Friday 26 March 2010

Melbourne Historical App: A Day on the Rails

On Australia Day, Tuesday 26 January 2010, the rest of Australia had a day off. I worked, catching trains all over Melbourne's suburban rail network in order to take photos to accompany the text in my iPhone app, Melbourne Historical.

This iPhone guidebook to Melbourne's historical curios contained a lot of items in central and inner-suburban Melbourne, which I'd already dealt with on foot and by tram. Now I had the more far-flung items to take snaps of.

As it was a public holiday, it also seemed a good opportunity to test Melbourne's troubled new public transport smartcard, Myki. It wasn't yet authorised for use on trams and buses (and we're still waiting), but it was OK for use on trains.

And there was one big advantage over the current magnetic-strip Metcards - unlike Metcard, Myki recognises public holidays, allowing all-day use across the city for a mere $3.

So I hit the rails - here's what I ended up with, and how it ended up looking in the Melbourne Historical app.

Here's my first stop at the end of the Williamstown Line - the 1852 Timeball Tower in Williamstown, Melbourne's old port to the southwest of the city across Port Phillip Bay:

Next I backtracked to the pleasant and very gentrified suburb of Yarraville, in Melbourne's west, to take a few snaps of the beautiful 1938 Sun Theatre, an art deco cinema still in operation:

I then grabbed a coffee at the excellent Corner Shop cafe opposite the cinema, relieved that it was open on a public holiday. Jumped on a city-bound train with my coffee, changed platforms at Footscray to the Sydenham Line, then headed west to Sunshine.

This shot of the famous Sunshine Harvester that was once manufactured in the suburb was a difficult one to get. The public library where it was displayed was closed, so I took the pic on zoom through the locked glass doors:

Next, a train all the way back to North Melbourne, where I switched to the Upfield Line and was taken north to Batman Station (no, it's not named after the caped crusader). Walked to the most sinister of the day's photo opps, the former Pentridge Prison in Coburg, built in 1850:

I walked on, somewhat fried in the hot sun, to Coburg Station then caught a train back to the city centre's Flinders Street station, where I switched to the Belgrave Line for Burnley Station in the inner east. Here's a shot of my next target, the former Burnley Theatre (built 1928) on Swan Street, which is now a furniture retailer:

Then I saw a tram approaching, and couldn't be bothered walking back to Burnley Station when escape from the heat was close at hand. I jumped aboard for the short journey to Richmond Station, and managed to naughtily validate my Myki card in contravention of regulations (it worked just fine).

Finally, from Platform 1 at Richmond Station, I was able to gain an uninterrupted view southward to the Nylex Clock. This combined digital clock/temperature gauge was erected in 1961 atop former grain silos, and has become the most unlikely of Melbourne icons:

A good day's work I think, and a diverse selection of the city's remnants of the past! If you're interested in my Melbourne Historical iPhone app, you can see screenshots and find out more here:

Friday 19 March 2010

Cafes of Melbourne 2: Northern Lights

Coffee = Melbourne = coffee, OK? Here's the second instalment of the Melbourne cafe guide I wrote a few years ago.

It's since vanished from the website it was written for, but is still of caffeinista interest.

This week, I visit cafes of the inner north...

University Cafe
257 Lygon St, Carlton
+61 3 9347 2142

Open since 1951, this cafe was one of the first places to serve espresso to an unsuspecting Melbourne public still fond of tea and biscuits. Not too much has changed in that time... the cafe’s wooden tables are still filled with the diverse mix of characters you find in Carlton – students, tourists, businessmen, locals, and weather-beaten old Italian men enjoying a quick heart-starter in the company of friends.

The informality and bustle of the place is the key to its success, and it’s a great place to meet friends before heading off to one of the many restaurants along the street. The keynote of the cuisine is its traditional Italian food. Lunch and dinner menus offer the usual pastas, with the more adventurous satisfied by dishes involving quails or oven-baked layered eggplant.

Summary: For a classic European-style coffee outlet in the Italianate environs of Lygon Street, you can’t go past this café.

413 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
+61 3 9419 9103

The days when retro decor was at its height on Brunswick Street are long gone, and Fitzroy has been thoroughly gentrified. However, the suburb still retains some of the downbeat atmosphere of the '90s, and Retro is a prime exemplar.

