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

The Great Ocean Roadtrip

Decided to take a bus daytour down to the Great Ocean Road today. Considered hiring a car and driving down there myself, but it would have made for a lonely trip and besides, it’s hard to enjoy the scenery properly when you’re driving. One can find oneself rather closer to the scenery and rather further from the road than is comfortable when one gets too distracted.

So it was that I found myself on a coach with 40 other daytrippers, mostly Poms (surprise), a bit disgruntled at having to fill two days with non-cricketing activities rather than the expected one. However, spirits were lifted considerably (well, mine were, at any rate) by the announcement that the first stop would be for morning tea, which sounded like a very civilised thing to do first up. And it was, albeit from a billy can, Aussie style.

My principal companion on the trip was a chap called Phil, who had the misfortune of sitting next to me for the whole day. Phil, like most of us had only been here for the cricket, but had to diversify somewhat after the Poms’ capitulation within three days. He had come out to Oz via an official tour package, which is the low-hassle, high-cost way of doing these things – his outlay was well over twice mine. But then he doesn’t have some very accommodating relatives in Sydney to impose upon, and I daresay his hotel in Melbourne is a little more plush than mine. Over lunch and a reassuringly expensive beer, we ruminated on England’s woes, and concurred that Flintoff should not have been captain, and Giles being picked ahead of Monty was a terribly negative move, as were Freddie’s tactics when Australia were in trouble at 84/5 on the second day in Melbourne. Which was basically a facsimile of every cricket conversation I’ve had recently, with Aussies and Poms alike. The Aussies are pretty disgusted with England’s showing in the series. The papers here (and back home, I believe) have had a go at KP today, labelling him ‘selfish’ and ‘not a team player’. Allegations which are quite possibly accurate, and I confess that I haven’t read the articles in question, but Pietersen has generally played well in the series and I suspect the press have simply latched on to the easy target his sizeable ego presents.

But back to the bus trip. In between lunch and tea (the afternoon session, in other words) we visited the 12 Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge – spectacular limestone rock formations spearing up from the South Pacific just off the cliffs. I opted in on a helicopter ride over the cliffs (in for a penny, in for a pound) and it was brilliant – photos will be in the usual place before long. After the tea break we stopped briefly at London Bridge – not the actual London Bridge – another rock formation framed by golden sandy beaches – before conceding defeat to the omnipresent flies and heading back to Melbourne.

Melbourne is a vibrant city, with bags of bars and restaurants and quite a buzz in the evenings. I walked down Chapel Street yesterday on my way to St Kilda, and passed every conceivable type of shop in one street – clothes, art, groceries, cafés, restaurants, bars, furniture and many, many more. A real mixing pot. And the restaurants came in every flavour too.

St Kilda had a laid back feel to it, with multiple cafés and bars sitting alongside quirky bookshops. I stopped for ‘lunch’ at a juice bar run by a Scot from Argyll, before heading down to the beach, which appeared to be (and probably was) populated entirely by Poms. On the grassy area just back from the beach I counted seven separate games of beach cricket going on, with a couple more on the beach itself. I sat down for a bit at square leg, but none of the batsmen appeared too adept at flicking off their pads, and so I got bored and wandered on. Found a bar with free wireless, which was a bonus, so I sat there and typed for a bit before catching a tram home.

So, tomorrow it’s goodbye to Melbourne, and later, goodbye to 2006. Have a great New Year’s Eve if I’m not in touch before then!

PS Techie note: my apologies for all the missing/incorrect links in profiles etc. Those of you with the inclination to point these out, please feel free to do so by sending me an email, rather than making comments for my public humiliation… then again perhaps I deserve it ;-0

PPS Thanks to all the commenters, yes, even DC

Melbourne, Day 4

Got up after 9 today, and it felt good. Yet ANOTHER cloudy day in Melbourne, although it cleared yesterday in the afternoon and was quite warm. I have the receding-hairline pommy sunburn to prove it.

Am currently in a café, with a frustratingly wonky internet connection, digesting an enormous breakfast, and considering my next move. Have booked the Great Ocean Road trip for tomorrow, so will probably just head down to St Kilda today and hang out.

