Friday, 9 September 2011

Days 3 & 4: Bus Rides With Bruce

With some days at leisure before Burness arrives, and thus some days before I want to start exploring the object and purpose of my visit, the Sydney Opera House, it seemed a good idea to explore a little more of this city. As with my recent holiday to Barcelona, a good way of doing this is to use one of these open-topped tourist buses. In the last decade, these hop-on hop-off buses seem to have begun spreading across the world, including back home in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where I would often witness tourists huddled under umbrellas bravely listening to audio commentary in what surely must be the only open-topped vehicles in the country. My recent holiday in Barcelona saw me use one, in somewhat sunnier conditions. They're a good way of getting an overview of a city, and can give ideas for further exploration. The ticket too lasts for 24 hours, so can stretch across two days.

At AU$35 (about £24) for 24 hours, it's not cheap though, so I fully intended to get my maximum money's worth. In fact, maximum money's worth would either be to get off at every stop or to stay on the bus the entire duration, both of which might be a little extreme, but I did fully utilise both tours (of the city centre and of Bondi) and get off at numerous stops. The narrator for the day was an unnamed Australia television personality, and a cursory search online hasn't revealed his name, so I suspect he might not be a household name. He certainly sounded very "chipper" and very uber-Ozzie, and for the duration of the tour I pictured a stocky, rough-looking man wearing a hat with dangling corks and grinning at me as he fed me a mixture of interesting and inane information. I think we can safely call him "Bruce".

I started the tour at Central Station, and settled into a nice upstairs seat in the sun. The first part of the city tour from here went round by Darling Harbour, named after the seventh governor of New South Wales, Lieutenant-General Ralph Darling. The route here sidestepped the busier part of the city, and went down some smaller, quieter streets, but passed by some notable landmarks. One of these was the Sydney Fish Market, which Bruce claimed was the second biggest in the world, but that a little online checking appears to instead be the third biggest, after fish markets in Tokyo and Madrid. In terms of variety, Sydney may be the second biggest, so I'll let Bruce off this time. Close by was an attractively designed leisure centre complex, called the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre. It was finished in 2007, when Ian Thorpe was 24 years old, but the design was drawn up in 2001, when he was just 18, a year after his Sydney Olympic triple gold and World Record exploits. Surely there can't be many buildings named after someone so young; often death and a few centuries are required before your name starts to get used.

The harbourside area of Darling Harbour is a fairly recent redeveloped area packed full of shops, restaurants, hotels, casinos, exhibition centres and all kinds of attractions. It's also packed full of young children on school groups, as everywhere I looked were lines of tiny children skipping and shrieking. On the second day of my ticket, on a whim, I got off the bus here to visit the Maritime Museum, which turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. The majority of the museum was the history of boats and Australian maritime exploration, and was fine, but the gem of the museum was a temporary exhibition about Robert Falcon Scott, i.e. Scott of the Antarctic. I can't say I'd ever been terribly interested by Scott, who seems to have been lionised as a hero despite failing to be first to the South Pole and dying in the attempt, whereas the far better prepared Roald Amundsen, who got there first, is almost regarded as the bad guy, just because he was organised and successful. But the glory of doomed defeat elevated Scott into national hero status, and the exhibition told the story so well that suddenly I began to understand why. As well as the voyage to the South Pole, which was Amundsen's only goal, Scott and his team of men spent a considerable amount of time doing scientific study elsewhere in Antarctic and had been there a year before trying the ill-fated South Pole trip. The exhibition documented the background to the trip, went into great detail about the small hut that contained 25 men living in cramped conditions and surrounded by a brutally cold world of ice and storms outside. Eventually it moved onto the polar trip, which was very effectively shown as a horrendously tough test of endurance and "not at all fun", with a scanned copy of Scott's diary at the very end leading the story to its conclusion.

I settled down into watching an interesting documentary about the region to finish the exhibition off, when all of a sudden approximately 80,000 schoolchildren descended upon me, dancing into front of the screen, shouting, pushing, and generally behaving young, so I took leave off the exhibition and the entire museum in a stroppy huff.

