A One Fine Day in Sydney

My last day in Sydney was full of blunders– and quiet surprises.

I was trying to recall how terrible my last day in Sydney was.  I was convinced of it because I have blister scars on both my ankles from walking all day–well alright, I had a gelato stop at some point– along with a fatigue/flu that rendered me useless for a week because as luck would have it, it also rained at the later part of my fateful day.  Doesn’t sound good, right? Well, maybe it wasn’t so bad either.

Sydney’s architecture is an interesting mix of old and new. (L) Sydney Tower, (R): Sydney Post Office Building at Martin Place.

I thought I can put the blame for my woes on the free walking tour I joined that day.  I was expecting a hurried and unexciting tour with a guide holding a mini-flag and a megaphone–just to remind everyone how embarrassing it was for all involved. Instead, what I got was a fun, informative tour with a cool, architecture degree-holding sydneysider as a tour guide.  All was going well– we went to the tourist spots and she told intriguing and funny anecdotes about them– until that part when she started to tell us about Sydney’s “hidden bar” culture.  I would have loved to do a pub crawl for the whole night, but a 10AM flight the next day and sneaker-hating dress codes made sure I would never get to. Regrets– they’re no fun.

Iconic. The famous Sydney Opera House in daylight, as seen from Circular Quay.

I cannot deny, however, that the tour made me look at Sydney with fresh eyes.  The Opera House? Iconic. But its construction is less inspirational, mired in dirty politics and financial woes.  The building beside it? Dubbed by Sydneysiders as “toaster” because it looked like a bread toaster next to a dish basket with plates that is the Sydney Opera House. Marvelous isn’t it?  I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that tucked in between George and Pitt Streets, and just across my regular train stop– Wynyard Station– is an art installation just waiting to be discovered.  Called “Forgotten Songs”, the piece features a canopy of  180 empty birdcages hung above Angelplace laneway, just underneath the shadow of surrounding buildings .  It was an evocative sight and what I loved about it are the birdsongs that sound off from the cages when you walk underneath them, adding to the enchanting if not melancholic atmosphere on that little corner, hidden from the banal commute of city life.  That part of the tour wasn’t so bad.

Laneway culture. (L) A quiet stroll in the laneways of The Rocks makes for a charming afternoon. (R) “Forgotten Songs”, an art installation in Angelplace laneway, is a hidden gem in the middle of the Central Sydney.

It wasn’t also bad that the tour ended at The Rocks district– where I would eventually enjoy an idyllic afternoon.  The neighbourhood certainly has an old-world charm with its cobbled streets and historic buildings, depicting of an era where men wore bespoke suits and were also convicted criminals.  If you have gleaned through world history, Sydney’s dark beginnings as a penal colony was no secret and in The Rocks, it is where this dark past shines.  It is definitely one of the highlights of my tour, with just enough tales of murders, public executions and convict camps to send me well on my way to exploring it on my own. There, walking alone on eerily quiet laneways and past suspicious nooks I wondered how many people got shanked or mugged at the very spot I was walking on.  Idyllic can mean different things for different people and I prefer mine with a little grit.

A group of women gathers under the shadow of the Harbour Bridge to paint and sketch the neighbourhood of The Rocks.

But its intriguing past and charming laneways isn’t the only thing that got me spending a whole afternoon in there. I was also there for The Foodie Markets and its stalls of food over at Jack Mundey Place. It was easy to get confused with different kinds of delicious food choices, and they have everything: pasta, sandwiches, cheeses, ice cream, and even fresh produce!  Thankfully, I had my guide’s recommendation to carry me through: a Turkish Gozleme and a meat skewer, to which my choice was just narrowed down to which filling of Gozleme and which exact meat I would want.  I settled for the classics: spinach and feta filling and kangaroo meat (a classic considering I was in Australia, right?), respectively.  It was a simple and delicious meal that only cost me $12 and which I enjoyed immensely on a quiet corner, with the sun on my face and just the right amount of the early winter’s chill.  It would be impossibly perfect if folksy street musicians just happened to stroll by and play for the crowd at that moment– but that afternoon allowed for such sublimity, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Arvo Salvo. A lunch or afternoon snack at The Rocks Foodie Market is a must while in Sydney. Among the crowd favorites: Kangaroo BBQ Skewers and Turkish Gozleme (Top Left).

But where my lunch was a scene out of a light-hearted, soul-searching movie–starring Diane Lane– my last dinner in Sydney later that night was more of  a raunchy and raucous teen movie– starring Jonah Hill, et al.  The culprit: a cheeseburger meal from McDonald’s– not to be confused with the vendo machine potato chips I had minutes earlier when I got stranded at Town Hall station.  What happened was I got so caught up with finding the next “perfect” meal for hours as I walked through the city that I eventually reached nowhere when I did get hungry, and nowhere good just leads to Mcdonald’s–eventually.

St. Mary’s Cathedral as viewed from Hyde Park. Located right at the heart of Sydney’s CBD, the basilica’s Revival Gothic architecture stands out from the towering skyscrapers and modern buildings of the city.

Perhaps I should have taken the sudden downpour of rain when I finally left The Rocks as a warning.  But I was far too inspired by that afternoon’s perfection for me to be convinced that the following hours will go the opposite direction.  If anything, that rain only brought me inside the art deco walls of  The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) which wasn’t so bad.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia  features exhibitions of contemporary art from around the world. (L) An art installation entitled “Asesinos! Asesinos!” by Kader Attia.

Entrance to the museum is free–to my relief– and got me an all-access pass to all the collections and exhibitions housed inside.  That time, an exhibition on the works of French Algerian artist, Kader Attia occupied both the north and south galleries– making use of considerable space to further convey the message of his installations.  For a bit of levity, I also browsed through funny children’s books at the museum’s shop where I found out that our generation’s obsession with butts will be safely passed down to our children.  I must say the books “Where The Wild Bums Are” and “The Very Hungry Bum” are among my quirky discoveries that day.

True Colours. The annual Vivid Sydney play up the iconic buildings of (from top) Sydney Opera House, Museum of Contemporary Art and Harbour Bridge.

Outside was where other discoveries were waiting for me, though.  Or so I thought.  For a brief moment that the rain had stopped, I made a wise decision to buy a $15 umbrella at a corner shop in Circular Quay.  I should have listened to the lady who told me to get the $25 one instead– I realized what her broken english meant later on when I saw tears on my umbrella after a moment of heavy rain. But, I held onto it–partly by pride but also I don’t want to be more soaked as I already was. I felt like Michael Jackson in his “A Stranger in Moscow” music video: a stranger walking along a strange city among a sea of impeccably-made black umbrellas, melancholic but beautiful even in the middle of the pouring rain–only this time I wasn’t melancholic, I was just sad for my current situation and there was nothing beautiful nor graceful in struggling to walk with a flimsy umbrella.

Cityscape escapade. Darling Harbour at night.

I was not only damp during those hours but visibly cold as well, with the night bringing with it a drop in temperatures in what already is the winter season. And yet I will be there, walking from Circular Quay to Hyde Park to Chinatown– stopping for a gelato, looking inside shops and taking terrible low-light photos. I would finally reach Darling Harbour where my day was supposed to end with fireworks,  a light show and a stunning view of the city at night over the harbour.  That would have been perfect.  But it didn’t end there nor was it perfect– and that was alright.

***

Footnotes:

I’m Free Walking Tours (www.imfree.com.au) offer what its name suggests everyday in Sydney and Melbourne.  

The Rocks Foodie Market (therocks.com)is held every friday at Jack Mundey Place in The Rocks district from 9AM-3PM.

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