Australia is not just sun and desert. It’s also a land of water and clouds. There’s a way to understand if we’re in love with a place or if we’re just bewitched by the fact that we’ve been there with the sun, while on holiday, and we’ve seen only the best part of it. Explore a city when it rains, and not just for a few hours, but for an entire week. Under a cloudy, constantly grey sky, a relentlessly blowing wind and the streets turning into streams. Go back to a place you once saw at its best, and ask yourself: Do I really love this city? Could I actually live here, knowing that it’s not flawless at all and for sure it’s not the fairy tale place I once thought I was? Well, if the answer is a resonant «yes», congrats: you’re in love.
This is what happened between Sydney and me. To be honest, Australia’s always held a special place in my heart, since I was a child and I used to spend my afternoons watching an animated series set in Adelaide. Obviously I wanted a koala. And obviously I dreamt of being in such a wild place, where blue was bluer and green was greener. A young nation without the heavy burden of a long past on its shoulders, free to absorb different traditions, cultures and habits. A country that is proud of its trees and animals instead of museums. So Australia has always been on top of my wish list. Let’s forget for a moment the long, exhausting flight, and pretend to be already there, in the city I wanted to be my first stop Down Under – again.
SYDNEY ON MY MIND
In my memories, Sydney was shining in the sun. A winter yet warm sun, and a special light that I came to associate with Australia – clear, pure, almost translucent. I remembered intense colours, beaches where I could walk for hours. Delicious street food, a trip to the Blue Mountains under a blue sky. And golden sunsets. I remembered afternoons spent on the beach, crimson flowers which were already blooming. Hyde Park full of people on lunch break, the huge palm trees along Macquarie Street. And the skyline seen from the ferry to Manly or Watsons Bay.
THE ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS
But no, things can never be the same again. I watch the clouds gathering in the sky, after an almost sunny morning spent in the Royal Botanic Gardens. The gardens are the perfect place to start exploring the city, and not just because they house an incredible variety of plants typical of Australia and the Pacific. They also offer spectacular views over the white sail-shaped shells of the Opera House and the imposing Harbour Bridge, one of the symbols of Sydney and Australia itself. In the park, you might come across a boy who is giving sugar to a couple of parrots or meet a possum at twilight. You can learn the names of the trees and stop at one of the best look-out points over the harbour, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, where the Governor’s wife used to sit and watch the ships coming and going.
MACQUARIE AND HYDE PARK
Macquarie is also the name of the street that runs along the eastern edge of the city from the Opera House to Hyde Park. Many of the Victorian buildings were commissioned by the Governor to the convict forger Francis Greenway. The Mint, the Parliament House, the State Library and the Barracks, which now house the Conservatory of Music. The memory of me walking along this road under the sun, feeling small and almost incredulous, clashes against reality – the rain is starting to fall and I must open my umbrella. My feelings are the same though. As I reach Hyde Park (it’s hard to forget Sydney’s link to British culture and tradition) with its grand avenue of trees, home to opossums and birds, and Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the wind has become cooler.
IT IS RAINING AGAIN. THE CBD.
It’s raining seriously now. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and the lights are turned on (it’s winter, the sun sets early). Traffic increases, even though I could never associate the idea of “chaos” to a city I find so relaxing. Two paths lie in front of me. I could turn left, take Oxford Street and walk along the memory lane, or turn right into the Central Business District, which I find so fascinating under the rain. Don’t ask me why. The reason might be the lights, the skyscrapers, the coloured umbrellas, the hope to find a café where to have a cup of hot tea. So I go for the city.
CHAI TEA & ARCADES
Inside The Strand Arcade, Pitt Street, I forget about the weather. This Victorian mall houses many of Australia’s best designer labels, gift shops and beauty salons, reminding me of old London. I notice a small coffee shop with a window full of big chocolate muffins, scones, brownie and almond teacake, and I order a cup of Chai tea and a muffin that I enjoy squeezed between a young mother and the door. It feels like being in a doll’s house. When I leave, the rain is still pouring down, so I decide to visit another mall, Queen Victoria Building on George Street, where shops are already closed but young people are stil sitting at the cafés with their laptops.
FEELING PART OF THE CITY
It’s easy for me to feel part of the city, as if it was normal to be here, on a winter afternoon, wandering about before dinner. And I like walking in the streets, which in this area run parallel to one another. Crossing Martin Place, heart of the business district. Looking up toward the Sydney Tower, and admiring the decorated State Theatre and the imposing Town Hall, built in 1874.
Finally I get to Circular Quay, the harbour on the northern edge of the district, with its restaurants, shops and seagulls flying relentlessly in the sky. I pass by the palm trees and stop: there it is, the Opera House by night, framed by the ocean and the skyscrapers. It is one of my favourite buildings in the world, so elegant, and so minimal. I can’t take my eyes off it, feeling a strong sense of déjà-vu and realizing that the rain hasn’t changed anything. Sydney still has a special power on me. It’s not perfect – no city is. But to me, Sydney is beautiful. We understand each other. And we’ll keep telling stories about Australia in the next posts.