New Year’s Eve, Melbourne

One of the first quandaries facing the solo traveller in a new city is: where to eat? Now, I had a guidebook to Melbourne, or at least a section of the Official Cricket Australia guide to the 2006-7 Ashes, which recommended a few places. But I tend to find that the places recommended in these books are (1) quite often on the other side of the city from where my hotel is, and at this early stage I don’t have too much faith in my knowledge of the local public transport system; and (2) frequently full of similarly discombobulated travellers, which may or may not be a bad thing. Also, I can’t shake the cynical suspicion that places in these books have paid to have their establishments named and reviewed thus. Again, this doesn’t in itself make them bad places in which to eat, but all in all I tend to be of the wander-around-the-centre-of-town-until-you-find-somewhere school of thought. This, somewhat ironically, means I inevitably end up in some touristy street paying over the odds for ordinary food. Such was my experience when in Barcelona with my trusty football companion Slid. Strolling down La Ramblas on our first evening, we made the mistake of stopping for a Coke at one of the street cafés with seating right down the middle of the street. And we paid a heavy price, what amounted to about £5 per Coke, as I remember.

In Melbourne on my first evening, I wandered down Swanston St, which appeared to be a bit of a hub of activity in the centre of town. Ducking into a side street, I found what looked like a great little place to eat, and it probably was, as it was jam-packed. Moving on, I found little to appeal food-wise, eventually venturing into a little place called Claypot King. I think it may have been the Chinese equivalent of Burger King, but it was decent, reasonably-priced, and I was the only Caucasian diner there the whole time I was there.

Searching for somewhere serving ‘typical local food’ is even more of a cross-cultural experience than it might be these days. In Berlin earlier this year, I was surprised to discover that an authentic local delicacy was … the kebab … courtesy of huge numbers of Turkish immigrants to the city. In Melbourne, typical local food seemed to be either Mediterranean or Chinese/Thai/Korean. For lunch today I stumbled on a great restaurant called CA de vin, on Bourke St (I think). It was neither indoor nor outdoor – the seats and tables were pitched in the alleyway between two buildings, with what looked like fabric roofing slung across overhead. The menu was Mediterranean, which is to say I could understand about 40% of the description of each dish. A bottle of extra virgin olive oil from the family olive grove in Greece was on each table. The whole eating experience was really top-notch, right down to the waitresses, whose uniform appeared to be black clothes and body-piercing. And DC would approve of their ability to deliver coffee after the dessert. Doubtless he would approve of their aesthetic qualities as well, being a man of much appreciation in such matters.

The unique location of the restaurant spurred me to wild entrepreneurial thoughts of how something similar might work in Edinburgh – imagine such an eatery in one of the closes off the Royal Mile – although reality kicked in when I remembered our beloved City of Edinburgh Council and their apparent mission to make the city as un-visitor-friendly as possible. They’d never allow it. Perhaps more pertinently, while Melbourne has a reputation for bad weather from time to time, outdoor heaters would surely make the place a viable proposition even in winter, whereas in Edinburgh…

The standing joke about Melbourne’s weather is that it can have four seasons in one day, and my own experience bears this out, although on Boxing Day we seemed to miss out summer altogether. Every morning bar yesterday I woke up to clouds, and it was even raining this morning. The forecast for Sydney, mind, is not much better for the next few days, which might be England’s best chance of not losing the Fifth Test.

British place names were evoked in streets and suburbs all over Melbourne. I emerged from an underground station to see a street called Ulster Lane, and also spotted Linlithgow something-or-other. There is even a suburb called Armadale, which I didn’t visit, on the off chance that the similarity extended to more than just the name… whoops, apologies to any readers from Armadale West Lothian.

Melburnians and Sydneysiders, much like Weegies and Edinburghers, are in constant conflict over whose city is better. I have not seen enough of Sydney just yet to make a fair comparison, but what I can say is that in six days in Melbourne I didn’t see a SINGLE spider. Or cockroach. Probably too cold for them…

PS I would like to formally apologise for posting this originally in its unedited state. I have now rectified matters, and included the paternal editorial amendment suggested by my anonymous mother