Thursday 24 February 2011

Melbourne Literary 1: Story of a Bookish City

This week's guest blogger is fantasy novelist Narrelle M Harris, author of the Melbourne Literary app for the iPhone and iPad.

Melbourne, Australia is a UNESCO City of Literature, which means it’s packed to the gills with wonderful bookshops, writers, publishers and writing organisations. 

Basically, it’s a word nerd’s paradise; so when I decided to create an iPhone/iPad application, Melbourne Literary, to showcase all the wonderful wordy things about Melbourne, it was easy to know where to start. Let me share with you a few of my favourite literary things...

State Library of Victoria
328 Swanston St, Melbourne
Ph: +61 3 8664 7000

The State Library is glorious. Elegant architecture, a superb collection of reference material, an atmosphere steeped in radical, deep, amazing thoughts and ideas – what’s not to adore? The domed reading room is bathed in natural light and fitted out with gorgeous wooden tables with power points, so you can use your high-tech in a classic setting.

As the icing on this cake, the State Library also contains the Wheeler Centre and a number of associated writing organisations offering a calendar of literary talks and events.

You can replenish your reading strength at the café attached to the north wing, Mr Tulk (named after the institution's first librarian).On sunny weekends, you can sprawl on the slope of lush green grass out the front and read, spy on what the other loiterers are reading, or watch the pigeons despoil the statuary.

Miss Marple’s Tea Room
382 Mount Dandenong Tourist Rd, Sassafras
Ph: +61 3 9755 1610

This old-fashioned tea room out in the Dandenong Ranges is kind of cheesy, I know, but I have a sentimental attachment to Miss Marple’s. It’s one of the first placed I visited when I first moved to Melbourne, in the company of dear friends who were making us welcome to our new home town.

I can’t resist the call of waitresses dressed as respectable English parlour maids, serving giant freshly-baked scones while photographs of Miss Marple cast a benevolent yet spritely eye over the proceedings.

Miss Marple’s always reminds me of one of the later Marple books, At Bertram’s Hotel, because Bertram’s was also an establishment that operated long past its appropriate time period. It’s a bit touristy, but it’s also a bit like theatre. We’re all play-acting in the background of a Christie novel. And the scones are delicious.

252 Swanston St, Melbourne
Ph: +61 3 9663 2015

On the third floor of one of Melbourne’s ‘vertical laneways’ is my favourite place to find gifts for people who allegedly have everything. I first visited Metropolis when it lived on Acland Street in St Kilda. The current shop’s loftier elevation has provided it with more light through large windows.

The shelves are chock full of books on design, art, burlesque, music, mid-20th century advertising and quirky greeting cards. When I have no idea what to get for someone, I visit Metropolis and find something unexpected and fascinating. And then I have to make myself give it away.

The Drunken Poet
65 Peel St, West Melbourne
Ph: +61 3 9348 9797

Actually, I only discovered the Drunken Poet after I had started compiling the Melbourne Literary app. I went along to a friend’s farewell drinks to discover a lovely little pub with a lively, friendly atmosphere, framed faces of poets lining the walls and no television. Let me say that again – NO TELEVISION.

I am, sadly, a bit easily distracted by colourful things moving about in my peripheral vision, so the infestation of television sets in pubs, with the sound turned down but flickering away, both distracts and irritates me. At The Drunken Poet, there are no distractions from good company and a decent beer, unless you count the occasional live band.

I've only identified about half the poets that hang on the walls, but I’m content knowing Oscar Wilde is gazing down upon us, no doubt wondering why we’re all talking such rubbish...

Next week: Narrelle continues her exploration of Melbourne's literary gems, including a magically-gifted dessert, a group of crime-loving women, and an alleyway full of mysterious words. If you're interested in finding out more about Narrelle's Melbourne Literary app, click here:

Tuesday 22 February 2011

The Alphabet Dinners: A is for Arda

Two lady novelists are responsible for this new twist in my blogging.