A deep interior houses the biggest collection of laminex table-tops this side of a 1970s sitcom, and they’re matched by tan lampshades, bright orange kitchen chairs and multicoloured bar stools. Its street corner location is a gem, with seating spread around two sides of the café’s exterior, enabling high-level people-watching.

The staff are as friendly and relaxed as the décor, and the menu features good, straightforward café food like Turkish bread pizzas, pastas, risottos and a selection of salads. More unexpected dishes might include kangaroo marinated in shiraz, or citrus and chilli chicken breast on polenta.

Summary: This retro-styled cafe is a great place to relax and experience a '70s flashback.

359 Napier St, Fitzroy
+61 3 9417 2274

Set shyly back a couple of blocks from busy Brunswick Street, this corner-hugging cafe isn’t a place that relies on passing trade. It has an easygoing vibe, with decor including scuffed tabletops, Chinese lanterns, high-backed wooden chairs and a bar made out of old doors.

The outside tables allow a leisurely inspection of the occasional passer-by. As the name would suggest, there’s a hint of France to the cuisine. The blackboard menu presents a range of breakfast dishes a touch above the usual – a free range omelette with fresh herbs and onion marmalade, for example.

The more adventurous baguettes include fillings like Korean beef and kim chi, or Caribbean chicken and cranberry sauce. And there might well be a chocolate mousse on offer for dessert. Bon appetit!

Summary: This backstreet establishment is the very model of a neighbourhood cafe, with refreshingly imaginative food and good coffee.

Kent St
201 Smith St, Collingwood
+61 3 9419 6346

How hip can you get? This cafe-bar exudes the laidback charm of the retro cafes of old, but with a post-modern edge to the decor. Giant forest posters cover the lower walls, old-fashioned sofas are scattered about, and there’s a live feed of the outside street scene projected onto the space above the door.

There’s also abstract art on the walls, and a scattering of odd objet d’art pieces such as a doll wearing a transplanted teddy bear’s head. But there’s also something relaxing within the cutting-edge atmosphere, via the cafe’s dominant green and brown tones, and low mood lighting.

Summary: A slice of hipness among the eclectic shops of Smith Street.

193 Gertrude St, Fitzroy
+61 3 9416 1055

This Gertrude Street veteran has had a makeover or two along the way. Nowadays it’s a predominantly white space, contrasting with timber-topped tables and a striking brick wall at the rear of the light-filled interior. Arcadia is big on juices, with the menu featuring an array of fruity combinations.

The breakfast menu has some interesting innovations such as Shanghai eggs, made with chilli, oyster sauce and spring onion; and parmesan scrambled eggs with oven-roasted tomatoes. Lunch might include hot dishes like a pumpkin and sage risotto, or Moroccan lamb with rice. This is a good café to head to when the Brunswick Street pace gets too fast.

Summary: A good base from which to explore the shops and galleries of oh-so-cool Gertrude Street.

Note: As this article was researched some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current coffee situation before travelling to Melbourne.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Bangalow in Brief

A couple of weeks ago I went on a media trip to the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. These trips, in which a bunch of journalists are driven around in a minibus or the like, are typically fast and furious, covering a lot of ground.

This trip was no exception - we touched down at Ballina airport, then over three days were driven to Grafton and Nymboida, then back via Ballina to Byron Bay and onto Kingscliff, near the Queensland border.

On the way, we had a brief stopover at the small town of Bangalow, inland from the more famous seaside town of Byron Bay. Although it's not on the coast, Bangalow is gaining popularity both with travellers and tree-changers... in fact I noticed that a one-bedroom apartment located above the real estate agent's office was selling for nearly $500,000!

It's an attractive place however, with a vaguely between-the-wars look to the architecture and a profusion of tropical greenery half-hiding the buildings along the main street. Here's a look at some of the snapshots I took...

A Rail Runs Through It... As you can see from the pic, a branch railway line used to run through here and on to Byron Bay. A pity it's not still in use, as the derelict train station is conveniently located right behind the main street. Still, it makes for an evocative photo.

