Friday, 16 August 2019

Inside Guide to Melbourne (Part 1: Laneways)

A few years ago I write a "First-timer's Guide to Melbourne" for a company that sold downloadable city guides. It's since gone out of business, so here's my three-day guide for your free use and enjoyment...

As a freelance travel writer, I travel the world for a living – but I always look forward to returning to Melbourne. A great Victorian city propelled into grandeur by a mighty gold rush, Melbourne has been reinvented in the 21st century as a place powered by creativity, especially in its food and music scenes.

In this guide, I’m going to take you to my favourite places in Melbourne, from alleyway cafes to innovative restaurants, visiting some cool bars and atmospheric culture along the way.

Welcome to Melbourne

The first thing you need to know about Melbourne is this: it loves secrets. Bars hide down narrow alleyways, great cafes are located on quiet residential streets, and amazing street art pops up in the most unlikely places. Luckily, the locals are happy to share their discoveries with visitors, so don’t be afraid to ask for tips on places to visit.

Melbourne is not a city of spectacular individual sights or astonishing natural landscapes. Rather it’s a city of intriguing architecture, character-packed neighbourhoods and distinctive food. Take the time to soak up the city’s charms while sipping great coffee at an outdoor café, browse its boutiques, or hang out in a bar or historic pub, and you’ll soon understand why people talk about Melbourne’s unique vibe.

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Day 1 -  Explore the City within a City

Crepes, coffee, chocolate and alleyways

One of the most remarkable things about Melbourne is its network of 19th century alleyways, or laneways as the locals call them. Cross-crossing the downtown area at odd angles, twisting here and there, these old service lanes contrast with the broad main streets in their orderly grid, creating a fascinating “city within a city” which has been populated by funky cafes, shops and bars.

To start your exploration of the laneways, pull up a seat at one of the tiny tables at Aix Creperie in Centre Place. Order a sweet or savoury crepe and watch the flow of pedestrians pass the lively hole-in-the-wall cafes which line this pedestrian route, or spot the colourful street art on its walls.

Around the corner in Flinders Lane, Dukes is the place to stop for coffee – you’ll recognise it by the simple sign hanging out front, bearing only an image of a coffee cup. Cut back through Centre Place and the connected Centreway Arcade to Collins Street, still the gracious boulevard of upmarket boutiques and grand buildings it was in Victorian times.

Enter Block Arcade, a glamorous survivor of that era with its beautiful mosaic floors and high arched ceiling, and admire the posh shops as you pass through. One place that won’t break your budget here is Haigh’s, one of several excellent chocolatiers in the city centre.

If you fancy a snack, pick up one of their dark chocolate peppermint frogs and walk through adjoining Block Place, a bustling laneway packed with cafes, then across Little Collins Street into Royal Arcade. This grand shopping arcade is full of distinctive gifts and fashion, along with the best hot chocolate in Melbourne, served by Koko Black.

Turning right onto Bourke Street Mall, watch out for the trams trundling through this pedestrian route as you head east toward Swanston Street. Look up as you go, to spot several attractive art deco facades which are often overlooked by passers-by.

Thread right through Union Lane past colourful street art, then left along Little Collins Street until you reach the grand Melbourne Town Hall, an ornate building which was a product of the prosperous “Marvellous Melbourne” era of the late 19th century.

Here you’ll discover the City Gallery, a small, free space which hosts fascinating exhibitions connected with the city’s past. Check out the gallery, then sit on a bench near the flower stall outside and take a break while watching the passing parade on this lively thoroughfare.

Find it: 
Aix Creperie (24 Centre Pl)
Dukes Coffee Roasters (247 Flinders La,
Haigh’s Chocolates (Block Arcade, 282 Collins St,
Koko Black (Royal Arcade, 335 Bourke St,
City Gallery (110 Swanston St,

Next week... Enter the dragon! (ie Melbourne's Chinatown)

Friday, 9 August 2019

Ballyhoo on the Bally Hooley Railway, Port Douglas

On my visit to Port Douglas I was hosted by the Bally Hooley Railway.

When visiting Cairns last year, I was unable to ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway because of cancellations due to rockslides. So I took a bus to Port Douglas to try out a substitute: the Bally Hooley Railway. 

Parked at a platform at one end of the marina’s shopping arcade was an open-sided train. Its carriages’ bright yellow wooden benches, decorative wrought-iron doors, and firetruck red roof made it look like a funfair novelty, but it had an industrial heritage. 

“The carriage beds are from real sugar cane bins,” said the young train driver wearing a baggy blue cap, referring to the carts hauled by narrow-gauge locomotives through the cane fields of the region.

These modified carriages were attached to an original loco from the cane fields, a blocky, blunt-nosed diesel workhorse that looked like it packed a lot of power for something that ran along track a mere 610 millimetres (two feet) wide. On this damp Sunday it was half-full of day-trippers waiting for it to chug down to its terminus and back, calling at three stops along the way.

The station was an attractive timber structure pained white, with a cafe serving meals at tables on the platform beneath ceiling fans and wicker light shades. Throw in a gin and tonic, and it could have been the Last Days of the Raj.

We pulled slowly out. “It averages 15 kilometres per hour,” said our guide via a microphone, providing a commentary as we progressed. As we passed the waters of the marina, he gave a sketch of the late disgraced businessman Christopher Skase, whose Sheraton Mirage Resort was largely responsible for Port Douglas’ transformation into an upmarket tourist town in the 1980s.

Then we passed the town’s waste water treatment plant, and a sign advising of a coming “sludge treatment upgrade”.

According to our host, this sugar cane line was built over a century ago to serve the sugar industry of inland Mossman, whose refinery still produced over a million tonnes of sugar per week. So Port Douglas had got its own railway eventually, even if it was for sugar rather than people.

Sugar was brought down by train to be loaded onto ships at Port Douglas, but improved road transport had made the railway redundant. Now it had become a brightly-painted tourist train, usually pulled by steam locomotives at weekends (though we’d lucked out because an accredited driver couldn’t be found that day).

Port Douglas is on a stumpy peninsula nosing into the Coral Sea, so as we moved south we could see the mountains of the Great Dividing Range across the water to our right. Closer to hand were eucalypts, and mangroves beyond them.

There were two stations between the Marina Station and the train’s terminus. The first was at the Mirage Country Club, where the railway was lined by immaculate if unused tennis courts. The second was at the QT Resort, whose long white building shared the marina’s colonial tropicana look. 

We passed older blocks of housing built by Skase for his construction workers, then arrived at the terminus, St Crispin’s Station, which housed a cafe with water views.

I stood with other rail fans to watch the crew drive the locomotive onto a turntable (see video clip above), then turn it through 180 degrees using nothing more than physical strength. It then ran past our carriages on a parallel line, to position itself for the return run north. It was a delight to watch the operation, there was something pleasingly analogue about the simple technology involved.

Back aboard, I found myself seated with new fellow passengers, an affectionate couple on a day out. 

“Pity it’s not steam today,” said the man, meaning the locomotive. I demurred, pointing out the diesel loco was just as much a part of sugar cane farming history. He didn’t seem convinced.

On the return leg, the host pointed out lipstick palms with their red trunks, and told us how expensive it was for the shire council to maintain the thousands of coconut palms in the area, which posed a potentially fatal hazard via falling fruit.

We passed more tennis courts and I noticed two of them were a dark grey.

“See that tennis court?” asked the voice. “That’s covered with algae. It’s a non-stop job keeping things clean in the Wet.”

He then detailed all the items in the 47 tons of equipment that Captain James Cook threw overboard from the Endeavour north of there in 1770, when the ship ran aground on a reef. National Geographic had led a recent expedition to recover it, and salvaged items were on display at the museum in Cooktown.

“It wasn’t until the 1960s that Port Douglas was linked to the electricity grid,” he said, moving forward in time. “Just up the road from here to the north, it’s still the same.”

He finished by detailing the recent acquisition of the marina by Syrian billionaire Ghassan Aboud, and his plans to bulldoze the current building and rebuild in an even more upmarket style, catering for super yachts (whatever they are). Port Douglas had lost some of its celebrity-fuelled glam since the global financial crisis a decade before, so this was a chance to revive it.

It was hard to imagine Port Douglas was once a serious contender for chief city of Far North Queensland, but if the Ranges railway had been built from here it would now be a glittering tropical metropolis. Instead, it had bumped along the decades as a sugar port, then a sleepy fishing village, and latterly a getaway place for the well-heeled and super-rich. 

On the way back to Cairns, I asked the bus driver if he was worried the new owner’s plans for the marina might fall over.

“Of course,” he said. “But someone has to give it a try.”

Find timetables and other info at the Bally Hooley Railway website.

Friday, 2 August 2019

The Practicalities of Penzance

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

For all the glamour of travel, there comes a time when you have to stop admiring the scenery and get down to some practical travel admin.

One of these necessary tasks is doing laundry, especially if you travel as light as I do. I only take a backpack with me, so it's essential to do a regular wash.

On Wednesday 29 May I caught a train from London to Penzance, having the previous day caught two trains over the very long route of Zürich to London via Paris.

When I arrived in the Cornish city about 3pm, I was very tired from all that travel. But crucially, I didn't have anything else on my itinerary that day. So when I stepped out of Penzance Station and saw on opposite corners a) a laundrette; and b) a pub, I took it as a sign.

Washing had to be done, right then, and as much as possible while I had time to take advantage of the opportunity. So I stepped into the Suds & Surf laundrette and found out what I'd need in the way of coins, and how long it'd take.

Then I walked back to the train station loos, and re-dressed in order to get as much laundry done as possible. I walked out wearing an outfit which consisted of (in its entirety) my black jacket over a fleece jacket, my good black trousers, and my boots without socks. Everything else was going in the wash.

This is where the pub came in. Having put on a laundry load that would take 45 minutes in the industrial-scale machines, I stepped across the corner to The Longboat Inn. Under the guidance of the barman I ordered a local brew, a Tribute Cornish Pale Ale from the St Austell Brewery (see photo top right).

It was excellent, and I sat sipping it on a sofa while engaging in conversation with an English and American couple who were travellers in Cornwall themselves.

After 45 minutes, I asked the barman to mind my backpack, then stepped across the road to put my clothes in the dryer. Then back to the pub for another beer. I can't see how this system could be beaten.

I spent the next two days sightseeing and researching, visiting the island icon of St Michael's Mount and the wonderful hillside sculpture garden at Tremenheere. But I also visited the Penzance post office for another useful chore - posting a load of stuff home.

This is another travel chore I regularly undertake, in order to keep the backpack's weight bearable. When it's ballooned from 8 kilograms to 10 kg, you really feel it. And having come to Cornwall via Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Paris and London, I had a lot of added items such as brochures and souvenirs.

They were worth keeping, but not needed till I got home. So I posted them to Australia, and was glad to offload their 1.5 kg weight. To be frank, by the time the backpack reaches 10 kg I feel like I don't care if I never see those items again, as long as they're gone.

So that was my practical Penzance travel admin. Hardly rock 'n' roll travel, but all quite necessary and a pleasure to have completed. And the ale eased it along.

What are your essential-but-strangely-pleasurable tasks when you're travelling? Leave a comment below (treat it as a useful chore).

Friday, 26 July 2019

Review: Come from Away, Melbourne

I first heard of this musical at a business lunch, of all things. As it’s set in Newfoundland, the marketing body Destination Canada invited the producer along to an event where reps from Canada’s different provinces sing their praises to journalists.

Newfoundland’s probably the least known province to Aussies, or close to it, as it’s so remote. But that remoteness lies at the heart of this musical, which tells the story of what happened in a small Newfie town after the events of 11 September 2001.

Gander once had a big and busy airport, used as a refuelling stop by aircraft in the early days of trans-Atlantic flight. But as commercial planes became powerful enough to leap that ocean in a single bound, its airport slipped into irrelevance.

Until September 11. When US airspace was shut down after the terrorist attacks on New York City, dozens of passenger planes in the air were ordered to land at Gander, whose runways were big enough to cope with most aircraft.

It soon became obvious that their passengers were going to be stuck in Gander for an indeterminate number of days. As the town instantly doubled in population with these thousands of newcomers, crisis loomed – until the people of Gander leapt into action, housing the stranded, making them meals, inviting them home, even taking care of the animals that had been overlooked in aircraft cargo holds.

It’s a heartwarming true story, set to a background of tragedy, and it was this example of human generosity that inspired Come from Away’s creators to set it to music. I would never have considered that genre for a drama like this, but it’s perfect – the music and choreography perfectly brings out both the pace of those days and the emotions of all involved.

To the production’s credit, it isn’t at all syrupy. There’s a lot of positivity in the dialogue and lyrics as the startled townsfolk and dazed passengers get to know and help each other, but there are also darker undertones that anchor the story to reality.

These include suspicions levelled at Muslims among the passengers, tensions within frayed relationships, worries about loved ones far away, and always the horror of what has happened in New York. This last factor is crystallised in the form of a woman whose son is a firefighter in NYC, she having no idea of whether he’s alive or dead.

The cast do a marvellous job of speaking, singing, dancing, interacting, at a nonstop pace which reflects what it must have felt like to be in Gander for those four fraught days. Actors play multiple roles, switching from passengers to townspeople to officials via simple but effective changes in clothing or headwear.

There’s some lovely overt humour, including that of the townswoman whose reports to the audience always involve her in an imaginary romantic entanglement with whatever sexy pilot or doctor or teacher she’s been dealing with. There are also laughs from the mild collision of small-town ways with those of the wider cosmopolitan world, re food and sexuality and language.

