Ah Sydney, the brash and the beautiful! With lumps in our throat we said good-bye to the Queen Mary 2 at its berth along Circular Quay. In the six days that followed, we tried to look past this amazing harbor with its iconic opera house and bridge in order to begin to get a handle on the greater city.
We based ourselves in Glebe, a district our guidebook calls a “bohemian” suburb and a “jumble of hole-in-the-wall eateries, cafes, and bistros.” For us it felt like home sweet home. Through Airbnb, Kay had found a studio apartment in a building aptly named University Hall. It was located on the corner of two busy commercial streets, one containing a dozen different ethnic restaurants and the other the location of a nearby shopping mall with a large Apple store. Since our apartment didn’t have WiFi, the Apple store with its high-speed network was a handy resource and a joy to use after the pokey, unreliable satellite connection on the ship. We spent our first day in Sydney (our only rain day) exploring our neighborhood, shopping for necessities and doing other practical tasks. Just down from our lodging is Gleebooks, perhaps the most inclusive bookstore in Sydney. There I found a copy of Nevile Shute’s A Town Like Alice. It’s a lovely novel of love and endurance in the Australian Outback of the 1950s. I’ve found that reading local authors while traveling in foreign countries enhances the pleasure.
The sun shown on our second day, and we caught a bus along George Street toward the city center known as the Central Business District (CBD). Exiting near St Andrew’s’s Cathedral and the historic Town Hall, we admired their imposing exteriors. Architecturally, the style of many of Australia’s heritage buildings, especially its Victorian Gothic churches is unmistakably English.
We paused to listen to an excellent touring Irish street band that calls itself FitzaFrenic. The sax player fronting the ensemble, danced as he wailed on his instrument. We were moved to buy the group’s CD entitled Chew the Fuse.
Near where the band was performing was a talking fountain in the shape of a dog that claimed to have been granted the power of speech as a reward for unspecified good works. Dog said that if I threw a coin into the water below it, it would thank me. I tossed a ten-cent coin but didn’t get the promised thank-you. Maybe I should have thrown a larger one.
One of the most impressive heritage buildings we encountered that morning was the giant Queen Victoria Building or QVB (the Aussies do like their abbreviations). Constructed in 1898 to house the city’s fruit and vegetable markets, it today contains dozens of high-fashion stores and cafes arrayed along galleries one above the other around an oblong atrium lit by a long skylight.
Centered over the galleries below are a dome and enough stained glass to ornament a temple. Standing beneath these on the elaborate mosaic floor, one can’t help but sense the enormous power and confidence projected by the British Empire at its apex.
Large, green spaces seem to be a hallmark of Australia’s cities. It was midday and quite warm when Kay and I sat on a shady bench watching a game of Oz Tag being played by mixed teams of office workers on their lunch hour. It seems this is a well-established and organized custom in Sydney. Lunchtime Legends, the company that runs it, marks the pitch and provides a referee and support in the form of Gatorade, towels, and medical attention if needed. The game is played according to Rugby rules without the tackling and other bodily contact. Instead, each player, male and female, wears cloth tags that an opposing player can tear off in lieu of tackling. At the end of a match the players return to their offices, shower, dress, and resume their work. It’s easy to see the benefits in terms of fun, exercise and team building that this provides. We just can’t see it happening in New York or Istanbul.
In the afternoon we met up with Gitanjali, an acquaintance we had known more almost twenty years ago in New York City during our days participating at Landmark Education. She now leads Landmark’s signature programs in Sydney, Thailand, Hong Kong, and elsewhere in Asia. Gitanjali knows the city well, so it was a pleasure to have her as a guide around the parks and botanic garden where we sat watching and listening to cockatoos and lorikeets.
The highlight of the afternoon was the visit the three of us made to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is a wonderful museum of mostly modern and contemporary art housed in an impressive, golden sandstone building. We stayed in the museum until it closed at 5 p.m. Kay was taken with a group of identical wooden boxes by Donald Judd that are attached to a wall in one gallery. She also spent time in the porcelain collection and drew my attention to a priceless, 12th-century, celadon Chinese ewer in the shape of a melon.
Strolling through the parks and around the quays, we encountered dozens of runners. This is a city where there is a large interest in physical culture and where many make a big effort to stay looking good. As many of you know, Kay and I are drawn to the world’s large cities where people come in search of success. Sydney is one of those. We sensed a strong interest here in getting and spending. Signs of wealth are everywhere and nowhere more so than in the real estate market.
Naturally, the most desirable properties are those with harbor views. Thanks to our friends Tim and Jan we were privileged to be entertained in one such property. Jan’s sister Christine and her husband Bob share an apartment whose view is nonpareil. Sipping drinks from their terrace we looked under the Harbor Bridge directly in front of us to the opera house beyond. To the left, in the near distance, were the rides and amusements of Luna Park. More to the left and behind rose towers identified with Fujitsu, Cisco, and other technology companies. This end of Sydney Harbor closest to the city is so dramatic because it is so compact. Skyline, opera house, bridge, quays – everything – is so close together. The proximity makes for an exciting spectacle.
