I was off to Victoria for a second look at Australia's "most cultural" city, Melbourne. This time though, I was going with an Aussie who knew the city well and loved it immensely: Paddy.
Upon hearing that Melbourne was going to be around 16 degrees Celsius during the day and near three at night (keep in mind zero is freezing), Paddy and I packed two duffel bags and my monstrous suitcase full of jackets, Uggs, trackies, thermals and scarves in hopes we'd be able to cover every inch of our skin in at least three layers.
Thursday, 2 July
The early morning flight was pretty uneventful until we boarded. As we were settling into our seats, I noticed a group of well-built guys wearing identical polo shirts walking down the aisle. Frat boys? Nope - they were rugby league players from the Balmain Tigers. And no one was even looking up as they made their way to the back of the plane. Astonished, I fired questions at Paddy: Why didn't they have their own airplane, or at least seats in first class? Why didn't anyone on board make a fuss about their presence? Were they really the same athletes I'd seen running across the TV screen? All I got was an eye rolling and a smiley "You're so American" response from Paddy before he fell asleep for the duration of the hour and a half long flight. Had those been 49ers boarding the plane in San Francisco, I believe the reaction would have been quite different.
After landing and collecting our luggage, we caught a Skybus to the waterside Docklands to catch a train to our hostel, and I was immediately stoked to discover that, FINALLY, I'd found a ticket system just like San Francisco's (where your ticket is good for two or so hours with unlimited train rides, rather than Sydney's inconvenient system of buying a ticket every time you board.) Our place, the the Greenhouse Backpackers on Flinders Lane, was one of the nicest backpackers I'd ever seen: situated just off busy Swanston Street, the hostel was above a travel office and had four levels, an elevator, free towels, and great music playing at all hours in the common areas. Oh, and free toast in the morning and pancakes on Sundays. Can't get much better! It's won backpacker awards for being awesome, and I know a student who lived there for a month.
First stop was breakfast. Since Paddy had put us on a $40 a day budget, we headed down one of Melbourne's famous laneways (which are literally the alleyways between buildings - they're chock full of cafes! A very cool sight to behold, and so convenient since there were a couple laneways right next to our hostel.) He had to drag me away from a delicious looking eggs florentine at one place, but we settled on yummy chicken wraps and coffee from another place.
Next up was the Sofitel Hotel on Collins Street, where their 35th level restaurant, Cafe La, offers spectacular (and free!) views of the city through its floor-to-ceiling windows. My guidebook, the 2007 Let's Go Australia, has been my travel bible for supplying advice such as this.
After grabbing mochas to warm our hands against the cold and rain (Paddy hated coffee until he met me, haha), we wandered past the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and Ron Laver Arena (Australian Open tennis) and then stumbled upon the coolest graffiti art I'd ever seen. The street, Hosier Lane, was absolutely covered in block writing and pictures - even the trash bins. The street wrapped its way around a square building, and upon closer inspection, we found a small art gallery at the top of the stairs. This is a prime example of the beauty of Melbourne: by simply walking around with no map or sense of direction (on my part), you can find incredible hidden gems. This was further proven by our next find: a great lounge called the Purple Emerald, where we stopped for glasses of wine and a rest on one of the comfy couches.
We returned back to the hostel to shower and change for...Wicked! For our three month anniversary, after my incessant hints at how much I wanted to see the pre-Wizard of Oz musical, Paddy had sweetly bought us tickets (the funniest part though, was that he didn't realize it was a musical until we got there. Hehe.) It was absolutely fantastic, and I was particularly taken by Elphaba (the green wicked witch of the west). She was the misunderstood but actually kindhearted character with an incredible voice, and she made Glinda the Good Witch just seem dim and fake. What a different take! I'm curious to watch the Wizard of Oz again.
We left the Regent Theatre starving, but since everything we walked past was already closed, we ended up walking clear across the city to Carlton, aka "Little Italy", for a takeaway pizza.
Friday, 3 July
We started the morning early at the Victoria Markets - a maze of stalls selling everything from clothing and shoes to fresh produce, incense, wine and...pigeons. We picked up some cheese, crackers and a bottle of Sav Blanc to have for lunch, then made our way up the street to check out the University of Melbourne. The buildings were quite cool - the economics department was housed in an art deco-style, while the law building was all stone and heavy wooden doors. Walking back across the city to the water, we found a bench at the Docklands and settled down to enjoy our lunch and good conversation overlooking the Yarra River. We ducked into a nearby cafe (with a fireplace! Such a rarity in this country) for hot chocolate once it started raining, then headed back to the hostel for a quick nap before dinner.
