I’m eating lemon cake in Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne, sitting outside a cafe. I’m at ease. Life is good.
I’ve just been walking around the gardens. Fallen leaves cover the ground.
It’s winter, but not yet deep winter. There’s still shades of autumn. It’s cold, but not freezing. The sky is blue and the grass is green. It feels like Melbourne has put on a show for us for this weekend.
But back to the cake. I wouldn’t normally eat lemon cake. But here I am eating it. It tastes good. Very good. Its sugary icing captures my mood perfectly at the end of a day of walking the city streets and laneways, breathing in the culture and history of this famous Australian city.
Melbourne always seems to be competing with Sydney. But does it have to? It’s a city all of its own, with a magnetic pull and a vibrant energy that makes you feel at home. There are shades of Manchester and shades of New York. There’s history here that feels beyond Australia.
My companion and I absorb this history on a self-guided walk. We pick up a map called “Arcades and Lanes” at the city’s tourist information centre at Federation Square. You can get it on your phone, if that’s your thing.
The walk starts at Federation Square and takes in Degraves Street, a haven for Melbourne’s cafe society.
Along this stretch, we take a few moments to admire the Majorca Building in Flinders Lane. The neo-Romanesque eight-storey tower was designed and constructed between 1928 and 1930.
It was designed by Harry Norris, one of the most prolific architects in the city during the 1920s and '30s. He was inspired by the then popular Spanish Colonial Revival style after visits to the United States.
We stroll through Centre Place, a narrow laneway bustling with life and colour. This is surely the coolest laneway in Melbourne. Small cafes line the strip. All the outdoor tables and chairs are filled to capacity. The hum of morning conversation and the hiss of cappuccino steam provide a spirited soundtrack.
There’s style here. But it’s not pretentious. It’s natural. It might be the street art or the contented exuberance of the patrons. The place has an attractive feel.
After a coffee, we keep moving. We take in the 19th century Block Arcade. Its mosaic floors and glittering shops do much to stimulate the senses. Or is that the coffee working? Probably both.
Next it’s the elegant Royal Arcade, the oldest shopping arcade in Australia. It was built in 1869. We can only imagine what they were selling back then.
We notice one of the stores is called Babushkas. It sells those handcrafted wooden Russian dolls. They’re called matryoshka dolls. Each object has several dolls of diminishing size placed inside one another.
Another store is called Spellbox, selling all things magic and witchcraft. It’s a window into the divine, with its spellbooks, potions, charms, mystical crystals and jewellery.
The arcade has a beautiful clock, flanked by statues of the biblical figures, Gog and Magog. It’s said that the clock has struck on the hour, every hour, since 1892. The timepiece gives the arcade a medieval feel. The arcade originally ended at the south with an entrance to a Turkish Bath. The bath is now long gone.
Next we take in Hardware Lane, with its cobbled stone path, cafes and brilliant facades.
We work our way through more arcades and lanes, before arriving at Howey Place. Between the 1890s and 1920s, this area housed the biggest bookshop in the world, with more than two million books. Of course, nowadays, bookshops are mostly a thing of the past, consigned to history by the internet juggernaut. A sad thing, that.
Soon we find ourselves in the Manchester Unity Building.
Take a look at this building from the street. It speaks of New York. It’s a magnificent art deco and gothic-style structure, built in 1932 on the corner of Collins and Swanston streets.
We pop out at Flinders Lane, once the centre of the city’s rag trade. Now it’s a hot shopping spot and home to art galleries and hip bars.
We stroll to the edge of the Asian district for lunch at a Japanese restaurant, before visiting a secretive men’s club. The club didn’t want its name mentioned because, well, it’s secret. We enter from the street, but there’s no sign on the door. Just a Roman symbol. It’s what they call a “private gentleman’s club”.
This building is old. Very old. Inside, it’s like stepping back in time.
Women aren’t allowed to be members. However, they are allowed into the club – but only as guests. However, some areas are off limits to the ladies. One female, in particular, seems to have taken revenge on this policy. A ghost, in fact. As we were taken on a mini-tour of the club, we were shown a photo of a big room of men, dressed in tuxedos and having some kind of celebratory dinner. A female ghost appears to have photo-bombed the picture. So the story goes, anyhow. The picture does have a weird female face, without a body, that somehow found its way onto the photo. We are told that the male toilets are sometimes mysteriously locked from the inside. The ghost’s handiwork, they say.
City of Sport
Aside from its rich, alluring streets and architecture, Melbourne is a city of sport.
When Australians talk about sporting fans, it’s inevitable that Melbourne is mentioned. For Melbourne has the most passionate and committed sporting fans in the country. There’s really no disputing this.
In the round-ball code, it doesn’t get any bigger than Brazil-Argentina. These two countries are fierce rivals on a scale Australians can barely imagine.
We attend this epic contest, which is considered an international “friendly”. It is held on June 9, a week after the official end to the European season, where many of the Brazilian and Argentinian players ply their trade.
Some suggest the match won’t be played at a high level, as if the players are here on holiday.
But those who push that line don’t understand the importance of a Brazil-Argentina match. This is no friendly. There’s always a lot at stake when these two proud South American nations meet.
Thankfully for the 95,000 paying fans, the match is an enthralling, thrilling encounter. The players fly into tackles and battle fiercely. But more importantly the sublime skill the players possess innately – part of their natural South American flair – is on display in spades. With each touch, flick, shot and tactical move, the dexterity and artistry of the players are clear to see. This style of play is known as “jogo bonito”. That means “the beautiful game” in Portugese. Enough said.
As the sporting contest comes to an end, thoughts turn to how else to spend free time in the city.
There’s magic in Melbourne and it’s not hard to find. The laneway bars, for example, are full of ambiance, style and verve.
Walking the cold city streets and laneways at night has a European feel. It’s a feeling that isn’t apparent in other Australian cities. Neon lights guide us to bars and restaurants that pop up unexpectedly in narrow, dark lanes, giving the city a dream-like quality at night.
These bars have a lively atmosphere. The world is animated here. The people – patrons and staff – are bright and friendly. They have a zest for life. Is it the place, or is it the cognac talking? Probably both.
By day or by night, Melbourne has much to offer.