Sunday, May 04, 2008


Before our plane had even touched down in Melbourne last weekend, we knew it would be our kind of place. We had read and heard that it was very European, Sydney's artier and more sophisticated sister city. Melburnians apparently would rather sip espressos in sidewalk cafes than bake on the beach and that sounded right up our alley.

The occasion was ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) Day, a three day weekend honoring the service and sacrifice of soldiers in the first world war. Veterans and current servicemen and women rise for a dawn ceremony and then parade down the streets. I was impressed by the way Australians used the day off work to celebrate and recognize their veterans of war instead of treat it as another day to go shopping as we often do in the states. ANZAC Day even has its own (oatmealish) cookies and a special gambling game played in pubs only on this day.

And speaking of gambling, Mick and I were both stunned to learn that our hotel (rated number one on Tripadvisor in Melbourne) is part of Australia's biggest casino. We came for the cafes and one of a kind boutiques, but on our first night, we might as well have been in Vegas.

The next day we miraculously found our way out of the labyrinth that is the Crown Casino and explored the far quieter Melbourne University. In general, attending college in Australia is a different experience than it is in America. Not everyone is expected to go, students can earn diplomas and certificates that don't always require four years and many students live at home. The city campuses are usually more functional and less condensed than their American counterparts. These facts in mind, I was surprised to find Melbourne University very similar to US universities with hundred year old buildings sitting alongside more modern structures and residential college housing.

Later, we toured the Royal Exhibition Hall which was originally built to celebrate Australia's centenary: 100 years of European settlement in Australia. It was once a very grand place featuring dozens of shops and food stalls, a maze and even an aquarium with penguins. Today only ten percent of the original structure stands and it's only used occasionally as a reception hall and for an annual flower show. The whole thing seemed kind of sad, especially when we learned that the exhibition hall had once housed the second largest pipe organ in the world. According to our tour guide, the instrument hadn't been played since the 1920s, was looted by soldiers during the second world war and completely dismantled in the 1960s. Now why is it that some European structures have withstood centuries of wear and conflict, but Melburnians struggle to maintain this exhibition hall for a mere hundred years?

A tradition that I suspect will endure much longer in Melbourne is the recognition of the many cultures of people who make up this cosmopolitan city. On one of the pedestrian bridges across the Yarra river is a row of glass panels depicting the countries of origin of Melburnians, when they came and what languages they speak. A stroll outside Melbourne's city center reveals the lasting cultural and culinary mark these immigrant groups have left on the landscape. One street serves as a Little Italy while the perpendicular road was established as a Little Vietnam by a later generation of immigrants.

Fortunately for tourists and locals alike, a taste of Melbourne's diverse heritage is available at the Queen Victoria Market, a European-style market offering food and non-food items. With the exception of an Italian leather belt, most of the non-food items fell under the category of "things I'd have to throw away/donate to Goodwill within the year:" low quality shoes and clothes and Aussie tourist treasures like boomerangs with aboriginal designs and stuffed wombats.

However, the food was more than worth the trip. We indulged with a three course, sweet-savory-sweet breakfast of Italian mini pancakes served with berries and cream (who knew the Italians had pancakes?), a beef pie and American style doughnuts. It's not their Americanness that makes these doughnuts irresistible, it's the fact that they're made fresh in a van that does nothing but doughnuts in the jelly or plain with sugar variety. By the time we found the Spanish doughnuts van (churros con chocolate for dipping) we were already full to the gills.

These delicious treats from around the globe made up for my disappointment about missing the food tours. One guides you through the Queen Victoria Market and organizes sampling of the goods. Another is run by a private company called Chocoholic Tours and leads, you've guessed it, five different types of culinary tours highlighting the best chockie in the city. You can imagine my disappointment when I found out they were booked solid. 'Next time,' we sighed, 'we'll save that for next time.' I can't wait for next time.

No comments: