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The Hub down undah

Our sister city is south to our north, hot to our cold, gregarious to our reserved, yet familiar to our senses

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Mandel
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2008

Think of this country and the map in your mind tips upside down. Life there, you think, must be as odd as Aussie vowels, as foreign as a kangaroo.

For New Englanders a visit here can be a leap, a long one. We're cold; they're hot. We're quiet; they're not. We need a way to ease into Australia's deserts, its crazy distances, its endless "pots" of beer.

The way is easy: Melbourne.

On a recent trip to the continent's second city, the capital of the state of Victoria in the country's temperate southeast, I found it the perfect base for exploring the coast and other attractions. And I was surprised to discover that Melbourne was a match for Boston, its sister city, in a range of areas.

Sydney and New York are Superman destinations, wrestling for attention and flying onto the world's front pages. Boston and Melbourne? They are more like Clark Kents. And each is secretly glad.

According to Melburnian Sonia Rendigs, who used to live in the United States, "When I left New York to go to Boston I felt like I was coming home. You've got crews on the Charles; we have them on the Yarra. The universities, the high-tech focus, even the way people behave. Go to a department store in New York or Sydney and you're going to be blown out the door. Here or in Boston there might be a crowd, but it'll be a lot calmer."

Aside from the University of Melbourne (Australia's Harvard) and RMIT University (its MIT), this city's Hub-like qualities include high-brow cultural icons like the symphony and the national public TV station, a tram system that mimics the Green Line, an Italian enclave along Lygon Street that tastes like the North End, a Quincy Market-style development called Southgate, and an obsession with sports that rivals Red Sox Nation's.

Speaking of good sports, Boston and Melbourne may be the world's only two cities with spring public holidays focused around competition. Instead of Patriots Day and the Boston Marathon, here it's a historic horse race (one of the richest handicap races in the world) known as The Melbourne Cup.

Founded in 1835, Melbourne was a sleepy outpost until gold was discovered in Victoria in the 1850s and suddenly everyone wanted in. The area's new wealth kicked off a building boom that dotted the city with grand public buildings and Victorian-style mansions finished with intricate iron railings, fences, and trim.

To get a look at some of these, I strike off on the Golden Mile Heritage Trail. Not as stretched out as Boston's Freedom Trail, the walk gets you wandering the clean downtown, head bowed, hunting gold coin markers embedded in the sidewalks. Hoping they might be the real thing, I try to pry one out of the cement. A man with a briefcase sees what I'm up to and laughs. "Sorry," he says in passing. "Not going to be that easy for you."

No one here puts a toe into the street unless the walk sign is lighted. When I stray into traffic the way I might in Massachusetts or New York, it causes alarm. Parents grasp their children. The City Circle Tram, free for tourists, dings its bell. Melbourne pedestrians are calm even right outside the giant Victorian train terminal, and the Southbank Promenade along the Yarra, home to street art and jugglers, has an almost orchestrated flow.

I end up in front of the old state treasury building, which, I'm told, was Victoria's Fort Knox. Guards circled the building with its basement stacked with gold bars. Next door is a city park, the Treasury Gardens, which is as central a green space as Boston's Public Garden, though without the pond and swan boats.

My guide, Carol O'Reilly, gestures angrily at the park's Indian mynah birds ("They chase the doves"), and points out plastic rings on tree trunks, designed to prevent possums from climbing up. "Do you have that problem in Boston?" she says. "Um, I'll have to research that," I say.

There is a poignant piece of the park, an oval stone memorial with a bronze relief. A prime minister? I wonder, walking nearer. Could it be a queen? A lord? I get close. The New Englander in me catches his breath. "John F. Kennedy," says the plaque simply. "1917-1963."

Another of the surprising things about Melbourne is the range of its ethnic neighborhoods (Greek, Italian, Indian, Turkish, Chinese, Vietnamese) and their food.

The area around Lygon Street is speckled with cafes that serve up biscotti, gelato, and espresso, and corner restaurants with marinara sauce bubbling away in the back. As in the States, a lot of the pasta and prosciutto are shipped from Italy, but somehow the dishes come out tasting, well, unlike anything you've ever eaten.

At Villa Romana, a trattoria on Lygon Street, I talk to the manager, Gregory Copponi, about the linguine on my plate. Why is it pink? "It is the radicchio in there," he says. "Not cheap," he adds, "but good for the bite."

Copponi tells me he's had five heart attacks and four bypass surgeries. I ask him if it's the stress or too much sampling of restaurant dishes. Portions are a struggle at Villa Romana and cuts of meat extend over the edge of the plate. "Possible," he shrugs. "But who can say?"

