Of all Australian cities Melbourne is considered to be more ‘European’than the others. Problem is – I’ve never been to Europe, so I never really knew what it meant. So as I set off for my first weekend in Melbourne I had no idea what to expect.
To capitalize on the unfamiliarness of the destination I decided to do the obvious ‘tourist’ thing and flagged a tram and was very excited to find out that it was a free service that covered all of Melbourne’s CBD. It even had the commentary on board that attempted to explain some of the intricacies of Melbourne’s modern art scene, such as a cow up a tree installation. As usual, my excitement about the tram was as genuine as it was short-lived. By the time we pulled in at Elizabeth Street I decided it was time to do some exploration on foot, and Flinders Street train station seemed like a perfect place to start.
The station itself is an impressive site. It is southern hemisphere busiest and Australia’s oldest train station. Its yellow facade and green domes are instantly recognizable as one of Melbourne’s icons. In the past, when people knew how to live in style, the upper floors housed a library, a gym and a lecture hall, some of which are now used as public bathrooms. One of the more useful modern innovations is the free Wi-Fi kindly provided by the city.
Across the road from the train station is the beginning of Melbourne’s famous network of alleyways. First up is a cobbled bluestone Degraves Street that runs from Flinders Street to Flinders Lane. It is lined on both sides by rows of cute shops and cosy cafes, and the atmosphere of it seems to transport you back to the 1900s. Horse-drawn carriages passing along St Kilda road also contributed to the sensation of being in a scene out of the last century.
Loosely connected to Degraves Street is the Centre Place. Tucked in between the busy Flinders and Collins streets it is a fusion of a European laneway and an oriental bazar with its buzzing coffee shops, bright graffiti-covered walls and Chinese buskers. It reminded me of both the Khao San road and the Paharganj bazar in India, but with more class and sophistication. Seduced by the sense of familiarity I picked the first café that had almond croissants on the menu and became a part of Melbourne postcard scene – with a book in a laneway café.
Next on the itinerary was the National Gallery of Victoria that was housing Prado’s visiting exhibition of Italian masterpieces and was one of the main reasons for my trip. As my friend and I walked into the first room of the exhibition Rafael’s Madonna of the Rose unassumingly greeted us. As someone who is not spoilt by regular exposure to original masterpieces I felt a sense of awe looking at the painting and all the while thinking that over 500 years ago Rafael would have been standing in front of it just like I was now, apprising his own handiwork. Somehow it seemed absolutely amazing that it was this very piece of canvas that the genius painter applied his brushes to, like it preserved a historic snapshot of Renaissance Italy purely by association.
Interestingly the rose wasn’t painted by Rafael; it wasn’t a part of the original painting at all. Evidently the entire lower part of the painting was added years later by an unknown French artist to cover a rip in the canvas.
Saturated with classical art we headed back to Degraves Street to have dinner and to explore some of the nearby laneways. Melbourne is well known for having alley ways that are dedicated entirely to street art. Melbourne’s reputation as street art capital of Australia was solidified when the elusive Banksy visited the city and contributed a number of his prized art works to the city scape. Being a Sydney-sider I didn’t know too much about Melbourne’s street art scene and was under the impression that Banksy’s art could still be found in the laneways. And so finding Banksy became our second mission for the weekend.
We started the exploration on Hosier and Rutledge Lanes and then moved to ACDC Lane. It appears that the stencil art of the laneways changes every few months as the artists run out of canvas space and paint over existing art. None of the images I saw on Google were actually present on the walls of the lane ways. ACDC lane was covered in posters commemorating AC/DC’s founder and guitarist Malcolm Young, who has recently announced that he is taking a break from making music due to a debilitating illness.
Eventually we realized that wondering the streets aimlessly wasn’t the most effective way of searching and so we turned for answers to the 21 Century’s most reliable source – Google, and learned that there was none of Banksy’s stencils left in Melbourne, not in the CBD at any rate. Once we were done with the laneways, we headed up to Eureka Skydeck to get a bird’s eye view of the surroundings. It turned out to be a highly overpriced exercise of riding an elevator to the 80th floor of a building to the viewing deck that didn’t seem to be too clear on its own purpose. The view was quite spectacular as promised, but there was so much light reflected in the windows that it was often hard to tell whether a particular feature was a part of the city scape or a reflection of a fluorescent sign inside the deck. There was an outdoors area that had wire mesh instead of the glass, but the mesh was so fine that you couldn’t slide a camera through for an unobstructed view either. A fun thing to do, but could be significantly improved on.
The following morning we came back to the CBD. The Southbank promenade looked quite different in the day light. There is some interesting public art along the banks of Yarra River. Flinders street station bridge, like so many other bridges around the world is a popular place for couples to attach padlocks representing their promises of devotion to each other.
Next we went to check out Hardware lane and the Haunted Bookshop on Klippax Street. The bookshop was closed until midday and Hardware lane turned out to be a café lane rather than a graffiti lane, but just walking the streets of Melbourne was a perfectly entertaining.