We arrived in Melbourne from
Sydney this morning and our first impression of the city came on the bus ride from the
airport. We passed through a number of different neighborhoods on the way to our hotel.
The architecture in most of the neighborhoods was Victorian, but the majority of the
buildings were run-down and many of them had graffiti on them. This surprised us, as we
had constantly heard that Melbourne was a beautiful "old world" city while
Sydney was the dirtiest city in Australia. Initially we thought we had just passed through
some of the less desirable neighborhoods of Melbourne, but that wasn't the case. There are
some very nice areas of the city, including where we are staying, but there are also a lot
of run-down areas. The streets in the run-down areas are filthy and we even saw graffiti
on church doors. We were definitely a little disappointed with our first impressions of
Melbourne, but we did find some redeeming qualities: the food, our hotel, and the gardens.
While in Melbourne we're staying at the Windsor Hotel. The Windsor was built in 1883 and has been designated an historical landmark by the National Trust. The hotel occupies a commanding position opposite the Victorian Parliament House and close to theaters, parks, and shopping. The Windsor recently completed a ten million dollar refurbishment of all 160 rooms and 20 suites and the results are impressive. The rooms are decorated with Laura Ashley-style wall coverings and rosewood furniture. The Windsor is a rather expensive hotel so we settled on a Standard Room that we booked through an Australian Travel Agency (Castaway Travel) over the Internet. The furnishings and the decorating in the room are beautiful, although the room is a little on the small side. Still we were very impressed by the Windsor and the staff. After settling in and taking a nap, we decided to take a little walk around the city.
About a block from the Windsor is the Old Treasury Building which was recently restored and is now the home of the Melbourne Exhibition. The Melbourne Exhibition covers the history of the city from its founding in 1835 through the Gold Rush era up to the 20th century. The Old Treasury Building is bordered on almost all sides by gardens. Directly behind it are the Fitzroy and Treasury Gardens, 90 acres of calm in a busy city. Within the borders of Fitzroy Gardens are a number of attractions including Cook's Cottage. Captain James Cook was one of the early explorers of Australia arriving in 1770 to claim the entire eastern seaboard for King George III of England. This cottage was actually built for Cook's parents in 1755 in Great Ayton, England. In 1934 it was transported and reassembled at the Fitzroy Gardens as part of the celebration of Victoria's centenary.
One of the other attractions in Fitzroy Gardens is the Conservatory which has some of the most spectacular displays of flowers we have seen in Australia. Just past the Conservatory we came across a tree stump that had carvings of animals and other figures on it. I didn't find out until later that this is the Fairy Tree that was carved by Ola Cohn between 1931 and 1934 as a gift to the children of Melbourne. If I had known what it was I probably would have taken a picture of it, but there wasn't a marker anywhere near it. I guess I'm a typical tourist only taking pictures when a marker tells me to. I blame Disneyland and their "Picture Spots" for this! Next to the Fairy Tree is a model Tudor Village that was presented by the residents of Lambeth, London in gratitude for food and parcels sent there by Victorians during and after World War II.
As we were walking through Fitzroy Gardens we kept seeing pieces of french bread, fruit, and other food under almost every tree. It turns out that people are encouraged to feed the possums that live in the park. There are even signs that tell you what food to leave for them and at what time of day the possums will come down from the trees to eat. Amazingly possums are a protected species, at least in this part of Australia. Either they are much rarer than in the states, where we consider them the equivalent of a squirrel, or Australians have a soft spot for them. In all fairness the Australian possums are much cuter than their American cousins. Which once again proves my theory that the attractiveness of an animal determines how we feel about it. I would have taken a picture of the possums, but they are nocturnal and the PhotoPC doesn't take very good pictures at night.
After a long day of flying, riding buses, and walking around the gardens, we were ready for a relaxing dinner. The Fodor's Guide had recommended an Italian restaurant only two blocks from our hotel, but the Concierge informed me that it was a "smoker's" restaurant. It turns out that a large segment of the population in Melbourne smokes and many restaurants don't have smoking sections. Since in my opinion second hand smoke and pasta don't go together, we asked the Concierge for suggestions. He recommended a new restaurant that had just opened up around the corner: Caffe Cento Venti (Cafe 120) named for its street address of 120 Collins Street. They also allowed smoking, but they promised us a table as far away from the smokers as possible. One of the things that struck me as we entered the restaurant was that the kitchen and the dining room were separated by a hallway. The dining room, which seats, around 40-60 people, was simply and elegantly decorated with antique mirrors, hardwood floors, and fresh flowers. No checkerboard tablecloths or velvet paintings of Italy here. The service was incredible and the maitre'd, Andrew Ward, made us feel right at home. The owner and chef of the restaurant, Tony Sassi, recently moved back to Melbourne from Queensland to open Cento Venti and we were really glad he had. The food was the most incredible and spiciest Italian food I have ever had and I'm half Italian. I had the Penne Abrariante which was a penne pasta with a tomato, basil, and chili sauce. I'm beginning to think that Australians are trying very hard to make up for two hundred years of English cooking. First it was the hottest Chinese food in Sydney and now the spiciest Italian food in Melbourne. I finally had the waiter leave a full water bottle at the table for me to continually put out the fire in my mouth. The bread was fantastic and desert (Apple Torte) was equally incredible. If you are ever in Melbourne this is the restaurant to go to. Dinner came to $65 Australian (about $50 US) without a tip and it was well worth it. Considering the quality of the service and the food we decided to buck Australian tradition and leave a big tip. We did find confirming evidence that the Australian penchant for not leaving tips is still intact. After finishing their dinner the table next to us asked for the check, paid, and left without leaving any tip at all. Considering the level of service that the staff at Cento Venti provides, I felt like going after them myself! Caffe Cento Venti is located at 120 Collins Street in Melbourne. Their telephone number is (03) 9650-5621 and reservations are highly recommended. Well it's past 9 pm so it's time for bed. I'll be posting more on Melbourne tomorrow. See ya' then!
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