Saturday, July 24, 2010

Melbourne - Day 2

Waking up in the morning, I headed over to the train station, as Jake and I had arranged to meet at 10:45 in Federation Square. Arriving at just the wrong time, I had to wait for nearly half an hour for a train, but enjoyed sitting there, listening to the sound of the rain and the views of the misty city silhouette in the distance. I also struck up a conversation with a woman to ask about life in Melbourne.

Jake and I both arrived at Federation Square at close to the pre-determined time, which is quite impressive for many travellers, especially ones, like Jake, who has been wandering around the world for a few months or longer. We grabbed a burger and fries at a chain I had seen around Melbourne, "Lord of the Fries." It turned out to be surprisingly delicious and cheap, and only after a few bites did we realise that we had vegetarian burgers! All of a sudden, that big sign by the counter claiming that King of the Fries is now fully vegetarian suddenly makes sense! We wolfed down the food as fast as we could, as were were planning to attend a show starting at 11am.

As it turns out, Jake's friends had given him a fake (read: counterfeit) complementary ticket to films shown by ACMI. Since the tickets appeared to have been printed hastily, one side said "admit one," while in another section, it says "admit two." The people at the counter were quite friendly and welcoming, and they had no problems in letting both of us in. The only show these days is "Herb and Dorothy," a documentary about the Vogels, two art collectors in New York. Throughout their life, even though they did not earn much money, their passion had seen them amass an impressive art collection of thousands of pieces by famous artists, which was eventually donated to the National Gallery of Art. I quite enjoyed the film. The cinema itself was quite modern and well designed too, with lights coming through large lightning bolt-like patterns on the wall. When the lights came back on and we were walking out, I noticed that everyone else there was a senior! As it turns out, this was a "senior's cinema" show, specifically advertised to the senior audience!

After the film, we spent some time in the National Gallery of Victoria, which we did not get a chance the visit the day before. There were some good exhibits, and the facilities were quite spacious and modern, but I felt that the displays were a bit sparse. I feel that with some changes in the design and layout, they could have many more items on display for a facility of that size. But I suppose a state-of-the-art museum that is free to the public is nothing to complain about! What I did like about the gallery is that due to the layout, it wasn't just a museum, it was a social space, which is great in getting people to visit the facility. There were cafés on nearly every floor, and most of the cafés were quite alive and filled with people.

From here, we went on to visit The Shrine of Remembrance, the large war memorial in Melbourne. It was quite an impressive structure, with large stone pillars inside and carved motifs around the walls. There were also books of names of soldiers who had lost their lives (I think in World War I). There was an associated museum and a few chambers underground with statues and other memorials. There were small statues and memorials outside, around the grounds as well, including a small statue commemorating the horses who had died during the wars. Apparently, one of the main attractions of this shrine, which is quite touching in my opinion, is a plaque on the ground in the middle surrounded by a small ledge and covered with with some wreaths and flowers laid about it. On the plaque is written "GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN." On November 11th, Rememberance Day, at 11am (modifications with a mirror had to be installed after the introduction of daylight savings time), a ray of sunlight, coming through a hole in the roof, traces over the plaque and illuminates the word "LOVE." Apparently, people liked the idea so much that every hour, there is a "simulation" of the ray of light along with a short, three minute recorded service. I thought the simulation was overdoing it a bit and made it seem gimmicky, but oh well, the intentions are good.

After getting a nice view of the city from the roof of the shrine, which is accessible to the public, we took the tram to Fitzroy, where we walked around for a bit. This was one of the neighbourhoods that I was most interested in, as people have told me that I should consider living in this bohemian neighbourhood if I moved to Melbourne. It was pretty happening, but I was somewhat disappointed that it was only one main street. Although it was quite a long and happening street, with bars, restaurants, shops and brew-pubs, it still did not feel like a large area. Unfortunately, I never got to visit it again at night, when I hear there is a lot of great activity going on. I wanted to visit Brunswick as well, but after some investigation, we discovered that there weren't any direct way to get there, so we decided to head back into the city and take it from there.

We made a quick stop at the library to do a bit more research, and realising that I had not visited the State Library yet, I took a quick tour. The State Library of Victoria is quite an impressive and sturdy looking stone building, originally commissioned in 1853. It had seen many renovations and extensions, and today houses around two million books. By far the most impressive section of the library is the La Trobe Reading Room, renovated in 2003, an octagonal atrium spanning five floors. The desks were laid out in a radial fashion, and this seemed like it would be a great place to study. Although we were invited to some kind of Couchsurfing and movie get-together by bumping into a barefoot hippie coming out of the library wearing a Couchsurfing shirt, we decided that we were a bit too lazy to figure out how to get there and to just hang around town for the evening.

