“Mamma Mia We’re Going to Melbourne!”
When my dear mother was due to reach an important, unnameable double digit number, and I myself was approaching the quarter life cri… – mark, I thought an all expenses, family-funded holiday was in order. My genetic affiliates somehow agreed and so we begun recollecting the places the matriarch of the household had hinted at, and no one had paid attention to, over the past decade. Melbourne was decided upon but she would need a companion and who would this be? Who could possibly spare the time off work in the middle of March? Being the only family member with a rather flexible form of employment, I selflessly put myself forward.
So my mother and I packed our excessive 30kg Emirates baggage and boarded our non-flexi, super-saver flight to Australia’s answer to Europe. Having just returned from a year in the land of berets, ball fighters and our self-professed, “more-civilised” forefathers, I was interested to see how the city would measure up to its beaming reputation of European class, gastronomy and culture. This is what I found…
At first glance arriving in Melbourne is like arriving in any other Australian city; tall, golden-skinned locals mill around in semiformal to super-casual attire while a constant cacophony of Aussie twang, birdsong and cicada cries sweep the streets. Sounds like Sydney? Well not quite. There is one immediate and rather “impassable” difference that will have a Melbourne visitor instantly recalling Europe.
Efficient and elegant, these striking “trolley cars” hark back to the Europe of yesteryear, when trains were still a reflection of a country’s industrial productivity and a less-suffocating population density permitted them to chug above ground.
Melbourne’s trams seamlessly connect the C.B.D. and outer suburbs, placing the city’s public transport system on par with her European counterparts. Moreover, with free services running through the inner metropolis, the experience is lightyears less financially gruelling than the European equivalent.
Boardwalk Buskers & StreetSong
Once you’ve navigated your way across the tram lines, the next Euro number to caress your cochleas is la musique. Like the piazze of Rome and the parques of Barcelona, street buskers abound in the garden city. And unlike the cardboard box “playing” regulars outside your local supermarché, these melody makers know how to pipe out a tune.
Melbourne buskers not only endure a thorough selection process, but are limited in the places they can busk based on their experience. This makes for some striking street entertainment. While most modern cities play host to a variety of art and music events, the street level stage typical of Melbourne gives the metropolis a truely European melody.
Laneways & Arcades
Contrary to the music scene, one of the most European features of Melbourne is literally by definition “off-display“. In fact, being small and hidden is all part of their charm. Laneways (outdoor) and arcades (indoor) are narrow, often pedestrian-only streets that stealthy slice the inner city.
So rampant are these backdoor alleyways in Melbourne’s cityscape that they recently gained new linguistic meaning. Not only is Laneway the title of a local-born music festival, but according to
Urban Dictionary, “that’s so laneway” has become a term of praise and approval within the region – not much to comment on there.
Despite this questionable linguistic recasting, laneways are a huge part of Melbourne’s European flare. Some would say that you don’t get more Euro than a narrow, nye-on impossible to drive cobblestone street, and with Italian coffee beans, pastries and the occasional piano accordion permeating the air, europhiles will quickly feel at home.
Laneways aside there is more to Melbourne than its stealth street appeal. When I told my friends that I was heading over, the first thing that arose from their lips was “la cuisine”. Now perhaps not in those exact words, but there was definitely talk of food, and not just any old chitchat, but accolades of stunning gastronomy. One friend literally exclaimed, “everywhere is amazing”.
This was a huge statement. Everywhere is good? I was doubtful, but trusting my acquaintances I arrived with monstrous expectations. Of the culinary sites we attended, the two most Euro-style establishments were a Spanish tapas bar on Hardware Lane and the much-loved fixture of the Italian precinct, Brunetti’s café on Lygon steet.
I can affirm – the food was good. The Spanish bar, that was in reality more “tex-mex” than Euro-Spanish delivered a large, cheese drenched platter of burritos, melt-in-your-mouth shredded steak and spicy tomato relish. Mum’s chicken burrito was also rather scrumptious. However, the most European aspect of the venue was off the menu.
Standing outside each restaurant or brasserie on this quaint lane is a well-dressed, foreign-accented individual whose sole responsibility is to entice you, by nearly all means possible into their establishment. While this street sale tactic may be largely tourist-driven within Europe, for a non-European it feels undeniably Euro-esque, and when combined with al fresco dining and live music it creates for a charmingly European atmosphere.
While Hardware Lane has a certain European charm, Brunetti on Lygon Street is authentic Italiano. In 1974, the founder, Italian immigrant Mr Angelé traded his calorie counting diet with the Italian olympic team for bigger and more butter-filled things – and opened the first Brunetti’s in Carlton. The Roman pasticceria is straight out of a Woody Allen film and comparable to anything you would find in Italia today.
As the patron enters they are met with high ceilings, shiny speckled floors, traditional penguin waiters, and cabinet after cabinet of Italian indulgences – think cream-filled cannoli, supple sfogliatine and every type of biscotti imaginable.
There are small circular, bar-style tables and stalls, but staying true to its italian character, one must first pay at the cash register before taking the receipt to the bar to order.
While this will be counterintuitive for many, the seduction of a thick italian accent to take your pennies soon puts the mind at ease. Topped off with a quick prosciutto and pesto run at the local delicatessen and a visit to the Italian museum, and you have a fairly European morning in the heart of Oceania.