My experiences of Australia so far have all been good. Melbourne seems like a curious hodge-podge of different buildings and architecture, but at least the cities I’ve been in so far look a bit different… the usual suspects – McDonalds, Starbucks et al are all here, of course, but not as prominent as they seem (to me) to be in UK cities, which all seem to look the same these days. All the Aussies I’ve spoken to, while pleased to have regained the Ashes, have been disappointed in England’s lack of fight this series. Sat next to a guy from Melbourne yesterday at the MCG who applauded England’s attacking shots (almost) as much as the Aussies taking wickets. They like a good contest here, and unfortunately England have fallen woefully short of providing it. Naturally the Barmy Army have been in good voice regardless, which may be confusing/amusing Diana’s gran, but shows a loyalty to their team the Aussies (and many other nations) would be hard-pressed to match. Although there were Pommies dotted all around the ground, the official Barmy Army were diagonally opposite me in the ground, which significantly reduced the irritation of hearing “Everywhere we goooo…” so often. In fact, I found the BA considerably less annoying here than they were at the Old Trafford Test this year. The trumpeter was allowed in and tootled away from time to time, treating us to everything from ‘The Great Escape’ to the theme from Jim’ll fixit, with the Grandstand theme somewhere along the way.

There were England flags everywhere in the MCG, and what’s more I spotted an Ulster flag (amen to that) and even a Republic of Ireland tricolour… was less pleased about the latter, obviously, but was intriguing to see, especially if they were supporting England. It’s hard to imagine anyone (other than, perhaps, a Scot) travelling all that distance to cheer on whoever’s-playing-England.

So a couple more days in Melbourne, and then back to Sydney for New Year’s Eve (weather forecast: rain). Was planning on heading back to Denistone to stay with the Coys, but with news just breaking that Diana is dangerously near by I might have to take evasive action…

Melbourne, Day 3

One of my friends at Holy Cross CC, during the (northern) summer, expressed some surprise that I was planning to go to all five days of the Tests in Melbourne and Sydney. He remarked that he himself had only managed 3 consecutive days at a Test match. This concerned me somewhat as Jon is a big cricket fan, and I wondered if I would last the pace, having only ever been to 2 days myself. I needn’t have worried however, as England haven’t lasted 3 days, falling to defeat late this afternoon. I skipped the moment of triumph for the Aussies, leaving the ground a couple of overs after Monty’s wicket fell, as I had a convenient dinner date with yet another cousin and her family. We ate in Chinatown, in a restaurant which didn’t seem to know if it was Malaysian, Chinese or Thai, but it mattered little as the food was great.

The cricket has also been great – watching cricket at the MCG is an awesome experience. I should confess that I found myself quite dismayed at the end of Day 1, after England had opted to bat on a day and pitch made for bowling, and getting out cheaply for 159. The problem with only being here for the cricket is that when the cricket lets you down it can be a bit disheartening. Add in that I find travelling on holiday alone a bit depressing at the best of times, and a day of weather which wouldn’t have been out of place in Manchester in April, and it doesn’t really add up to a good time. However, my cricketing spirits were lifted by Flintoff’s two wickets in two balls on Tuesday evening, and 3 more cheap wickets on Wednesday morning (including Ponting and Hussey), before the England skipper inexplicably decided to release the pressure on Symonds and Hayden by giving them easy singles, which built their confidence and ultimately their huge match-winning partnership.

Somewhere in all this I realised that the best way forward was to give up on England success and simply enjoy watching the cricket, which I did. It has to be said that this is an outstanding Australian team, and there is no question that even now, with the series already in the bag, their hunger to win is much greater than England’s. It can be seen in everything from their running between the wickets to their attacking in the field.

Enough on cricket for the time being. My solo-travelling spirits have also improved, and I now have 2.5 days to enjoy in Melbourne, with the weather getting gradually better. My thoughts at this point are to explore the city a bit, and possibly take a trip down to the Great Ocean Road. We’ll see what transpires. Suggestions involving the words “Neighbours” and “official tour” will not be well received. I will endeavour to update the blog more frequently, but have been stymied so far by a lack of internet connections and a lack of time.

Time should not be a problem for the next little while, and once I get back to Sydney I will have regular internet access again. But will certainly try to post before then.

Ciao for now.