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Marvellous Melbourne

Melbourne, Australia
Tuesday, July 24, 2013

Melbourne got its nickname after its elaborate expansion during the gold rush and it's easy to see why, even visiting in mid-winter with the rain cascading down, the city still lives up to its name.

Day 1 - Orientation Tour

Having had some great experiences with walking tours earlier in our trip we were more than happy to find out that Melbourne visitor centre runs free 'orientation tours' led by friendly locals. The tours run daily and must be pre-booked which can be done by phone or online. The tours start at the visitor information centre which is conveniently located on the corner of Flinders Square. The centre appears small on the outside but the small funky building leads underground to a massive room. The centre is an absolute gem of a place and certainly one of the best information centres we have visited. With maps and information on just about every notable place in the city even if you don't take a tour it's worth stopping by to grab some info. We found the free pocket walking guides particularly good.

All was going well until Ross checked us in for the tour to be told the 'system' showed that we had cancelled our booking! Obviously we hadn't otherwise we wouldn't have turned up bright and early. After a bit of confusion the assistant said she would see if there was any spaces on the tour, as it turned out there was loads of no shows so what should have been a large group had now dwindled down to just four.

Our tour guide was a lovely man named Jim who took us on a three hour walk through the main streets and back alleyways of the city centre whilst pointing out places of interest. A few of the alleyways were filled with artwork or more accurately put graffiti. These are designated alleyways where it is legal to come and show off your artistic talent and amongst the rubbish there was some pretty good stuff. The alleyways were introduced to reduce illegal graffiti and although there was still some around there was definitely less than most big cities.

Jim's knowledge of the area was amazing and he had lots of entertaining stories to tell us about different buildings, streets and neighbourhoods. It was a real mix of the old and the new merged together which worked well and gave us some history behind this very hip and cosmopolitan city.

At one point on the tour the heavens opened so Jim tweaked our plans to get us out of the rain and after a bit of ducking and diving we arrived at the State Library of Victoria, which opened way back in 1856. We were very impressed by its grandeur and it had stunning architecture in the beautifully restored rooms. When the octagonal La Trobe Reading Room was completed in 1913 the reinforced-concrete dome was the largest in the world and is still used to this day. We had a great time on this tour and Jim gave us a much better understanding of the city which proved to be really useful during our stay.

It's the middle of winter and so far we have been extremely lucky with the weather. Since being in Australia we've only had a couple of rainy days and luckily both of them were travel days. However today we weren't so lucky and we got caught out! It was like somebody turned the tap on and it literally poured with rain from start to finish. Hopefully the leak will be fixed before tomorrow rolls round.

Day 2 - Neighbours & SkyDeck 88

Join in everybody....

Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours,
With a little understanding,
You can find the perfect blend,
Neighbours... should be there for one another,
That's when good neighbours become good friends,
Ooh Neighbours, should be there for one another,
That's when good neighbours become good friends.

We know you are singing it in your head :-)

Yes it might be cheesy but when you're in Melbourne it would be rude not to go on the Neighbours tour!

We opted for a weekend tour which visits both Ramsey Street and the outdoor film sets which can't be visited on the weekday tours.

We were greeted by our tour guide who was a wannabe Neighbours star. His claim to fame being that he had a one liner role as a police officer back in the 80's. That was his entire acting career, but he had been in Neighbours and he was sure proud of it!

The tour started by heading out into Melbourne's leafy suburbs to find the mythical Erinsborough and Ramsey Street. Neither of us has watched Neighbours for a number of years but as soon as the bus turned into the cul-de-sac it was like walking down memory lane. The houses haven't changed one bit. They are real houses with real residents, so no filming takes place inside the properties, with all indoor and most of the garden filming being done at the studios. We were allowed to wander up and down the street and walk up to, but not in the gardens.

