Melbourne

Part of what pushed us out of Bilbao in the first place was the small curiosity that there might be another place. We were happy in Bilbao, but we wondered if we could love other places just as much, or perhaps even more.

Maybe we were reaching a new phase.
Maybe we just wanted to be sure.
Whatever it was, Melbourne was the first city that came close to answering that uncertainty…

Before we had even arrived, Australians, friends, and fellow travelers had set the city on a pedestal. They talked about Melbourne in tones normally reserved for royalty and secret societies. Everything we read online implied that maybe New York City had a more laid-back but equally intriguing distant cousin. The height of its mythical appeal is perhaps best summarized by a poster we would see later in downtown Perth: Are you a creative soul? A writer? A musician? And you haven’t left for Melbourne yet? Then, come join the local artist’s collective.

Not coincidentally, The Economist has rated Melbourne as the world’s most live-able city for the seventh year in a row. It is recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature and often referred to as Australia’s “cultural capital.” But its merit list is much longer than this. Melbourne is known for its music, street art, theatre, TV & film industries, universities, and sports traditions. It has the world’s largest urban tram network that also includes a “free zone” in the city center.  The port of Melbourne is Australia’s busiest seaport and its location along the Yarra River provides the perfect backdrop for its lively nightlife.

The city is fantastically cosmopolitan, attracting university students, business professionals, tourists, and residents from all over the world. It is also home to the largest Greek-speaking population outside of Europe and a significant number of Indians, Sri Lankans, Malaysians, and many other Asian countries.

So my first walk down the buzzing Collins Street was a humbling one. I was fully conscious of being in the far corner of the southern hemisphere, a place I has always categorized as “remote” in my mind, yet given the explosion of culture and diversity around me, it suddenly seemed abundantly clear that Melbourne, in fact, was the center of the universe, New York City was the distant cousin, and it had just taken me some thirty years to figure that out.

After that first stroll around the city, Damián and I wordlessly agreed that Melbourne seemed like a plausible answer to our question.

We were excited.

We installed ourselves in our Airbnb, a high rise apartment building on the Southbank with views of the sunrise over the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was a brand new apartment complex, complete with its own swimming pool, gymnasium, and front desk service, the fancy kind that you see downtown near university campuses, and the kind I have never been able to afford to live in. (Except for six days, on vacation.) The residents and our roommates – a girl from Malaysia and a guy from Colombia – can’t really afford to live there either – which is why they rent one of their rooms out on Airbnb. The cost living in any major city in Australia, especially so close to the city center, is not something to be coughed at.

Southbank is full of many dazzling high rise apartment buildings and office complexes, but one only has to cross the Yarra River to find a more eclectic mix of modern architecture and old colonial style buildings. In this respect, Melbourne reminded me a lot of Bilbao, but on a much larger scale. Both cities are full of architectural surprises, old and new, that provide plenty of fodder for conversation and admiration.

Yet not all surprises are good ones. Federation Square is an eyesore for most Melburnians. If they were in some way trying to answer to Sydney’s Opera House, it came out more like a cry for help. Federation Square is a mixed-development area that encompasses three major public spaces in the city center: St. Paul’s Court, The Square, and The Atrium. An architecture design competition was announced in 1997 to help with the redevelopment of this area, with the aim of highlighting the heritage buildings nearby and to connect Flinders Street with the Yarra River.

A group of architects known as the Lab Architect Studio won the competition with a design that included several five-storey “shards.” Yes, even the explanation sounds terrible. Many people were not happy with the results before the construction even began and from the start, budget issues, deadline extensions, and many other problems plagued the project. It was finally finished in 2002 with little fanfare and much embarrassment.

http://freeaussiestock.com/free/Victoria/Melbourne/slides/fed_square.htm
Photo Credit: http://freeaussiestock.com/free/Victoria/Melbourne/slides/fed_square.htm

In 2009, Virtual Tourist ranked Federation Square as the fifth ugliest building in the world. In 2017, I can assure you that it is still ugly. It looks like the rubble from a fallen space station. Or something somebody forgot to clean up after the last filming of Star Wars. Putting it to the same standard as I put the Sydney Opera House: if I were a kid, I would not jump off this building and think that I could fly.

Fortunately, Federation Square can be overlooked because Melbourne has so much more to brag about. Every day, there are myriad events to explore and neighborhoods – Ethiopan, hipster, posh – to discover. We attended a Buddhist festival where we witnessed a dragon dance, learned how to write some Chinese prayers, and pigged out at an all-vegetarian street food market (which is a miracle anywhere in the world). We tried to attend a beer-tasting festival, but it was already sold out so we just moved on to the next event: a fresh harvest festival where guest speakers held seminars on permaculture, international cuisine, and organic farming. That evening, the two of us ate for $12 AUD at a Hare Krishna buffet style restaurant. In the end, we were so high on culture that we could barely walk home in a straight line.

The next day, we tackled Fitzroy and Collingwood, considered to be Melbourne’s biggest hipster enclaves. With little money to spend, we wandered the streets like two teenagers walking into our first issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Everybody looked famous. Everybody had a cute little dog or a trophy beard or a constellation of tattoos or that one little strand of hair strategically out of place or a skirt that glittered or a piercing that defied all logic or a presence that felt simultaneously categorical and apocryphal or a friend out in Vancouver or an ex who was a writer or a disaffected air or expensive beer and cheap cigarettes or cheap beer and expensive cigarettes and/or a singular affinity to anyone who has ever desired to be cool.

It was a lot to take in. We turned the pages slowly, wanting to embrace all of the characters.