The first is Narrelle Harris, my other half and author of the fabulous vampire novel The Opposite of Life (ask for it at all good bookshops). Because Narrelle takes herself off each Tuesday night to a writing lair elsewhere in the city, I'm at a loose end after spending all day working at home.

The other is Agatha Christie. The earliest work of hers I read was The ABC Murders, a chilling account of a serial killer who selected his victims purely by the alphabetical order of their names.

I liked this arbitrary device. So I've decided that, on Tuesday evenings when I'm in Melbourne, I'll select a restaurant from The Age Cheap Eats guide, eat there and blog about it. And I'll select each eatery - follow me closely here - in alphabetical order.

So... this week A is for Arda, a Turkish restaurant in Caulfield, reached by a train to Elsternwick then a number 67 tram. While I was waiting for the delayed 67, a strange apparition appeared - an old wooden W-Class Tram, marked as a number 78 and clearly very lost. I dared not step aboard, lest it prove the Flying Dutchman of trams, doomed forever to trundle through the city's southeast backwaters.

The restaurant was your standard suburban ethnic eatery, with fairly plain tables in a narrow shopfront, but also with a lengthy menu of kebab and 'Turkish pizza' variants.

First up, a side of tabouli (above). The parsley was cut a bit coarser than usual, but I liked it like that - gave it a hint of homemade authenticity. A little too salty, but lots of crunchy texture.

Then the main, iskender kebab. I'd had this before at our local Turkish when we lived in Richmond years ago. It consists of strips of lamb, sliced from the rotisserie I assume, layered with yoghurt and a piquant tomato sauce, all on top of chunks of soft Turkish bread. Very tasty.

A dash of this chilli sauce added just a bit more bite, and contrasted nicely with the soothing yoghurt.

And for dessert, Turkish delight and Turkish coffee. Breaking my (poorly enforced) moratorium on caffeine after midday, but what the hell.

The Bill: $30.50
The Restaurant: Arda, 619 Glenhuntly Rd, Caulfield; ph 03 9530 0193.

Friday 18 February 2011

Pieces of Daylesford

Since the 19th century, the twin towns of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs, about 90km northwest of Melbourne, have attracted visitors wanting a brief escape from urban life.

The big drawcard, then and now, were the spa waters associated with the famous bathhouse in Hepburn Springs. The towns are also popular for their upmarket accommodation and dining.

For some reason, I hadn't been to Daylesford for six years before I dropped in last month for a few nights' stay. Partly I was there to write food and accommodation reviews for some of my regular outlets; and I was also fitting the last few pieces into my new iPhone/iPad app, Melbourne Getaways.

This travel guide for the smartphone lists over 200 sleeping, dining, shopping and sightseeing attractions outside Melbourne, and I had to include Daylesford's best places in the mix.

What did I find in Daylesford after such a long absence? Here's a small random sample...

1. The lemon verbena crème brûlée at the restaurant I reviewed for The Age, Perfect Drop. Just sensational.

2. This pig was decorating the pavement outside a garden nursery named Secret Garden.

3. Some of the handmade chocolates on sale at Chocorex, a new shopping centre inside the shell of the former Rex cinema.

4. I like a touch of communist retro design, but I didn't expect to find it in well-heeled Hepburn Springs. This is the exterior of the Red Star cafe.

5. Fancy spa! Set into a higher section of the split-level interior of my flash accommodation, Elira. The base is even ridged specifically so you can sit back comfortably and watch the TV in the next room.

6. Sometimes it's worth looking up. Here's the ornate ceiling of the Gourmet Larder cafe.

7. Finally, here's a close-up on the Alice in Wonderland chess pieces in my final accommodation, the fancy cottage called Hudson on Wombat.

(For more details of these and other Daylesford drawcards, download my Melbourne Getaways app)

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Tourism Victoria.

Saturday 12 February 2011

The Teardrop of Agra

Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj Mahal as "a teardrop on the face of eternity", and his elegant phrasing came irresistibly to mind when I visited the famous Moghul tomb on Wednesday.

