A Hot Christmas
Melbourne, 24th - 26th December
It is Christmas Eve! Our schedule is full! We need to make sure we explore this new state capital but we also need to find time to celebrate. We leave Bertie in his snug corner of the underground parking and get on the tram. Some are born with luck to rest on holidays, others like us don’t have that option - after all, the whole of Melbourne is in front of us!
The second-largest city of Australia and New Zealand. Recognised as a city by Queen Victoria herself and she personally chose it for a capital of the state carrying her name. Named after the thirtieth British Prime Minister. A metropolis one and a half times larger than Perth. Located along the Yarra River. The best city to live in for most of the 2010s. A cultural capital of Australia, even more than its big brother Sydney. A city with a completely unpredictable climate and much to be seen.
The tram leads us into the heart of the megapolis and more precisely Flinders Street station. Do you remember the ship that found sanctuary in Lucky Bay - its captain was exactly this Matthew Flinders. Instead of turning right towards the centre, we first walk the left corridor to get out on the banks of Yarra River. From the local Aboriginal language, the name means “ever-flowing”. Our first real look at Melbourne is quickly raised upwards with the skyscrapers in front. Today the city is sunny, hot and welcoming, specially for the holiday.
We follow the corridor in the opposite direction and immerse ourselves. Our first visit is to the St. Paul cathedral. An Anglican cathedral that isn’t in a typical Anglican style. Instead of the bland decorations that we often see in these churches, this one is colourful from head to toe. Stripes of white and dark grey stone build the church in its height while the floor is covered by vivid mosaics.
The entire hall, of course, is decorated for the holiday. A tall tree draws your attention to the altar and next to it is the Nativity scene. But instead of the traditional, standard figures that often depict this event, here, we see modern paintings in watercolour. The three kings peeking from above the wall, the angels riding on top of some sheep, and Virgin Mary exhausted, leaning on Josef after the child birthing efforts. Down to earth and realistic. Well, how would it not make you feel closer to the Heavenly, unlike the strict rituals most churches follow. A wonderful place for worship.
Walking out of the cathedral, we are attracted by the square opposite. It isn’t a surprise, especially with two architects among us. We don’t yet know exactly what is making us cross, but we’ll soon find out. We are standing on the brand new Federation Square or in short just Fed. But how could it not have a pet name when there are fewer than 20 years since the project finished. Before that, it was an unused space as underneath us are the train tracks towards the station. “By the Bulgarian territory planning laws, such a square could never exist” - announces architect Kolarov. But more importantly, in Australia, it can.
The surrounding buildings are modern and stylish but even the biggest specialist in the company can’t ignore the huge Christmas tree on the square. A robot-tree: it sings, lights up and almost dances. To remind you that it really is Christmas, although you can’t tell by the weather. At least according to our European standards. I don’t remember ever having to wear my most summery clothes at the back end of December before.
It takes about “half a century” to get the architects to move from one end of the square to the other. And it isn’t a big one, believe me! But so many little details are stopping them on their way. Their professional distortions are in full swing. Floorings, canopies, lightings. And not to mention the facades: glazed, metal, origami-ish, even a building-front out of … SCREENS!!!, that change their colours or even show films. Like children by the tree on Christmas morning. Slow down, it is only Christmas Eve.
At the end of the square, we somehow end up in a part of the national art gallery. A building that mum has been talking about since the morning and that we were about to actively look for. Well, here it found us first. We are welcomed by a huge atrium but as if without an entrance. From the square, all of a sudden, we are in the building. We are surrounded by the triangle shadows of the facade, plastics from the collection and hints to the upper floors. But this time the walk around it is paid for, so we will keep it as an option for the end of our stay here. Let’s see if there will be any time left. (There wasn’t!)
We pass through the gift-shop which naturally leads us towards a small room - this one looks like it is free to enter. We go in. The artist is clearly a big name on the world art scene (not that I remember it), but her art is more than weird. The pictures and videos surrounding us are like a futuristic scientific experiment on the human body beyond the known norms. The models are vacuum-packed, submerged, dismembered and whatever else you can imagine would happen to us during an alien abduction.
And one of the interactive installations supports the extraterrestrial style of the woman. We take turns standing in front of a camera that is meant to judge our facial features and guess our age; the main element of our character; how happy, responsible or weird we are and so on. And after these careful calculations, it rearranges our faces according to the “perfection mask”. But it isn’t of the ideal human, rather that of an alien. Because our faces are squished, our eyes pushed into our foreheads and our nose twisted in a zig-zag. What sort of messages should we be taking away from this art?
Culturally, we are ready to leave this room, but let’s not forget that it will take us back into the open world without air-conditioning. Nothing to be done; we soak in the last low temperatures and set off. We pass quickly through the Old Treasury which today is a museum of Melbourne’s history. We read diagonally through the texts in the dungeons and continue towards the Catholic cathedral St. Patrick.
