The first thing we did upon reaching Melbourne, of course, was to join a free walking tour of the city. We met our guide and the others in front of the State Library of Victoria, a massive edifice built in the 1850s and exemplifying the older architectural style of parts of this diverse city.
We had a chance to take a quick look inside, including a look at the impressive collection of Australian works in a very classical looking reading room, complete with green hooded lights, wooden desks, and a marvelous domed ceiling.
Our guide showed us around the sights, starting with a bit of colonial history. While Sydney was founded by convicts from England, Melbourne has its origin in two competing businessmen, setting up settlements on opposite sides of the Yarra River. Nevertheless, in this frontier town, crime was always a concern, and we stopped to take in the grounds of the Old Melbourne Gaol. It was here that the notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly was hanged after being captured by police in a shootout where he wore a suit of homemade iron armor.
We continued on, passing the old police station, a rare example of Art Deco in the city, and the monument to the 8 hour workday, the movement for which started with the miners of Victoria. We learned how Melbourne was briefly the richest city in the world after the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s, as we walked through a beautiful park surrounding the Royal Exhibition Hall.
It was here that a World’s Exhibition was held in the late 19th century, drawing over a million people all the way to Australia from all over the globe. It also held the first session of parliament after Australia became a federated nation in 1901.
As we headed back downtown, several interesting locations were pointed out that we would have to come back and visit later. The Queen Victoria Market, a bustling covered center with fresh produce and cheap clothing, and the Brunswick and Fitzroy neighborhoods, which were described as being very Bohemian, and are home to large immigrant populations.
It was pointed out that Melbourne was truly a planned city, and the entire central business district is laid out in a careful grid 1/2 mile wide by 1 mile long. Large 30 meter wide roads crisscross the space, with amazing forethought. Somehow, such huge thoroughfares were envisioned back in the 1830s, when all that would travel them were horse carts. Now however, that planning has paid off, with multiple lanes of cars, parking lanes, and tramways running down the centers of most large streets.
Interestingly, Melbourne has one of the longest tram networks in the world, expanding the system when many European cities were dismantling theirs. The trams provide a great way of getting around, but do create some interesting traffic problems. For example, there are these weird hook turns that people must do at intersections where they drive out into the middle of the road and then sit there while trams pass, and only then make their turn. Not quite sure how it works, but it looks quite odd.
In addition to the large grid layout, the city is run through by narrow laneways. Originally designed to access the back of shops and permit deliveries, they now often serve much more creative purposes. Many are home to incredible displays of street art, from graffiti to stencil art to postering. This art changes almost continuously and creates an incredible backdrop as one walks through the city. We enjoyed it so much that we’ll make a whole separate post just to show of some of the best examples we’ve seen.
As we walked the city, we saw a lot of interesting and contrasting styles of building.A Victorian hospital facade smack in the middle of highrises, a building that looked like shipping crates, a crazy jumble of concrete balconies, anything and everything was on display.
Heading south towards the Yarra River we passed by Federation Square and Flinders Street Station. The Eureka Tower dominated the background, the tallest residential building in the southern hemisphere. ( “X in the southern hemisphere!” is something often touted, but it kind of means nothing, given the relative distribution of population and landmass.) The tower was named for the gold miner’s revolt at the Eureka Stockade, which has since become something of a rallying cry for labor unions and organizations.
The square underwent a massive face lift at the turn of the millennium, and houses several important museums such as the Ian Potter Centre for Australian Art and the Museum of the Moving Image. I’m not sure which of the boxy, newfangled buildings each is exactly though. The whole area is really modern and quite interesting.
We crossed the river and saw why the Yarra is called “the river that flows upside down”. Sadly, there is a lot of sediment and pollution, and it runs quite brown. We could see in the distance the Melbourne Cricket Ground, an iconic landmark of the city. It was here that the first Australia-England cricket match was played, as well as where Australian Rules Football (footy) was developed. It also played host to the 1956 Olympic Games. We’re actually hoping to to make it out there for a footy match sometime while we’re here. Nothing more local than meat pies and beers with 90,000 screaming Aussie fans.
Melbourne’s a truly interesting city, full of contradictions and contrasts. In the short time we’ve had to explore so far, we’ve seen so much, and I think we’ve barely scraped the surface. We’re really hoping to make the most of our time housesitting here and get back in to the city as much as possible to really experience all that it has to offer. Kangaroo burgers and back alley rock bars, here we come!