Australia: For summer in the city go south

Winter sun isn't just about the beach. Why not take an urban break? You'll only have to go to the other side of the world. Stephen Fay went to Melbourne

People who live in Melbourne love the place. They are intensely loyal to their neighbourhoods. After all, one of their best-known exports isNeighbours.

Melbourne is not Sydney. One indicator is the small selection of guides. The shelves are full of books about Sydney; precious few about Melbourne. Terry Lane, the deputy director of the National Gallery of Victoria, says Melbourne typically looks inwards rather than outwards. To discover its good qualities, we will need to learn of them directly from the natives.

This quest begins on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy neighbourhood, north of the Central Business District. The street, close to the university, is lined with restaurants, bars, and second-hand bookshops. I was lunching in the Pizzeria ai Bimbo. The emphasis was on the pizza rather than bimbos and the conversation was earnest. There were four of us, an historian, a restaurant writer, a novelist and me. The subjects were food, sport and crime. Sport and food are obsessions in Melbourne. A visitor who had no taste for either could be wasting their time.

Shane Maloney, an accomplished Melbourne crime writer, reports that the effect of legalising gambling and prostitution removes two principal causes of crime. Drugs have become more troublesome since the steady supply of marijuana from farms in New South Wales shut down and dealers switched to chemical alternatives. Competing Vietnamese gangsters kill each other from time to time, but the citizens feel safe.

Maloney is less reassuring on the climate: "Melbourne's weather teeters for ever on the brink. If it is warm, a cool change is expected. A day of rain bisects a month of shine. Summer arrives unseasonably early, inexplicably late, or not at all."

Stephen Downes is a fierce restaurant critic, proud that he refuses to tip, but unreservedly enthusiastic about his hometown's cuisine. "Melbourne's brasserie cooking is as good as any in the world," he says. Outsiders assume that Melbourne owes its reputation as a culinary capital to post-war immigration from the Mediterranean. Not so, says Downes decisively. The most original cooking is done by Australians using excellent raw materials and native wit.

He writes names in my notebook. I started at the The Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel on the southern bank of the Yarra river in the Crown casino complex. First course: a risotto with zucchini flowers; main course: the duet of beef, a delicate alliance of tenderloin and braised ox cheek. Some glasses of Shiraz from Mount Langhi Ghiran, a fine vineyard in the Grampians in north-west Victoria. It was the best brasserie meal I can remember. (For two, the bill would be about £60, towards the top end of restaurant prices in Melbourne.)

Downes also mentioned La Luna, where I ate good food in a striking architectural setting in Rathdowne Street in Carlton. La Luna is in a house with straight lines, terracotta stucco and big windows that allow diners to bathe in the fine evening light. Neither of these brasseries is listed in the Lonely Planet guide. Nor is Downes's third suggestion: The Grand on Burnley Street in Richmond.

A visit to the Queen Victoria Market on Elizabeth Street will help diners appreciate the range of meat, fish and vegetables available to chefs. It's good for a late breakfast too.

The historian at ai Bimbo was Garrie Hutchinson, whose book sales speak volumes about what matters in Melbourne. His history of a game which, until recently, was played hardly at all outside Melbourne, has sold 150,000 copies. The subject is Australian Rules Football and the teams come from neighbourhoods such as Carlton, Footscray and Essendon. No one in Melbourne is short of conversation during the football season.

My conversation with Hutchinson began with a sharp correction. I had always assumed that Aussie Rules was derived from Gaelic football. On the contrary, he said, the Irish adapted their game from the Australian model, which is one of the oldest organised team sports anywhere.

Aussie Rules is fast and rough, and played using hands and feet on the large open spaces of an oval cricket field. (It is the only team sport in Australia in which Aborigines star.) Melbourne is also an international sporting capital: the Boxing Day Test, Open Tennis in January, the Formula 1 Grand Prix in March, and, in November, Australia's great horserace, the Melbourne Cup, which attracts a crowd of 150,000 to a city of just 3.2 million.

On these great sporting occasions Melbourne is en fête. But the truth is that Melbourne's spectators will watch anything competitive. Roy Reed, the chief sports writer of the evening paper, the Herald Sun, recalls a powerboat race half a mile off St Kilda. He found it remarkable that some specks in the distance were being watched from the beach by 10,000 spectators.

A little over 100 years ago, Melbourne was what it aspires to be now. Within 50 years of its foundation in 1835, it was one of the world's great cities, its prosperity fuelled by trade, gold, wheat and wool. But a slump in 1893 ended its golden age, leaving the city with the virtues of strong municipal government and fine Victorian neo-classical architecture. See the Treasury Building on Spring Street; the Town Hall on Swanston Street, and the Royal Exhibition Centre on Nicholson Street.

The most interesting modern buildings house the two collections of the National Gallery of Victoria. If you share Terry Lane's opinion, this is proper: "Art is the new religion," he says. "Galleries are its cathedrals." In one of his Murray Whelan mysteries, Shane Maloney writes: "In a city without distinguishing landmarks - no opera house, no harbour - the National Gallery is the closest thing to a civic icon."

The international collection is in a windowless, grey, rectangular building in bluestone basalt, behind a moat on the road to St Kilda. It contains good examples of virtually all the great artists: The prizes are a great Tiepolo and a memorable Poussin.

The NGV's comprehensive Australian collection is to be found in Melbourne's most controversial new development, a group of buildings straddling the main railway lines into Flinders Street Station. Lane describes it as one of the last post-modern buildings. Designed by Lab architectural studio of London, the buildings are faced with broken metal surfaces in patterns of pink and grey. The best of the collection's paintings relate settlers to their landscape: Tom Roberts's sheep-shearers, Frederick McCubbin's wistful memory of the hardships of early settlers; Sidney Nolan's brilliantly coloured landscapes in northern Australia, and Arthur Boyd's electrifying religious fantasies in Australian settings.

"Great painting, world-class sport, brilliant cuisine, fine local wine". That's all they need to put on the side of Melbourne's trams.

The author travelled to Melbourne courtesy of British Airways (0870 850 9850; and Tourism Victoria ( BA offers return flights from Heathrow to Melbourne from £754. He stayed at the The Lindrum (00 61 3 9668 1111) on Flinders Street and in the Carlton Vibe Hotel (00 61 3 9668 1111). Double rooms at the hotels cost £107 and £61 per night, respectively.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent