Friday 26 June 2009

The Unicycle Diaries 4: Pining in the Pacific

In March 2007 I flew to Norfolk Island, an autonomous Australian territory in the Pacific Ocean. It was a mere 24 hours' stay, as part of a contingent which included retired football coach Ron Barassi, entertainer John Michael Howson and a bunch of travel writers. It was simultaneously fast, furious, fascinating and curiously low-key. Here are some notes I made in my diary at the time...

- I’m in a pleasant timber cafe on the main shopping drag, with espresso coffee and wireless Internet access. The service is suitably relaxed, though the coffee is no threat to Melbourne’s best. But what it lacks in urban sophistication, Nl makes up for in laidback small-town charm. Our driver, Les, likes to make fun of the island’s remoteness (“The Internet? What’s that?”), but of course that’s the whole appeal of the place.

- Quirky, daggy & just plain fascinating place names: we pass Burglars Lane on the way to dinner.

- The island is full of Norfolk Pines (funny, that), its originally volcanic landscape softened to rolling green hills by time. For anyone brought up in an Australian country town, it’s curiously reminiscent of rural Oz in the 1960s, especially those trees, which used to pop up in small town parks with predictable regularity.

- “We got everything Tahiti got, we only no got the coconut,” sings Trent Christian during our Rotary Club hosted ‘fish fry’ at Puppy’s Point. Also “Captain Cook came to our isle... (something) made... (something) smile”. OK, didn’t catch all that.

- Puppy’s Point: a gorgeous picnic spot with an odd name, wedded to a sheer cliff, a magnificent showcase of the Pacific Ocean, interrupted only by the conical silhouette of a lone Norfolk pine.

- The food is a strange blend of the exotic and the old-fashioned (Rotary Club lemon pie is just like mother made back in the ’70s).

- Fish fries are apparently very big on NI, more of the whole unconscious retro thing. The accommodation too seems dated; one major hotel has a dining room identical to the one in Fawlty Towers. Though there’s something kinda reassuring about it all.

- Taxi service: There’s only one taxi on NI, the sole form of public transport available. The cab’s fare structure is interesting, at least if you can believe what you’re told. I was informed by one islander that journeys are $5 inside the cattle grid which keeps the cows out of the commercial centre of Burnt Pine, where they might play havoc with the duty-free shopping, and $10 to anywhere outside it.

- Cows are a recurring symbol of Norfolk Island as they’re grazed in common, as they have been since the early days of the colony, so they range free outside the cattle grid. A piece of trivia that every visitor somehow learns is that the fine for killing a cow by collision with your car is about $500. These wandering bovines are not holy, but they’re also not cheap.

- The picnic spots on NI are simple, with limited facilities, but they’re absolutely gorgeous. I could easily spend days at Emily Beach or Puppy’s Point, provided I’d brought some food and drink with me.

- After only a day here, I’m swimming in the clear blue waters of Emily Bay, feeling myself tangibly unwind as I ignore the work awaiting me at home, the world news and anything else which might be stressful.

- In some ways, it’s hard to know quite what to make of Norfolk. On one hand, it lacks the full-blown exotica of other Pacific destinations like Vanuatu or Fiji; on the other hand, you can’t fault its climate or its absolute tranquillity.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Norfolk Air and Norfolk Island Tourism. As this article is based on personal experience from 2007, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current cow fine situation before travelling to Norfolk Island.

Monday 22 June 2009

Yarra Glen: Cheesy, But in a Good Way

I've just returned from a couple of days in Yarra Glen, researching its attractions for a mini-guide to be published in The Age.

The town, east of Melbourne, sits within the Yarra Valley, a farming region whose most famous crop is the grape. As in the raw material used by wineries, of which there are many in the vicinity.

It's an interesting little town, with a mix of shops and eateries, and the usual smattering of accommodation from B&B cottages to the very grand Yarra Glen Grand Hotel.

But what struck me by the end of my investigations was how locally produced food and drink have become a major tourist drawcard in their own right. And not just in the Yarra Valley, but right across Victoria.

When I was a kid, living in rural Western Australia, the scenery in the countryside was fantastic, but you wouldn't expect too much of the food.

In those days, eating out in a town the size of Yarra Glen would entail a choice between a fish 'n' chip place, a Chinese restaurant producing heavily modified Cantonese dishes, and a local pub whose menu didn't stray much beyond steak & chips versus fish & chips. Oh, and maybe a nice prawn cocktail for starters.

