The Land Down Under . . .

Part 1 – Marvellous Melbourne

We arrived at about 06.00, some 30 hours after having left home but without proper sleep for about 42 hours. Harare, Lusaka, Dubai, Melbourne. To say we were shattered would be an understatement. What was worse, we had a whole day to kill before we deemed it wise to get some shut eye. Air crew generally claim that in order to acclimatise, it is best to stay awake during the day, regardless of when you arrive or what time your body is telling you it is and only sleep at night time. Easier said than done.

The young chap at passport control was reasonably friendly and talkative. It turned out his grandfather came from Zimbabwe. Customs officials were also pleasant and helpful, which makes a change from other parts of the world. This despite the Australian reputation for stringency with regards to prohibited flora and fauna. We were clean.

My overt prejudice towards all things Australian (though to be fair, that is more of a show than a reality) was coming in for a real hammering and things were about to get worse. The SkyBus transfer staff were unfailingly polite and helpful and the System itself was as efficient as one could ask for.

Having abandoned the girl child into the clutches of her school chaperone, we checked into an hotel apartment in the CBD which absolutely suited our needs. After a shower and a cup or 3 of coffee, we set out to explore our surroundings.

Coming from the gastronomical wasteland that is Zimbabwe, where peri-peri chicken is considered haute cuisine, we were mesmerised by the food on display at the Victoria Market. Not only were the variety and offering superb, so were the presentation and the customer service. Unfortunately, prices were steeper than we had anticipated, especially and surprisingly, fruit and veg. But more about prices later.

What this cornucopia allowed us to do was to find those delicacies we craved and prepare our own meals in the apartment. We did ourselves proud.

On the whole, the weather was not very pleasant, but bearable. I can do cold, but I cannot abide greyness. Sunshine was distinctly lacking. But it was probably very similar to Cape Town so I should not complain too much. What did impress was the public transport, especially the trams. We made good use of those, though we soon realised, that the CBD is not actually that big and it is often more convenient and beneficial to walk.

Two things struck us in particular, the first being the extraordinary numbers of high rise buildings that already existed and new ones being erected. At first sight it was impressive, but further contemplation led me to believe that very little thought had been given to the overall appearance of the skyline and that many of the buildings were completely inappropriate for a city like Melbourne. London, for example, seems to be far stricter about the overall effect that a new building, especially a tall one, will have on the overall image. In one case a small 19th century church was dominated by skyscrapers on 3 sides excluding it from much of the light. While many of the buildings could be described as interesting and possibly even attractive, in certain individual cases and taken in isolation, when considered as a whole, they lost many of the redeeming characteristics and became something of an uncoordinated mishmash of styles and form. A massive change from 1995, the last time I was in the city. There are lots of articles on the subject, but this is one, that may be worth a quick look.

The other point that caught me by surprise was the sheer number of Asians on the streets. I do not exaggerate when I say that within the CBD, it appeared as though 80% of people were of Asian origin. By Asian, I do not mean Indian, although they were there too. We were told that there were several reasons why this might be the case. 1) Many had come to study, and to be fair, the average age might appear to support that contention. 2) Melbourne is an attractive tourist destination for people of that part of the world. 3) A lot of people are trying to immigrate to Australia and are there to satisfy visa requirements. This would account for the very high number of apartment blocks being erected, as referred to above.

I was also told that despite appearances, many of the buildings were actually unoccupied. This was apparently based on some research that investigated water consumption in one area in particular which was something like 10% of what full occupation would have otherwise suggested.

We visited the National Gallery of Victoria where I was able to view portraits of a couple of my ancestors adorning the walls. (Yes, I had to put that in.) There was also a MOMA exhibition from New York, which my other half went to see. Not really my cup of tea. “Andy Warhol won’t you please come home!”

Other sites we enjoyed were the Botanical Gardens, the Shrine of Remembrance and the Museum, particularly the section on the history of Melbourne whence I got the marvellous adjective.

Dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner!

Did you know that Batman was responsible for the city’s existence?

I particularly like this bit.

“The artist John Glover, Batman’s neighbour in Van Diemen’s Land said Batman was “a rogue, thief, cheat and liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known”.[1]”

Now do you accept that my criticisms of Australia have merit?

19 thoughts on “The Land Down Under . . .”

  1. Hello from the culinary wasteland that is Europe. Australia has come a long way in respect to cuisine. Australian cheeses are excellent and very innovative. I am extremely unhappy that despite my efforts finding Australian cheeses, olives and olive oils I’ve thus far not managed; there being an unfortunate bias towards second-rate Continental offerings in this country. I will have to stock up when I fly to Australia in March and augment that with what I buy on my annual pilgrimage to the Golden Coast.

    On the bright side, Melbourne does have some brilliant coffee!

  2. I think your comment about unplanned skylines is valid for many cities. The diversity of architectural syles often creates too much visual ‘noise’ and little harmony.

  3. Hi Christopher. Even 20 years ago, Melbourne had a reputation for fine cuisine, which I certainly experienced. All those Greeks and Italians. As for coffee, it may be pretty good when brewed at home, but not once did I have a decent cup in restaurant or cafe. My biggest complaints were that it was too cold. I heard that this was owing to the fact that nobody wanted to be sued for coffee burns. In the end I stopped ordering it. For the record, I cannot abide those horrible Nestle pods that so many people these have acquired or dream of acquiring. I much prefer a percolator. But maybe that is just me.

  4. Janus, I am sure you are right. It was just very apparent in Melbourne given how much building was going on and how much it has changed since I was last there. I could not help suspecting that corruption, in the form of backhanders for planning rights, has a part to play. I also hold the belief, perhaps incorrectly, that London does give more consideration to its appearance and I think Prince Charles can take some small measure of credit for keeping the matter in the minds of London residents.

  5. Christopher, you do seem to be going off Europe including the UK at a rate of knots. I would have thought that good fresh ingredients are available in Dorset – I assume you are cooking for yourself – and that a day trip to London would have provided you with any exotic ingredients you can’t find in Dorset. Surely the cuisine chez Christophe isn’t that bad.

  6. Sheona, I find that waxing culinary with meals for one is an aimless pursuit. Eating seems more like refuelling.

  7. Sipu – I’ll leave my final appraisal on your Ozzie-Posts for later – but you already know what I think about Melbourne – its weather, its terraced houses…. and its restaurants!

    I’m amazed that you didn’t find really hot coffee in Brisbane – my daughter has an asbestos throat – and can usually find a ‘hot’ coffee here – I should have got some recommendations for you!

    Like Janus, I think that many cities don’t bother too much about what their skylines look like – corruption might be too strong a word – but a total lack of care is probably the answer. Hurray for Charlie if he does manage to keep London in check. But, I wasn’t that impressed when I was there in July / August. Most early high-rise buildings (mainly churches) were visible. Except I found it a bit odd that I couldn’t see St Paul’s on the sky-line in a number of close-by locations.

    Christopher – I recently went on a cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam. Wherever we stopped we had meat and cheeses from the local area – they were absolutely delicious – and every Ozzie on board said so – and there were many on board!

    I have to agree that Australia has lifted its game re cheese over the past years. I don’t know how long it has been since you were here – but recently our two main super-markets have been waging a price-war, and are offering ‘home-brand’ substitutes (cheaper and lower quality) – or have simply taken items off the shelves. It’s becoming a bit of a nightmare trying to buy anything slightly unusual, tasty or interesting.

    … yes I could go ‘hunting’ – but it’s really too much hard work : a 24 km round trip to buy a jar of Bearnaise Sauce seems a bit OT.

    If you are in the Brisbane area next March – maybe we can, finally, catch up…

    Janus – cooking for one is always, as far as I’m concerned, only a refuelling exercise! Eye-fillet and a few mushrooms will suffice!