Back onto the bus tour and to the chipper words of Bruce, on towards the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House direction. Although the Opera House is obviously my choice of Wonder, I have to say that the Harbour Bridge is utterly magnificent, and almost worthy of being a candidate Wonder. It is a very handsome steel bridge connecting the centre of Sydney to the north shore of the harbour, and due to its height and prominent position is a highly visible landmark all across the city. Sydney is quite a hilly city, and the Harbour Bridge, being by the waterside, is obviously quite low, but due to it being clear of surrounding buildings it can be quite easily seen from any of the higher vantage points. In Bondi, for example, having a coffee with Matt at a shopping centre earlier in the day, the Harbour Bridge, though far in the distance was still clear and distinct in view. Later on the tour, in the heights of Bondi, it was again the scenic highlight in the distance. Muscular but elegant, it is a real highlight of Sydney.

Bruce was also a fan of the Harbour Bridge, and spoke lots about it. My favourite part was the opening ceremony. After construction having started in 1923, it was formally opened on 19th March 1932. As usual, this involved a bunch of clapping officials, and a ribbon to be cut, by the Premier of New South Wales. However, just before he did this, a man called Francis de Groot, dapper and dressed in military costume and riding a horse, charged up waving a sword, and sliced the ribbon open himself, declaring the bridge open. He was arrested and fined £5 (his action was the protest against a left-wing government and the bridge not being opened by a member of royalty), and the ribbon was retied and recut, no doubt to somewhat of an anticlimax.

Sydney Harbour Bridge overlooks Circular Quay, which is very near the Sydney Opera House, and acts as a ferry terminal as well having a train stop and numerous bus stops, with plenty of cafes and restaurants arcing round the semi-circular quay (which was the original name before the "semi" was dropped to make it catchier). Circular Quay is also where Sydney begun, back in 1788. It was here that the very first fleet of colonisers landed, eleven ships in total with about 1500 people, half of which were convicts. I wouldn't dare say the proportions of convicts in Australia has remained the same till today. The proportions were less even for the number women, with only about a sixth of the number being female, which the critic might argue was a little short-sighted for a new colony. Still, Australia population is now 22 million, so they must have got something right. The fleet of ships had originally landed in Botany Bay, a little to the south and selected by Captain Cook several years earlier as a likely location for a new colony, but it had turned out to be entirely inappropriate, so after a little hunting the fleet relocated to a more suitable bay to the north. This was at what is now called Circular Quay which is within the small bay that the colonisers named Sydney Cove, after the British Home Secretary of the time, Lord Sydney, thus giving the city's name (there is another Sydney in Nova Scotia also named after him).

Bruce didn't quite go into that much detail, but did chirply inform me as we moved from Circular Quay to Pitt Street, one of the main streets of Sydney's centre, that Pitt Street was the seventh most expensive in the world. Not that I distrust Bruce, but I was a little incredulous; however a little deeper delving revealed that Bruce had actually undersold it, and that in terms of cost of renting prime retail space, Pitt Street is the third or fourth most expensive in the world, behind only Fifth Avenue in New York and Pedder Street in Hong Kong. By some assessments, it might be the second, which makes me suddenly reassess Bruce's modesty. Seventh... second... I think I must have misheard his dulcet tones among the hubbub of the city centre.

Into the city centre, which still needs much exploration, and into a thoroughly modern grid-like city, with towering skyscrapers and people marching around trying not to bump into each other. Business and shopping are the two main functions, with plenty of restaurants scattered too. I particularly enjoyed the Queen Victoria Building, an immaculate and beautiful shopping mall from the late 19th Century, stretched along almost 200 metres in a long and narrow arcade of shops. The exterior is still being renovated, but the interior was a delight, even for someone like me who usually prefers to avoid even being near shops.

A little beyond was St. Andrew's Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in Australia and dating from 1868 which I visited on my second day. It was surprisingly and quite charmingly ramshackle inside, with chairs lying around and a general feeling of clutter, in one corner at least. But perhaps because of this, and because of the organ-practice taking place, the cathedral had a friendly feel. The glass main doors and multiple television monitors within the cathedral did seem a little anachronistic however.