It was strange to see the residents doing their weekend chores with somebody working under the bonnet of his car outside No 22! Why didn't he just take it to Carpenters Mechanics :-) Apparently the locals are compensated around $30,000 per year for the inconvenience of filming and daily tours which last about half an hour. All they have to do is upkeep the outside of the property which is something they would do anyway. Oh, and tell the studios if they are planning on changing something so it can be written into the script! Apparently this didn't happen once and some trees were chopped down but fortunately they could just quickly change the script and have a quick scene with a bit of gardening in it.

After visiting the street we headed to the studio to see all the other outdoor film sets including Carpenters Mechanics, Sonya's Nursery, and Lassiter's Complex. Lassiter's has changed a lot since we both watched the program but it was another blast from the past. Lassiter's Lake is much bigger with the magic of TV and in reality it was more like a pond. We were shown endless temporary filming locations that have been used for exotic locations in the show and they were all within a few minutes' walk from each other. We ended up at the half houses which are mock ups of the rear of the houses on Ramsey Street, complete with gardens. Unfortunately the gates were shut so we had to peer over and through holes in the fences... making us feel like nosey neighbours!

And that concluded the end of the tour or as our guide said on many occasions 'bang, job done'. We both had a great morning and would certainly recommend the tour to others.

If you are on a budget you can easily get to Ramsey Street (Pin Oak Court) and peer up the street. However it now has 24 hour security to stop people who aren't on a tour wandering around and being an inconvenience to the residents, so if you want to see anything you will have to join an official tour.

Eureka SkyDeck 88

Back in the real world we decided to visit the Eureka SkyDeck, yet another building that has a claim to be the tallest in some tenuous way. Although it is not even the tallest building in Australia it does have the highest public vantage point in a building in the Southern Hemisphere at 285 m. The building is named after the Eureka Stockade, a rebellion during gold rush and this has been incorporated into the design. The building's gold crown representing the gold rush and unbelievably the glass on the top 11 floors is infused with 24 carat gold!

We opted for the sun and stars ticket which allows two visits on the same day for a small extra charge. We booked our tickets in advance which were valid for 1 year from the date of purchase. This proved useful as we tweaked our plans at the last minute because of the weather. However since being in Melbourne we have seen many combo offers and discounts vouchers which would have given cheaper general admission, so we don't recommend purchasing tickets in advance.

Apart from the Melbourne CBD the city is fairly low rise, so as expected the views of the city were impressive both by day and night.

For an added kick you can pay to go on the Edge Experience, a glass box which protrudes from the building. The box extends with the glass frosted over and then when it is fully extended the frosting clears revealing a glass floor. Although we didn't go in the box ourselves it was amusing to watch others from the outdoor section on the sky deck.

Australian Centre of the Moving Image

Between visits to the Eureka SkyDeck we had a few hours to kill so decided to check out the Centre for Moving Image.

Lonely Planet did give the centre a good review but as we have been miss-lead on previous occasions we weren't expecting much. However they got it right on this occasion and it turned out to be a great way to spend a few hours. The exhibition covered everything from first cinema through to today. With great exhibits on the internet and IT, the latter having lots of ancient computers including a ZX Spectrum 48k with a rubber keyboard! Ahhh the wonderful Speccy, being Ross's first ever computer it was yet another trip down memory lane. With a working Commodore 64 Ross even had a go at Missile Command, the good old days when computer games had naff graphics and sound but were seriously addictive. A really great exhibition and with free entry, it's definitely worth visiting.

Day 3 - Parliament House & More Neighbours!

There are many things to see and do in and around Melbourne but one that caught our eye was the free guided tour around Parliament House which sounded like a unique and different experience. But to be honest it boils down to the fact that we are extremely nosey and wanted to see beyond the grand steps of Victoria's Parliament. We took the 10.30 tour and were met by a lovely man called Tony whose enthusiasm shone through and it was amazing how much stuff he knew about the buildings history. Aside from his job as a tour guide Tony also gets in on the action as it's his job to work the audio system when parliament is sitting. Politicians are given a strict 15 minutes to have their say, if they overrun Tony turns off their mike. He joked that it was great to have the chance to actually shut the politicians up for once.