In the end, Come from Away is a homage to the better side of humanity, while never overlooking its worst impulses. In its portrayal of a crisis that left no one unchanged by the strange interlude they spent in the middle of nowhere in the aftermath of destruction, it’s a potent message of hope and a great mood enhancer.

Come from Away is now playing at the Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition Street, Melbourne, Australia. For details and bookings, visit the Australian production’s website.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Food and English in Zürich, Switzerland

On this trip I was hosted by Switzerland Tourism, and travelled via the excellent Swiss Travel Pass.

Something interesting I noticed on my recent visit to Switzerland was the prevalence of English language signage. Because the country famously has four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), I expected that signs would often be in multiple translations.

In reality though, as I travelled through the mainly German-speaking area of Switzerland, I rarely saw signage in any but two languages: German and English. In fact I was told by a local that English is so well-established as a lingua franca that a Zürich businessperson who phoned a counterpart in Geneva would probably speak in English.

I guess if you're a country that already has four languages, it's not much of a hassle to throw a fifth into the mix.

This was brought home strongly to me at the annual Street Food Festival held under a big top in the ex-industrial-now-hip neighbourhood of Zürich West. The name of the festival itself provides a strong hint at how widely English is used in Switzerland, but as I walked around the stalls I saw English signage all over the place.

Have a look:

Things have certainly changed since I first travelled to Europe in 1990, when you'd have to make an effort to learn some of the local lingo of non-English-speaking countries you'd visit. No wonder we Anglo-Saxon types are so lazy about language learning nowadays.

The Street Food Festival has closed for 2019, but keep an eye on its website for 2020 dates.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Glaciers and the Red Bus in Montana, USA

In 2009 I took my first-ever trip to the USA, courtesy of the Montana Office of Tourism and Virgin Australia. My resulting newspaper article about a visit to Glacier National Park never went online, so here it is for your enjoyment...

Everything about Montana is big, from the towering Rocky Mountains in its west to the sprawling plains of the east.

And up the top of its “big” list are the glaciers and peaks of Glacier National Park, a spectacular spread of craggy mountains, glacial lakes and huge chunks of ancient ice nestled between them.

“It’s incredible to first timers,” says our driver and tour guide Jana Grindheim. “People don’t know about Glacier, it’s not as famous as Yellowstone. But it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen, and they’re just amazed at the mountains.”

As we progress into the park past the waters of Lake McDonald I begin to see what Jana means, via glimpses of enormous sharp-edged peaks to the northeast. The evocatively-named Going-to-the-Sun Road may be flat and spacious now, but soon it’ll be transporting us upward, past rugged mountains on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

Though its namesake glaciers are shrinking as the climate changes, those that remain are diverse and magnificent, especially within the Many Glacier Valley in the park’s east.

However, the mountain scenery alone is sensational enough to prompt a visit, and we’ll be getting a full dose of it as we traverse the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road from Apgar to St Mary.

The road is a story in itself, an epic construction project completed in 1933.

It borrows its name from a mountain along its route, named from a Native American Blackfeet legend about a deity who came from the sun and taught them how to hunt, then returned home after leaving his image on the slopes.

We’ll be hugging the narrow road in a vehicle that’s a tourist attraction in its own right, one of the park’s fleet of Red Buses. These bright red open-topped vehicles, resembling an extended car with a fold-back roof, each hold 17 people and have been used for tours of the park since the mid-1930s.

With its sleek lines and a radiator grille that looks like it was swiped from an art deco limousine, our Red Bus is a very stylish way to explore Glacier. On top of all that, Glacier is the only national park to still be operating these classic vehicles, as other parks retired their fleets decades ago (take that, Yellowstone).

The Red Bus drivers are a special breed are known as “jammers”, a name inherited from the days when the gears of the vehicles would grind and jam as they hauled their passengers up the slopes.

Our jammer for the day, Jana, is fond of her daily grind. “I get to drive on the beautiful red buses that everybody loves,” she says, “And I get to see Glacier National Park, the most beautiful place in the world, every day.”

Sounds like a recipe for job satisfaction to me. And as we pass beyond Avalanche Creek and its picturesque boardwalk through the cedars, the landscape opens up, we begin to climb, and I see what she loves about the place.

For it is grand - there’s no other word for it. Beyond the cedar forest the mountain slopes stretch high above us, bare and craggy as they reach sharply defined peaks, tinged purple in the midday heat.

