City Portrait: Australia

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Within 25 years of European settlement, the community that became Melbourne was home to 300,000 people. The gold-fueled frenzy made it the fastest growing city in the British Empire, and its prodigious wealth earned it the name Marvelous Melbourne. Is it still marvelous, or has rival Sydney stolen its cachet?

I'm marooned in Melbourne, sitting out the long Easter weekend. The motorcycle dealers are closed until Tuesday when I'll collect an Aprilia Futura to ride to Sydney on the Princes Highway. The irony is, Melbourne is Australia's most bike friendly city and marked 100 years of participation in motorcycling last November. Nothing for it but to cadge a ride downtown in my friend Barb's econo-box and do the tourist thing.

The first aspect of downtown Melbourne to attract my notice is its neat grid of roadways. Not surprisingly, a military surveyor, Robert Hoddle, was responsible for the pattern, drafting broad boulevards interspersed with narrow lanes. This allowed access to the stables that Hoddle assumed every household would need. High-rises loom over those narrow alleys, many now converted into arcades and restaurants. It's a pleasing arrangement, offering comforting intimacy in human scale amid the sterile skyscrapers.

Batman and robbers
In 1835, rival entrepreneurs crossed the Bass Strait from Tasmania, both planning to settle at the mouth of the Yarra River on Phillip Bay. John Pascoe Fawkner and John Batman agreed, after a brief standoff, that there was plenty of land to go around, assuming they could wrest it from the Aboriginal inhabitants, which they vigorously set about doing.

Batman always maintained he gained his land by treaty, with the usual mocking assemblage of trinkets traded in the exchange. Having no concept of land ownership, the natives were duped by a treaty inked with "signatures" suspiciously similar to Aboriginal tree markings found in Parramatta, New South Wales, where Batman was raised. However, he didn't live to benefit from his real estate con for long, succumbing four years later to alcoholism and syphilis in 1839. John Fawkner went on to become Melbourne's loved-and-hated city father, an irascible newspaperman, property tycoon and publican. Statues on Collins Street honor both men.

Nearby is the Rialto building, Melbourne's tallest office tower, popular with tourists for the panoramic view from its rooftop observation platform. From the Rialto, Barb and I hop on the free City Circle tram. Most of Melbourne's landmarks are within the tram's twelve-by-nine block route. At each stop, our ebullient conductor bellows, "Climb aboard, it's free!" and startles tourists standing in the tram pick-up safety zones.

The trams dictate downtown traffic flow, always commanding right-of-way. This makes for Melbourne's unique "right turn from the left lane." To turn right (driving on the left, remember), you have to pull into the left lane and wait in the intersection for a light change before turning - crossing four lanes. Confusing? You bet!

"This will be the place for a village"
This, John Batman's proclamation on discovering the present site of Melbourne (say Melb'n, not Mel Born), quickly became an understatement. By 1850, the settlement (named for Lord Melbourne, the British Prime Minister and former husband of Lady Caroline Lamb, poet Lord Byron's mistress) had grown to house 10,000. The state of Victoria, with Melbourne its capital, was formed in 1851, just in time for Australia's gold rush. The ensuing years saw Melbourne flourish and then decline with the waning of gold-field fortunes. Claiming to be the world's youngest city of its size, Melbourne now boasts four million residents.

We hop off the tram at Federation Square, opposite Flinders Street Station where generations of Aussies have met their sweethearts under the station's clocks, just as they do in great railway stations anywhere. Named to celebrate Australia's confederation in 1901, the Square displays radically modern architecture in the National Gallery of Victoria and the Centre for the Moving Image buildings. Geometric slabs of sandstone, zinc and glass envelope the angular, asymmetric sites, as though Melbourne wanted to upstage Sydney's once controversial Opera House.

Melbourne vs. Sydney
Though Sydney is the older city, Melbourne claims more history. The nation's capital until Canberra was built for the job in the 1920's, Melbourne power brokers seem to envy the Sydney cachet, drive and energy. Melbourne is old money, Sydney new. Sydney has the Opera House, but Melbourne the Symphony Orchestra. Melbourne hosted the Olympics in 1956, 44 years before Sydney. Half a world away, think NYC and LA.

Leaving the angular architecture of the square, we saunter along the Yarra under shady gum trees toward the MCG, Melbourne's cricket ground. It's also home to Aussie Rules football ("footy"), another local preference (Sydney-siders favor rugby). Hoddle's designs for the city (and Fawkner's dictates) graced Melbourne with numerous parks and public spaces, a lesson for all urban planners.

Back on the tram, we loop through the city to the Docklands, where Melbourne's inner-city population growth is concentrated, a brave new world of condominium towers. The Yarra empties here into Phillip Bay, a massive natural harbor the size of Rhode Island. Later, Barb drives me out along the Mornington Peninsula on the Bay's east side. Long, broad beaches stretch toward Sorrento at the mouth of the Bay (and the site of its first immigrant settlement). Here's where Melbourners come to play, so even though Easter arrives here in late fall, the beaches are busy with windsurfers, sunbathers and sailboats.

I like Melbourne. It embraces the new while cherishing the old. It has history, but keeps it in perspective. Though lacking Sydney's dramatic instant appeal - and its more agreeable climate: Melbourne is cold and wet in winter, steamy in summer - it's a fine city, once described as "The Paris of the Antipodes." John Batman liked it too. "Land of the best description, equal to any in the world...the most beautiful sheep pasturage I ever saw in my life!"

I returned to Melbourne on the Futura a week later to visit Elizabeth Street. Here in two miraculous city blocks about a dozen motorcycle dealers huddle: it's the hub and spiritual heart of motorcycling in Victoria. Modak Motorcycles opened here selling used motorcycle parts in the 1920's and now specializes in parts for older English iron. But there's a full selection of modern brands available at the other stores. And because motorcyclists can park on the sidewalk in Melbourne, that's where the shop display is - outside on the sidewalk. Other cities please take note!