On the way, we see a few big rocks arranged with bronze casts of fossils of extinct animals - birds, fish, mammals. At a first glance, it is nothing new. But by one of the animals, I see some atypical objects. Other than its skeleton, there is a cast of the plastic rings used to keep together a six-pack of beers. You know what I mean - that whitish material that is incredibly tough to break. By one of the other animals, Nic sees the print of a zipper while a third one is holding a plastic bottle cap. We now realise that the skeletons aren’t of extinct species at all. These are creatures that live on these lands currently - platypus, ibis, wombat. Well, I can tell exactly what messages this installation carries. It is showing us not only the reason for the death of these animals but also how long the dangerous items from our households will stay inside our earth.
In the park twenty meters from the fossils, there is something like a giant white ribbon, rippled onto the grass area. It twists, makes way to the path and circles back around. This is actually a representation of the suffragette’s petition for their … no … for our right to vote. So much meaning within some hundred square meters of social spaces! And it is just white concrete and bronze fossils.
The cathedral that we are headed towards is closed. It is odd you can’t enter on a day like today. Maybe they are preparing for the big evening service. Okay, we will continue our walk in the same direction then. And it will take us to the Parliament Gardens. They aren’t big but are wonderful. The creation of such a space is a pure form of art. Purple jacarandas keep our shade while we observe the fountains and admire the endless colours around us.
The time goes by in tourist wandering and our hunger becomes more and more obvious. Then there is only one decision - we are going to the famous Queen Victoria Market. In the centre of Melbourne, public transport is completely free, while the carriage to the market is one of those old-timey wooden trams. Clearly, it is very easy to be a tourist here - uniqueness everywhere.
It turns out, however, that the market is closing earlier today. We run the distance from the stop to catch the last half an hour and what do we see? This isn’t a food market at all, it is a … things market. Full of made-in-China trinkets no one ever needs. Perfect for finding souvenirs - magnets, mini boomerangs, koalas and so on and so on. Fortunately, one of the stalls sells something that we’ve been looking for since Brisbane - the present for mum and dad for tomorrow morning. Nic secretly sneaks away from the group to buy it. There is food, in the adjacent barns, but nothing for immediate consumption. Endless rows of produce and loud tradesmen. It takes us a while to escape the craziness. With mango and tomatoes.
The app is taking us to a vegan Asian restaurant as we are now all starving. Unfortunately, we can’t recommend it. Every other “western” Chinese restaurant offers huge portions that you usually take home. We hardly filled up here on their expensive menu. At least they brought us a compliment with the bill - happiness tea. In a glass pot with a tea light under it to keep it warm. OOOOOOH! That’s why they call them tea lights!
We leave, maybe happier. The tourist plan for the day is more or less over. We go into the closest shop for food. The family council made a decision that tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch will respect the Bulgarian and English Christmas traditions. It’s a good thing they sell tins of the most typical Bulgarian Christmas Eve dish - stuffed vine leaves. Made where? In Bulgaria, of course. We load every free back with tons of food and make our way towards the tram.
The path goes through China Town. Mum and dad have never visited one before and this one is said to be the biggest one in the western world. It’s a good start. We take pictures of the traditional colourful gates, after which we pass many shops and restaurants with products never seen before. It is vivid and loud around us.
Back in the flat, we start the big preparations. Mum folds origami trees in green. We also have red origami paper which we will use to hide the fact that we are using toilet paper as napkins. We can’t allow that to be seen in our pictures when we also have no other options. Dad is cooking on the hobs. The Christmas tree is decorated, wooden decorations come down the curtains, the table is set. Christmas really is coming.
Our dinner will follow the Bulgarian Christmas Eve traditions. We have an odd number of dishes on the table which have to be (in essence) vegan. We manage to get nine things - bread, sarmi - rice stuffed vine leaves, bob - bean stew, sauerkraut, hummus (so Bulgarian), walnuts, biscuits and fruit. The prayer is said. The pictures are ready. Mum has brought traditional fortune-charms, so each of us reads their predicted luck. At the end, we don’t forget to leave biscuits and milk out for Father Christmas.
Silent night! Holy night!
IT IS CHRISTMAS!
The first task in the Christmas morning? Presents! The collection under the tree has grown since last night. Nic and I slept only centimetres away and we still didn’t hear when Santa came to leave them.
From me, Nic receives the hat that he chose at a fuel station at the end of the Great Ocean Road. In the meantime, I open the earrings we bought in Margaret River. Socks and vegan tops from Nic’s parents. They had them sent to Bulgaria and mum and dad have been carrying them in their luggage until today. Walnuts and cards from the grandparents. Vegan cookies from Eli. To mum and dad from us - a visit to the Sydney Tower Eye and wooden decorations with some endemic Australian animals (that’s what we found yesterday) to remember their Australian Christmas every year. But nothing so far can compare to the following surprise, signed “With love, from mum and dad”.