The most startling formation is the Garden Wall, a long narrow ridge of sharp, rocky projections streaked with horizontal bands of colour. It’s so narrow that in places it would be possible to sit astride it, with legs dangling along each slope.

There are also signs of how powerful Dame Nature can be when she rubs her hands and gets down to work. Pausing the bus, Jana points out a massive trail of damage down the slope above us, where dozens of trees lie fallen.

This was the work of a mighty avalanche that plummeted through some time during winter, blocking the road; because it’s closed during the icy months, no-one saw it happen.

To the west is the beautiful Heavens Peak, at 2739 metres one of the higher mountains in the park, with a dusting of snow despite the Indian Summer warmth.

We’re reminded again of the park’s lofty snow and ice as we pass the Weeping Wall, a section of rock constantly flowing with run-off from the glaciers above.

Finally, having passed a profusion of impressive peaks and peered down into distant tree-lined valleys, trying to not think too hard about the tiny stone wall stopping errant vehicles from plunging to their doom, we arrive at Logan Pass.

It’s the highest point on the road and a natural spot for a break, with its visitor centre and sign marking the location of the Continental Divide, which runs right through the park. A geographical curiosity, this line divides North America into two sections from which all water flows downhill toward either the Pacific or the Atlantic, depending on which side it falls.

Logan Pass is also a rest stop along the park’s numerous hiking trails. While the rest of our group troops off to have a look at the neighbourhood, I linger by the bus to ask Jana about hiking. Being Australian, however, I’d be a little nervous about the idea of encountering bears along the way. Has she ever seen any?

“Oh yeah,” she says casually. “In the Many Glacier Valley, just over these mountains, there are a lot of grizzly bears. By the Many Glacier Hotel you can see them, not ten feet away.”

I’d rather be viewing them from a bit further away than three metres, but Jana is reassuring. “I’ve never had any dangerous situations with bears. Usually when you see them they don’t care about you, unless you scare them.”

Making a mental note not to scare any bears, I return to the topic of hiking. Does she have a favourite walk?

“I have several,” she nods. “There’s one, Gunsight Path, which is a 20 mile hike with a backpack. It’s incredible. You hike up past lakes, snowfields, waterfalls, and camp at Lake Ellen Wilson. It looks like an infinity pool, dropping off the edge of the earth.

"You also have an option to continue to a glacier. The other one you can do from here is the Floral Park hike, and you walk across Sperry Glacier on the way. There are rivers and crevasses and it’s amazing.”

It’s almost an anticlimax to get back into our old Red Bus and drive east for the descent to St Mary, sighting the Jackson Glacier as we go.

But I do get a small adrenaline rush when we briefly leave the bus to walk through the trees to look at the tiny Wild Goose Island in the middle of St Mary Lake.

We might see a bear, I imagine. But we don’t, not even a small one.

As we head out of Glacier, I discover that Jana is on her way out as well.

“My husband and I fell in love with the park the first time we came here but now we’re joining the Peace Corps, and we’ve got one last hurrah with the mountains.”

Will she miss being a jammer?

“Yeah,” she says firmly. “Best job in the park. Best job in the world.”

For details of the Red Bus Tours in Glacier National Park, click here.

Friday, 5 July 2019

A Walk Through Literary Dublin

Statue of Oscar Wilde
in Merrion Square, Dublin.
On this trip I travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland and Aer Lingus. This story arose from my 2011 visit to Dublin but never went online, so here it is for your enjoyment...

“We call him ‘the prick with the stick’,” says tour guide Pat Liddy, cheekily referring to a statue of the writer James Joyce which stands proudly in busy O’Connell Street, Dublin.

It might seem disrespectful, but inventing such acid nicknames is a casual hobby to Dubliners, who’ve applied them to many statues in the Irish capital.

For example, a busty statue of Molly Malone, who sold “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-oh” in the famous song, is commonly known as ‘the tart with the cart’.

It's all in good fun, says Liddy, smiling as he returns to his pint of Guinness in an atmospheric old pub which is, as it happens, an former haunt of Joyce’s.

It seems somehow fitting that we should be on a literary walk that’s immediately ended up at the pub, given the central role of such establishments in Ireland’s social and cultural life.

Pat Liddy outside Mulligan’s, Dublin.
Having left Trinity College, which contains the famous Book of Kells, we were assaulted by a driving rainstorm that appeared from nowhere, and have taken refuge in Mulligan’s until the weather eases.

It’s a classic Irish pub, with a dimly-lit back room where we sit around chipped old timber tables, a huge gilt mirror on the wall behind us.