  8. Hi Boadicea, yes I remember your comments re Melbourne, and on the whole I agree with you.

    Re coffee, I am sure there are places that serve it hot in Brisbane, but I did not find one. By the time we met I had pretty much given up. Having said that, I am by no means a coffee addict. There are those who ‘have to have a cup of coffee now”. Generally I have a couple of mugs in the morning after a shower, (always shower before coffee). Thereafter throughout the day, I rarely drink it unless meeting someone.

    To be fair I have not visited London in 4 years and even then it was only briefly, so it is quite possible that my memory is incorrect, and the skyline is not what I imagine; especially if it has changed as much as Melbourne has in recent years. I learned very recently that it was not until the 1950s that buildings in London were permitted to be taller than Buckingham Palace. This apparently was a dictate from Queen Victoria. I do not know it it is true, but would seem plausible given the scarcity of skyscrapers prior to that time while the Americans were shoving them up all over the place. One might have thought that some enterprising fellow or fellowess would have taken a stab.

  9. Sipu: That might be true. The problem is that adults want all the benefits of being adults with none of the responsibility. Well, on their side — everyone else has to be responsible for their actions. I usually make my own coffee — the old filter coffee system. I rather enjoy that, although I sometimes miss the peculator coffee I drank in the woods or beach during camping trips in a past life. The UK has fairly strict heritage preservation laws and they’re more strictly enforced than in Australia. Until fairly recently, there wasn’t as much emphasis placed on preserving heritage buildings in Australia. The remaining bits of London that weren’t destroyed in the 1960s-’80s, or by Uncle Adolf in the 1940s, are far harder to tear down or change so what can be built is somewhat more restricted.

    Sheona: It’s not so much the UK or Nordics, it’s more the Continent. In recent years I’ve grown increasingly underwhelmed by it. It is getting more and more expensive and it’s becoming harder to enjoy. The same scams exist everywhere, the same chain stores are popping up everywhere, the same gypos play the same over-played song on the accordion everywhere and it’s getting harder and harder not to be overwhelmed by hordes of tourists. It wasn’t this way before. It is exceptionally difficult for me to drive as I was taught to drive an automatic and have never quite coped with manuals. The notion that I have to pay several times as much to hire an automatic galls. With the exception of the Nordics, the best part of seeing the Continent was seeing the English coast emerge below. Life in the UK has settled in perfectly well and it’s been a resounding success for me. I’ve not had much of that in the past few years, so I’ll take it!
    There is some lovely produce in Dorset and West Country cheeses are excellent. Cornish yarg and Ruby Mist, a port-soaked cheddar from Wales, have become some of my staples. I just miss marinated feta from Victoria, Tasmanian brie and blue cheese, New South Welsh and Western Australian olive oil, etc. Most galling for me is how little choice I have in the matter. European everything is emphasised even when better alternatives exist.

    Boadicea: Oh dear, that’s not at all promising. Price wars aren’t good for everything! I wasn’t terribly impressed by Australian supermarkets when I was there, but was happy with the choice of speciality shops and the quality of many of the ingredients. The closest I will get to Brisbane is New South Wales. I have only limited amounts of time I can spend outside of Dorset now and I didn’t want to overdo that visit Down Under.

  10. Slight modification to your title, using two lines. I’ll change it back if you don’t like it. 😎

  11. We had a great time and lots of fine food and wine during our stay in Melbourne a few years ago. It was also great fun riding on the City Circle Tram

  12. Have just returned from a long weekend at Victoria Falls. Ironically our host was an Australian who has done very well here over the past few decades. He wined and dined us all, and there were many of us, in great style and generosity. His brother and sister in law came out from Victoria. By a rather strange coincidence he not only knew my cousin but also a friend I worked with in the City back in 1981 as well as some Zim friends who moved to Adelaide.

    Bearsy, thank you for fixing the title.

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