Melbourne: Coffee, Culture, and My Favorite Aussie!

I was very happy when I arrived in Melbourne. I spent about a month traveling in Southeast Asia with my friend Craig, a native Melbournian, and he had told me on many occasions how proud he was of this great city. He did not lead me astray! One of the first things you notice about the city is the scarcity of chain coffee and fast food restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, they are there, but are much less abundant than many other cities I have visited.

My first evening in town Craig offered to meet me for dinner to give me some tips on seeing the city. We walked along rows of restaurants until we came across an italian place where we were lured in with a free bottle of the house wine and garlic bread. I commented about the lack of chains and he told me about some of the cultural nuances of Melbourne. They pride themselves on their coffee and when the big bad Starbucks showed up en masse like it does in most cities, they were all but run out of town. I only saw one Starbucks on my visit and it was filled with an obvious group of tourists.

There are many local cafes that feature fair trade single source coffee beans rom all over the world. I liked hearing about a city that takes pride in itself and values the small local restauranteur over the large chains. While I sat an enjoyed a great meal with fresh pasta and good wine, I was excited to get started with my explorations the next morning.

The Fairy Tree in Fitzroy Gardens

Eager to try the local coffee, I started my day with a cappuccino and a muffin at a cafe down the street from my hostel. I was not disappointed! My favorite cappuccino was my first one – I had it on a side street in Rome when I could only read one word on the menu. It was delicious and having never enjoyed coffee prior to then, I have looked for a cappuccino that rivals that and reminds me of what good coffee tastes like. I found it in a small cafe in Melbourne!

The coffee gave me a good buzz and when combined with my eagerness to explore I had to just start walking. I passed cafe after cafe and wondered if they all make equally good coffees. It would take me twenty years to try each one to find out, so I just made my way to Federation Square. It is a big square surrounded by a tram station, a river, a museum and convention center. Controversial since the demolition of the industrial buildings that preceded it, Federation Square is also globally famous for its alleged ugliness. I didn’t find it ugly, but definitely unique! I popped into the world class tourism office and booked a couple of tours to keep me out of trouble for at least a couple of days.

I then took the free city circle tram over to Fitzroy Gardens. Conveniently as I walked into the park there was a sign saying that there was a free guided tour of the Gardens starting in about 20 minutes. So I sat and waited for the tour to start. My guide took me around and showed me the highlights of the Gardens including the beautiful rows of Dutch Elms. It’s very rare to see a large group of healthy Dutch Elms because of the Dutch Elm disease that has killed most of the beautiful trees throughout the world. They are very strict about protecting them from the disease and spray them often. Also within the gardens I found a model Tudor village and an intricately carved tree called “The Fairy Tree.” The history of the gardens is very rich and dates back to 1848 when the property was designated as gardens.

That night I had decide to treat myself to a show at the nearby Princess Theatre. They were showing a musical called “Moonshadow” that featured the music of Cat Stevens. Cat Stevens reminds me of my childhood and I thought it would at least be entertaining. I was very impressed by the theatre itself, it was another very historical sight within Melbourne, having been built in 1854. It is reportedly haunted and I thought I would share one story I learned while I was there.

On the evening of 3 March 1888, the baritone Frederick Baker, known under the stage name “Frederick Federici”, was performing the role of Mephistopheles in Gounod’s opera Faust. This production ended with Mephistopheles sinking dramatically through a trapdoor returning to the fires of hell with his prize, the unfortunate Dr Faustus. The audience was spellbound. As the audience held its collective breath and Federici was lowered down through the stage into this basement, he had a heart attack and died immediately. They laid him on the floor, lifeless, in his crimson vestments. He never came back onstage, never took the bows. When the company was gathered together to be told that Federici had died, they asked, “When?”. Being told of what had happened at the end of the opera, they said, “He’s just been onstage and taken the bows with us.” Since then, many people who have never heard of the Federici story have claimed to see a ghostly figure in evening dress at the theatre. For many years, the third-row seat in the dress circle was kept vacant in his honor.

The performance itself, while the acting was fine, was fairly mediocre. They took serious liberties with Cat Steven’s music in order to make the story work and at times it felt forced. It was entertaining and I enjoyed the night out, but it shouldn’t be on your “must see” list if it comes to your city. I doubt it will.

The next morning I took a stroll over to the Melbourne Museum and was blown away by the extensive collection of displays. They ranged from the beautiful to the macabre. There was a display on mental illness including isolation chambers and in depth descriptions of the treatment many of the patients received. It is the largest museum in the Southern Hemisphere, so I spent about four hours and still didn’t see everything! I was dying to see the new Batman and conveniently it was showing at the museum IMAX. It was a great movie to see on the IMAX. The action scenes were great and while I didn’t think the movie was as good as the last one, I was still very entertained!

