by Lee Foster
Sydney may boast a faster pace, but Melbourne , in its sedate way, emerges as Australia ‘s cultural capital, especially if one considers culture in the broadest sense of the word.
Rivalry between these two major Australian cities, both perched on the southeast edge of the continent, remains strong.
The culture of Melbourne , a city which took its name from a British prime minister, Lord Melbourne, began with its city planning. Laid out in 1837 with orderly 99-foot-wide boulevards and plenty of space reserved for gardens, Melbourne quickly developed as a city of beauty and controlled growth. By contrast, Sydney is a spaghetti of unplanned streets. Melbourne was founded by free men, Sydney by convicts. The Gold Rush of the 1850s in Australia occurred near Melbourne in the state of Victoria. Vast sums of money poured into Melbourne in the last decades of the century, making possible a distinct Victorian architecture that is one of the city’s major amenities. Bequests to found a National Art Gallery eventually gathered, in Melbourne , the most significant collection of European paintings in the Southern Hemisphere.
When a traveler peruses Melbourne, many of the elements in the city’s distinguished history affect favorably the experience. A tram ride around the city makes obvious why Melbourne is called The Garden City, with one acre in five devoted to greenery and flowers. A walk through Chinatown reveals the oriental flare to the city, brought originally by Chinese gold miners. The culinary explorer will find Greek, Italian, Vietnamese, and other cultures well represented on the Melbourne palate. A stroll down Collins Street takes the traveler past several notable Victorian architectural treasures.
The Australians are a friendly and gregarious people, open to the traveler, with strong affectionate ties to Americans. There have been important, isolated moments of great indebtedness between the two peoples, as when an Australian pulled John Kennedy out of the water after his PT109 sank. Both countries fought energetically, side by side, in the World Wars. The language is roughly the same, with variations that tend to a mu se the traveler. Australians exude a cocky, can-do attitude, brimming with self-confidence, which strikes a resonant response in the American spirit. Especially when you make an excursion into the countryside near Melbourne , the small towns suggest an innocent America of a generation ago.
If you visit Melbourne , put at the top of your list these attractions, which define the city’s culture:
*The Victorian Arts Centre, with its four components, adds immeasurably to the cultural texture of Melbourne .
Start first with the National Gallery, where you can see a distinguished collection of Australian aboriginal art, both ancient and contemporary. The aboriginal pictoral tradition is thought to extend back some 20,000 years. Art for the country’s native people meant drawings on sand or bark that told a geographical story, recalling migration routes. Art performed the valuable function of mapping, telling people where the waterholes and other important geographic survival features could be found during long migrations. Artists of European origin in Australia performed a related role. The main subject for Australian painting has been interpreting the landscape, bringing back to city people visions of the great land of Australia . Later artists interpreted man’s civilizing role in the landscape.
Beyond the National Gallery, take a tour or attend an event in one of the three great performing halls–the Concert Hall, the State Theatre, or the Playhouse. A Friday-At-Five cocktail hour at the Concert Hall, open to the public, reminds Melbourne citizens that this is their property and that it should be used vigorously.
*Collins Street is the main architectural and shopping street in the city. The Block Arcade from the 1880s and the Royal Arcade from 1870 are elegant, restored shopping areas. The Le Medidien at Rialto Hotel, one of the taller buildings in the southern hemisphere, sits adjacent to the ornate, Victorian Rialto Building. The Oldenfleet Building is another architectural treasure, done in an Italianate Gothic mode.
Life on Collins Street mixes entrepreneurial drive and powerful trade union forces. The tram drivers form a strong trade union. Mark Twain once observed, “In Australia the working man is king.” However, the tram driver takes you past the Australian stock exchange. Newspapers report with a degree of awe the activities of corporate princes.
Buy a tram day pass, the Met Pass, with guidance from the tram authority for your itinerary. The Met Pass will enable you to see the full range of Melbourne ‘s architecture, including the many wrought-iron, balconied houses, especially around the University of Melbourne .