We visited the Upper Chambers which is the equivalent of the House of Lords. It had an impressive style, with elaborate ornamental plasterwork which had been lavishly brushed with 24 carat gold leaf back in the days of the gold-rush-era. There was a brief explanation about the general goings on in a parliamentary day and Tony told us how different it all is compared to the five minutes of shouting and heckling they show on the news. Apparently it's a lot less dramatic and agreeable which is hard to believe. We got to sit in the plush red seats that are used by the politicians which were extremely comfortable but even better than that was when Ross sat in the Speakers Seat and as he loves being bossy it was the perfect spot for him to sit :-)

We also visited the Lower Chambers which is the equivalent of the House of Commons and didn't seem quite as elaborate as the Upper Chambers, with simple brown leather seating and a distinct lack of gold as Victoria ran out of gold before completing the building. This time Sonya got to sit in the speaker's chair whilst we listened to some of the fascinating stories about how the politicians often get thrown out of the room by the speaker for deliberately disrupting the sitting. Tony also told us that ironically the current speaker himself was always the one getting thrown out before he was given the position himself.

There are some lovely but expensive looking tea rooms available either for private functions or just tea and scones, but before Sonya could even think about pulling up a chair we were led back out and into the old fashioned library.

We had a great time on this tour not only because we got to see the inside of this grand old building but also because our guide Tony turned quite a serious subject into a funny and insightful visit.

After a long walk through the botanic gardens we headed back to the hostel for some chill out time before getting ready for the Neighbours Trivia Night. It sounded like a fun night and best of all it was taking place in The Elephant and Wheelbarrow Pub that just happens to be directly below our hostel! :-) As well as enjoying some Aussie beer we were looking forward to meeting the 4 past and present Neighbours Stars that would be attending.

Following on from our blog on Perth about how expensive Australia is, Adelaide and Melbourne are slightly cheaper so we were looking forward to enjoying a few schooners. However we were still taken aback by the extortionate prices $14.80 (just shy of £10) for an (English) pint and a half! More on beers sizes below.

We chattered with fellow Neighbours fans at our table whilst making sure we drank every last drop of the extremely expensive beer whilst Sonya busily filled out some question cards for the stars. Before too long a loud and slightly eccentric Aussie man took to the mike along with the DJ. It wasn't long before they had people out of their seats and competing for prizes with singing, dancing and even kissing competitions (between complete strangers) that were entertaining and got everyone into the spirit of the night.

The stars for the night included Mr Karl Kennedy with his on screen daughter Libby Kennedy, Steph Scully and Stingray (we had no clue who he was) A bit later it was announced that 3 out of the 4 stars had arrived and the first one to come out was of course Stingray who we were clueless about but he turned out to be really funny, he answered both his own and Karl Kennedy's questions because Ian Fletcher who plays Karl was at a charity event and would be late. Stingray was entertaining and flirted shamelessly with all of the women who asked him a question.

The next person to come out was Kym Valentine who plays Libby Kennedy and when Sonya's question was read out and they asked where she was sitting she went bright red when everyone stared at her :-) later on someone else asked her if it was true that she'd had an affair with Ian Fletcher her on screen Dad Karl Kennedy! When she talked about him she actually called him Dad and said that her daughter even calls him Grandpa. She said it was plain wrong just thinking about it and shuddered dramatically.

The next person to answer questions was Carla Bonner who played the very popular Steph Scully whose character played some really juicy roles touching upon the issue of mental health. She had a whole pile of questions asking how she felt about her final scenes.... again we were a bit clueless but apparently she ended up in a loony bin (her words) and she didn't like leaving the show with her tail between her legs and felt her character should have had a better ending. It just goes to show that the actors have no say over what happens to their characters.

After the questions, came the quiz and whilst we answered the questions the stars came round to all of the tables for photos and autographs. They were all lovely and we managed to chat with them for a bit until they had to move on. A bit later Dr Karl Kennedy literally ran into the room, grabbed the mike and after apologising for being late he promised to come and see us all before he had to jump on the stage to sing in his band :-) Yes ladies and gentlemen he is a man of many talents.

