The magic of Melbourne

The magic of Melbourne
There were three kids across the back seat and a fourth with the luggage as we travelled with the windows open to clear my father’s pipe smoke. Even though we lived in Gundagai on the Hume Highway, less than three hours north of the border, visiting Melbourne was like going to a foreign country because it was full of Victorians and everyone knew they were the worst drivers in Australia and played a strange sport where forward passes were legal and encouraged. We did the normal touristy things. We rode on a tram and visited Cook’s cottage and the Old Melbourne Gaol. We ate sandwiches in Fitzroy Gardens and saw the legendary MCG. The second time I went to Melbourne, I was in my early 20s and working as a Sydney-based journalist. I was sent to run an interstate bureau so I packed up my Leyland Mini Van and drove down the Hume Highway, dodging potholes and semi-trailers. I was a little nervous. I knew nobody. I was also terrified of sharing the road with trams and negotiating those weird right-hand turn intersections that seem to defy logic. I spent almost two years living in South Yarra, working in the old Herald Sun building on Flinders St. When I recall those years, I have certain snapshot memories. I remember seeing Malcolm Fraser shed a tear as he conceded defeat to Bob Hawke in the 1983 federal election; and watching Gurner’s Lane win the Melbourne Cup; and soaking up the atmosphere of two AFL grand finals. I also witnessed the entire city descending into darkness under a cloud of ash during the Ash Wednesday bushfires. I fell in love with Melbourne. Yes, I complained about the weather and defended Sydney in any argument over which was the premier city, but privately I conceded that Melbourne had more class and better restaurants. It also had seasons, which is something I still miss. The leaves change and fall in the autumn and daffodils appear in the spring. Winter feels like winter and summer feels like a furnace. Nowadays, I go back every year, often for the writers festival or book events, and each time my love affair is rekindled. Certain things have changed, but Melbourne still has an elegance and urbanity that seems to have soaked into the sandstone, granite and slate. The streets are better planned, the public transport is more efficient (I live in Sydney remember) and the restaurants are still wonderful. Creatively and artistically there is so much more for a visitor to see and do. I took my tennis-mad oldest daughter to the Australian Open one year and was stunned by the venues and atmosphere. She got within touching distance of her idols and got autographs from some past and present greats. I doubt if a major tournament anywhere in the world offered such intimate access. Melbourne makes the best coffee on the planet. I’ve heard it said that this has something to do with the postwar Italian migrants who came to the city, but I think they pump it directly from the Yarra, which is permanently thick and brown. My favourite coffee shop is Babka in Fitzroy, but I’m also partial to a cup of Earl Grey at the Lupicia Tea Shop in Artemis Lane near the QV Village that was created from the old Queen Victoria Hospital. And, if you’re in the neighbourhood, you should drop into the Wheeler Centre and the State Library to see what activities are programmed. There are restaurants for every taste but I like discovering little gems, where all the attention goes into the food rather than the up-market decor. One such place is the North East China Family Restaurant in 302 Flinders Lane, where the yum cha is truly amazing. Cumulus Inc is my favourite up-market eatery, although I seem to find somewhere new each time I go back. The only problem with discovering the latest restaurant du jour is getting a booking. While I’m loath to mention the word shopping because my wife and daughters are so fond of retail therapy, Melbourne shops are like offering crack to a credit-card junkie. I’m not talking about the big department stores, but the boutiques and galleries in small side streets and alleys. Many hours have I trudged along Bridge Rd in Richmond, weighed down by polished paper shopping bags, following my wife on her eternal quest for the perfect pair of boots. If they exist anywhere in the world outside Paris or Milan, it is most likely in Melbourne. Mercifully, Bridge Rd has enough cafes and bars to keep a packhorse watered. Brunswick St is another favourite, as well as the laneways of the CBD and St Kilda for curios, vintage clothes and people watching. If you’re in town in the winter, bring your woollies and buy a ticket to an AFL game. Even if you’re not interested in sport at all, you can’t help but admire the speed and skill of the players and the passion of the fans. Often international authors at the Melbourne Writers Festival are taken to see a game. Complete bewilderment turns to infatuation and I’ve seen the likes of Harlan Coben and Michael Connelly go home with suitcases full of scarves and beanies. The same can be said for the Spring Racing Carnival. Even if you avoid Melbourne Cup Day, there are plenty of other opportunities to get dressed up, have a flutter and admire the fillies both on and off the track. My main advice is to plan ahead. Get a timetable of the festivals and book early. The International Comedy Festival in March is always great fun, along with the Melbourne Writers Festival in late August. There is literally something every weekend featuring from cultural days, wine tastings, food fairs and open-air cinema. Live it up. Forget the weather. And say hello to a few Victorians. They’re not bad when you get to know them.—–Meet the authorMichael Robotham’s latest thriller, Say You’re Sorry, is published by Hachette and is out now. His book is one of the 50 Books You Can’t Put Down as part of this year’s Get Reading! program. You can meet him on Wednesday, September 12 at 6.30pm at C.EX Coffs, Vernon St, Coffs Harbour. Bookings 6658 8010. More: See

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