From here, we wandered around the Melbourne alleyways a bit longer before coming to Federation Square again, where we found beach lounge chairs set up under a giant suspended globe. Apparently, events are held in Federation Square every so often to promote it as a busy public space. The Light in Winter, happening while we were in Melbourne, is an annual event that spans over a few weeks. Art exhibitions and shows are set up during that time. As we sat in the chairs, gazing up at the stars and the Southern Cross above the city lights, the large globe turned on, and displayed patterns like the surface of the sun. It was an art installation. The slowly changing and interactive light patterns would have been much more captivating if it wasn't so cold outside. However, I was impressed at the number of people that were out in the square.

Following a recommendation by Ben, Jake and I headed over to Chinatown to grab dinner. It was actually pretty amusing how we ended up at Sichuan House. I went through the list of restaurants suggested by Ben with Jake, and when I mentioned Szechuan food, Jake went "ooh!" It wasn't until we had our food in front of us when I discovered that Jake has never had Szechuan food before! Wow, was he surprised about what he was in for! He did really enjoy the dinner, especially enjoying the numbing and tingling sensation of the Szechuan peppercorn for the first time. Since it was quite expensive, I offered to cover food, as I'm sure I'll meet up with him again sometime in the future during our travels, where he can provide dinner. Dinner there was quite good, but I thought it didn't really live up to the extremely positive recommendation from Ben.

Still being quite early after dinner, Jake and I decided to take a trip to St. Kilda, as Ben had suggested Acland Street was worth checking out if there was nothing else to do. The tram ride took quite a long time, but eventually, we arrived on Fitzroy Street, which was not very happening but still had a few active restaurants and cafés at this time of night, which was impressive enough. As we got to Acland street, we were very confused. It was a small, quiet residential area. Where was the action? As it turned out, Acland street is divided into two portions, one was residential, and one was filled with cafés and restaurants. We had arrived at the wrong end of Acland Street, and not knowing this fact, never found the exciting area.

No matter, Jake decided to take me for a visit to the St. Kilda Pier, where there was an area to watch penguins! The pier is a surprisingly long road that extends about 700 metres into Bass Straight. One of the main landmarks of the area is the St. Kilda Pavilion, located about half a kilometre from the start of the pier. This kiosk, built in 1904 (burned down by arson in 2003 and re-built in the original style), is a very good example of Edwardian architecture. Even though nothing was open on the pier at this hour, there were still some people using the pier as a jogging track, or just taking a walk along the water.

Just past the kiosk is the penguin colony. At this time time of night, it was quite active, as all of the penguins (eudyptula minor, the smallest species of penguin) have come back from fishing. From a small wooden plank walkway, one could watch the penguins run around, fight, and call to each other. It was quite entertaining just watching them for a bit. The view across the water was also quite good from here, as one could see the glimmering skyscrapers of the Melbourne CBD in the distance, across the water. Alas, I was not able to get a photo here - as soon as I took out my camera, a downpour of rain arrived, obscuring the view. Where there was was a glimmering city, there is now only a vague bright patch.

From here, it was home time. I have only one last full day to spend in Melbourne, but I figure I had done pretty well so far. I have seen the main neighbourhoods I had wanted to. I suppose that's the advantage of going on a trip with not much expectations, which is very different than the amount of things I try to pack in on my other trips. I figure I'll just spend the next day casually exploring, and seeing that it was also going to be Jake's second last day before heading home, I'm sure he will also be in the mood just to take it easy and enjoy being here. On the way back, we ran into a group of drunk teenagers on the tram, who the other passengers effectively kicked off the tram by threatening to call the police - that was pretty awkward.

I spent that night back at the Couchsurfer's place hanging around, reading some guidebooks, and chatting with the newly arrived French travellers. They showed me their van, which in good traveller style, has been drawn all over and decorated - legacies left by the different owners of the van as it passed from traveller to traveller. Apparently, this van had even helped them make contact with other travellers. On the van is written in large letters "this van is f***ing awesome," and just a few weeks ago, they found a slip of paper stuck on the van that said "yes, this van is f***ing awesome" along with the other traveller's contact information.