If you think adventure is dangerous, it is better than routine, that can be lethal
– Paulo Coelho
I woke at 07:30 this morning after another decent night’s sleep. Roisin had already been awake since 06:30 but she did go to bed an hour earlier. Our first activity today was to join a free walking tour around the city. Roisin and I always check for free walking tours if we are staying in a city for more than a few days. Most cities accommodate this sort of tour and we find they are excellent value for money. They’re free after all so you can’t get more excellent value for money than that!! (unless the tour guide pays you
!!) It is customary to just pay the guide what you think the tour is worth. The tours normally last between 2 to 3 hours and take you to all the major sites. Most of the guides we have met, from Valparaiso to Vienna, Brussels to Bratislava have not disappointed. All engage with the customer and are very knowledgeable about the history and the surrounding land marks. The better ones have plenty of anecdotes to entertain and continue to amuse their audience. We tend
to tip the local equivalent of about £10 which is probably above average but nevertheless, this still represents a great and economical way to familiarise yourself with the local surroundings.
Today’s tour started outside Sydney Town Hall, only a short ten-minute walk from our hotel. At 10am one of the guides made the announcement to the waiting masses. I say masses because I counted ninety-seven people waiting to be shown the delights of this relatively young but vibrant city. We were split in to three groups. Our guide introduced himself as Asher; born and bred in Sydney. He was a student and does this work to subsidise his studies. Asher was full of energy and provided us with plenty of stories to keep our interest. He started by giving us a potted history of Sydney from its meagre origins as the gateway to the penal colony to its meteoric rise as Australia’s latest city. Despite looking aged, the town hall and adjacent catholic St Andrew’s cathedral were only built in the late 19th
century which, on reflection is quite old where Australian architecture is concerned.
Australians love to give things long names and then use an abbreviation!! We
walked across to the Queen Victoria Building, or as the locals like to refer to it, the QVB which. No surprise, we noted a statue of Queen Victoria proudly sitting on a plinth outside the main entrance. This statue was originally to be found outside the parliament building in Dublin, Ireland. However, this regal emblem or British Sovereignty did nothing for their kudos so the Irish offered it to the Australians for free (as long as they paid for the postage and packing!!)
The QVB is now a shopping centre. We were taken through this arcaded building and through to Market Street which is the centre of Sydney’s shopping district. Cutting through the Strand Arcade we couldn’t help but notice the plethora of designer shops and high-end retailers.
‘I didn’t think Australians were renowned for their fashion sense’, said Roisin.
‘They’re not’, I replied. ‘Just look what they introduced to the world - Ugg…..I rest my case!!’
Crossing over the busy Elizabeth Street we were led up one of the many avenues that dissect Australia’s oldest parkland, Hyde Park. At the time of European settlers, aborigines use to hunt duck
in this swampy marsh. The park fell within the boundaries that had been decreed by an early governor that no man should own land in this area which should remain property of the crown. The idea of converting the bog land in to a park for all to enjoy was first conceived in around 1810 and has since developed in to a 40-acre well-manicured, well-kept urban green belt with tree lined avenues and grassed playing fields. At a junction where several paths shot off in different directions, halfway up one of the avenues, we stopped by the Archibald fountain, with a statue of the Roman God Apollo atop, stretching out his hand as a sign of protection. Now facing us at the end of this avenue was the second catholic cathedral that Sydney had to offer. This was the ‘Cathedral Church and Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Mother of God, Help of Christians’ otherwise known as ‘St Mary’s!!’ (Aussies? Long names? Shortened? Remember?)
There are many place names in Sydney that are named after Major General Lachlan MacQuarrie. He was the last autocratic governor of New South Wales from 1810-1821 and had a major influence in the transition of
NSW from a penal colony to a free settlement. One of his many achievements was to have the first hospital in the city built, in front of which we were now standing after a short walk through Hyde Park. This was far from an easy process. He originally applied to England for the funding but the reply he received was something along the lines of: ‘Bugger off! You’re nothing more than a penal colony. We’ve got better things to spend our money on such as financing a war to dispose of a nasty little sh*t of a Corsican that doesn’t know when he’s beaten!!’
This setback didn’t stop MacQuarrie from achieving his goal. By far, one of the most precious commodities in these hard times was Rum. It numbed the senses and made life in this den of iniquity slightly more bearable. The Governor called for the three wealthiest businessmen in NSW and gave them a proposition: If they provided the funds to build a hospital, he would provide them with exclusivity to distil, produce and sell all the rum for the state. This was not only everyone’s favourite tipple in NSW it was the only tipple
so this was a ‘no-brainer; an offer they couldn’t refuse. That is why the hospital standing before us is known as the ‘Rum’ hospital. (Not only do Aussies abbreviate everything, they are also good at giving things nicknames!!)
In front of the hospital stood a bronze statue of a wart-hog. In most big cities there are statues that if rubbed, it is said you will return. For example, the Bell at Wawel castle in Krakow. I’ve re visited Poland’s second city seven times!! (Until I came to my senses and stopped rubbing that damn bell – I’ve never been back since!!) The statue on Charles Bridge, Prague. Never rubbed its foot – I’ve never returned. See it works. However, being realists, the Aussies don’t make any guarantee that by rubbing the pig’s snout you will return to Sydney. It does, though bring you good luck. This was a finely detailed pig and its snout was not the only part of its anatomy that was gleaming from constantly being rubbed (if you know what I mean!) Not too sure if this gesture brings good luck but the wart-hog seemed to have a smile on its face!!