But a scenic country town in 2009 is a very different place. Here are some of my foodie highlights from a winter weekend in the country:
  • Being taken around a few of the wineries nearest to Yarra Glen on Friday. The highlight was Mandala Wines' intriguing new cellar door building. Constructed from recycled materials and built around the core of an old farmshed, with rubber flooring made from old tyres, it's an impressive example of the way wineries are putting up buildings that enhance the landscape rather than spoiling it. And Mandala's pinot noir is pretty good too.
  • Lunch at Hargreaves Hill Brewing Co's restaurant in Yarra Glen's main street consisted of... a hamburger. But an impressive variant on the popular fast food item, composed of high quality ingredients and served on a wooden board with a neat longitudinal stack of chips on one side and a tiny cooked beetroot on the other. It was great.
  • Narrelle arrived that night and we had dinner at the Grand, whose ground floor was a warren of rooms, each decorated in a knowingly retro way with different wallpaper and carpet. Some rooms suited families, others couples, and the menu was similarly diverse. I had the steak & veg... well, to be precise, the prime fillet of beef on a smoked bacon and potato brique, house made pâté quenelle and a mushroom sauce. And a bottle of Big Betty shiraz from just down the road in Healesville. Never seen that wine before, want to see it again - a big bold red, heavy and memorable.
  • And finally, for Saturday lunch we made the short trip out of town to the Yarra Valley Dairy, which creates its cheeses from milk gathered from the cows on the same farm. In fact you can order a sample plate of cheeses from the counter within a converted old shed that's at the heart of the operation, sit at a wooden bench and gaze out the window at the cows and paddocks while you eat. Our selection included cow and goat cheeses, culimating in a spectacular Persian fetta. In addition to this we shared a small container of balsamic onions, a posh way of upgrading the humble pickled onion.
Clearly, food has become an attraction in itself, and particularly food that's derived from local sources. Since most 21st century citizens source their provisions from big supermarkets, it seems that an allure, even a status, has attached itself to old-style food produced from local ingredients in a small-scale way.

What that says about our psychology, particularly our relationship to food, I'm not sure. But it does taste very good.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

Friday 12 June 2009

Melbourne's Cultural Capitol

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

When Joni Mitchell sang those words, it was unlikely she had Melbourne’s architectural heritage in mind. The city has been luckier than most in retaining its fine buildings of the past.

However, many gems have been lost.

Sing a song of lament for these fine structures, if you feel inclined. The old fish market, a Moorish confection by the riverbank near Batman Park, disappeared in 1956. The original exhibition building in William Street, made largely of glass, went much earlier in 1869. And interesting city arcades vanished from sight as retail fashions changed.

Miraculously the Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street survives, though not without enduring an attempt at decapitation. The grand cinema was a 1920s vision of American architect Walter Burley Griffin, best known for his design of Canberra. Many of his buildings across Australia have gone, but the Capitol remains. Even in its abridged form, it remains a fascinating space.

It’s all about the ceiling, the first thing to grab your attention as you enter the auditorium. In fact, it’s hard to keep your eyes off it. Row upon row of angular plaster projections are illuminated by hidden light bulbs, in four basic colours: red, green, yellow and blue.

In 1924, the yellow bulbs were white, but everyone remembers them as yellow; so they’re yellow today. The ceiling is a stunning sight when fully lit, its angles suggesting crystals or stalactites.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Casual visitors would be surprised to discover they’re seated in the original dress circle and upper circle sections of the auditorium. Below them, a vast area of stalls once stretched from the current street entrance to the screen.

A palatial lounge spread out above the current foyer, decked with lounges, mirrors and pot plants, for the enjoyment of the higher-paying customers. Above that was a gentlemen’s smoking lounge, lined with armchairs and padded benches.

And this was just the public face of the Capitol. Backstage, a lofty five-storey fly tower held sets and backdrops for live performances. A Wurlitzer organ lifted out of the floor at the start of each performance, with the pipes artfully hidden in rooms above the stage. And small offices, nooks and crannies throughout the venue were used for management and maintenance.

What happened to this palace of dreams? In a word, progress. In the 1960s, the original street level foyer and stalls were demolished, to be replaced by the nondescript shopping arcade that exists today. In the process, many doorways and stairwells were bricked up.

