Friday 15 December 2017

Melbourne: Victoria reigns

Melbourne's trendy and bohemian mix is a delight for lovers of food, sports and culture. Eleanor Goggin strolls down the laneways with her backpacker son

Australian rules football grand final day at the MCG
Australian rules football grand final day at the MCG

Eleanor Goggin

Given the fact that my son, who has become beatified since he left these shores nearly two years ago, is living in Melbourne, I suppose I was always going to love the place. But I wasn't prepared for how much I was going to feel at home there.

It is to Australia what San Francisco is to America. A city of diversity and culture, it's trendy and bohemian, with a mixture of stunning new and old architecture, in which Victorian edifices abound.

Starting off as a tent encampment in the middle of the 19th Century, it grew very rapidly into a huge metropolis due to the rich gold fields and the subsequent influx of immigrants seeking their fortune, and is now the state capital of Victoria.

It really has it all: weather, charm, culture and an amazing sports precinct. Melbournians are laid-back and welcome all cultures, hence the resulting cosmopolitan air.

Saintly son was waiting for me at the airport with arms outstretched, and couldn't wait to show me the city that is currently his home. On many occasions my back- packer child insisted on treating his weary mother, so for inexpensive and atmospheric dining Lygon Street was the place to be. It's home to many Italian restaurants and we usually ate al fresco. The average price for a main course is AU$20, which translates roughly as €14, and the choices are vast.

On my last night, for a bit of diversity we wandered up to Little Bourke Street, to Kri Kri, a Greek restaurant where we had the banquet menu, a mezze of multiple dishes. A veritable feast. Brunswick Street with its bars was our nightly destination after dinner. When I was at university, I held the record for downing a pint in the fastest time. Now that I am older and more refined, it's not something I boast about on a regular basis, but much to my chagrin, while there I made the discovery that my son is actually faster than me. A chip off the old block.

I stayed at the Crown Promenade hotel in the trendy south bank area, with a great view of the city from my eighth-floor window. Every detail was taken care of, with a complimentary daily newspaper and the latest magazines provided in my room.

Crown's Entertainment complex, across the way, houses a host of lovely restaurants, shops and the casino. I ate at Number 8, which fronts onto the river and has an understated elegance and a vast and varied cuisine. I had slow-roasted pork belly with puy lentils, hazelnuts and glazed pink lady apples, followed by roasted Flinders Ranges kangaroo, with fennel puree and raincherry salsa. All divine.

On the one occasion that my son was working, I decided to take a night off the hedonism I had been enjoying and chill out in my room and order such delicacies as pan-seared garlic prawns and salt-and-pepper calamari.

To get a real feel for a city, I always think it's advisable to do some formal sightseeing, mixed with a bit of wandering on your own, so my first guided undertaking was the Hidden Secrets tour of the many laneways in the city. Melbourne is a labyrinth of laneways, most of them lined with trendy coffee shops and restaurants. Some of them have a graffiti licence and others are home to small designer shops where up-and-coming designers are given a three-month stint to get themselves off the ground.

The old GPO was almost gutted by fire in 2001 and subsequently became a beautiful shopping mall with a quirky little cafe called the Switchboard. Another impressive old arcade is the Block, a beautiful building with mosaic floors and a central dome, which houses the Hopetoun tearooms, there since the late 19th Century.

Federation Square is one of the newer and more modern ventures in the city. The architects strove to ensure it blends in with the impressive sandstone of St Paul's Cathedral across the way, but Melbournians are still not so sure about its modernity

When the city was being constructed there was a stipulation that 25 per cent should be "green-belted", so the city is dotted with parks such as The Royal Botanical Gardens, Flagstaff Gardens and Carlton Gardens, where my son and his buddies kick a ball after work.

Being a sports fan, I couldn't wait to visit the enormous sports precinct which is home to the Rod Laver Arena and the Australian Open. I even got to sit on the hallowed seat of the greats that is the after-match interview desk. I always fancied myself as a tennis player. I did the "Sports Lovers Tour" with Simon from Melbourne Sports Tours, where we visited the Rod Laver Arena; the MCG where our own Ronnie Delaney won gold in 1956 and is now home to Aussie rules and cricket; then out to Albert Park Lake where the Australian Formula One GP takes place every March. The trip would not have been complete without taking in Flemington, home to the famous Melbourne Cup, where you can hire a patch of land, bring in your own food and wine, watch the racing on a big screen, while placing your bets and never actually see a horse in the flesh. Just hang out there for the craic.

It's been a long time since I took my child to a zoo, so it seemed an opportune time for the ultimate bonding experience -- a trip down memory lane for the two of us. It's a lovely small zoo which you can visit both night and day, and even sleep there to find out what the animals get up to at night. Mali the baby elephant was a big topic of conversation. A fabulous sight, mother and baby.

This mother found it very hard to say goodbye to her baby and I sobbed all the way to the airport. But for more reasons than one Melbourne captured my heart and I will definitely try to get back, if only to beat him in the pint-drinking competition.

For more details on Melbourne visit and for hotel details see www.crownpromenade.

Sunday Independent

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