Copponi and his chef are open to experimenting with the pastas and calzones. He claims to have invented a pizza featuring chunks of baked potato and blue cheese. Sure enough, when I scan the menu, there it is.

Certain experiments he declines. "Sometime people ask for pineapple and apple on pasta," he tells me.

Pineapple and apples?

"Both," he insists. "I refuse."

One night, I'm in the mood for seafood and head for 111 Spring Street Restaurant at the swanky Hotel Windsor. When I am curious about dishes, out pops the chef, Craig Hicks, to explain.

"You're in luck," says Hicks. "The poached yabbie tails are a lot like Boston lobster. But fresh water, from a farm pond called a billabong." Yabbies are a kind of crayfish.

Farm ponds are not my thing so I ask about the pippies, clam-type shellfish Hicks says are similar to New England steamers. He steams some of his seafood in beer; Crown Lager is the local brand he prefers.

"You could skip the shellfish and go for broke," Hicks suggests. "Kangaroo is a nice red meat and very lean."

Is he pulling my leg?

Not at all, says Hicks. "Australia's the only country that eats its national symbol. And quite a lot of it, too."

I order a Crown and make a silent vow. It would be like eating eagle; I'm not going to try kangaroo.

Later, I decide on pippies tossed with pasta. "Make that radicchio pasta," I tell the waiter.

Despite the stemware and starched tablecloths, talk at the tables that surround me is about sports. I keep catching the words "footy" and "footy finals."

That is shorthand for Aussie rules football and the playoffs that are going on. I've tried to watch and understand this game: There is rugby-style tackling and lateraling. There are four goalposts on each end. And, for reasons I don't get, players prefer punting the ball to each other while they're on the run.

A couple nearby hears my American accent and, just for laughs, asks if I think one of the local longtime-losing Victoria teams will win. I mull this over. They narrow their eyes and wait.

"Well," I say at last, "if the Boston Red Sox can do it, so can Melbourne."

"We read about your Red Sox," says the husband. "It took them a while but they did it, didn't they?"

"So will you," I predict. We raise our glasses and drink a toast to second cities.

"Who needs Sydney?" I say, downing my Crown.

"Forget Manhattan," says the man.

When I get up to leave, we slap each other's shoulders and shake hands. We are allies. Civic allies. And we are, all of a sudden, very loudly proud.

Peter Mandel, a writer in Providence, can be reached at pbmandel@cox.net.

Getting there

Several airlines fly from Boston to Melbourne. Air New Zealand has excellent in-flight service, and if you're willing to fly via Auckland, some periodic good deals. Call 800-262-1234 or visit airnewzealand.com.

Where to stay

Langham Hotel Melbourne
1 Southgate Ave.
011-61-3-8696-8888
langhamhotels.com
A luxury hotel, the Langham is the perfect spot to enjoy the Southbank Promenade. Doubles $290-$590.

The Hotel Windsor
111 Spring St.
011-61-3-9633-6000
thewindsor.com.au
Near the Victoria State Parliament and the free City Circle Tram, the Windsor is a fine old hotel that also houses 111 Spring Street, an interesting restaurant. Doubles $175-$525.

Where to eat

Oyster Little Bourke
35 Little Bourke St.
011-61-3-9650-0988
oysterlittlebourke.com.au
European in design, Oyster Little Bourke gives its fish interesting Mediterranean treatments and has a great selection of Australian oysters. Entrees $31-$87.

Pellegrini's
66 Bourke St.
011-61-3-9662-1885
One of the oldest eateries in town, serving homemade pasta and lasagna with fresh sauces and sides. Entrees $7.95-$14.

Villa Romana Trattoria
252 Lygon St.
011-61-3-9650-7990
One of a string of Italian restaurants along Lygon Street, the local "Little Italy." Tasty grilled meats and pizzas (including one with baked potato on top). Entrees $15-$25.

What to do

Lanes and Arcades Tour
Hidden Secrets Tours
011-61-3-9329-9665
hiddensecretstours.com
Catch a glimpse of up-and-coming Melbourne bars and boutiques, which tend to be tucked away in alleys and arcades. Tuesdays-Saturdays $78 per person, which includes a gift bag, shopping guide, city map, tea, and lunch.

The Immigration Museum
Old Customs House
400 Flinders St.
011-61-3-9927-2700
immigration.museum.vic.gov.au
Full of films, recordings, and interactive exhibits, the museum tells the stories of Victoria's immigrants. Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $5, children free.

Information
visitmelbourne.com
visitvictoria.com

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