Street walk uncovers Melbourne’s story

Checking out Melbourne's street art.
Checking out Melbourne's street art.

You may not have noticed, but look up and you’ll see a slimy-looking green blob that resembles something from the set of a B movie on top of a building in Melbourne’s CBD.

First-time visitors may be forgiven for thinking an alien lifeform is about to take over Swanston Street. But I know, thanks to a knowledgable local called Matthew, that this snot-like sculpture on the RMIT building is in fact meant to be a “brain”, linking Storey Hall to the old Singer Building.

This fascinating fact is one of the many gems Matthew shares on a three-hour I’m Free walking tour of Melbourne. The tour zigzags the streets exploring the history, architecture, stories and laneways of Australia’s cultural capital taking in landmarks including Federation Square and Flinders Street Station before finishing over the Yarra at Hamer Hall, Southbank.

Our group is made up of overseas and interstate visitors, as well as a few locals who want to discover more about where they live. Our host is a wealth of knowledge, ready to answer any questions thrown his way.

Here are some fascinating facts I learned while pounding the footpath:

Law and order

You can see outlaw Ned Kelly’s metal armour, death mask and Jerilderie letter at the State Library for free. Bushranger fans can find out more about Kelly at the Old Melbourne Gaol where he was held. The site of more than 130 hangings, the gaol is one of the city’s great examples of bluestone architecture and Victoria’s oldest surviving penal establishment. (I also found out that Mick Jagger played Kelly in the 1970 movie Ned Kelly).

Batman forever?

Melbourne was going to be called Batmania after the explorer who “discovered” the area, John Batman. So Melburnians would have been called Batmanians. But in 1851 the colony of Victoria was formed (named after Queen Victoria) and the city named in honour of Lord Melbourne, the Queen’s Prime Minister.

Growth spurt

The Royal Exhibition Building’s dome was based on Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome in Florence. The majestic building in Carlton Gardens is one of the world’s oldest remaining exhibition pavilions and was originally built for the Great Exhibition of 1880. It’s also a lasting legacy of Melbourne’s rapid growth, due to the gold rush of the 1850s. The impressive structure was completed just 45 years after the first European settlers sailed up Port Phillip Bay in 1835. “That’s growth that modern cities dream of today,” says Matthew.

Degraves Street is a popular cafe and retail laneway between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane in Melbourne.

Degraves Street is a popular cafe and retail laneway between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane in Melbourne.

Eureka moments

The Eureka Tower dominates the Melbourne skyline. At first glance it could be dismissed as another brash building. But did you know this modern skyscraper’s design is based on the Eureka Stockade rebellion of 1854? The building’s gold crown represents the gold rush, the blue glass cladding represents the blue background and white of the stockade’s flag, and the single red stripe is the blood spilt during the revolt.

Ghost stories

The Melbourne CBD holds a myriad of creepy stories about spirits from centuries past who haven’t found peace. Take for example the Great Frederici (aka opera singer Fred Baker) who died on stage at the Princess Theatre while playing the Devil in Faust, who is said to haunt the theatre. The cafe next door is named after him. Don’t be spooked about checking out this beautiful Victorian theatre.

Grid-locked

It’s not until you navigate the criss-cross of streets on foot that you realise the city is a neat grid. The distinctive grid design was laid out by surveyor Robert Hoddle in 1837 (and later became known as the Hoddle Grid). But it’s the city’s laneways that make it stand out from other major CBDs. That was down to Governor Bourke who wanted lanes added – hence Flinders Lane, Little Collins Street and so on.

Culture club

A true multicultural melting pot, Melbourne has the largest Greek population in the world, outside Greece, and its Chinatown around Little Bourke Street is said to be the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the Western world. Look out for Hellenic symbols on pavements and street signs marking the Greek precinct at the eastern end of Lonsdale Street.

Street art

Around Flinders Lane, Hosiers Lane and AC/DC Lane are the best spots to see the city’s famous street art. “There’s everything from paste-ups and stencils to murals and spray painting,” said Matthew of these outdoor galleries. But what you see one day might be gone the next, such is the ever-changing nature of this urban artform.

I’m Free Tours leave outside the Sir Redmond Barry statue in front of the State Library, Swanston St, at 10.30am and 2.30pm every day. It is an easy three-hour walk. Look for the guide in a bright green T-shirt. The tour is free, donations are welcome – www.imfree.com.au 

This story originally appeared on The Senior