There is something off-putting about Melbourne’s airport. Whereas Sydney and Brisbane have trains connecting their airports to the city centre, Melbourne only has coaches. That’s fair enough, I suppose. One does get there eventually. It does, however, come off as being a bit naff. One expects that from Sacramento, from Cardiff or even from Dublin — not the second city and former capital of a major country.
Melbourne left me with distinctly mixed impressions. It has its share of grand buildings and arcades. But… There was an air of pretentiousness about it all. Melbourne takes itself so very seriously. It is oh-so-respectable, oh so right-on. I preferred East Melbourne where I had booked myself into a bed and breakfast in a Georgian/Victorian terrace. I felt strangely at ease there. There was an easy charm, an atmosphere of faded grandeur. The clean, but slightly tatty carpets, the polished but darkened wood panels, the stained glass. Ivy grew up along the the wrought iron. It felt almost as if I were floating in some sort of time warp.
An old mate, a proud Victorian, took me on a drive through the mountains near Melbourne stopping for pies and coffee on the way. He was most amused by my inability to grasp the Australian tomato sauce container. He’s a man of rare energy, a veteran of the Australian armed forces and a seasoned traveller. Our stories overlap in some ways, but he is decidedly the more adventurous. I can’t be bothered to share rooms with strangers in third world countries, for example. There might be something about those experiences that make them interest and unique, but my time as a teenager and a uni student sharing rooms with others has put me off that for life. Some of his mates’ stories from South East Asia were brilliant. Absolutely horrible, but brilliantly horrible!
He took me around Melbourne, to his favourite places. The coffee, I admit, was quite good. Having had to endure the dross that passes as coffee in Europe, I was happy to drink inordinate amounts of flat whites. The coffee in Victoria was, to be fair, better than the coffee in New South Wales and Queensland.
As I ate my first breakfast in Australia, a Dutchwoman walked in. She quickly started to slag Australia and Australians off. Upon learning that I live in the UK, she tried to curry favour with me against the Aussies whilst also banging on about Brexit. I made it very clear that her lack of graciousness towards Australia and its people was most unbecoming and that I am perfectly happy to leave a dying, retrograde Europe behind and face a much more interesting and dynamic world. It took her a moment to process that, but she then started to try to talk over me and browbeat me. A middle-aged woman from provincial Western Australia had had enough of her at that point and we teamed up together against her. The Australian backed me, I backed her. It was Britain and Australia against Europe. This was not the only time I was harangued by Europeans in Australia and it was not the last time that the Australians backed me.
I travelled by train to Bendigo. It was a pleasant journey, but one that made me think. Within 15-20 minutes, there was precious little save the occasional small settlement. Leaving London, it takes at least an hour for the congestion to start to ease and there is nowhere in southern England that truly feels “empty”. When travelling by BART from SFO to Bay Point, it’s only a question of relative congestions. California has its share of open spaces, but it takes well over an hour before one reaches empty patches. Bendigo is a pretty, well-preserved town. It’s largely 19th century, a product of its origins as a major gold fields settlement. The taxi driver who took me to my bed and breakfast was a good deal of fun. He took me quickly, avoiding the “scenic route” that so many European taxi drivers favour whilst giving me solid advice on what to see and do from the perspective of a local.
I liked Bendigo better than Melbourne. It was more down-to-earth and the coffee was just as good. It was grand, but modest. In a way, it made me think of a Folsom or Sonora — larger towns in California with their roots in that state’s gold rush. So much money poured through a relatively small area in such a short amount of time that an unusual grandeur quickly emerged. Even the local used bookshop was in an unusually grand edifice. I was pleased to no end by being able to eat Australian cheese again at last. British cheeses are excellent, but Australia has its own interpretations of classic cheeses and they’re more than credible.
The bed and breakfast in Bendigo was stunningly clean and well-presented. It was in a converted 1920s bungalow. There wasn’t much service, but they left all I needed and it was a quiet, enjoyable experience. I took a coach to Ballarat. Ballarat left me with distinctly mixed feelings. It was interesting and certainly more historically important than Bendigo, but it lacked some of the polished charm. Bendigo had nicer parks and its Chinese museum was excellent. Ballarat has an art gallery and some stunning architecture, but it felt like something I had seen many times before. I stayed at a federation cottage in Ballarat. It was well-stocked, but it felt somehow unpleasant and uncomfortable.
The owners never met me once. I was given a code with which to open a locked box and to take the keys out. I found a note telling me to leave payment in a drawer. It was decidedly impersonal. Everywhere there were notes telling me what I was and was not to do. Most of it was common sense, but some if it was grating. For example, do not use the internet for me than checking emails or searching for things. So, no Netflix? No Youtube videos? On top of that, they asked for extra donations for having used the internet and for eating some of the food that was part of the room rate. Bloody really? I was happy to get out of there. I can, however, say that I found a brilliant Thai restaurant which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I went back to Melbourne early. I was able to check my suitcase in for the night train to Sydney and leave my computer bag in my mate’s BMW motorcycle. We travelled once more through Melbourne, going to Southbank and the War Memorial. It wasn’t my first time to Southbank, I had rather a steamy date with a Japanese there some days earlier. The War Memorial was, however, excellent. The views over the coast were worth it and the history of Australia’s involvement in wars from the South African Wars to peace-keeping missions was interesting. Australia does war memorials and museums very well.
I let Melbourne on the overnight train for Sydney. I had a proper moan about Melbourne, but I know I will be back in 2021. It was a long, but very pleasant, journey. The woman sitting next to me was a well-travelled Australian and a good conversation partner. I was, once again, reminded at just how welcome someone who has, for all intents and purpose become British, is welcomed in Australia.