Pub With Two Names... This is the Byron Hotel - or is it the Bangalow Hotel? Actually it's the latter, presumably changed somewhere along the line due to confusion with nearby Byron Bay. By the way, Byron Bay isn't named after the "mad, bad and dangerous to know" poet Lord Byron, but after the much more respectable Vice-Admiral John Byron, his grandfather.

Any Old Iron... This shop selling antiques and collectibles is set behind the main street near the old train station. It does a good job of looking like a working man's supplier while actually catering for the weekend browsing set.

The Little Village That Could... The main drag of Bangalow, formerly part of the Pacific Highway but since bypassed. Nice, isn't it?

Shopping & Eating... I think the town has come along a bit since it was founded in the 1880s to support the timber industry, don't you?

The More Things Change... Now that's what I like to see in a rural eatery, versatility. Chicken caesar salad by day, tom kha gai by night - bliss.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Northern Rivers Tourism.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Bugged in Cambodia

What do you do when there are insects on the menu? This week's guest blogger, theatre critic Anne-Marie Peard, screws her courage to the sticking place and orders the bugs...

These days I try not to eat anything with two legs, four legs or fins, but the prospect of a snack with six legs sent my moral compass spinning. And what about eight?

Many adventurous travellers return from South East Asia with photos of insectoid treats from market stalls, but they can’t describe the taste of bug. Having scoffed at those who don’t eat like a local, I was determined to taste a grasshopper if I was offered one.

With traditional dishes like stir-fried ginger on the menu, it’s easy to be vegetarian in Cambodia, and as tourism is still finding its feet, it’s easy to find traditional Khmer food and expat-inspired cocktails at reasonable prices.

Deep fried rice cakes and banana pancakes made with condensed milk are delicious, but we all need some protein. Luckily, crickets, water beetles and silk worms are Cambodian staples that fill that need.

Grasshoppers in frame

My first sight of grasshoppers was on a plate waiting by a wok at Siem Reap’s old market. Having a touch of travel tummy, I was only swallowing diarrhoea tablets and water that day, so I took a photo.

At a bus stop on the way to Phnom Penh, I didn’t spot the pile of bugs atop a seller's head until I was back aboard, and was already chowing down on some deep fried sweet bread, so I took a photo out of the window.

But would the time for photos soon be past?

The capital Phnom Penh isn’t as sure about tourists as Siem Reap, with its ancient Angkor temples. Children call “hello money” at the sight of a foreigner, but stall owners at the city’s markets know that tourists are there to gander and most let them wander without offering too many t-shirts too often.

The food markets offer fresh meat ranging from turtle to beef and there’s always an entomologist’s dream stall. But no one offered me a taste. And after 20-plus years of passionate animal protection (I have been known to release cockroaches), I couldn’t really order and eat a bug just to prove my travel hipness.

Grasshoppers to go

However... a day later, I was slurping fresh sugar cane juice as a vat of grasshoppers was being fried on the side of the road. As scooter drivers were stopping for take away bags and pedestrians were tasting samples before choosing their afternoon snack, this was clearly a popular spot to get one's insect fix.

So it was time.

As the only foreigner around, I was hard to miss, but it took some waving and pointing to my mouth to get the attention of the old seller.

She chose a nice plump cricket and, as I pulled a face like a six-year-old facing brussel sprouts, she rubbed her belly to let me know it was good and delicately pulled its legs off. The legs weren’t the problem, it was the bulgy eyes and huge head of something that we tend to squish, spray and bin if it appears near our food.

She had seen many like me and went to throw the critter away, after I'd taken my close-up photo of it.

Perhaps it was stubbornness or a desire for a story that compelled me to continue. Or perhaps, after walking through the Killing Fields that morning, eating a bug seemed a trivial atrocity.

So I can report that grasshopper tastes a bit like chicken (yes, they all say that), with a texture like fried fish. I imagine that barbecued grasshoppers could replace chicken wings as pub food, and I now understand why my cats are excited when they catch a buggy treat.

Six legs good, eight legs bad

One was enough, though. My next food stop was at Romdeng, a famous restaurant that trains street kids and serves traditional Cambodian food.

