Monday, April 16, 2012

A little piece of Melbourne (Photo Journal)


Sydney and Melbourne are like the Minogue sisters, Kylie and Dannii. Both extremely talented and beautiful yet Kylie is more popular globally. Similarly, these two major metropolises of Australia are celebrated for their vibrant, energetic and multicultural atmospheres, not to mention the naturally blessed geographical locations. Even so, Melbourne sometimes gets upstaged in popularity by its bigger and more prominent sister, Sydney.

I fell in love with Sydney when I was there two years ago for Christmas and New Year and I very much looked forward to seeing Melbourne one day. Besides, I hear only wonderful things from those who have visited the city. They compliment on its friendly residents, the dynamic food culture, the ever-eventful arts scene and the stunning landscape of Victoria. So when I finally had the chance to visit Melbourne, I was ecstatic.

Eureka Tower and SBS buliding at The Federation Square

Situated in the state of Victoria, Melbourne was ranked as the world’s most livable city in 2011. While Sydney may be renowned as the fashion capital, Melbourne is indeed the cultural capital of Australia where Australian Film, television and the Australian Impressionist art movement originated.  4 million Melbournians, 35.8% were born overseas and Nguyen, a Vietnamese surname, is the second most common name in the phone book, I could imagine how diverse and multicultural Melbourne is.  They say the city’s cultural diversity is hugely reflected in its restaurants which serve various international cuisines. Therefore, worrying about fitting in is out of question in this city.
The retro tram in front of Flinders Street station

On my first day, riding around the city center on the little tram, I admired the city’s architecture, an eclectic mix of modern and Victorian buildings. Many of the classic and modern buildings coexist elegantly, without clashing each other’s style and grandeur, forming a very impressive and varied skyline. However, the federation square which ironically is considered one of the world’s ugliest buildings and hugely disliked by the locals does look very odd, in my humble opinion, especially when standing next to the gorgeous Flinders Street Station and St Paul’s Cathedral. While the square is a perfect place for people watching and aimless wandering, I simply do not understand the concept of its architectural details and the choice of gloomy colors. As a piazza in the middle of the city, it somehow fails to lift the spirits of its visitors. To make it worse, the square is poorly lit at night probably for the sake of saving energy.

SBS building at The Federation Sqare
Fed Square, Melbourne

I am a huge fan of architecture from the past but I get a little skeptical when it comes to contemporary style buildings. Most of them, not just in Australia, are usually spacious, masculine, and futuristic with heavy focus on sharp lines and edges but not so much on the aesthetics.  To me, they are cold, unfriendly and monochrome. While they may turn one’s head due to their hip and cool look-at-me structures, I wonder if they in the long run would be treasured in the way we do for those Gothic, Baroque or Neo-classical buildings despite their old age.

Many had warned me about the notoriously moody Melbourne weather. After two straight sunny days, the rain dropped in to say “hello” but not for long. The nights were chilly too but I was happy to be able to don my designer blazer and jean trousers. If I wanted to, I could even get away with a lovely scarf wrapped around my neck like a movie star. Hey, I could never pull that look in humid Bali. So if you ask me, I did not mind the ever-changing weather conditions at all. At least for a week, I could do with all four seasons in one day.

The Great Ocean Road Tour

I initially was quite reluctant to do The Great Ocean Road tour as it is a 3 hour drive out of Melbourne.  This 243-kilometer long road, an Australian National Heritage, was built by the returned soldiers of World War I between 1919 and 1932. The famous twelve apostles, the limestone rock stacks formed by erosion, are of course the main attraction of this tour. The bus driver, a very gracious man, also served as the tourist guide during the tour delivering interesting stories and some historical bits about the road tirelessly. In between my short dozes and necessary Facebook updates, I managed to take in the breathtaking views of the ocean on my left from the bus window as much as I could. The road was long but we were pleasantly entertained by the driver’s commentary and the interruptions of various photo stops. The helicopter ride to view the apostles, only 8 of them are left standing today, was pricey but for a magical 10 minutes, I thought the money was well-spent. Fantastic shots of the magnificent coastline to cherish both in my memory and my camera’s memory stick; priceless.   
Twelve Apostles

It’s Australia after all! It would be a sin if I did not make effort to go down to the beach to witness Australia’s much celebrated beach culture.  St Kilda, Melbourne’s answer to Sydney’s Bondi but less crowded and more laidback is more than just a long stretch of beach. The neighborhood is occupied and made colorful by the bohemians, artists, musicians, punks and LGBT community. St Kilda hosts the annual gay pride called “Midsumma Festival Parade” and many of the gay bars and pubs are located on the Fitzroy Street. Driving around St Kilda, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful beach front properties which I am sure are worth millions. Some of these massive structures, obviously belonged to the rich and famous are built merely to be used either for summer or as weekend homes. I can also see why this area is one of the most sought-after and priciest on the market. The streets are lined with leafy green trees, small public parks, cute little churches and sports facilities:  a perfect place for families to raise children. Plus it is only 30 minutes away from the central business district (CBD) and a walkable distance to the beach.  The nearby Brighton beach is the home to the 82 rainbow-colored bathing boxes which are of course popular tourist attraction. These boxes may be small and obviously lacking amenities but their selling prices can go up to A$200,000. And you have to be the resident to purchase them. Indeedy Wowza!  