Across from the
hospital, we were introduced to Sydney’s oldest church (also commissioned to be built by Macquarrie). St James church is much smaller than the cathedral. It is no more than the size of a chapel It was built in 1824 and has survived many changes in its immediate surroundings. The fact that the city has continued to develop around this simple, plain wooden structure is stark testament and reminder to Sydney’s humble beginnings. It used to be the highest structure in Sydney. This accolade has since been claimed by the Sky Tower, beyond this chapel but looming high over the city.At 1,014 ft (309m) this is now the second tallest observation tower in the Southern Hemisphere. In keeping with Aussies nicknaming stuff, the shape of the pod and observation deck near the top of the tower has earned it the nickname ‘the Bucket Tower’!!
On 1 January 1901 Australia became an independent nation when the British Parliament passed legislation allowing the six Australian colonies to govern in their own right as part of the Commonwealth of Australia. Australia needed a capital city. At this time Sydney (the capital of NSW) and Melbourne (the capital of Victoria) where by
far the most influential cities in this newly formed country. Both felt they should be named the capital of Australia. Arguments went back and forth for some time and the bickering wouldn’t stop. The grand council finally offered a solution that a new capital should be created half way between Sydney and Melbourne and so Canberra was founded. Ask any Sydneysider and they will tell you that as Canberra is only 280km from Sydney but over 600km from Melbourne, Sydney was favoured more to be the capital!!!
Another quick game of follow my leader over a busy road, through a few narrow streets on to Australia Square, the very heart of the business district where we stopped for a quick ten minutes. It was here I spotted a rather lifelike statue of a man sitting on a bench reading a newspaper. The news paper was so detailed and the statue so realistic I almost asked if I could just take a look at the sports pages. In fact, I would add that this statue seemed to generate more life with a degree of personality than many of the commuters and tourists passing through this square!!
Our tour was
almost at an end as we approached Circular Quay and no wander around the port would not be complete without a visit to the Customs House. Having spent thirty-eight years in the service, it always fills me with a sense of warmth when I walk in to a customs office. (no sarcasm intended…or is there??) It is the same the world over, through the glass viewing panel I saw several officers leaning back on their chairs seeing who can throw the most paper balls in to a nearby waste bin. They must obviously be the analysts using advanced calculus to demonstrate and prove a tricky hypothesis. Another was trying to beat his hi-score on solitaire, a very technical game which improves the brain’s reaction time when ‘in the field’.
I looked across the other side of the room and I saw at least three officers resting their eyes, deep in thought, no doubt, as to how to solve some horrendous problem. There were still quite a few empty seats. I assume their owners were across the road having an important meeting in the Customs House Bar. (A standalone building which, from experience, would be no coincidence that
it was twice as big as the Customs House itself!!) Ah! Yes! Happy days indeed!!
In all my years in working for ‘the Crown’, I was only called a Nazi twice!! I was now looking down at a series of swastikas embedded in to the marble floor of the Customs House foyer. A sort of ‘welcome to our humble offices’ to all visitors. I was reassured by our guide that long before this emblem was hijacked (and reversed!), it was actually a symbol of good luck. Phew!! That’s a relief!!
We passed the open cruise terminal where Royal Caribbean’s ‘Ovation of the Seas’ had recently disembarked over 4,000 passengers and was now receiving another 4,000 with open arms. We cut up a street along side the Museum of Contemporary Art or MCA to the Aussies!!
Now in the shadows of Sydney’s iconic bridge we were walking through the district known as the Rocks. This is one of the oldest founded areas of Sydney dating back to the first settlers around 1788. Locals and tourists mingled at the open-air Rocks Markets. Street food and handmade fashions were also in evidence. Although this area has some of Sydney’s oldest
pubs our tour was now at an end. Roisin and I joined in with the obligatory clap and I threw Aus$20 in to his hat before we set off towards the metro where we took the train from Circular Quay back to St James and lunch in one of the food halls scattered throughout the network of shopping malls.
This afternoon we met Alyson for Coffee in a Starbucks near the Town Hall. We reminisced over passed holidays and discussed future plans. We also talked Harry Potter and family (probably in that order!!) but the time went far too quickly before it was time to say our goodbyes once again.
Prior to arriving in Sydney, we checked out if there were any performances at the Sydney Opera House. Nothing was happening at this iconic landmark but there was a performance of Sondheim and Bernstein’s West Side Story across the Quay at Fleet Steps which we had duly signed up for. Fleet Steps is a promontory of Farm Cove and an extension to the rather impressive 74-acre Royal Botanical Gardens. We walked the 1 ½ miles from our hotel through Hyde Park and picked up Mrs Macquarie’s
Road that cuts through the botanical gardens and took us straight to the entrance. This was a performance al fresco and included a floating stage. Our ‘outdoor performance record’ has not been great with it either being windy, rainy or both!! Tonight. there were clear skies with a slight breeze coming in off the Tasman Sea. We entered the site and walked down a shrub lined path, arriving at a small food court. As we hadn’t eaten dinner we found an empty table, claimed it and ordered food and drink. I tried a Shark burger which unsurprisingly tasted like chicken until Roisin told me: ‘That’s because it actually was chicken!!’ I then re-examined the menu. Below my Shark burger was another burger…a Jet Burger!!
‘Ah!’ I exclaimed as the penny dropped. ‘The Sharks and the Jets. The two rival gangs in West Side Story!’
As we took our seats looking down on the giant floating stage, we were greeted with unsurpassed views of Sydney Harbour, the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the Royal Botanic Garden and the city skyline. This, we could certainly get used to.
musical didn’t disappoint. We even found time during the interval to wander amongst the props, having my photo taken with a full-size NYPD squad car used by Officer Krupke!! We were also entertained with fireworks during the interval, not on the scale of the Sydney Olympics or the world-famous Sydney New Year fireworks but nevertheless still worth the admission fee alone!!
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