Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Coming Home to Melbourne

Hi all, I'm back. Did you miss me?

Of course, due to the wonders of modern information technology I never quite went away.

Being able to keep up with friends via Facebook and Twitter is a great thing of course, and it's really reduced the sense of loneliness that can set in when travelling by myself for weeks on a Lonely Planet job.

On the other hand, it can feel a bit odd being connected to everyone at home while being in a foreign environment; both virtually close and literally far away.

And as much as I enjoy the daily discoveries that come with travel, here are a few of the things I missed from Melbourne:

1. The Vibe. This is a matter of personal taste, of course. Some people are perfectly suited to Adelaide, others to London or New York. But I've loved Melbourne ever since I first set foot in the city in 1991, and the romance has grown deeper since I moved here in 1998. For me it has just the right balance of bustle and international vibe, along with a friendly nature and creative core.

2. The Coffee. Unless you're in New Zealand or Italy, you just can't get as good a cup of espresso-style coffee anywhere else (and to be honest, I'm not that sure about Italy). Yeah, I know, in some ways it's trivial - but I like the way we've fastened on the cafe culture as something to care about and make our own, and the sense of connection our best cafes provide.

And I think our cafe culture's finest moment came on 29 July 2008, when Starbucks announced the closure of 75% of its Australian stores after it had failed to beat the local offering via the usual corporate marketing assault.

A recommendation: Brother Baba Budan, my favourite cafe.

3. The Food. Particularly the casual food, as served in Melbourne cafes. In Poland, for example, there's plenty of good restaurant dining, but not much in the way of cafe food beyond cakes and the odd toasted sandwich. I love the quality of the cafe dining here.

A recommendation: The fine and exotic breakfasts at the Duchess of Spotswood.

4. The Grid. Melbourne's city centre is built on a rectangular street layout, aid out in 1837 by surveyor Robert Hoddle. There's something comforting and familiar about the regular pattern and the familiar street names: Collins, Bourke, Flinders etc. Not to mention their little cousins: Little Collins, Little Bourke and so on. And don't get me started about their fascinating black sheep relatives, the alleys and laneways.

5. The Trams. I love trams wherever they are in the world, and there are lots of them in Melbourne. The tram is a marvellous way of getting around; far superior to its cramped inferior rival the bus, and more engaged with its immediate environment than its faster rival the train. And in the basic way they operate, they've hardly changed since the 19th century, which makes them a bit of everyday steampunk.

6. The Bars. Like the cafes, there are plenty of these scattered around the city, small and idiosyncratic. It's another area of Melbourne life that seems immune to being transformed into corporate chains.

A recommendation: The Asian-themed charms of Golden Monkey.

OK, so sue me - I love Melbourne. And I'm fresh enough back from a long overseas trip that I'm not afraid to say it.

(Just one request - can we turn the heat up? And why is it dark so early? Oh... winter. OK.)

Got any other favourite Melbourne places to add? Feel free to comment...