St Kilda Beach and Melbourne's skyline
Bathing Boxes at Brighton Beach

Since I could not bear to be called a fool for not visiting any winery while I was on holiday in a wine-producing country, I made my way down to the best one, Domaine Chandon. Under the clear blue sky, at their stylish wine bar with the view of their neatly manicured garden and grape vines, wine tasting began. My favorite ones are their Chardonnay and sparkling rose.  Usually I do not like the oaky, buttery and heavy flavor of Chardonnay. But theirs is refreshing, aromatic, crisp and very well-balanced. Wine tasting usually turns into wine binging in my world but Australia’s stringent road rules are no laughing matter. The police are always on the watch both day and night to catch drunk drivers. Lucky for me, I was kindly chauffeured by M, my dear one who could only participate in spirit whenever alcohol was involved. I had to keep reminding him to not drink more than the amount allowed all throughout this trip. The penalties for drunk driving include heavy fines to the cancellation of one’s driving license. Well… I now know why many Australians come to Bali; to break rules. From public intoxication, drunk driving to storming the streets of Kuta and Seminyak on their motorbikes wearing no helmets, they sure do love their temporary liberty in Bali. No one bothers them here. If they do get caught, they can pay up some small money to the police and get away.
Domaine Chandon winery

The Melbourne food scene, as everyone who has been there raves about, is spectacular. The two Italian restaurants I tried, “Italy 1” and “The Merchant” at the Intercontinental hotel, were great restaurants especially, the latter, my personal favorite for its rowdy atmosphere and scrumptious risotto. But I must admit I was a little disappointed with the famous Japanese restaurant, “Nobu”.  The service was impeccable yet I expected more on their sushi and sashimi especially when it cost a fortune.  It was nothing but ordinary from presentation, quality of the fish to the taste. That being said, the main courses were beyond my expectation: slow cooked pork belly and baby squid salad; Mouthwatering indeed! Also staying in China Town, I was spoilt for choice in terms of food. Asian cuisines in abundance, I had a ball eating Char-Siu pork, beef noodles, crispy duck, dim-sum and Japanese bento boxes. There is also one restaurant, oddly named, “Ginger Boy”. At first from outside, I thought it was a gay club where the red-headed boys or those who love them go. What a fabulous restaurant it was! I loved the interior, d√©cor and stunning Asian food on their menu. One of the best meals I had in Melbourne; delicious, creative and very urban. 
The restaurant "Ginger Boy"

Melbourne seen from Eureka Tower's Sky Deck

Watching the city from Melbourne’s tallest building which is also the sixth tallest in the world, Eureka tower, I could see why it was considered the most livable city in the world. Through the tower’s sky deck glass windows, I admired how the city is strategically planned with public parks, libraries and galleries, hospitals, shopping arcades and sport stadiums. It is a big city so what about transportation? Melbourne has the world’s largest tram network although surprisingly the statistics are saying that most people here prefer to use private cars. There is even a free retro tram that runs around CBD and talks like a tourist guide. I thought it was fabulous. It is not all. To beautify the city even further, a river runs through it. Yes! Yarra River is really where it all began. It was the life line for indigenous Australians during prehistoric times and then the early European settlers used it as the main agricultural source. Subsequently, gold was first discovered near the river and the Victorian Gold rush era further established the place into what we now see, Melbourne. Along this river, Melbournians can be seen enjoying their bicycle rides or jogging any time of the day and at weekends the practice of the rowing teams.
Yarra River 

The chilly wind occasionally blows across the river making me cling on to my jacket which barely could save me from shivering but I am enjoying this stroll at South Warf. The city’s lights are glowing against the clear sky and its skyline reflected in the smooth-running Yarra river, a picture-perfect moment. Today is my last day. I take a good look at Melbourne at twilight. The city life is what I miss the most when I am on Bali. But I guess I have managed to soak in the incredible energy of a big city during my short stay here. I walked the malls, watched movies in an actual cinema (not DVDs!), took pleasure in taking public transport (which believe it or not was exciting!), got stuck in traffic, had a fight with the auto-pay parking machine and most importantly visited so many great highlights of Melbourne. Tomorrow is another day and I am on my way home to my little island.  I came, I saw and now I’ve got to go.

So the question is!  Kylie or Danni? Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrm….Can I have them both please?

Sunset in Melbourne, South Warf

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