Australian Traveller brings you experimental travel – Melbourne By Turns: Left-right-left – not a military march, but another novel way of looking at a most familiar city. It’s called experimental travel, and it’s pure fun.

Melbourne by Turns



Left-right-left – not a military march, but another novel way of looking at a most familiar city. It’s called experimental travel, and it’s pure fun.


By Tim Richards


“All life is an experiment,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. The same could be said for travel. How often do we stick to the prescribed list of attractions in the guidebook, ticking them off while more interesting, unplanned experiences wait just around the corner?


Lonely Planet’s Guide To Experimental Travel features a variety of suggestions for seeing a destination in a new light: perhaps by following a shape drawn on a map; or by arriving in a large city separately from your partner and trying to find them; or, more extremely, investigating some place blindfolded.


I’m taking a leaf out of the book with Melbourne. Starting from Flinders Street Station, I’m going to take each successive left turn, then right turn, then left, down streets and arcades, until I can go no further. Or decide to cheat (the book is encouraging on this point, as long as it makes the experience more interesting).


So here I am, standing on the steps of the station “under the clocks”, as Melburnians call the time-honoured meeting place. It’s a great spot for people-watching. Men in suits stride by clutching coffees, foreign tourists back up to look at the façade, a group of Kooris sitting next to me welcome a newly arrived friend, to my left, a gaunt young woman holds a single rose and a tiny pink teddy bear, but looks deeply sad.


“IT’S LUNCHTIME, THE SUN IS SHINING DIRECTLY DOWN THE LANEWAY AND THE WARM WEATHER IS BRINGING OUT THE BEST IN THE INHABITANTS.”


These steps feel like the city’s heart, pumping people continuously through its arteries. But I’m heading for the veins. As a good omen for my quest, a van suddenly glides past with “Milk Crate Recovery Program” on the side. Never seen that before. It’s time to take my first turn.


LEFT: I cross the road and pass Young and Jackson’s Hotel. The front bar, with its light-filled décor, looks like a café, but the bar on the Flinders Street side evokes an old-time pub: faded tartan carpet, wood panelling, dim lighting and only a smattering of hardened drinkers on a weekday morning. Then I pass an internet cafe with monitors placed unusually close. The impression is of a cage of battery hens, pecking away at keyboards.


RIGHT: The Port Philip Arcade on my right looks quiet but promising, with signage promoting a cafe called Jolly J’s, a cake decoration shop and a stamp emporium. Could this be the daggiest arcade in Melbourne? Stepping into a plain tiled interior with a skylight, I notice the stamp and coin shop takes up almost an entire side of the arcade. The cake shop has racks of different chocolate moulds out front – shells, bunnies, numerals and racing cars among them. I find myself warming to this place; it’s not as luxurious as the fashion temple created in the former Melbourne GPO, but at least I can afford things here.


At the end of the arcade, I find myself in an alley filled with fashion shops and a tiny cafe, Alley Oop. I stop for a coffee. There’s something vaguely French about the place, with its fresh flowers by the window and pastries under glass. It’s easy to fall into conversation here, with patrons and owners cheek-by-jowl.


LEFT: At the end of Scott Alley is a classy florist, with bamboo canes and bare branches among the blooms. Chalked on the footpath is the address of a yoga website. Now I’m in Flinders Lane, a narrow street full of attractive Victorian facades. Across the way is a solid number called Manchester House, neighbour to a police station and backpackers’. I wonder how they get on? The 19th Century shopfronts and cheerful pedestrian traffic remind me of London’s Covent Garden.


RIGHT: I turn into Manchester Lane. Halfway along is a bar of the same name, all reds and browns, with outdoor seating and a cool loungey interior. At this time of the day it’s quiet, but a poster out front publicises regular live music at night, lots of soul, blues and jazz. I can’t resist having a beer here: it’s such a peaceful spot in a busy part of town. Up ahead I see new shops being fitted out; to the left is a sealed-up former arcade entrance called Flinders Way; and in a window opposite I can see a poster for vegetarianism featuring two cute piglets and the slogan “Meet Your Meat.”


LEFT: I’m now in busy Collins Street. This pleasant stretch of the commercial thoroughfare hints at a confident, high-maintenance past: decorative Victorian facades brush shoulders with modern glass-and-steel. One of the older buildings features an eye-catching mosaic with gleaming gilt paint and a Shakespearean quote: “I’ll put a girdle round about the Earth.”


RIGHT: I enter the Block Arcade, a monument to Victorian-era high class shopping, but am blocked by a cluster of little old ladies. Is it happy hour at the nearby Hopetoun Tea Rooms? No. A heritage tour of the building is about to depart, taking its members to far-flung reaches of the arcade. The guide lays down the law to her senior citizen charges (no wandering off), but they all seem happy with this take-charge approach.


LEFT: Reaching the arcade’s central dome, I’m obliged to turn left, passing the rather alluring shopfront of Haigh’s Chocolates. I have pleasant memories of prior encounters with this firm’s excellent peppermint frogs.


RIGHT: Takes me along Block Place, a narrow cafe-strewn alleyway leading to Little Collins Street. It’s so tightly packed that it’s hard to navigate without bumping diners’ elbows, but there’s no stress here. It’s lunchtime, the sun is shining directly down the laneway and the warm weather is bringing out the best in the inhabitants. In fact, it’s so pleasant I’ve decided to end my Melbourne experiment here. Much better a chicken focaccia among a happy crowd than the inevitable dead-end brick wall of an alley in a less ambient part of the city.


As I choose a table, I notice a sign over the counter for Dinkum Pies, the old-fashioned pie shop which is the odd one out among its cafe neighbours: “When it’s brown it’s cooked, if it’s black it’s buggered.”


Nice to know I’m not the only one guided by the results of scientific experimentation.

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