Mulligan’s has a literary pedigree of its own, says Liddy, as a longtime hangout of Irish Times journalists and of Joyce, who mentioned the establishment in his landmark novel Ulysses.

The outside of the pub is even painted with the date of Bloomsday (June 16th, 1904), the day in which the novel’s story is set.

As we sip Ireland’s most famous beer, Liddy tells us about the wealth of writers that the city has produced. For a city of a million people, Dublin has a remarkable back catalogue of literary heroes, including Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw and Jonathan Swift. And let's not forget Bram Stoker, whose popularisation of the vampire lives on to the present day.

Liddy is a great story-teller, and he’s easily diverted into amusing anecdotes from his life and tour work. He chats about his son’s train journeys through Asia and Russia, and tells us about having to explain Oscar Wilde to foreign visitors. There’s also a witty story about the time he had to sing Handel’s Messiah to a group of German visitors who’d never heard of it.
Oscar Wilde's birthplace, Dublin.

The beer and the craic are very diverting, but we have pavements to pound. The rain clears and we're off again, through the atmospheric historic streets south of the River Liffey.

We’re entering Oscar Wilde territory here; as we stroll, Liddy points out the former St Mark’s where the great playwright was baptised.

Then we arrive at 21 Westland Row, a respectable facade featuring a big blue door beneath a fanlight.

This is where Wilde was born, and an inscription within a stone wreath credits him as ‘Poet, Dramatist, Wit’. Those are words I’d be happy to have on my gravestone, I think, as we move on.

Our next stop is Sweny, an attractive small shopfront which was featured in Ulysses in its then role as a pharmacy. It was here that the book’s hero, Leopold Bloom, bought a cake of soap with a lemon scent. Remarkably, it remained a pharmacy right up to 2009, when it passed into the care of a group of volunteers who run it as a bookshop and an unofficial shrine to Joyce.

You don’t have to be a fan of Ulysses to appreciate the shop’s atmospheric interior, packed both with books and reminders of its apothecary days. There’s even a drawer full of old photos once developed here, to show visiting kids who may only be familiar with digital shots.

Wendy Conroy at Sweny, Dublin.
The remaining space is lined with new and second-hand copies of books by Irish writers of all eras.

It’s a great place for visitors to acquaint themselves with both the classics and the lesser-known gems of Irish lit, and to pick up some reading for their travels.

Behind the counter today is Wendy Conroy, a passionate fan of Joyce’s master work. “There are Conroys all the way though Ulysses,” she points out.

Not that Joyce was the only star of the written word to hang out in this neighbourhood. “Wilde and Yeats may well have stood where you’re standing,” she says.

From here it’s a short walk around the corner to Merrion Square. Opposite the park stands the house where the young Oscar grew up, and in the park itself is a wonderful surprise - a colourful statue of Wilde which was unveiled in 1997, over a century after being imprisoned for his homosexuality.

A symbol of his 21st century rehabilitation and popularity, the unconventional statue depicts Wilde lounging in a colourful jacket on a large rock, a smile on one side of his face and a grimace on the other. The mixed expression may be a reminder of his mixed fortunes, as perhaps are two smaller nearby statues of his wife Constance and an anonymous male torso.

The plinths of these statuettes are adorned with many of his famous sayings, one of which seems to sum up Wilde’s sensational life: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.

Davy Byrne’s, Dublin.
Heading back toward the bars and restaurants south of the Temple Bar district, we pass another pub mentioned in Ulysses: Davy Byrne’s, where Bloom ordered a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy.

Though the pub has been renovated in a swish modern style and now specialises in seafood, it’s still a meal you can order there today.

Then, finally, we finish at McDaid’s. It’s a popular pub which has retained its original character, furnished with bookshelves, tiled panels and a high timbered ceiling.

This was a haunt of postwar playwright and novelist Brendan Behan, says Liddy, at least until the one-time IRA member was barred. It was also, inevitably, frequented by Joyce and the other Irish writers who milled around this part of Dublin.

It’s been a great tour. Via Liddy's enthusiastic and colourful delivery, the city's great books and their writers have come to life - and even though I haven't read all of them, I go away with a hunger for their work and an understanding of how much Dublin loves its stories.

Pat Liddy’s Walking Tour of Literary Dublin is available on request. See for contact details and other scheduled tours.

Friday, 28 June 2019

The Gnomes of Wrocław, Poland

I wrote this piece for a newspaper some years ago, but it never appeared online. The gnomes are still there, so it's still current! Enjoy...

I’m on my way into a pub when I’m stopped by a dangerous revolutionary. With one fist raised in protest and the other support a flying banner, he looks up at me with clear disdain.

