through elegant Block Place and Arcade for style and grace, then cross over to the elegant 19th Century Royal Arcade – Australia’s oldest. In the ceiling are Gog and Magog, two giant mythological Britons who have struck their gongs every hour since 1892.

Morning tea is a special event in Melbourne. Rest your tired feet and put down those shopping bags, you’ve earned a treat. We’re heading for Koko Black in the Royal Arcade for a hot chocolate that transcends the senses. Want something to talk about? Try the Chilli Hot Chocolate, perfect for a cold winter’s day. Or true ‘chocophiles’ can indulge themselves with the Traditional Belgian Blend. Those on a diet can watch resident chocolatier, Kim Linssen, through the window as she sculpts her latest creamy creations.

Fiona’s tours culminate in a gourmet lunch at Caboose in City Square. Choose a scrumptious tortellini or risotto, or if you’ve really worked up an appetite, go the 300g Angus sirloin with caramelised onions and pink peppercorn jus. There’s a glass of great Aussie wine on offer too. Oh, my!

[More information: www.hiddensecretstours.com and www.thatsmelbourne.com.au ]

Melbourne rejoices in its many cosmopolitan flavours as much as it does its “dinkum” Aussie fare. There’s a lively Chinatown in Little Bourke Street and a little Athens in Lonsdale Street, while a distinctly Parisian feel pervades the designer boutiques of Collins Street.

Café culture is another highlight of Melbourne and its inner suburbs. With strong Italian and Greek influences throughout the city, great coffee was always a part of life.

Maria Paoli, an accredited barista, coffee judge and trainer, runs The Historical Coffee Trek through central Melbourne, visiting the premium coffee houses and cafés. What’s a perfect extraction? How do you tell a top crema? Spend two hours with Maria and you’ll never drink instant coffee again.

[More information: www.thecoffeeguide.com.au ]

Melbourne – Outdoor Living

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Australia’s great coastal cities enjoy world renown for their incomparable outdoor lifestyle. Sydney and Brisbane for their sun-drenched, water-based relaxation; Perth for great beaches; and Adelaide for parks and scenic hills. Yet Melbourne stands apart with an open-air character of its own; cosmopolitan and sophisticated, yet still essentially Australian in every way.

Set out to explore Melbourne and you’ll find a multi-faceted city full of surprises. And with an explorer’s mind, you’ll uncover things mere tourists will almost certainly overlook. To get your adventurous juices flowing, start your journey at the vast Visitor Information Centre in Federation Square, that un-missable landmark right across from Flinders Street Station. You can book tours, buy tickets or just get maps for your own self-guided voyage of discovery.

Outside in Federation Square you’re just as likely to see street theatre, musicians or all manner of performance artists – and if you’re not careful, you may end up as part of the entertainment! Opened in 2002 to celebrate the nation’s coming of age, futuristic Federation Square offers a wide assortment of art, dining and entertainment options all ideally located. And if the clouds gather, there’s plenty to do indoors.

Australians, as you’ll find out, enjoy a special sense of humour and Melbourne is often teased about its varying weather. But in truth, a glorious sunny day in Autumn or Spring is no time to be hanging around inside and Melbournians and their guests can be found strolling the leafy banks of the Yarra, picnicking, cycling or enjoying one of the superb al fresco dining experiences along Southbank or any of the city streets.

If the classic river steamer passing under Princes Bridge looks inviting, why not give it a try? Climb aboard M.V. Grower, the river’s oldest working ferry, just in front of Southbank for a half- or one hour tour.

You just can’t get a bad coffee in Melbourne. Pull up a seat at any outdoor café and sit back for an hour and just soak up the atmosphere while you ponder an aromatic macchiato or dense restrito. Just like a good café, Melbourne offers way more than a simple cappuccino.