But it was a different cathedral that won me over more. Near Sydney's Hyde Park, a converted race-track and now just couple of oval parks, and behind the line of business skyscrapers, stands St. Mary's Cathedral. The largest cathedral in terms of overall size in all of Australia, work started in 1868 and was in use by 1882, but wasn't actually finished until 1961, and that's not counting the two spires which remarkably were only added in 2000 as an afterthought. Built with sandstone in the Gothic style, from the outside it is rather cleanly bare compared to some of the more ornate cathedrals in Europe, but it was the inside I was impressed with. Grand, serene and immaculately resembling the interior of European cathedrals, amidst the noise of central Sydney it really was a haven of peace. Wikipedia criticises the lighting, but I appreciated the dim yellow effect which, while perhaps reducing the impression of grandeur, gave it a warmer feel. We both agree on the stained-glass windows however, which were absolutely wonderful; imaginative and decorative, they were a pleasure to behold, and the high point of the cathedral. The low point were the signs prohibiting the taking of photos: really, why is this? It seems awfully mean-spirited.

As the name suggests, the cathedral is named after the Virgin Mary, surely the most popular choice for church and cathedral dedications: indeed, Glasgow alone has more than ten. Inside is at least one statue and picture of Mary, both fully coloured and quite realistic, and both with Mary clad in blue. This made me think, why is Mary always dressed in blue? She wears a lot of white too, which I'd expect given that she is supposed to be pure and virginal. From what I can gather, the blue originally was a darker blue, which was the colour of empresses during the Byzantine era in about 500AD, but this has been lightened over the centuries to represent the colour of the sky, or the heavens, to indicate holiness and more purity. This ties in with the colours used to distinguish boys and girls. These days blue is for boys, but before the early-to-mid 20th Century this was far less defined, and blue was very often used as the colour for girls, due in part to its pure and holy association. But I would temper all this with a little warning: colours are like numbers, and just as numbers can be used to fit any theory, colours can also pretty much mean anything. Blue can also mean sadness, optimism, peace or pornography - or whatever you want really.

I took a little walk from St Mary's Cathedral to Central Station, where I would be able to join the Bondi tour, and as I had some time I sat for a while in the park adjacent to the station, Belmore Park. I noticed, with horror, that dressed in red - the colour of guilt, anger, sin, and warning - were two of these charity people that run at you with big grins and flamboyant gestures, trying to be wacky and friendly and coerce you into signing a direct debit form to pay money monthly to charity. "Chuggers" (charity + muggers) they are sometimes called. I had thought they were a British phenomenon, and found myself surprised at their existence abroad. I watched them for a while, and saw that they had notably little success with the Australian public. One chugger looked rather forlorn. They were taking up a bad patch, as other chuggers were operating both up and down the path from them: two green (colour of witchcraft and wealth) chuggers operated at the entrance of the park, and two black (colour of the void) guarded the station entrance. I smoothly side-stepped them all.

The Bondi tour, which like the city tour took about 90 minutes of total bus travel, had less in the way of stops or actual sights, and Bruce didn't have as much to say for himself. He remarked on a giant Coke billboard, an apparent landmark in Sydney, and heritage listed. A Coke sign? Bondi beach was the focus, a small but scenic and very famous beach packed full of beach dudes and lanky models in the summer, but on the drizzly early spring evening had just a few forlorn souls standing looking into the Pacific. The name Bondi, Bruce regaled, is an aboriginal word meaning "water breaking over rocks". Most handily, it's just 15 minutes from Matt's flat, so bidding farewell to Bruce, I was able to get off at this stop and head back to Matt's apartment.

To my delight, Matt knew of a pub quiz that night, so with a couple of others we managed a tremendous 6th place (of about eight teams), and managed to win two bottles of pseudo-champagne from a stash of about twelve the quizmaster seemed to be liberally handing out. Australians seem to do things differently, because the quizmaster was a pretty girl and not a fat middle-aged man, Scottish style. Astonishingly, there was a bonus round worth $2000; less astonishingly, nobody won it.

That's been my whistlestop tour of Sydney, mostly a random stumble through some buildings near the city centre. The more you delve into a place, the more you discover and want to see, and so there's loads more to explore in the days before Burness gets here and the Sydney Opera House takes priority.Hopefully I'll get a chance to stumble upon some more of Sydney's lesser known landmarks.

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