A tamarind shake with shiitake mushroom and bean curd rolls in vegetable broth with crispy garlic and rice paddy leaves grabbed my eye. But... ah... could I handle a crispy tarantula with lime and pepper sauce? It was only US$3.50.

Tarantula is a Cambodian delicacy. The legs are crunchy, it’s best to remove the “teeth”, and the best bit is the juicy abdomen.

Or so I’ve been told.

In the end, I couldn’t do it. Such a beastie, large enough to be a pet, was too connected with my childhood fears to be eaten. But if you’re curious, the spiders are usually found in a bag next to the frying crickets, and Romdeng keeps them on the menu all year.

Anne-Marie Peard is a freelance writer who reviews Melbourne theatre at Sometimes Melbourne. She returned to her usual vegetarian intake upon returning to Australia, but sometimes gazes intently into the long grass while walking through city parks.

Monday 1 March 2010

Hobart: Epicurus Found

This week, part two of guest blogger Narrelle M Harris' quest for freedom, friendship and contemplation in Hobart, Tasmania…

Thanks to Alain de Botton, I know that the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus agreed that people needed to have the basics covered – a roof over their head, clothes to wear and enough to eat – but that true happiness was achieved through having good friends, personal freedom, and time for contemplation.

In the old days when I had a dull office job, holidays were for running around madly and packing as much excitement in as possible before returning to the drudgery.

While I still enjoy the odd stimulating holiday, my week in Hobart was specifically about slowing down. I even went so far as to leave my iPhone at home in Melbourne to take a break from the pressures of constant connectivity.

This was a big step; and I worried that I would pine without it.


Instead, I discovered that I could live without needing to know what the world was up to every damned second of the waking day. Every time a phone with my ringtone beeped in my vicinity, I would tense up, then relax as I realised it couldn’t possibly be for me. I didn’t know I had needed peace and quiet so much. Without the constant pull of Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal and email, I had time to take time.

I slept in every morning, an unheard of indulgence. I took long bubble baths and read Mills and Boon books, because it didn’t matter if I dropped them in the bath (I already knew how they’d end). I then realised that I’d rather read a proper book in the bath than ever touch another Mills and Boon, because you can’t relax in a bath when a book is making you angry. And then I learned that actually I could read a proper book in the bath without dropping it.

I sat at cafes and read in the sunshine; I lay on the grass at the Cascade Brewery and laughed out loud at Catherine Deveny’s brilliantly evil mind (expressed via her book Free to a Good Home). I sat, caught like a cat in a sunbeam, on an armchair in our hired apartment and read and read and read.

I’m a writer and a book lover, but somehow rarely find time to read. This trip, I read five great books (and three terrible romance novels, but I’m not really counting those). I have returned home with the resolution to set more time aside for reading, because if I don’t make the space for it, time will never magically appear.


I both met old friends and made new friends in Hobart. Without a phone, we had to arrange meetings with our Tassie friends the old fashioned way – setting a time and place and showing up as planned.

It was fun meeting up; not having to rush off, and without being interrupted by mobile phone calls that take us thoughtlessly from the people we are actually with, to someone who we could probably call back later.  We caught up on months and years of ideas and developments. I also met up with someone I knew only slightly and we talked for hours about writing.

I also made temporary friends on the buses, with charming locals who were only too pleased to help me find my way to the 1914 State Cinema.

I had a lovely natter with the woman who had explained the local bus fares, and she told me about the property she and her husband were setting up with green power and organic crops while they worked part-time in the city. An older gentleman let me know when we’d reached my stop and then walked with me across the road and up the hill to the cinema. It was wonderful to have time to make time for strangers, who had so kindly made time for me.


And there was the time I spent with Tim, reading in companionable silence; walking the three kilometre trail through the Hobart Rivulet Linear Park to the brewery while we discussed life and nature; enjoying simple meals; and going to Wrest Point Casino see the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra perform with The Whitlams after Tim bought the tickets on impulse.

Since I returned, I’ve had time to contemplate further; I know now I don’t need to be so compulsively attached to the Internet, and I need to make time for reading.

Hobart was the perfect Epicurean getaway for me; filled with good company, freedom from schedules and demands, simple but excellent meals, and the time to appreciate them all.

Find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her other published work.

[read part one of Narrelle's Hobart experience here]