It was hard to determine what was too much and what wasn’t enough and if these places were even real. As we walked, we saw restaurant after restaurant advertising vegetarian and vegan food and our excitement slowly began to build.

These people understand us!
They are in the know!
They want to be sustainable!

But after we saw “Vegetarian Kebab” and “Vegetarian Barbecue”, we lost our faith. These people have simply identified a marketing trend and are hell-bent on slapping it on everything. Damnit.

Even so, we loved these neighborhoods, their old buildings turned into shrines to individuality (Fitzroy dates back to 1839), and their streets, rivers of youthful vitality.

We also recommend taking a free walking tour of Melbourne to see the major landmarks of the city. They happen every day at 10:30AM & 2:30PM, starting at the statue of Sir Redmond Barry in front of the State Library of Victoria.


A great day trip from Melbourne by car is to visit Healesville Sanctuary, about 1.5 hours northeast of the city. This sanctuary is home to many of Australia’s unique native animals and provides large enclosures for better care. Tickets costs $36 AUD and if you arrive early, you will have a chance to see the daily animal presentations. We were able to feed the emus and watch a showcase on a few of the fascinating birds of Australia.

In the afternoon, we continued on to Wilson’s Promontory National Park where temperatures dropped into the single digits. The next morning we only managed to summit Mount Oberon and check out a few beaches before we had to continue our drive. There was always too much to see and not enough time.

We arrived back in St. Kilda by evening in order to witness the arrival of the blue penguins, the world’s smallest penguin. St. Kilda is just outside of Melbourne city, so tourists flock to see the penguins. Fortunately, there are volunteers who ensure the tourists are behaving safely. As the blue penguins are frightened by white light and camera flashes, the volunteers will shine a softer red light to make the penguins visible. The penguins cannot see the red light so it does not affect them. Volunteers also require that tourists maintain a safe distance from the penguins and their nests. Their efforts are extremely valuable because on too many occasions we have witnessed a complete disregard for wildlife by tourists. It seems that nothing will stop someone from getting that precious Instagram photo.

After a night in St. Kilda, we carried on to the west of Melbourne where we connected with the start of the famous Great Ocean Road. The Great Ocean Road is a 243 kilometer scenic stretch of highway between Torquay and Allansford that offers a mix of spectacular coastline and forest. It is also a surfer’s playground, with the famous Bells Beach situated just outside of Torquay.

The swells did not cooperate during the days that we were there, but that did not stop Damián from taking up his post along the coastline at every opportunity, and staring wistfully out to sea. He was like a man who had been stood up on a date, he seemed to be saying: I have come all the way to Australia to see you and you don’t even have the decency to come out and wave.

Instead, we spent an hour in the Australian National Surfing Museum in Torquay, quietly drooling over the Australia’s surfing legends. Despite the numerous DO NOT TOUCH signs, I confess that I made a point of touching every surfboard I could get my hands on. A surfer girl from Wisconsin needs all the good luck she can get just to keep her head above the water.

The small town of Kennett River is an important pit stop because it is one of the easiest places to see koalas in the wild. We got there just before dark and after a short hike up a hill, we could see them perched high in the eucalyptus trees, either sleeping, eating, or just giving off the wise air of a yogi master. If you go back down the hill and walk around the campground close to the entrance of the town, you can see koalas at a much closer distance. They are hanging out in trees that are much closer to the ground. However, you will have to contend with a lot of snap-happy tourists.

We spent the night in an old monastery on top of a cliff that had been converted into Airbnb accommodation. It had sounded romantic, but it was mostly just cold and a little spooky. It was here, after engaging in twenty minute bilingual cat fight at a volume that left even the Chinese tourists alarmed, Google finally revealed to us that there are no official rules on how to play billiards – everyone seems to have their own interpretation. (Mine, of course, being the correct version.) Neither of us could concede to losing because we could never agree on the rules of the game. And after several neck-and-neck games of ping-pong, it was evident that Damián’s killer serve was the only thing that was saving him from getting his ass kicked by a girl. He was always just one tiny point ahead of me.

We made it as far as the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road before we had to make our way back to Melbourne.  The Twelve Apostles are a collection of limestone rocks off the coast of Port Campbell National Park that are a popular photo stop. They were impressive, but I was more fascinated by a small nearby cove and its shipwreck story:

Eva Carmicheal, 18 years old, loses her whole family in a shipwreck and ends up stuck in Australia, alone. Just when you think you’re a badass for traveling the world, someone like Eva Carmicheal humbles you hard, reminds you what real life is, of your insane privilege and the things that other people are asked to bear when they don’t ask for it. For Eva Carmicheal, Australia wasn’t an exciting adventure at all.

I go to sleep with her face in my mind. And the question.

What became of Eva?

-Ashley


INFORMATION FOR DIABETICS

Australia is a country that shouldn’t pose any problem for diabetics. A wide variety of food options are available almost everywhere so it’s relatively easy to eat healthy and medical facilities are top notch. There are plenty of possibilities for hiking and other outdoor activities so make sure you monitor your glucose levels accordingly. Most importantly, if you are roadtripping, it is best to get a campervan with a fridge so that you can store your insulin safely.

WHERE TO STAY

We found that Australia is a fantastic country for Couchsurfing and Airbnb. We traveled in May – low season for southern Australia – but even so, staying in a hostel was always at least $3-$5 AUD more expensive than Airbnb accommodation for two people. Sometimes they were the same price but we always opted for the Airbnb stay because it is a homier rather than a dorm room. But our first choice was always Couchsurfing. There are active Couchsurfing hosts in major cities as well as small towns and the community is strong. Australians are very laid-back and friendly and we really enjoyed our hosts.

 

 

 

 

 

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