This genuine, unexpected, childlike happiness from a present, hasn’t happened to me in such a long time. It doesn’t take us long after breaking the green paper, to realise what we’re holding in our hands. WOW! Yes, this is a joint present for our birthdays, our anniversary, our name days and Christmas. But currently, I am holding a real, original, brand new, latest model … GoPro! We can’t believe it! Dreams do come true. With the first time we turn it on, we realise how valuable this little camera is. Do you remember our yellow ‘NoPro’ - probably not, because we quickly gave up on using it. There is absolutely no comparison between the two little machines.
But actually, I have no time to explore it. I leave it in Nic’s hands while I start cooking. He discovers new unique features and I cut, mix and roast. After the traditional dinner last night, we have promised an English Christmas lunch for Nic. It takes a lot of effort and tetris like skills to do a full roast for four in a tiny kitchen. And as there is no space for more than one person at a time, I prepared it all by myself which I am actually very proud of.
Fluffy roasties, roasted carrots and brussels sprouts, stuffing balls, meat and vegan roast and gravy! We set up the Christmas crackers for those who haven’t seen any before. Nic approves every element in his place. This Bulgarian knows how to cook like a Brit even if she is doing a Christmas roast for the first time ever. Nic announces affirmatively: “Now I know it is Christmas”.
There we go: Merry Christmas everybody!
At around three in the afternoon, we are organised enough to leave the flat. It’s a little late but our plans are to stay late in the centre, so we will continue our wandering for as long as we can. The public transport is free today in the whole city, so we take the tram towards the Botanical Gardens.
“Stunning! You already know that in the Australia state capitals the Botanical gardens are part of the park systems - the access is open and free. I have grown near Balchik and I have seen tens of times the Botanical Gardens of King Ferdinand. I’ve also seen the park in Euxinograd near Varna. We’ve visited Italy and seen many gardens. But this one in Melbourne is unattainable! It is not just a place for walks - it is a book in park art, in design, in botanical engineering! Every corner offers a different viewpoint, close and distant layers, colours and shapes that are in partnership and complete each other. The lawns are decor to the Trees. The Trees are decor to the Flowers. The Flowers float in the Lakes or look into them … “ - from dad
Every small or big view, looked at from every angle is perfect. So much thought and vision has gone into this heaven. We are all like Alice in wonderland. Even if you come here every weekend, you will still discover new corners.
And meanwhile, Melburnians are celebrating Christmas. Someone had mentioned that Australians aren’t especially bothered by the Christmas holidays. It is not true. Even without the cold and snowy days, the holiday here is big. Were their streets not decorated since the beginning of November? They have been waiting for this day no less than we have. And today they celebrate - with picnics outside in the botanical gardens. Some are simply on blankets, others have arranged long tables with tablecloths, chairs, real cutlery and tons of decorations. It might not be the Christmas we know, but there is no less enthusiasm in the celebrations.
We walk through the gardens as if there is nothing else to be seen in Melbourne. We wander, take pictures and enjoy ourselves. It requires much convincing before we get mum out of the bliss she is experiencing on these paths. But to soften the transition we let her pick the next destination. The two of them might not be the biggest tennis fans, but we are walking straight towards the courts of the Australian Open. If Grisho (Grigor Dimitrov) was here, we will be posing for a picture.
Crossing the boulevard we enter into yet another park. This time it is Victoria Gardens. But officially, I can’t go on any further. My legs are tired by the constant exploration and my mind can’t pay attention to the new things because of the emotions that have been overcoming us in the last few days. The gardens are wonderful, but I just want to lay down. Therefore, once we see the unique building of the Victoria Art Centre, we decide to split up. We get on the tram and mum and dad will continue on foot - we will meet in front of the state library. Everyone will be looking for dinner on their own.
Well, our plan quickly failed. Although the tram was a welcomed rest, at the end we walked the same distance as mum and dad. We arrive in front of the library and go into the mall opposite, looking for the restaurant we have chosen. We’ve already seen from the tram a few of the same chain open so fingers crossed …
We take a step in and … at first we can’t assimilate where we are. The entire modern mall is built around an old factory for lead pipes and shots. Some shops are on the new floors behind us, while others are in the actual factory. But the most impressive thing is the fifty-meter tower that is rising above us under the big glass dome of the new building. Well, you don’t see that every day …
We walk around like headless chickens through the entire complex looking for the sought after dinner until we find the place - closed. Eeeeeerghrghghrh. We return to the closest one we saw open from the tram earlier. Naturally, on the way, we meet mum and dad, also on the lookout for dinner, but we stick to the plan to stay separated.