We got some great photos and the good Doctor sang his heart out on the stage singing a mixture of soft rock favourites that had everyone dancing and in Sonya's case trying to sing! He was very energetic and jumped around quite a lot which was great to see. Later on in the evening he got down onto his hands and knees and sang I'm a Believer by The Monkeys with a lovely girl who was wheelchair bound and who also struggled with her speech. She's is a massive fan of Neighbours and also loves to sing and it was lovely to see the absolute joy on her face when she sang with her idol. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

After a few more songs and of course more photos we headed home or in our case upstairs.

Day 4 - XPT to Sydney

So today is another 12 hour journey as we head to the East Coast, another pinnacle moment in our big trip. In common with Beijing and Bangkok we have visited Sydney before but as with the other 2 places in previous visits we have arrived by plane. It might have taken us 6 months and 10 days to arrive at the East Coast, but neither of us can quite believe we will soon be at the furthest point either of us have ever been away from the UK.... and be arriving by train.

Melbourne to Sydney is serviced by the XPT train. For all the train buffs the XPT is a variant of the HST and looks and feels the same but only runs at 100mph. Having complained about the lack of power sockets on the Overland train, it's a very sorry state of affairs on the XPT with the grand total of nil! Yep nada, nothing.... so bang goes planning some more of the trip.

Australia is known for being sport mad so we wanted to check out some live sport whilst we are over here. We've tried to get some tickets for Aussie Rules football but unfortunately the fixture list have been working against us with teams playing away when we are in town or we already have things booked that can't be changed. Failing to get tickets for Aussie footie we hoped to get tickets to see some soccer and hearing both Man United and Liverpool are playing pre-season friendly's down under we thought our luck was in.... but you guessed it the fixtures didn't work out either with Man United having played in Sydney a few days before and Liverpool playing in Melbourne the night we left... D'oh! Maybe we will have better luck with the rugby. We hope to be able to see some sport in the next few weeks as funnily enough the friendly Aussies have stopped talking about the cricket. :-)

Beer, beer, beer!

Schooners, Pots, Middles, Butchers, Pints.... what the hell do they all mean? Firstly there is the small 200ml Butcher, the choice of old men in those sticky carpet style pubs. This is a tiny drink which is approx. 1/3 of a UK pint. The main beer sizes are Pots which are also known as Middles weighing in at 285ml, approx. 1/2 a UK pint. Schooners weigh in at 425ml, much smaller than a UK pint and finally the English Pint at 568ml.

Crazy.... but it gets worse, if you are in Adelaide it's even more confusing as the 285ml Pot or Middle as the rest of the country calls it is referred to as a Schooner! The 425ml Schooner is referred to as a Pint and then you have the imperial pint which is the English Pint at 568ml.

Confused yet? Wait until you have had a few drinks! If in doubt order an imperial or English Pint as it's the biggest drink they have, the only downside being it isn't always the best value for money and not all pubs sell them!

Hostel Review

We stayed at the Ritz for Backpackers in a double private room with shared bathroom. The hostel is located in St. Kilda and has a tram stop right outside its doors. There are another 2 tram stops within a short distance which are serviced by other routes just in case the no. 16 is having problems. The hostel claims to be the ritz of backpacking establishments and in some ways it is. They provide free towels and toiletries on check-in, an in room fridge, a massive kitchen and a good common area. However our weekend stay was marred by the noisy guests most of which are still trying to cling onto uni. life having just graduated and are now on a working holiday. Partying and fighting in the corridors at 3.30am is unfair on the other guests! Saying it was the hostel fault is a bit like blaming a football club for its fans behaviour, to some extent it is out of the hostel control, but the hostel needs to show some intolerance to noisy behaviour. If they don't things are only going to get worse. The hostel needs a least one member of staff who isn't also on a working holiday who is easily plyed with alcohol and joins in. Not a bad stay but could have been a lot better!


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