My family and I had stumbled upon this British pub, the Elephant & Wheelbarrow on Exhibition Street, back in December, so we decided to head there for their fantastic shepherd's pie and pints of Old Speckled Hen. After dinner, we met up with our friend Albert, who was taking a year hiatus from UTS to complete a yearlong architecture apprenticeship (similar to an internship) in Melbourne. We met him at a bar called Ondegrounds just around the corner from our hostel, then proceeded to pub crawl our way around the city. Every bar was different: the Lounge was like a trendy version of our Lansdowne Hotel pub, and Albert's favorite, a tiny place tucked behind a couple laneways, looked like we'd stumbled into someone's living room. It was very San Francisco-esque with its vintage wallpaper and laid back atmosphere, and when I asked for a cocktail list, I thought the grungy bartender was going to throw me out, so I quickly changed my request to a Melbourne Bitter, one of the four bottled beers (nothing on tap) they served.
Halfway through the night, we stopped into a Japanese restaurant for a quick bite, and I knocked the boys' socks off by introducing them to sake bombing (something we do constantly in SF). Essentially, you fill a glass 1/3 full of beer (choose a Japanese one - Asahi is good), balance a shot of warm sake on two chopsticks over the top of the glass, say the chant (Sake bomb! Ichi bomb! 1, 2, 3!), then hit the table with your fists so that the chopsticks fly off and your shot falls in, then chug. Repeat as necessary.
Saturday, 4 July
Happy Independence Day, America! I figured no one would recognize this holiday in UK-controlled Australia, but I was mistaken: just near Federation Square, a line of American flags flew along the street (Paddy had a hilarious hissy fit over it.) A store near our hostel was also having a sale on all American products.
Paddy's friend Greg and Greg's siblings Jeff and Mel arrived in the a.m. for a weekend of AFL (Australian Football League - it's more like rugby than our NFL) and shopping, but first on the list was food. Paddy and Greg had been in town for the AFL season kickoff in late March and had been talking about Grill'd, this burger place in bohemian St. Kilda ever since, so we boarded a tram and made our way towards the water. A round of Tuscan burgers and herbed chips (fries) later, we walked down the main strip to find dessert at one of the many desirable cake shops that line Acland street, then walked along the Esplanade to grab a tram back to the city.
The boys headed off to catch an afternoon footy game, so Mel and I hopped on a tram to go shopping on Bridge Street. It was a mix of Australian boutiques and vintage stores, cheap spots and a Body Shop outlet, and we happily spent a couple hours browsing the sale racks.
We all reunited at night to hit a pub called Waterside for a few jugs (pitchers) of beer before making our way to the footy stadium to watch the Western Bulldogs vs. Hawthorne Hawks (who I saw vs. the Sydney Swans with Paddy a couple months ago. By now, I have a decent understanding of the game.) Our seats were up in the nosebleed section, but it was fun to watch the game in the midst of thousands of Aussie Rules footy fans. Victoria is the footy state, and Melbourne is the sport's epicenter. (NSW and Queensland are more rugby league-oriented and there are three State of Origin games held between the two states three times during the season.)
Sunday, 5 July
Paddy and I awoke early, so we hit a bakery in a nearby laneway for muffins and coffee before returning to the hostel for a lazy morning of pancakes and emails. Once Greg and his crew were awake, we prepped for the big game that afternoon: the Geelong Cats vs. St. Kilda Saints. Both teams were undefeated, and being that today was the 14th game of the season, this was a first in AFL history. Greg's family are all diehard Saints fans, so this was a BFD.
We settled into jugs of beer to get pumped for the game, then made our way back to the stadium. Somehow, for $35, Mel had scored us SIXTH ROW SEATS, so we were right in the action. The crowd was largely made up of Saints fans and the Saints team dominated most of the game, but everyone was biting their nails in the final minutes when the score was tied. In the end, the Saints made victorious history with a 91-85 win, making Melbourne's bars overcrowded with happy fans for the rest of the night.
The next day was a big one - we were off to pick up our camper van just outside the city and begin our Great Ocean Roadtrip! Of course, things don't always (as in they rarely) go as planned...