Having lived in Adelaide, South Australia just about all of my life, the anticipation of heading over the border into Victoria and on to Melbourne was always an exciting prospect. Long before the days of cheap flights, the most popular ways to get there was either a nine-hour road trip or by boarding the much loved ‘Overland’ railway. This was definitely a much slower, but infinitely more enjoyable way to make the journey, as there was always something special about traveling in the cool of the night and then lifting the blind in the morning to allow the sun to stream into your sleeper compartment (if you were lucky enough to have one), while the train leisurely rolled into Spencer Street Station. Sadly, those regular overnight runs to Melbourne are no more, having been replaced by a twice weekly day trip, which although still popular, seem somewhat at odds with the fast paced, discounted price of modern air travel. The term ‘air-bus’ probably best describes the convenience of such flights; arriving and departing with constant regularity and with a casualness that belies the achievement of just getting one of those big metal birds into the sky! What is also lost these days is the sense of ‘the journey’ that encapsulates experiences that are often missed when traveling ‘over’ rather than ‘through’ the landscape.
So it was with memories of our many enjoyable road trips to Melbourne that Jules and I decided to embark on yet another sojourn across the border. As we had done so many times before, we would drive south-east through the scenic Coonawarra wine region, through sheep and logging fields near Casterton, skirt the Grampian Mountains and wind our way through the gold fields of Victoria before hitting the western suburbs of Melbourne, that seem to begin somewhere around Bacchus Marsh these days. Reminiscent of the ‘Wizard of Oz’, we had followed the yellow brick road and finally arrived in the Emerald City!
Melbourne these days is a very different place than when I first visited the Victorian capital in the late 70’s. It was winter or possibly early spring (it is often hard to tell the difference) and my first impression was of a dull, monochromatic cityscape not unlike the visual depiction by John Brack in his famous painting ‘Collins Street, 5.00pm’. Sure, there was a vibrant art and music scene starting to emerge, but for all intents and purposes, such indulgent, anti-establishment activities remained very much under the surface, overshadowed by the long-term legacy of the conservative Henry Bolte era (Victoria’s longest serving Liberal Party Premier). However, what was particularly apparent, in comparison to Adelaide then and now, was the sheer size of Melbourne. This was truly a ‘big city’, evident by the physical scale of its buildings, the griminess of its streets, the wealth of its businesses and the smell of ambition from a multi-cultural working class eager to make its mark in this ever expanding metropolis. It seemed at the time that there would be no stopping Melbourne and indeed that has proven to be the case.
Over the years both its population and the formidable vision for the city has continued to grow; expanding upon what was already there and happily taking from the other states, the things that weren’t. There are still plenty of people in Adelaide smarting over the loss of the Australian Grand Prix, while over the years we have also reluctantly handed over the mantle of ‘Australia’s Arts Capital’. Melbourne’s skyline has changed too, with plenty of seriously high apartment buildings surrounding the Yarra River and the once industrial Docklands area, resulting in a sizeable inner city population that continues to add vibrancy to the city well beyond its business hours. Likewise, the building of Federation Square with its series of awkward angled buildings signaled that Melbourne wasn’t just a haven for sport (although all facets are amply catered for), but also celebrated creativity in all its forms. While full acceptance of this inner city cobblestone square took some time, it is now recognized as a vital city landmark catering for all manner of outdoor public events and remains a popular meeting place for all Melbournians.
While some cities have in recent times decided to decommission their tram systems, thankfully Melbourne had the good sense to retain its wonderful network. Jules and I once again enjoyed such trips this time around, as we were transported quickly and efficiently to the attractions of the near suburbs. Our only lament has been the demise of the old tram conductors who used to rattle off directions to just about anywhere in the city with friendly banter, while always keeping the fare dodger honest. Nonetheless, the tram service remains one of the delights of Melbourne and seemingly arrives with next to no time to wait.
While this particular trip to Melbourne included neither a visit to a sports event or a theatrical show, as is often the case, it did incorporate several of our other indulgences. For me it’s the many galleries and museums while for Jules there is the great selection of shopping. Of course one of the great joys of traveling to Melbourne remains our common love of restaurants and bars, which are always plentiful and ever changing. It has certainly come a long way from the days of basic pub food and the ‘6.00pm swill’! The multi-cultural nature of the city and the discerning taste of the public ensure that quality international cuisine can be found down every street and also in some of the most tucked away places.
While Melbournians appear to quite blasé about their city, they can feel rightfully proud of what it has become. Many may be too young to remember the way it was or simply hadn’t noticed its gradual transformation from grey to colour, as it evolved into one of Australia’s great destinations. Maybe we have noticed it more than most, as Melbourne still remains our most visited city. Yet for us it has always been the anticipation of the journey as much as the destination. We have always looked forward to our jaunts to Melbourne and they have never disappointed. With this thought in mind we boarded our ‘air bus’ and within 45 minutes we were again back in Adelaide… there really is no place like home!