MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – If the first governor of Australia’s second-biggest city hadn’t been such a suck-up, we could be in Batmania today.
Too bad. John Batman selected the site in 1835, and the village was named Batmania until the governor renamed it for the British prime minister. Reportedly, Lord Melbourne wasn’t thrilled that his name had been attached to some podunk town in a far-off colony.
Sixteen years later, the gold rush came to Victoria, and soon Melbourne wasn’t a podunk town anymore.
That’s just one of the stories told by our Melbourne By Foot guide Erica, who led our group of seven on a walking tour.
We started in Federation Square, the city’s first gathering space, which we were surprised to hear was finished only in 2002. It drew its largest crowd in 2006, when 20,000 people turned up at 3 a.m. in winter to watch Australia play Italy in the World Cup.
From there, we crossed the river, where Erica told us about the two English hustlers who tried to dispossess the indigenous people of their land, and how the government eventually did it instead. She pointed out the nearby rugby and cricket stadium and the tennis arena where the Australian Open is held. “Melburnians love their sports,” she said.
Crossing back, we walked through the old garment and fashion district, where old buildings have been renovated into apartments. Only 50 people, mostly artists, lived downtown in 1990, said Erica’s fellow guide Chris, and today it’s close to 100,000.
Because foreigners are allowed to invest (that is, speculate) only in new developments, you can still get a two-bedroom apartment for “only” $500,000 in a renovated building, he said. Considering that Melbourne is considered one of the most livable cities in the world – on one index, the most livable city — that might be a good deal.
The street-art portion of the walk started when we turned into Hosier Lane, splashed top to bottom with spray-painted art and filled with photo-snapping tourists. We turned onto AC/DC Lane, which has the only Melbourne street sign that includes a thunderbolt; it’s the home of metal club Cherry Bar and purple portraits of Prince and AC/DC’s Angus Young.
On Rutledge Lane, even the trash bins were painted: “If you stand still in here, you may well be painted, too,” Erica said. We did have to watch our feet in the next alley, where two street artists were busy spraying.
At Supernormal restaurant, the guides treated us to refreshments. Beth got a flat white (latte), and Torsten ordered an orange juice that, to his surprise, was freshly squeezed.
The tour went upscale when we stepped into the 1891 Block Arcade, which has a vaulted glass canopy, a floor of Italian mosaic and rows of little shops, most notably the Hopetoun Tea Room. Its window, full of ornately decorated tortes, is the most photographed in the city, Erica said, and we all made sure to get a photo of our own.
The elegant 1870 Royal Arcade was on the next block, selling the chocolates, coffee and toys that the Victorian nouveau riche might want to buy as they promenaded and showed off their wealth. It’s presided over by giant carved figures of the fierce mythical gatekeepers Gog and Manog, who strike bells on the hour. “They just terrified me when I was a child,” Erica said.
We ended back on the river, on the Southbank Promenade. When the tour was finished, we got a good look at the Sandridge Bridge, where a series of abstract sculptures symbolize the stages of immigration to Melbourne, including gold miners, war refugees and, from 1970 to present, skilled workers and professionals only. Plaques listed numbers from dozens of countries, with the largest coming from China, Ireland and Germany.
Walking toward the Italian district, intent on an early dinner, we saw one of the free City Circle trams, and it wasn’t packed. So we hopped on and let it take us on the whole circuit, including the new Docklands development on the harbor, which has a big Ferris wheel but looked pretty sterile to us.
By the time we got off, all the sidewalk tables were filling up. So we took a table at HoChi Mama on Liverpool Lane, because when has Vietnamese food ever failed us?
There’s always a first. It was way-precious and way-overpriced, and eventually we realized it owes its existence to its neighbor, the overflowing Rice Paper Scissors Japanese restaurant. When hungry people can’t get a table, they go next door.
Torsten stuck it out for dessert and got half a mango and two tiny balls of mediocre ice cream for $16. Beth cut her losses and went around the corner to Gelato Primavera, where she got a large cup with four flavors — mango/passionfruit, salted caramel, chocolate and the best pistachio of the trip — for half that.
When in doubt, eat gelato. She even shared (except the pistachio).