Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ship to shore

It's always the same, at the end of a cruise. You've been fussed over right from the start, it's all smiles and chocolates and invitations to indulge - then, several days before the final port, the rot begins with departure instructions appearing in the room, labels for the luggage, timetable for disembarking... It always feels too soon. And finally, on the last morning, you're just an impediment to their readying the ship for the new passengers. It's kind of hurtful. You suspect that all that friendliness has just been a front - which, of course, it is. Welcome back to the real world.

And so we were bundled off the Azamara Journey at 9am and driven into the city across the splendid Anzac Bridge, for our part - I have to admit - leaving the ship behind without a backward glance, on to the next thing.
Which is, today anyway, boutique Sydney: suburbs far from the Bridge and the Opera House, with individual character, interesting oddities, and passionate people. We're based in Chippendale at the Old Clare Hotel, which has been converted from a former brewery and the pub next door, retaining much of its original structure, even down to some graffiti on the brickwork in what is now the entrance foyer, above an old safe with a bag on one shelf labelled 'Random crap'. Funky is, I think, the vibe they're going for.

The room is agreeably spacious after the snugness of our stateroom on the Azamara Journey - but some common difficulties persist. On the ship it was the coffin-like shower inside the cupboard of a bathroom; here, it's a roomy bathroom, but all made of glass, so until the steam gets going there is no privacy when showering, and, though the loo glass is frosted, there is no soundproofing. Kind of inhibiting - but since all the rooms are different, don't let that put you off staying here. Just avoid 117.
The position is great, with Spice Alley right alongside: a little lane filled with pan-Asian eateries serving through windows with shared eating spaces, hung with Chinese lanterns, decorated with murals, and busy as, everyone from students to suited businessmen. I had hot and crispy chicken ribs from Thai eatery Bang Luck; and though I learned rather more than I would have chosen to know about Otis, the son of the woman at the next table, the food was delicious, fuelling me up for the main event of the day, which was a Culture Scouts tour with Sophia.
She's an artist and enthusiast, exactly the right combination for exploring Chippendale which is full of art of all sorts, from vertical gardens to upper-end graffiti to galleries. We started with Central Park, a building with the world's tallest green wall, 34 storeys of happy plants; and then did a couple of galleries including White Rabbit, a private collection of large contemporary Chinese installations prowling with attendants happy to expatiate on their meanings. The one that mesmerised me, plastic boxes stuck on a wall with a half-circle of lights moving back and forth, throwing pretty shadows, was apparently all about impermanence and... well, a whole bunch of other stuff, apparently, that went in one ear and out the other. Wasn't it enough, just to be pretty?
The nice thing about walks like this is that it does make you look more closely at what's around you, and I was as taken by the peeling paint on an old brick Victorian house as I was with more deliberate art like the Aboriginal murals, traditional and modern, in nearby Redfern. This district has a history of racial violence (actual riots!) and crime, and is still a bit edgy, but being steadily gentrified from its previous 24/7 unsuitability for unescorted wandering. In other words, the disadvantaged indigenous people who were concentrated here have faded away - though The Block is still there. I don't mean that tediously over-excitable home renovation competition show on TV3, but an expanse of grass owned by the Aboriginal Housing Corporation that they want to build on, but have been stymied by resistance from the State government. Australia, eh. The dark side is always there. But at least they themed their Keep Out sign with the Aboriginal flag...
Moving on into Redfern's busy main street, we went into a deceptively blandly-named shop, Seasonal Concepts, which startled me with its hippo skull and just went on from there. It's a fabulous place, an artwork in its own right, filled with a gloriously eclectic collection of bizarre and beautiful things, displayed for discovery. Mounted zebra heads, 1950s coffee mugs, solar lanterns in Agee jars designed for Africa, furniture, antiques, collectibles. Proprietor Ken is always up for a natter about where he collected any item. 'Delight the Eye, Cheer the Heart' is the slogan; and it's true.
Then there was Chee Soon & Fitzgerald, another quirky little shop, specialising this time in 1950s Japanese kimono silks, rolls of dainty designs not much more than a foot wide; and other equally unusual fabrics, and china. The owner is a Kiwi from somewhere like Darfield, no doubt quite correct in his decision 30 years ago that Sydney was much more tolerant of and conducive to his somewhat alternative lifestyle than inland Canterbury.
And finally Sophia took us to The Bearded Tit, a bar that's self-consciously quirky and fairly rude, but fun all the same: a loo where the walls are covered in Jesus portraits, for example, crocheted woollen penises in the window, and a skeleton behind the bar, appropriately enough standing right next to the spirits. It was a good tour, I enjoyed it - you really can't beat wandering around with a local, especially when they have a particular interest, like Sophie and art. Recommended.
The day ended with dinner, just across the road at Olio - not Italian (so dated) but Sicilian. The hapuka was good and so was the millefoglie afterwards though, to be honest, I was so flattered by the waitress thinking from my millefeuille-influenced pronunciation that I was French, that it could have tasted like plaster and I wouldn't have noticed.

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