But perhaps I’m overstating my peril. For a start, he’s looking up at me because he’s only 50 centimetres high. And he’s made of stone. And he’s a gnome.

Yes, I’m not hunting wabbits, like Elmer Fudd - I’m hunting gnomes.

Walking through the cobblestone square of the beautiful city of Wrocław, in southwest Poland, I’m peering above doorways, at the ground, down alleys.

And I do find them - little statues of gnomes, doing a variety of tasks: telephoning, carrying suitcases, propelling a wheelchair, sleeping, even mouthing revolutionary slogans like my friend Leninek (Little Lenin in Polish), named after the father of the Russian Revolution.

But what are they doing here?

The gnomes, dozens of which have been placed permanently around the city, are a tip of the hat to the Orange Alternative, a communist-era dissident group that used humour as its weapon in the 1980s.

The leader of the group, Waldemar Fydrych, realised that physical struggle against the communist government would be suppressed, but ridicule was harder to resist. So he and his followers daubed gnomes on any wall where the authorities had painted over anti-communist slogans.

The difficulty of cracking down on such silliness without looking silly themselves had the communists in a bind, and kept the citizens of Wrocław sniggering.

Today’s gnomes are the work of local artist Tomasz Moczek. The first few were commissioned by the city council, but in recent years private companies have bought into the craze, commissioning gnomes that reflect the nature of their businesses.

Hence the Lenin gnome outside PRL, a pub decorated in communist kitsch. Elsewhere off the main square is a gnome making a telephone call high up above the doorway of a phone company, and a fat gnome lying on his back in a food bowl, just outside a pizza joint. Another gnome carrying a suitcase stands outside a nearby hotel.

What’s especially fun about the gnomes is that they’re not that easy to find. There are no signposts pointing them out, and they’re so small that you can easily walk past them, even when you’re specifically hunting them down.

Later in my quest, I spend ages popping in and out of the medieval complex of buildings in the centre of the square in search of a single gnome, only to finally discover him perched above the door to a police station.

There’s something very Polish about all this, reflecting the Poles’ dark sense of humour and the way public art blends into the older fabric of their cities.

They particularly underline the quirkiness and beauty of Wrocław. Around its streets, between gorgeous examples of baroque and Renaissance architecture, are scattered more intriguing items of street art.

The most striking is Crossing, a complex sculptural work which shows a full-size group of people approaching an intersection, disappearing beneath it as if being sucked down into the earth, then reappearing on the other side of the street. It’s breathtaking.

Not that Wrocław’s attractions are all modern. The most interesting sight in Wrocław dates from the 19th century.

The Panorama of Racławice, a huge circular painting housed in its own dedicated building, is both a cultural treasure and a historical curio. Before the cinema was invented, these vast panoramas were common in Europe, allowing visitors to imagine themselves in the middle of famous historical events.

The Wrocław panorama is one of the few to survive. Measuring 15 metres high and 120 metres around, it’s full of fire and action, depicting a famous battle of 1794 in which a Polish peasant army defeated a much larger Russian force.

Transported here from the east at the end of World War II, the painting sat in storage for decades while the communist authorities resisted its reinstalment. Finally, in 1985, it went up again.

It was worth the wait. Visitors look at the painting via a central platform, and various real-life objects have been placed between the walls and the viewers to enhance the effect.

I find myself peering intently, trying to spot the point where the real world and art join. It’s not easy to do… in one place the painted section of a scythe is joined by a real wooden counterpart, and the combined effect is very convincing.

Nearing the end of the day, I head back to the central square as Wrocław’s nightlife begins to gear up. Courtesy of its large university student population, the city has a lively entertainment scene, characterised by vibrant bars tucked into historic brick cellars beneath its streets.

The dining is diverse too, as Mexican and Italian joints vie with Polish cuisine from classic restaurants like Karczma Lwowska, which serves beer in old-fashioned ceramic mugs.

To start the evening, I opt for a quiet beer with my old friend Leninek at PRL. The bar’s remarkable interior is decked out with communist-era items salvaged from local attics.

Busts of socialist worthies decorate the walls, propaganda banners hide intimate alcoves, waiters prance around in red tracksuits, and 1970s music plays over the sound system.

It’s all a big joke, of course - nothing undermines an authoritarian ideology more than laughing at it. Which the gnomes have known all along.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Away in Lorne

Every so often I feel the need to get away from work, to literally toss the phone in a hotel room drawer and ignore email, social media and everything else. When that happens, I usually choose Lorne.