We had had a great day seeing the sights with Tim and Jan, Australian friends we had known in Istanbul where they occupied an apartment below ours. Now, they have come back to Oz and were spending a few days in Sydney before returning to their own home in Brisbane. We will join them there for more fun and laughs later in our grand tour of their country.
It’s hard to think of Sydney without thinking about its opera house, whose sculpted white shapes resemble the sails of the yachts in the harbor. We were fortunate in being able to secure two tickets to a production of The Magic Flute. Certainly Mozart and Schikaneder’s fairy tale of an opera has never been better served than by Julie Taymor’s costume and puppet design. Her vision is as unique as theirs. In the starkly plain Joan Sutherland Opera Theater the acoustics seemed perfect. Our assigned seats were in the nosebleed section, almost in the last row of the balcony. As I sat looking at the program, I mentally kicked myself for not having brought the binoculars that we have been carrying with us but have not yet used. Then, a remarkable thing happened. Just before the curtain rose, an usher came and told us that we could move to the empty seats in the first rows of he balcony, putting us much closer to the stage. Now, our view was excellent.
Standing outside next to the building’s exterior, I realized that the surfaces of the sail-like forms are covered with tiles, Most are a light beige with a matte finish; these are interspersed with others, shinier and diamond shaped. Beneath the tiles the structure is concrete. Compared to its radical exterior, the building’s interior feels rather plain.
From Circular Quay, many ferries ply the great harbor. We took one of these back and forth to the Taronga Zoo at the suburb of Mosman on the North Shore. The passage took only fifteen minutes; we wished it could have taken longer because it was so pleasant and gave us alternate views of our surroundings. As for the zoo, it is large and sensitively designed with environments that, as much as possible, are natural for the animals that inhabit them. Pip, an acquaintance of ours and a zoo volunteer, had arranged our visit. We walked through the sections reserved for exotic animals to arrive at a small outdoor amphitheater with a glorious view of the harbor, where at noon we watched an unusual bird show.
The show featured trained birds and a guide, a woman employee from South America, who stood below us on a grassy plot. She had at least four assistants standing behind and to the sides of us. When released on cue, the birds might fly to the guide first and then when her point was made, fly fast and low over our heads to an assistant behind us. They all had names: there was Stella the kite, Howard the barn owl, Jasper the parrot, etc. As each bird was presented, the guide told us facts about it and how it benefits us. Demonstrations were given. The Galah parrot, Australia’s most common, flew to an audience volunteer, took a coin from his hand, and brought it to the guide. Then, after the guide made her point, the bird returned the coin to its owner. Most of the birds were of a small or middling size, but one large condor made an appearance and showed how it helps keep our environment clean by eating carrion. The show was fun, educational, and kept us marvelously entertained.
Elizabeth, a volunteer guide and a friend of Pip’s gave us a tour of the section reserved for creatures endemic to Australia. Many are nocturnal, so being able to view them in the darkened exhibit hall gave us the chance to observe them in their nighttime activities. We felt very lucky watching the extremely shy platypus, a rare sight. This was a wonderful opportunity for us because none of them exist in our country or in countries we normally visit. Some of what we saw are as follows: the Tree Kangaroo (one of 50 kinds), the tiny Bandicoot, the Stick-Nest Rat, the Short-Beaked Echidna, the Rufus Owl, the Tawny Frogmouth, the Red-Necked Wallaby, the Wombat, the Grey Kangaroo, the Tasmanian Devil, the Blue-Tongued Lizard, and the Cassowary, a very large, flightless bird. Many of these are endangered, either due to non-endemic predators introduced in the past or because development and deforestation have reduced their habitats.
Elizabeth is deeply knowledgeable and appreciative of Australian fauna. She was a font of knowledge, and what we she taught us should stand us in good stead as we travel the land.
We can’t conclude our adventure in Sydney without mentioning an excursion we made to Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye) Beach on the city’s Pacific Coast. Australia has an extraordinary beach culture. Ninety percent of the population lives within thirty miles of a coast, so children grow up on a beach. Bondi occupies a special place in beach lore because of its history and reputation for surfing. It was developed early. The Art Deco Bondi Hotel bears the date 1928.
Kay and I arrived late one afternoon after a sluggish bus trip across the city. In spite of the stiff offshore breeze, making it too cool for our comfort, the beach was still fairly crowded. As we walked along the street behind the sand, I thought of Venice Beach in LA. The scenes are similar. We stopped for hot dogs at Harry’s Café de Wheels, a stand nearly as old as I am. We’re sure we will visit other beaches on this trip and probably spend more time on them, but at least we can say we’ve been to Bondi.
One aspect of visiting Sydney, annoying for us, was not being able to use the public transportation system more effectively. Although there is a light rail system, and at least one tramline, most of the system depends on a great many buses that, as they operate in traffic, are naturally slow. We spent a lot of time waiting at bus stops. What we missed is a modern metro system that would get us around underground. We learned that the problem has been discussed and studied but so far without a solution.
As usual, the final day of our Sydney visit arrived leaving us feeling there was so much more we would like to see and do. Of course, we are limited in time and energy. Maybe we’ll return one day. If not, we’ll content ourselves with the really great times we have had.