*A tram may take you past an Aussie Rules Football game, the national passion. The egalitarian streak in Australians can be seen in the rules for this game. Players have no competitive edge just because of brawny size, as in American football, or because of height, as in American basketball. Each player mu st also be a generalist, able to throw, bounce (the ball), tackle, kick, catch, and, above all, run. There are also no full-time professionals in Australian football.
*Victoria Market is an open-air 15-acre emporium selling everything under the Australian sun. The vendors and buyers cross all sections and racial groups in the city. An hour at Victoria market will immerse you in the thick texture and accents of Aussie life. Fabrics, plants, vegetables, and meats are a few of the many categories of goods sold.
*The Melbourne Zoo, begun in 1869, ranks as one of the top zoos of the world. Of particular interest here are the Australian animals and birds, plus the world’s first artificially inseminated gorilla, named Mzuri. See the famous butterfly house, an enclosed structure where a successful breeding culture of butterflies can easily be seen alighting at artificial nectar stands.
*The ship Polly Woodside and its adjacent Maritime Museum celebrate the long and distinguished maritime history of Melbourne . This four-masted barque, built in 1884, is the main exhibit. Models of many earlier ships can be seen at the mu seum.
*Restaurants, such as Flower Drum in Chinatown, delight the traveler who is also a gastronome. A festive meal at Flower Drum amounts to a parade of delicacies. The surge in ethnic migration to Australia has lent diversity to a restaurant scene formerly dominated by fine Australian lamb and ubiquitous meat pasties, meat-filled pies. Some good choices in Melbourne may be French, Indian, and Italian.
After examining the city itself, spend a day in an excursion to the lovely Victoria landscape nearby in the Upper Yarra district. A view of this countryside helps the traveler understand the popular Australian song, almost a national anthem, known as Waltzing Matilda. Few Americans understand the code words in this sad song. The main subject in the song, a kind of honorable hobo, the swagman, goes walking (waltzing) with his bedroll (matilda). Pressed for food in hard times, he kills a sheep, but the landowner catches up with him. Rather than surrender and go to jail, he escapes by jumping into a creekbed, committing suicide, but with his spirit enduring. Australians feel a deep sympathy for the hard-pressed swagman’s defiance of the authority in his time of need. Australia is an egalitarian, highly-unionized country. The song is poignant rather than trite. The lyrics are not about waltzing with a woman named Matilda.
When exploring the countryside east of Melbourne , seek out these four typically Australian experiences. Make appointments to visit them by stopping in at the Melbourne Visitors Bureau for precise directions and times open:
*The Australian Sheep Centre in the Upper Yarra area offers a good opportunity for the traveler to see different Australian sheep, such as the original Merino and Border Leicester breeds. At the Center you’ll see a dog manage the sheep, watch as wool is shorn, and observe spinning of yarn and weaving of garments.
*Healesville Sanctuary, beyond the Sheep and Wool Center , is the best place near Melbourne to see the full spectrum of Australian animals. Koalas, wallabies, kangaroos, and dingo dogs flourish in a natural setting. Egg-laying mammals include the spiny achidna and the speedy platypus. Birds on view include white ibises, Australian pelicans, and the kookaburra, a large member of the Kingfisher family.
*Billa Billa Homestead presents the pioneering and aboriginal world of Australia . On some days a mu sician plays the didgeridoo, a droaning aboriginal wind instrument. Billa Billa, which means plentiful water, is the place to learn how to throw a boomerang or crack a whip. You can make four-wheel-drive outings or horseback trips up the mountain behind the homestead. A hearty lunch and dinner are served.
*Yarra Burn Winery offers excellent Chardonnay among the whites and Pinot Noir among the reds. Yarra Burn is distinguished among 150 wineries in Victoria. Aside from wine, you can indulge here in hearty Aussie dinners and entertainment.
The tyranny of distance has long separated Australia from the bulk of American travelers. But that is changing. More competitive airfares and a greater awareness of the potential of Australia alter the picture. Melbourne, with its broadly based cultural appeal, is a congenial destination in Australia .
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: IF YOU GO
The overall Australia information source is Tourism Australia, www.australia.com.