That night Craig met up with me to go to an event at the museum called Smart Bar. It is only done one night a year and it was a fun event. They had a DJ, drinks, and lectures from several of the reseachers working in the museum. We saw a talk on how the strain of Syphillis found in the colonies caused insanity and many of the patients at the local asylum were thought to be sufferring from syphillus and not actually mentally ill! There was another talk right up my alley about tracing our genes back to the original “Eve” through mitochondrial DNA matching and to “Adam” through Y-chromosome linkage. It made me miss graduate school a bit and I am going to have to seek out some lectures when I get home. Never stop learning!

The next day I had signed up for a tour of the Great Ocean Road, one of Australia’s most famous coastal drives. We started our day driving out of town and passed fields filled with wild Kangaroos grazing. Our fisrt stop for the day was at Bell’s Beach. It is a picturesque beach known for surfing and I am sure it would be better appreciated when it isn’t the dead of winter, but it was still a sight to be seen.

Pictures can’t capture the beauty of the cliffs rising up around the beach. We stopped to check out the views from the Split Point lighthouse and had morning tea where I was able to try Vegemite for the first time. I was the only one who liked it, it’s very salty, but tasty!

We pulled off the road a bit to stop at Koala Cove where the wild Koalas were snoozing away in the trees while the wild birds were flocking to people with bird feed. We took some time off from driving at Mait’s Rest Rainforest Walk. We walked through the anciant trees and got a lesson on how the trees recycle themselves and the local flora and fauna. We continued on to Port Campbell National Park to see the famous Twelve Apostles. The Twelve Apostles are huge rock formations that majestically rise out of the coastline.

We weren’t done yet! We stopped by Loch Ard Gorge where there was a very famous ship wreck and made a few other photo stops before heading back into the city for a late arrival. It was a long, but very fun day. I would have liked to have a few more days to explore the little towns and sights along the Great Ocean Road, but hey, I did pretty good for a limited schedule!

The next day I popped out of bed and made my way over to the Queen Victoria Market. The Queen Victoria Market is a major landmark in Melbourne, Australia, and at around seven 17 acres is the largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere. The Market is significant to Melbourne’s culture and heritage and has been listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. The Market is named after Queen Victoria who ruled the British Empire, from 1837 to 1901.

There were rows and rows of vendors with all kinds of meats, produce, leather goods, souvenirs, and even live chickens! The market is also known for the hot doughnut van which has operated for over half a century and become part of local tradition, being known for its jam “American Style” doughnuts. They were delicious!

I walked around this corner of the city for a few more hours and then made my way back to my hostel to get bundled up for the night’s event. I walked over to Melbourne’s iconic football stadium, the MCG. It is the tenth largest stadium in the world, the largest in Australia, and holds the world record for the highest light towers at any sporting venue. Despite being called the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the stadium has been and continues to be used much more often for Australian rules football. Spectator numbers for football are larger than for any other sport in Australia, and it makes more money for the MCG than any of the other sports played there.

I started my night with a couple of hours spent the adjacent Sports Museum and then made my way to the stands to watch a Australian rules football (Footy as it’s called here) game between two local teams – the Richmond Tigers and the Carlton Blues.

I had NO idea what was going on during the game, but it was about three hours of some of the best sports entertainment i have witnessed! The man seated next to me adopted me and tried his best to explain the game, but I was enthralled by the tough players (no pads) and constant action (no time outs). The game is made up of four thirty minute quarters, but most of them went for 35+ minutes. I could enjoy this game. I love American Football, but I do have to admit this sport was much more fun to watch! I walked out of the stadium after the close game (Carlton won in the last 25 seconds) and made my way back to the hostel.

I had another tour scheduled, but this one was a wine tasting in the Yarra Valley. We drove from winery to winery throughout the day and enjoyed the great scenery along the way. We tasted wines from four different wineries and there wasn’t a bad egg in the bunch! It was a very enjoyable day out, but since it’s hard to translate wine tastings to text, I can’t tell you too much about it!

My last day in the city was a great one. I met up with Craig to head over to St. Kilda. St. Kilda is an area south of the Central Business District of Melbourne that, in the summer time, is popular with backpackers and other tourists. It is a collection of restaurants, boutique stores, and cafes adjacent to a boardwalk on the water where you could see the ships coming into the harbour. It is home to Luna Park, an amusement park that shares it’s name and look with the amusement park in Sydney.

We grabbed a bite to eat and then hopped back on the tram to stop at the Shrine of Remembrance. The shrine was built as a memorial to the men and women of Victoria who served in World War I and is now a memorial to all Australians who have served in war. It is a site of annual observances of ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day (11 November) and is one of the largest war memorials in Australia. The design of the Shrine is based on the ancient Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the Parthenon in Athens. We climbed to the top of the shrine where we were rewarded with some beautiful views of the city as the sun was starting to set. We walked back up the road to Federation Square where we grabbed a pint and said our farewells. Craig was a great ambassador to both Melbourne and Australia and I was very grateful for his hospitality and company! Thank you, Craig!

I have one more stop in Australia before I make my way over to New Zealand. You may not have heard of Adelaide, but it is Australia’s fifth largest city and located near too many attractions to miss! I will keep you posted!



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