The Melbourne we’d been exploring was all concrete and steel, roads and traffic, but the city has its fair share of parks and gardens too. So on yet another boiling day we visited the Botanic Gardens and an impressive war memorial.
The green spaces extend from the banks of the Yarra River in the heart of the city but the north side is also home to the famous cricket ground, the MCG, and the club that hosts the Australian Open tennis championship every January.
The south bank has no such development to interrupt the views and the gardens are all the better for it. We took the tram down to the river – it’s marvellous that Melbourne encourages public transport use with free tram travel in the heart of the city – and crossed over into the landscaped Alexandra Gardens on the waterfront.
Nearby is the Queen Victoria Memorial, a pompous affair in marble, and a section of park known as the Kings Domain. Government House, the official home of the governors of Victoria, is mostly hidden behind trees but we occasionally caught a glimpse of it, a grand affair built in the Italianate style and reminiscent of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight back in England. There was no missing the glorious borders rammed full of flowers, herbaceous perennials and miniature trees that surrounded it.
There was also no hiding the Shrine of Remembrance, a huge memorial built originally in memory of the men and women of Victoria who served in World War I. It also serves as a memorial to those who served in subsequent conflicts. It sits purposefully at the end of a ceremonial avenue that leads all the way down to the city centre, part classical in style and mounted by a pyramid.
We wandered inside, where it was lovely and cool. One of the guides was explaining that once a year, at 11am on 11 November (Armistice Day), the sun shines through a hole in the roof to light up the word ‘love’ in the inscription ‘Greater love hath no man’ on a plaque in the floor.
It’s a place for pondering the meaning and consequences of war and for remembering those who fought, and I had in mind Edward Thomas Budgen, a great grand uncle who served with the Australian forces and was injured and taken prisoner by the Germans in 1917. We climbed to the floor above for views of the city and descended into the basement, where an exhibition told the story of conflicts involving Australian solders, sailors and airmen and women. It was well done and informative but there was a lot of it!
Sadly, a lot of people who visit such places are only there to take photos that they can then post online and there were plenty of them around. Coach-loads of Asian visitors hung about, pushing and shoving, and it was all rather disrespectful.
Over the road is the Melbourne Observatory and one of the entrances to the Royal Botanic Gardens, which are undoubtedly one of the city’s biggest gems. And unlike their equivalent in London at Kew, you don’t have to pay to enter.
The grounds are beautiful, with expanses of lawn, native trees, beds full of cacti and succulents and a pond overloaded with pink water lilies. We took a walk in the shade through the native Australian forest, visited areas devoted to planting in California and New Zealand to name but two and were disappointed that we missed the camellias in flower. Visitors lazed in the sun and the shade, enjoying their picnics.
On a particularly hot day, the modest tropical greenhouse was like a sweatbox so we were in and out in record time and went off instead to find lunch in the The Terrace cafe down by the ornamental lake, where I could cool down and dry out. It was busy and chaotically organised but I needed a drink.
The lake itself was lined by some particularly huge trees that dwarfed us mortals and in their branches lurked some noisy local wildlife.
By the time we’d finished – and we didn’t see everything – my feet were aching and I needed rest and a restorative beer.
Come evening we revisited the Fitzroy district again, catching the tram down Brunswick Street and eating at Rice Papr Scrs. Painfully trendy, painfully hipster, the staff were great and the food – billed as Asian fusion – very good. It’s one of the top-rated restaurants in the city too and I’d been hoping that we’d get to eat there at some point in our stay. Stomachs full, we drank great pale ale afterwards in one of the street’s many busy bars.