Our next destination after the sunny beaches of New South Wales was Melbourne, Australia’s second city. We only allowed ourselves three days here before driving down to the Great Ocean Road, but after experiencing the city we wish we would have had more time. The main event for this leg of the trip was the Australian Open, which is something Carla had wanted to see her entire life. That portion certainly delivered—we caught what was likely the best match of the entire Open. However, we had some of our best times just wandering the city streets and getting a taste of the local culture. The visit was topped off by our wonderful Airbnb host, Aggie, who was so friendly and hospitable that it felt like we were still staying with relatives.
After spending a few days in the city, Carla and I thought that Melbourne could be Sydney’s more fashionable but less beautiful little sister. The cool and cloudy marine climate is pretty bad by Australian standards, which provides a gray backdrop to the city and forces people to find something other than the beach to occupy their time. There are countless examples of intricate 19th century architecture, but much of it has deteriorated (or is just dirty), giving the city a grungy urban feel reminiscent of parts of Montreal or San Francisco. Many of these buildings house trendy little cafés and vintage clothes shops, which are populated by hipsters that look like they could be fresh out of Williamsburg. Even the less trendy parts of town have a more urban feel than Sydney thanks to a US-style street grid rather than Sydney’s winding roads and steep hills.
One thing this Melbourne shares with Sydney is absurdly high real estate prices, so we decided to book a place in a residential area off the beaten path for tourists. Our neighborhood (Brunswick) turned out to be a perfect example of Melbourne’s urban hipster vibe. We were just a quick tram ride into the city center but far enough out that the city here consisted of mostly houses and local businesses. It had been a mostly Mediterranean immigrant melting pot for many decades and, like so many similar neighborhoods in the US, it has recently attracted a younger crowd. Walking down Sydney Road, the neighborhood’s main street, we would see old shops that had probably been in the family for generations (some of the signs were even in Greek or Italian) as well as new clothing boutiques and popular nightlife. Most of the buildings were at least a century old, adding to the neighborhood’s strong character. We felt right at home here—Brunswick reminded us of the East Village of about a decade ago.
We first arrived at Aggie’s beautifully renovated, turn-of-the-century house on a cloudy afternoon. After making sure we were comfortable, she asked, “You’re from New York, right?” After we said yes, her face lit up: “I LOVE New Yorkers!” Aggie is a woman in her 40s who was part of an Italian family that had dispersed around the world. The explanation for this strange (and rare) statement is that some of her favorite relatives had wound up in New York and she had fallen in love with the city during her multiple visits. Apparently she was lucky enough to have had only positive encounters with our fellow NYC residents. From this point on, we were more long lost friends than tenants in Aggie’s home. We sipped wine and talked about our travels, her dressmaking business, and our respective cities into the early hours. Being that Aggie worked from home she was constantly there to guide our short visit and to make sure it all went smoothly.
When the time came for our Australian Open match, Aggie gave us detailed directions on how to get there and we were off. Carla was practically shaking with excitement and, despite not knowing much about pro tennis, I was pretty excited myself. Once we got into downtown Melbourne we followed the crowds to the tennis complex. There is a beautiful green park along the Yarra river with the city’s cluster of skyscrapers as a backdrop, which made for a very pleasant walk. The weather was perfect and we were excited to get a look at the grounds. Carla and I have been to the US Open before but, well, it’s in Queens. Going to a match like this right in the middle of the city was a little more exciting, and I’m sure being on the other side of the world in January didn’t hurt. Once we got to the grounds we were fascinated by the collection of tennis fans from around the world that had made the trip. In particular, many Asian visitors took advantage of their only chance to attend a Grand Slam without flying eight time zones away.
We had tickets to the men’s quarter-final, so we had figured on seeing some big names fight for a shot at the title. While one player on the ballot was Novak Djokovic, winner of six Majors, the other was some guy named Wawrinka, whom even Carla had hardly heard of. The attendant out front casually predicted it would be a boring match and Djokovic would sweep him easily, as he had all of his other opponents up to that point. As it turned out, Wawrinka played well. Really well. In fact, by the time of the fifth set they were neck and neck while virtually trading games one for one. Wawrinka’s serve was devastating and he kept his game in firm control. Unusually for him, Djokovic was the frustrated one on the court. The crowd was undoubtedly for the underdog, and as time went on it felt less like a tennis match and more like an NFL game. When Wawrinka got a point the crowd would go nuts for a few seconds, then quiet back down to near silence until the next serve. A man with a big Swiss flag kept shouting “Allez Wawrinka” into the silence, to which a Serbian woman in front of us would respond with loud support for Djokovic. Carla sided with the Serbian and threw in some loud comments that could probably be heard on the Tennis Channel. After the fifth and final set was ultimately tied 7 games to 7, Wawrinka pulled ahead and won the match. Exhausted from this four-hour spectacle, we were now in danger of missing the midnight train back to Brunswick, which was the last of the night. We hurried with the crowds along the river, opposite the lit-up skyline, and took in the crisp night air. It was the perfect centerpiece to a beautiful three days in Melbourne, and something I’ll always remember. By the way, Wawrinka went on to win the entire Australian Open out of nowhere.
On our third day, we wanted to soak up as much of the city as we could before driving out the next morning. First thing being first, we had a delicious NYC-style (but somehow cheaper!) brunch at the popular Green Café, where wild haircuts, tattoos and high hipster fashion were the rule. Despite this, the place was very welcoming to a couple of square Americans and we lightened their awesome baked goods and sandwich inventory no fewer than three times during our short visit. Finally ready to go, we set out from Brunswick on foot. Over the next few hours we covered several miles of inner city, passing from neighborhood to neighborhood as we watched the architecture change. Melbourne grew quickly in the mid-late 1800s due to a gold rush and its position as Australia’s major port city, so a very large chunk of the city is made up of beautiful old homes, hotels and warehouses. The city’s parks are nowhere near as pristinely landscaped as Sydney’s, but they make up for that with the sheer volume of green space that can be found in Melbourne. We eventually made our way over to the Collingwood neighborhood, where the hipster intensity went up a notch. There were plenty of little clothing boutiques and vintage fashion shops among the cafés for Carla to wander through, while I found a big microbrew hall where we could sample the local beer. We ended the day by going to Queen Victoria Market, a food festival in downtown that had almost every street food imaginable. Prices were Australia-sized and portions were small, but the event drew throngs of locals (and tourists) who picked up everything from Maylasian satay to Spanish paella. Thoroughly exhausted, we headed back to Brunswick at sundown.
Our trip to Melbourne was a fascinating view of how different two cities in the same general region of the same country can be. The comparison has been made before, but Melbourne is very much the San Francisco to Sydney’s LA. Our lucky Australian Open experience and luckier Airbnb experience made it that much better. On the morning of our last day, Aggie unexpectedly dropped us off at the airport car rental place and hung around to make sure it went through OK. It did, and we were off to the southwest and the Great Ocean Road for a mini-road trip before our bigger New Zealand road trip.
// trip down under to date: 6 flights, 1 country, 3 states, 1 boat, 1 road trip, 1 campervan adventure, 1880 km