The Not So European
Overall there are certainly features of Melbourne that make her stand out as Australia’s Euro hub, that being said, I would argue that there are other features that make her undeniably not European. The first would be the people. While Melbourne has historically been the destination for many European immigrants, with the centre accomodating 47% of all Greek Australians, today the community has a unique, assimilated culture.
The Greek and Italian precincts still exist, but European immigrants are very much a part of Australian society, maintaining their own heritage ties while taking on the customs of the region.
In this way, I believe Melbournians to have a very distinct character in comparison to their European counterparts. While Italians would be offended if you don’t announce your “Buongiorno” when entering a shop, and Parisians would not dare eat anything other than a baguette on any form of public transport, Melburnians will strike up a conversation with a panini-eating stranger on the tram without a second thought.
I first experienced this Melbourne phenomenon while waiting for the number 96 outside Southern Cross station.
It was a dismal March morning, just late enough in the day for the commuter race to be subsiding. I stood at the tram stop clutching my leather jacket and regretting my decision not to wear stockings and boots. As the rain drizzled sideways a cheery voice directed passengers attending the Grand Prix to the appropriate platform, interspersing his directives with an array of rain-related melodies and facts.
While I chuckled at his rendition of “It’s raining men”, and his call for protection from this particular downpour, a middle-aged woman next to me begun – “Bit chills isn’t it! You poor thing – at least the heaters will be on at work!” I smiled and agreed, not wanting to negate her kind words with the truth that I was in fact a tourist destined to be outside and heater-less for the remainder of the day.
In comparison, I rather embarrassingly recall falling over at least three times in the Parisian metro station and not hearing so much as an empathetic “ouch!” sent in my direction. That’s not to say Europeans are not kind and empathetic. Some of the kindest people I know are from Europe. However, in Melbourne, it is different. Perhaps in response to the rather recent settlement of the country, and the eclectic mix of cultures, Melburnians are a friendly, easy-going, and unreserved group who wouldn’t hesitate to help a stranger in need.
Another feature of the city that is rather less European are the buildings. While the city boasts a beautiful university campus, a number of leafy boulevards and some well-kept heritage sites, for obvious reasons you won’t find anything dating back further than the 1800s.
Moreover, the historic buildings that you do find tend to be more colonial settler pretty, than picture book Prague, though they do have their own unique charm. Think: saloon-style high ceilings, wrap around balconies and intricate iron detailing.
After an undeniably thorough and methodical comparison I conclude that Melbourne does offer a hefty serving of European flavour, certainly the largest portion you are likely to be offered on the Pacific menu. However, it still has an undeniably Australian aftertaste, and overall I would class it more as a Euro-Aussie fusion, than a definitively European dish. That being said, I certainly don’t think its hybrid status detracts from its charm. In fact, I would argue that Melbourne’s cultural fusion, and the celebration of this diversity are what makes it so unique.
It is in places like Saint Kilda, where Australian culture and European class fuse into a unique experience of beach, bikinis, boutiques, baking and beats, that one feels they have found the true Melbourne. A place where you can stroll around in whatever attire you desire, try a myriad of unique and traditional Australian platters and converse with people from all areas of the globe.
While the area has often been seen as Melbourne’s Coney Island equivalent, aside from the unabashedly American “Luna Park” replica, this comparison is less about Saint Kilda’s “Americanism” and more about its bohemianism.
Just a short stroll from the beach you will find the tree-lined, bohemian gem, Acland Street. Populated by trendy boutiques, unusual cafes and traditional cake shops, as one sits pavement-style sipping their cappuccino and testing an array of Australian baking, the street entertains.
As a lively melody of joyous rambling, Aussie grunts, European tongues, jazzy seventh chord swooners and sporadic tram rattles orchestrate the street song, tattooed bodies, exuberant smiles and surfer hair dance the promenade, it’s the perfect illustration of what it is to be in Melbourne. It is a melting pot of sunny spirits, brimming creativity, casual class, and unguarded individualism, all viewable from a very European, pavement-side cafe chair.
Overall, while a weekend away in Melbourne may not feel exactly like a weekend away in Paris or Rome or any other place you currently can’t afford to travel to – it certainly will do a good job at taking you down a very European memory lane, all the while impressing you with its own unique Aussie-Euro offerings.
Head to Bourke Street Mall for the city’s most well-reputed buskers. For an inside listening experience, take the train to one of Melbourne’s trendy suburbs and catch a gig at a local bar. As the self-proclaimed capital of arts, the gig calendar is never empty in this musical metropolis. Check out Beat to see what musical happenings are occurring during your stay.
Pick up a laneways map at the train station or your hotel. Refer to The City of Melbourne’s What’s On website to read up on the best laneways to visit.
Make sure to spend at least one evening eating al fresco in Hardware Lane. Once finished, head to any of the C.B.D’s rooftop bars to enjoy the city by night. You will also need to spend an evening taste testing in the Greek and Italian precincts, and of course, in Chinatown. Check out What’s On‘s food pages for specific suggestions.
If you’re arriving around midday, head to 95 Espresso for lunch. The cafe combines the best of Acland Street traditional baking, European coffee and cocktails, along with atmospherics street seating.
We had a delicious Italian Chicken Salad with cranberries, pomegranate reads and camembert cheese, a super-light and fruity Pina Colada, and a tasty Lemon-grass Tea. Arriving on its own wooden board with various glass jugs and liquids, the tea was a definite highlight of the meal and brought some much-needed science experiment enthusiasm back into our casual afternoon affair.