The Mantra Hotel in Lorne, on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, was once Erskine House, popular accommodation for Melburnians seeking fresh sea air. It’s still a good place to head for that item, and as a non-driver I like it particularly because it a) can be easily reached by public transport; and b) it has the town on one side and the ocean on the other, so it’s easy to walk to everything.

The standard rooms are fine, but this time I was staying in a small apartment on the tree (rather than ocean) side of the property. It was a nice space with a proper kitchen, and I always appreciate being able to self-cater.

The gutter above the open-air terrace of the apartment seemed to retain water after rain, and this drew a set of regular visitors to the rooftop: sulphur-crested cockatoos!

These sizeable native birds are all over Lorne, often looking to cadge food from visitors, though signs everywhere tell you not to feed them. I saw plenty of cockatoos during my stay, as well as galahs and various waterbirds.

I have a pattern when I visit Lorne for a four-night stay. The first couple of days are spent largely collapsed on a sofa, reading; in between eating the buffet breakfast and swimming in the hotel pool (there’s a steam room there too, which I appreciate in colder weather).

On the second day I’ll stretch myself slightly by walking down to the excellent Swing Bridge Cafe just beyond the hotel, where the river flows into the sea.

It’s a beautiful spot in good weather, a great place to do more reading. Then I’ll cross the bridge and pass by the local supermarket for catering supplies. Lorne is a reasonably upmarket destination, and you can tell that fro the posh bread and cheeses on sale at the supermarket.

On the second or third full day, depending on weather, I’ll push myself a bit more by taking the coastal walk around past the beach to the pier. Next to it is a seafood restaurant which is a nice place to sit and have a drink or a meal, while looking over the ocean. I find it soothing.

Then I walk back to the hotel via the main road, which runs higher up and passes the local pub. Sometimes I’ll look in the shops, sometimes check out the film schedule at the old-school cinema.

It’s not a complex holiday, but sometimes that’s what I need.

Makes a hugely refreshing change from being somewhere where I have to stay alert, taking notes and framing photos for later use in published travel stories.

Love Lorne! Even the thuggish cockatoos that run the town.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Remote Access: Catching a Train from Corrour, UK

I was hosted in Scotland by Visit Scotland.

The last thing I did on my visit to Scotland last week was perhaps the most interesting. Certainly the most surreal.

I caught a train from Corrour.

This may sound like no big deal, but Corrour is not that easy to reach. Located on the edge of the sprawling Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands, it's a private estate with a history of hosting visitors for hunting and fishing. In addition to enabling these activities, and providing onsite cottage accommodation, the estate also has its own mainline train station.

Corrour Station, the UK's highest mainline station at 408 metres, is not somewhere you can simply drive to. It has no public road access, so the only way to reach the station is by train (of course) from Glasgow or Fort William, or on foot. As Rannoch Moor is a starkly beautiful wilderness popular with hikers, it's a useful place to start or finish a walk.

Intriguingly, though there aren't many trains that pass each day, all of them stop at Corrour. You can even catch the Caledonian Sleeper train all the way to or from London from here, which I was intending to do the day I arrived at the station.

There's also accommodation at the station, with B&B rooms available inside the old signal box building.

The minor miracle which ties together all these uses is the Station House Restaurant. Though the station is in the middle of nowhere, its restaurant is open all day from breakfast to dinner. It's not uncommon for diners to come out on an early evening train from Fort William, have dinner then head back on the last train of the night.

I had a few hours to kill before the sleeper arrived on the way to London, so I had a late lunch at the restaurant, which has a marvellously warm and cosy interior. I could imagine it seeming an oasis to hikers on a cold day. Indeed while I was relaxing on a sofa a pair of walkers arrived who'd just trekked for some distance to meet a friend at the station, the latter arriving by train.

After lunch I donned some warm clothing (there was a chill in the air, despite it being June), and walked part of the way toward Loch Ossian, about two kilometres east of the station. At the loch there's a hostel with dormitory beds, inside a building which was once a boathouse.

It was good being out in the open. With the station's buildings hidden behind a rise, it felt properly remote, with impressive rugged hills on the horizon.

Returning to the station I whiled away a few hours reading, and chatting to the friendly staff between customers. Every table was booked for dinner that night, and as dinnertime approached there was a sudden rush of new arrivals, coming by train either from Fort William, from the adjacent accommodation, or from the hostel.

This lively group of revellers gave this unlikely remote eatery a festive mood, and I felt a bit regretful leaving them behind to walk upon the cold platform as I waited for the London train.

But then the Caledonian Sleeper arrived, I jumped aboard, and Corrour was lost to sight as we began the long haul south. Though I had a strange feeling that I would be back.