If you want to cover some ground in a short time, you can hire a bicycle at Federation Square and head down to the new docklands area on the western edge of the CBD; a recently redeveloped cityscape, transformed into a modern living space from grungy warehouses and wharfs. Even the locals are only starting to discover this new part of town. With the massive Telstra Dome, the new home of Aussie Rules football, as its centrepiece, the list of quality eateries, restaurants and cafes rolls on like the never-ending movie credits. Stop for a moment though and admire the Variety Australian Entertainers of the Century and Walk of Stars, where 100 plaques, a mosaic wall and bronze figures commemorate Australia’s finest entertainers.

Pedal northeast past the historic Flagstaff Gardens to the Queen Victoria Market. No matter where in the world you travel, the local outdoor markets will always give you an insight into the character of a city. The Queen Victoria Markets are Melbourne’s market and, in keeping with the outgoing flair of the city, often provide entertaining street theatre and music that can be as simple as talented buskers, right through to the lavish Opera in the Market with a lineup including Opera Australia’s Taryn Fiebig, tenor sensation Roy Best, and the international flautist Jane Rutter. Sunday’s the day.

Let’s do lunch – and where else but the thriving cosmopolitan and gastronomic centre of Melbourne; Lygon Street, Carlton. Nationally recognised for its wonderful diversity of cuisine, it is probably best known for fabulous Italian dining. The historic heartland of Melbourne’s Italian community, it’s the place where the city’s famous café culture was born – or so they say!

In Lygon Street, you’ll find pasta and pizza like you’ve never imagined. Such wonderfully evocative names such as Il Gusto, Il Fresco and Piccolo Mondo will greet you as you try to make a choice from the scores that line both sides of the street. Relax, you can’t choose a bad one.

After a satisfying repast and perhaps a vino, stroll or pedal across the few hundred metres to the magnificent Carlton Gardens and Melbourne Museum. Established in 1857, the classically-designed gardens are dominated by the imposing UNESCO World Heritage listed Royal Exhibition Building.

Following the garden trail, we can continue clockwise around the CBD to the expansive Fitzroy and Treasury Gardens with its superb conservatory and the relocated Cooks Cottage, brought out from Yorkshire in barrels and crates and reassembled in 1934 to commemorate the great navigator and discoverer.

Back in the city we can track down a few unusual and eclectic attractions. In summer, climb to the top of 252 Swanston Street, right in the heart of the city, and enjoy some al fresco shopping. That’s right, The Rooftop Market, is open from 11am until 3.30pm every Friday and is “chock-a-block” full of quirky and cute designer label like Aduki, Hamb, Gorman and Boy on a Bike. At night the space reverts to the Rooftop Cinema where you can relax in a deckchair and take in a classic with a drink from the bar.

Did I say bar? No-one goes thirsty in Melbourne and the cocktail bars and nightlife are an institution in Melbourne. Within the city, try a Manhattan at Madame Brussels, a Long Island Tea at The Order of Melbourne, or a Margarita at the Meccca Bah, Docklands. You’ll never run out of choice.

To top off your Melbourne experience, book in advance for a table or bar stool at Taxi back in Federation Square. Immensely popular, multi-award winning Taxi is *the* current hot ticket in town. Michael Lambie’s vast and intriguing menu can only be conquered by repeat visits, but a degustation is a wise choice for those wishing to get cross section. Just make sure the wagyu beef is on the list.

Fact File:

Tour planning and attractions:
www.visitmelbourne.com
www.thatsmelbourne.com.au

Visitor Information Centres: Federation Square, Burke Street Mall

Taxi Dining Room – Level 1, Transport Hotel, Federation Square, Cnr Flinders and Swanston Sts, 9654 8808
Rooftop Market – 252 Swanston Street – www.rooftopmarket.com
Queen Victoria Market, Corner Elizabeth and Victoria Streets Tel: (03) 9320 5822 www.qvm.com.au
City of Melbourne Local Government (for Parks and Gardens) Phone: +61 3 9658 9658 www.melbourne.vic.gov.au


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