The dress circle and upper circle lounges were separated from the auditorium by concrete block walls, and a concrete slab filled one of the foyer voids, so they could be turned into lettable spaces. One became a knitting factory, while the other was a pharmacy storeroom for a while.

In the cinema auditorium, a new section of seating extended the dress circle down to the level it sits at today, slightly higher than the old stalls. A large airconditioning duct snaked its way down former stairs and through the backstage area.

The “new” Capitol was a shadow of its former self. Still, it lived on as a cinema, passing through the hands of major chains. Chinese films had a run as well, but the single screen venue became uncompetitive with the new breed of multiplex.

Though Melbourne’s international film and comedy festivals used it for special occasions, a new threat suddenly loomed. In the mid-1990s, it was suggested the cinema be walled up, to allow further retail development. It would still exist, but be inaccessible to the public.

Outcry ensued, a white knight was looked for, and in 1999 RMIT University stepped in. Its nearby business department needed a large auditorium for lectures and other uses, and the Capitol filled the need. For once, practical considerations, the public good and public relations all happily coincided. RMIT gained a new venue and the kudos for rescuing a grand old lady in need of a saviour.

As a bonus, previously sealed-off “hidden areas” have been discovered since RMIT took the place over and instituted a renovation program.

Luckily, it’s possible to get a glimpse at these areas which were closed for so long. One Friday each month, volunteer guides lead tours of the Capitol, including some of the hidden areas; if interested, you can book for a prized place on a tour by ringing 03 9925 2415 (international +61-3-99252415).

It’s the chance to meet an unlikely survivor of the city’s past, hidden above the streets; and an intriguing reminder of Melbourne’s 20th century architectural history.

Friday 5 June 2009

The Unpublished 6: Roman Holiday

Ancient monuments and exceptional gelati were my obsessions in this piece I wrote after visiting Rome some years ago. I never did get around to submitting it to any publications, but now this tale of saltimbocca, theatre, pickpockets and temple cats can be told...

Standing on the edge of the Piazza Rotonda, I have an instant sense of Rome’s appeal. The square is home to the ancient Pantheon temple, flirting waiters and spectacularly-priced caffe lattes.

The sun is shining and there are Vespa scooters tearing up and down the street outside, so what more is there to desire?

Perhaps the exceptional cioccolato gelato on sale throughout the city. If chocolate ice cream can be this good in Italy, why not everywhere in the world?

Federico Messina from website Live in Rome reveals the secret. “Traditional Italian gelati is only prepared with fresh ingredients,” he says. “Cream based flavours like chocolate, stracciatella, gianduia and nocciola are made with fresh milk and egg yolks. Fruit flavours only use ripened, tasty fruit.”

And once you’ve eaten saltimbocca alla Romana like the gold-digging gal in Three Coins in a Fountain, you can die happy.

Saltimbocca is one of Rome's most renowned meat dishes,” continues Messina. “It literally means ‘jump in the mouth’. Its combination of veal with sage and prosciutto shouldn’t be missed. Yet the most traditional Roman meat is lamb. Either baked with olive oil, garlic, rosemary and served with roasted potatoes, or cooked in a casserole with wine.”

Appetite piqued, we have dinner before taking in the opening night of Shakespeare's famous play Antonio e Cleopatra in a venerable theatre shaped like a very tall horseshoe, with the stage at the horse's heel.

I vaguely expect to see some local policemen on stage, if only because the Roman police have fantastically ornate uniforms... suggesting they might patrol in the mornings and appear in light opera in the afternoons. But what we get instead are bare boards, burning candelabra and a sexy cast in little black numbers and Zegna suits. “In mare!” cries Antony, meaning “At sea!” and we pat ourselves on the back for spotting a line we can translate.

On the way home via the Metro, I have a close encounter with a pickpocket clutching a baby, the calling card of the cutpurse across Europe. Danger averted just in time, I decide to dismiss the incident as one of those colourful moments that litter a traveller's life; and have a gelato to round the evening off.

That’s Rome, full of risk and delight. Lying flat on the grass on the Palatine Hill, taking a rest in the ruins of imperial palaces. Feeling like cast members of Prospero's Books, as we stroll through one curious gallery after another in the Vatican Museum. Finding Egyptian obelisks in the centre of endless baroque piazzas. And discovering a multitude of cats in temple ruins in the centre of the city (who end up appearing in my debut novel many years later).

La dolce vita? More like la stimolante vita, from my point of view.

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current gelati situation before travelling to Rome.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.