I arrived near the west gate of the complex before dawn on a chilly morning, dropped off by a tuk-tuk after a ride through scrappy narrow streets, dodging the rare passer-by and stray wandering dogs. Now I had to walk 200 metres or so down a dark laneway past closed restaurants and budget hotels to the gate.

There was a short queue waiting for the ticket office to open; so others had been told it was best to arrive early, before the dreaded tour groups arrived on day trips from Delhi. We waited in the cold night air under a slowly lightening sky set with stars, the Muslim call to prayer resounding nearby. It was, needless to say, atmospheric. And that was just the wait to buy tickets.

The Taj itself was marvellous; and, I was pleased to discover, just as beautiful close up as when seen from a distance across its ornamental ponds and gardens.

I won't write more here; rather, let me share some of my images of this stunning place, as the light subtly changed over a few hours in the early morning...

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled to India courtesy of Thai Airways

Friday 4 February 2011

Delhi: Waiting for The Moment

New Delhi, India’s capital, is paradoxically both a very walkable city and a difficult place to get around on foot.

It’s walkable because the British built the spanking new capital for their Indian empire (inaugurated unwittingly in the last years of The Raj in 1931) on a very flat landscape south of old Delhi, and linked it with straight roads meeting at circular intersections.

That these roads are largely lined with shade trees, particularly in the residential areas, is another positive for the stroller.

There are some fine things to be seen on a walk through New Delhi’s streets. Yesterday, on a cool winter morning, I took a long walk from the Taj Mahal Hotel up to the monumental India Gate erected for India’s war dead after World War I; headed west along the broad ceremonial avenue known as the Rajpath toward the President’s residence; then north past the 18th century Jantar Mantar observatory into the commercial area centred on the concentric circles of Connaught Place.

It was an interesting walk, but with two challenges for the determined walker.

The first are the very many citizens of Delhi who wish to sell to the passing tourist their goods or services. Though generally good natured, they are persistent and it can be a challenge deciding how to deal with the non-stop offers, especially as you approach the touts’ paradise around Connaught Place.

In the course of a few hours I was offered many taxi rides and shoe shines, and a variety of products including the portable head massager, a kind of flexible metal whisk which is pushed down over your head to stimulate your scalp.

These traders can be a nuisance due to their sheer numbers. If you’re not interested in what they’re selling, however, a polite negative and then a steely determination not to engage any further, moving forward relentlessly, seems to do the trick.

The other challenge is not so easy to dismiss: the ferocious traffic which makes crossing a road here seem a Herculean task. There are many painted pedestrian across roads where there are no traffic lights, so there’s no guarantee of an enforced pause. At other places, there’s no designated crossing but a need to get across.

Standing for the first few times at the edge of a seemingly unceasing traffic flow, I felt puzzled as to how to proceed. Usually I’d keep an eye on my fellow pedestrians and cross (sometimes at speed) with them.

Then, on my own, I observed the traffic more closely and realised that the key was in recognising one thing: The Moment.

Inevitable, no matter how busy the traffic flow, there would come a moment when then was a gap in its pattern, long enough to allow one to get across the road. Sometimes The Moment was very clear - a large break in the traffic that allowed me to briskly walk across.

At other times The Moment might require a quick sprint. And there was occasionally The Hidden Moment: when the traffic flow seemed unabated but in fact contained a pattern of gaps that would allow one to alertly cross.

All the psychologists say we should be living more in the moment to aid our mental wellbeing. In New Delhi, being entirely focused on The Moment can also help you get around.

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled to New Delhi courtesy of Thai Airways and received discounted accommodation at the Taj Mahal Hotel.

Note: If visiting Delhi and feeling indisposed to walking, I recommend hiring taxi driver Kapoor by ringing local mobile number 099 58637588. He's a good driver who can be hired for a few hours for a negotiated fee, or for short trips at the usual taxi meter rate.