With a hot dog and fries in hand, we sit on the grass by the cathedral to enjoy the long-awaited dinner and calm down the tired excitement. Afterwards, we get back on the tram and return to the library. That’s the place for our meeting. Tonight, there will be a Christmas projection on the facade and that’s why we’re revolving around the area with such interest.
Only a few minutes until the beginning of the show and mum and dad are nowhere to be seen. Okay, let’s just watch now and we will look for them again afterwards. The first short projection ends, it starts a second time. That one ends too. And my parents can still not be found. I try to call them but their phones are off. After all, who would be calling them while they’re down here anyway … Nic and I are sitting on the grass about to watch the show for the third time. Finally, we get a message from the two lost ones. How did we not think to look for them directly in the local pub with beers and burgers? We will join them then. Who would say no to a festive beer?
Afterwards, the four of us go back out to see the colourful projection again. On the face of the classical building, we see vivid colours while we listen to a Christmas story. A small elf is telling us about Santa’s preparations in Melbourne, while on the columns, arches and around the windows we can see cars moving, presents falling and reindeer running.
The show we’re watching isn’t something that any municipality can afford. The level of professionalism put into it is expensive and valuable. I have seen similar ideas in both Bulgaria and the UK, but the level of details, the specifics of the measurements, can’t measure up with what is currently in front of our eyes. According to some lighting experts we know, such installation requires a precise surveying project and a complicated design of the light pictures that doesn’t allow even a centimetre deviation in order to have the desired effect. Sighing compliments and enthusiastic screams can be heard all around.
It takes us a while before we decide what to do this morning. We have the option of staying another night in the flat and seeing more of Melbourne. We didn’t plan it but it will allow us to stay unpacked and have one more free day. Or we can leave today and arrive a day early in Sydney and sleep at Bondi Beach. Such decisions are difficult … But finally, we are ready. Team Kolarovi / Sims prefers more time in Sydney to Melbourne. We pack up everything and climb into Bertie. Leaving the car park proves just as difficult as getting in.
We first park in the centre to run some errands. Mum and dad have brought a driver’s licence of a Bulgarian who lives here. So we will pass her block of flats to post it through her letterbox. Afterwards, we pass the central station so we can be refunded for the pre-paid public transport cards. We had filled them up nicely, but who could have expected there are so many free options, especially on holidays.
As we are in an unexplored part of the city, we take a small diversion. We walk on the promenades by the Yarra River and pass through one of the famous footbridges of the city. The architects are happy. We pass new social, museum and exhibition spaces and afterwards, we head to the beach. We haven’t seen the ocean for two whole days now.
If you’ve seen “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” you have probably noticed that the story is set in Melbourne and the eccentric detective often visits St. Kilda. We won’t miss the opportunity, either. Here, it is lively, colourful and semi-summery. We will first take pictures in front of their Luna Park. If you didn’t know, the first ever Luna Park was on Coney Island in New York, while the second one was right here in Melbourne. If you remember from my first Australian story, there is one in Sydney too.
But today, we would prefer to be blown away by the coastal walk, instead of hanging upside down on the roller-coaster. After a quick lunch on the first picnic table we see, we walk out on the promenade. There should be penguins living on the nearest pier, but once again we have no luck finding them. Even though I take a look under every rock. The view behind us is towards the city of Melbourne but the masts of the sailboats in the marina look taller than the glass skyscrapers. It is very windy! In such weather, when no one would enjoy a beach day, you can always be certain to find kite surfers. This, for them, is heaven, even if their wife and kids wouldn’t want to wait for them on the sand. We take pictures but quickly jump into the first cafe. The coffee here is finally real and the desserts - luxurious.
We get back into Bertie. We stick the GoPro on the windscreen and say goodbye to Melbourne. We arrive in Shepparton with enough time to get into our cabin and prepare dinner. Tomorrow … Canberra (pronounced with a stress on the first A).
As Christmas 2020 comes nearer, we often remember and tell the story of our Australian adventures last year. It turns out that many people have the dream of spending this holiday in a hot location. But as a huge lover of the winter holiday, I cannot share those dreams any more. Perhaps, spending November and some of December at home and only travelling at the end to somewhere hot would be okay. Then, you will have enough time to catch up with warm scarfs, hot chocolate, Christmas films and colourful decorations. But spending the entire festive seasons in a hot country is torture. I am glad we experienced it in such wonderful company, but I am eager to be cold again.
And what can I summarise about Melbourne? It is wonderful! I can see why it is in constant competition with Sydney. Each of them trying to out do the other. Which one offers the better food, shopping, culture, nature, business, life. Melbourne truly offers so much and does with desire and special attention. It blows you away here and relaxes you there. And yet … Melbourne might have most of the awards, but Sydney will always be number one for me. Because it was my first Australian love.
Vassya (Nic, Svetla and Boyan)