Monday, 29 October 2007

The Great Divide

I WAS quite prepared to not like Melbourne.

I couldn't see how, in any way, Melbourne could live up to Sydney, for I had enjoyed my time there greatly. Since anyone only ever sides with Melbourne or Sydney, but never both, it appeared I had chosen my favourite.

I loved everything about Sydney: strolling through the CBD between Darling Harbour and the Botanical Gardens, with its bats and possums; Manly, its beaches and scenic walkways; the penguins; meeting Julia; the Bondi to Coogee walk and the whales seen off of the coast; the Blue Mountains; the Harbour Bridge and Opera House; the museums and Aboriginal shows, street entertainers and buskers in shopping centres; the double-decker trains; the random Thai restaurant Matthew and I went to, everything. It is full of iconic landmarks, and has the greatest natural port that I have ever seen. It may be a busy city, but it was exciting. I never stopped thinking how lucky I was to have come all of this way.

Melbourne, conversely, I knew little about. The only two things I could associate with it prior to arrival were the Australian Grand Prix and Neighbours, neither providing a memorable image of the city itself. What was I going to find there?

On my first morning here I caught a tram from my hostel in St Kilda and rode into town. I alighted at Federation Square, and immediately realised my error in assuming that I wouldn't like the place. Here was an open courtyard with modern architecture juxtaposed with colonial buildings and churches, with rickety old trams driving by, overtaking horses and carts. Every possible contrast hit me at once.

I caught the free circle tram, an old style wooden tram complete with tourist narrative, and alighted at the docklands, for I had heard that it was here that I would find a cow up a tree. When you know a city has a sculpture of a cow up a tree, you naturally must start a tour there. Indeed, up a tree, overlooking the docks, was a square bovine, a sculpture inspired by a photograph of a cow which had become stranded in a tree after floods in Queensland many years previously. I wanted to picnic there, start a tradition of hanging out under the 'Cow In A Tree', but alas I had much to see, and I had already eaten too much chocolate.

From here I walked around the Telstra Dome, through a less glamorous side of town and on to Flagstaff Gardens, a pleasant spot of greenery with monuments to the independence of Victoria from New South Wales. Behind this is the world-famous Queen Victoria Market, for if Melbourne is famous for anything, it is shopping. Indeed this covered market had a superb selection of clothes, memorabilia, fruit and vegetables and an adjoining room of cured meats, condiments, morsels of delicious looking foods from all around the world, dips and toasted delights. It smelt divine.

I bought some socks and a salmon bagel (not from the same stall) and headed to the centre of Melbourne. By chance I found a shopping mall with a remarkable centrepiece. From a distance I had seen what appeared to be an enormous glass spire, and I found myself underneath it now. At the time of building it was the largest glass structure in the world, and it encloses the focal point of the mall: a factory, previously employed to manufacture shots, and now a cowboy shop.

Outside was the Victoria State Library, a grand building set in parkland, the previous library jutting out of the pavement at an angle as if to say 'I'm not dead yet!' I spent another hour or so wandering in and out of shops and past the many pubs and coffee shops and eventually out to the parks south of the river Yarra, where I stopped to catch my breath before returning on the tram to the hostel.

Melbourne was pleasant. It is spacious, clean and vibrant, with a European feel. It has many places to eat and drink with friends; live music and culture everywhere.

So have I changed my mind? Is Melbourne the number one city in Australia?

No, no. My vote still goes to Sydney. There is just something inescapably awesome about that place.

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