After a leisurely breakfast at the Toorak Melanie and I decide to hoof it into town like, well like a couple of idiots. The dreaded Today Show forecasts have borne out – it’s hot and humid in Melbourne, and when the sun breaks through the clouds the walking gets to be pretty uncomfortable. Plus Toorak’s a few miles out of the downtown area. The better plan would have been to study the transit maps and taken either bus, train, or streetcar, all of which are abundant on these busy roads headed into town. Giant green electric streetcars are everywhere – this is the most extensive public transit system I’ve ever seen.
But we do get to pause at a few lush parks along the way.
Old Melbourne Gaol, built in the mid-nineteenth century to contain Melbourne’s burgeoning Gold Rush criminal element. The jailhouse has been pretty much out of commission since 1929 (save for housing soldiers caught AWOL in World War 2), and it’s now a museum crowded on all sides by the city’s engineering college.
The layout reminds us of our visit to Alcatraz, with its multiple levels of cells surrounding a tall narrow central corridor. The doors are thick stone rather than iron bar, and lend this facility a clunkier feel.
There are a number of interesting exhibits in the museum describing various punishment methods, the rope-length calculation tables used by the hangman, and the women who made up a significant portion of the population. One gruesome tradition was that of the “death mask”, a cast made of the condemned after his visit to the gallows. A number of masks are on display in the cells along the first floor, with detailed narrations posted alongside the silent faces.
Ned Kelly was the most famous of the nineteenth-century bushrangers, Australia’s answer to the American West’s outlaws. Ned’s something of a Robin-Hood-style national hero – at one point the Kelly Gang destroyed the loan records in a bank they robbed, freeing the townspeople of their debt. He and his brothers banged out iron body armor for themselves in anticipation of one last stand against the police; the armor proved cumbersome and all were killed save for Ned, who was brought down with multiple wounds to the arms and legs. He was hanged in the Gaol in 1880, a few yards away from where his mother was being held for clubbing a policeman. Ned was 25 years old.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints lobbed across the Pacific about the quality of Fosters – from the U.S. ad campaign you’d think it would be as big as Budweiser here, but it’s lost in the noise of VB, fourex, and a host of other native brews. I don’t even drink it much at home – the stuff made in Ontario doesn’t do much for me. But a couple of Australian-brewed bottles on a steaming day in Melbourne go down awfully well, and leave me staggering back into the hot afternoon sun without my hat, which I have to backtrack after a few blocks to retrieve.
Dark clouds are rolling in. I head off alone to Brunswick Street, noted in the guidebook as a bohemian zone, but find it pretty skanky – lots of barefoot drifters and ratty accommodations. After a leisurely stroll back down through the center of town I give up on walking and decide to take some kind of mass transit out of Flinders Street Station, but I’m bewildered by the railway maps and transfer options. After a few minutes of staring sleepily at the fare schedules a conductor volunteers to help me purchase a $1.50 ticket to the South Yarra station, which is a few blocks from the hotel. Getting to the train is another matter – the station is under construction and I have to follow platforms 5 and 6 under 7 to get to 9, or something like that. A train is ready to leave, I think I’m on platform 9 and I hop on, only to panic when the map indicates that the train is headed out to Tasmania or somewhere. I jump off at the first station, watching out for farecard enforcers, only to find that pretty much all trains go through South Yarra. I wait patiently for the next one.
This kind of confusion makes a man thirsty. On Chapel Street I stop at the , a swanky (but empty at 5PM) corner cigar bar in the heart of the shopping district. Over a VB I chat with the pretty bartender – she grew up along the Great Ocean Road and ran for the city when she realized she as destined to marry a sheep-shearer. Something about the smell sent her packing.
The skies open up. I order another VB.
Eric and Cindy’s laundry is hanging in the light rain getting wet again as I return to the hotel. All the places Andrew from Portofino recommended are booked this evening, so we take a cab to the on the busy beachfront strip in St.Kilda. On a Friday at 7PM it’s young professional mayhem in the wine bar, but a waiter motions us over to a quiet dining room off to the side – tall white walls, air conditioning, one open table. Another fine dinner, with an excellent avocado feta tureen and spicy risotto… a little on the pricy side but worth it.
We take in the nighttime bustle of St. Kilda. The sidewalk is crowded with young and not-so-young hipsters, musicians, chalk artists and people soaking up drinks at outside tables. Down at the beach someone is stamping out a giant four-letter word in the damp sand. There’s a party in a building at the far end of the lit pier, and distant light from the factories and chemical plants across the bay. We pass on the local-band-and-wrestling show and settle for sissy drinks outside – they mix up this Toblerone thing that kicks my butt. We join the masses choking the street hailing cabs, and things start to get hazy.