We didn’t feel like we’d stayed still for any length of time until we arrived in Melbourne almost four weeks after leaving the UK. The first leg through Singapore and driving down from Adelaide was hectic, so it’s been nice to have the chance to get used to a place over a slightly longer time. The melburnian travel agent expressed horror at the idea of spending two whole weeks here. “What will you do?!” On the contrary we’ve had no trouble filling the time. We’ve seen a lot of the city and a couple of the suburbs, and we’ve developed a healthy caffeine addiction.
It would be no exaggeration to describe Melbourne as a giant café. Every ten metres you find another independent pretentious coffee shop with a posh espresso machine and a pile of cake. They seem to take serving coffee very personally – I’ve never seen so much care put into a simple order. The guy this morning showed me the bag of Rwandan coffee beans he was grinding for my filter coffee with the sort of pride you’d expect when introducing a small child. “Really great, this one, really fruity.” If you want a drop of milk in your coffee (turns out this is not normal!) you’re asked whether you want hot or cold. We’re not in Costa any more.
Melbourne feels very safe. It’s definitely a few steps bigger than Adelaide, but has a very friendly sort of vibe. It’s very cool, very hipster. There are huge beards, done-up checked shirts, fixies everywhere. Think Shoreditch, but without the feeling of being judged for not being cool enough.
The whole city is pretty walkable – we’ve been staying in a suburb a couple of miles to the south-east of the centre and the river, and have covered a lot of ground on foot. We’ve been up and down Chapel Street maybe ten times, but somehow mostly while the shops were closed! (Jo disappointed, Joe relieved.) Everything closed down for the Easter weekend. The city centre was mostly tourists wondering where everyone was. Clearly the locals all went home for the weekend.
On the first full day, after the cricket, we walked to the beach at St Kilda, where our friends Sarah and Rob had lived for 18 months. They sent a generous list of things to do and places to see, so we made sure to cover the sights around their old house and Jerry’s Milk Bar (great coffee), so close and regularly visited that it might as well have been their living room.
The beach nearby features not only great views of the city from across the bay, but a colony of penguins living among the rocks of the harbour breakwater! At sunset each night they come home from fishing, and a crowd of tourists and officious volunteers gathers to see them arrive. The penguins that live here are the smallest species in the world, so they look pretty similar to normal birds, at least to untrained eyes. An under-informed and inconclusive game of “bird or penguin” ensued for an hour or so, until the penguins arrived in more obvious rafts of ten or so at a time. Cute little things! The volunteers shone red bike lights at the little dudes when they came close to the top of the rocks, because they don’t like white lights but can’t see the red.
We went for a walk along the Yarra river out to the north-east of the city, where pretty quickly you’re in quiet suburbia and the river path goes on through what feels like proper countryside until you climb the stairway to the bridge to find the shopping centre. At a warm little sun trap along the river we had a proper classy picnic of falafel and dips that we’d picked up from Prahran Market. There are a few of these markets through Melbourne, similar to the one we stumbled upon in the centre of Adelaide. Whereas Cambodia had markets in rusting sheds where every stall sold the same, here it’s all light and shiny and spacious, all of the stalls sell something unique and original. More than anything else, of course, this is just another indication of the relative affluence of Australia – there must be a far higher barrier to entry to this sort of market; it’s the middle-class version. As if to underline the point, I had the best coffee I’ve ever tasted in the South Melbourne market, from a shop with more staff than customers. It was like watching them squeeze the juice out of the beans individually.
In the city centre there’s a section of the south bank of the Yarra eerily similar to London’s South Bank, with an arts centre and concert hall, then loads of bars facing out onto the river. We found a full five-piece band set up outside a bar playing covers, and they were there for hours! Jo was spun around for a while by some random old asian guy who wanted a dance, before working his way around the crowd with other partners! There followed more music and dancing in a bar down the strip with its own band, like a live version of the music at Flares. We’re getting so used to the Aussie accent that we didn’t realise our waiter was from Leeds until we asked which AFL team he supports.