I’d never really rated city tours, but then I’d never really rated cities, and yet the times that I’ve merged these two personal indifferences, things have changed and I’ve changed my mind.
Would it work for Melbourne?
Back during my travels to Peru in 2011, I had bussed into Cusco full of apprehension, excited to immerse myself in the oft reported beauty of this Incan-colonial UNESCO World Heritage city, but Cusco just confused me. With a scruffy exterior that seemed no different to other South American cities, dingy hostels and streets of competing touts and tour agencies, it took Yonathan from Free Walking Tour Peru to show me the snippets of the other Cusco before I started to even like the place. I ended up staying for nearly two weeks.
Then, when I first arrived in Australia and had only one day in Sydney, Max from one of Sydney’s free walking tours gave me my city bearings, a condensed (yet relatively comprehensive) history lesson of the city and an introduction to an end-of-day-glass-of-wine buddy from Sweden. Sydney suddenly seemed to make sense and I was comfortable and ready for the city
So Melbourne. Should I do a tour? Wander around by myself? How would I get to see snippets of Melbourne that would show me why the city is so popular?
‘It’s really European’, said a friend, ‘there are all these cafés, and the music scene is great. The creative scene is great’. Push. Pull. Why would I chase Europe when I was in Australia? I love Europe in Europe. I want to see Aussie in Australia. But a vibrant creative scene? Music? Art? Yes, please.
I was staying at the Pullman on the edge of Albert Park, a twenty-minute tram ride from the city centre up the wide, tree-lined grandeur of St Kilda Road. Crammed in amongst tourists and sharp suited and booted business types, I watched how people scanned in and out with myki cards, I listened to an English couple tell their young boy that his grandparents would soon be visiting. And then I was there: Federation Square.
I skirted a group watching a contortionist climb into a small glass box and made my way downstairs into The Melbourne Visitor Centre, an underground hive that swarmed with adults and teenagers and children, with Spanish and German and English, with leaflets on the Comedy Festival, on city eats, on tourist buses. It was almost too much. I took a ticket and waited to talk to an actual person and shut out the hum of confusion, indecision and excitement that was going on around me.
Twenty minutes later I was on board the free Melbourne Visitor Shuttle. Relative calm returned.
But there is only so much sitting and looking through a smeared window that a girl can do, so it wasn’t long – maybe two or three stops – before I stepped off the bus and walked through the Carlton Gardens towards Fitzroy. A couple posed for wedding photos in amongst the elm and English oak trees. Virgin whites against lush leafiness. It definitely was a visual contrast to the dry, barren browns of Far North Queensland scrub, or the eucalypts and pandanus of tropical northern New South Wales.
In Fitzroy itself, I ambled along terraced residential roads and down boutique-lined streets, feasting my eyes on textiles and crafts and arts carefully arranged in window displays and drinking in the smell of freshly ground coffee rising from the cups of cool cats sitting outside indie cafés.
And then I seemed to go wrong because somewhere along Smith Street it all stopped being cute and cool, and signs and shops started to sprawl into a bit more of a chaos (or maybe it was just normality, but I wasn’t chasing normal-anywhere life in Melbourne).
I headed back towards Gertrude Street. Despite feeling a little intimidated by the trend on display, I took a seat inside Sonido, only to realise that – even in Australia – I had again been drawn back to South America. I ordered a black bean and feta arepa, and it was beautifully simple. And filling.
After handing over the solo experience baton to another female traveller I got back on and off the tourist bus a couple more times. I looped through the areas surrounding Lygon Street, up past shoe stores and pizza and gelati parlours, and then on through the grounds of the University of Melbourne .
In an effort to keep the day cheap I didn’t get out at the Queen Victoria Markets nor the harbour area but instead watched women, men and children clamber back on board laden down with bags and bags and bags of new purchases. Sculptures down the Harbour Esplanade distracted me from any further thoughts of retail therapy, particularly the upside down Cow up a tree sculpture said to draw attention to the issue of flooding and droughts in Australia.
Ending my Melbourne day tour down in the Arts Precinct was possibly a bad idea. I wandered around the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) and I stood and stared, tried to make sense, to understand obscure splodges and installations, but clearly my creative evolution has some way to go as I remained baffled about what constitutes art in a modern world.
It seemed, although at times beautiful, to be a party of concept driven madness, and I wasn’t cool enough to get an invite to that party. Nope.
And so I got back on a tram with a fair idea of where I’d head the next day for a follow up snoop around. I fumbled with my myki card, held it up against the scanner. This time it beeped, and I saw a load of credit disappear in a flash. As we trundled back down St Kilda Road, past the Royal Botanic Gardens and La Trobe’s cottage, I felt that end-of-city-day weariness and then, there it was, a teeny bit of homesickness, of longing for my family and friends.
Had Melbourne – with its café culture and the leafy façade, with its spacious layout and cultural buzz, with its European association – gotten under my skin and reminded me of a world I once loved? Or, was it showing me that I could maybe love a city, after all?
I stepped back off the tram into late afternoon sunshine and wrapped myself up in a scarf to fend off the fresh autumn breeze. Back at the hotel I took the lift up to the eighth floor, flung myself and my aching feet onto the bed and into the simple luxury of a nondescript hotel room. This, I thought, could be pretty much anywhere. It’s nice, sure, but nothing special. That, out there, however, is Melbourne. And Melbourne is, well Melbourne. Not England or a Euro blend, but Melbourne, familiar yet unique.