I’m a notorious skinflint traveller. If there’s a bus, I don’t take cabs; if there’s a 2-star hotel, I’ll look to see what the one star one offers; if there’s something going cheap, I’ll look for something that’s free. I know that there are more important things to spend money on – like coffee, food and alcohol.
And of all cities, my home town Melbourne is in my mind supposed to be free. In the good old days I could eat at Mum’s and she’d do my washing for nothing.
I hadn’t spent a day or a cent there for years, and there were a lot of new developments to catch up on. The Melbourne Museum, new facilities at the mighty MCG, the Ian Potter Centre and Docklands have all been installed since last I was in town. My mission was to see them for nothing, or next to nothing.
Parking is a killer, and I didn’t have a car. The Melbourne Bike Share system ($2.50 a day) offered the most efficient mode of transport a cheapskate could choose to whip around the town, getting free exercise in the process. I even found a discarded helmet hanging on the rack, exactly my size. This was going to be my day.
I mounted my steed and tootled off in the direction of Queen Victoria Market.Vic Market has been a Melbourne institution since 1878, but I steered clear of the vegies, koalas 20% off (no ears, perhaps?) and genuine Aboriginal boomerangs made in China.
I was after a coffee, and excellent stuff it is in this town – Melbourne’s Italian immigrants made sure of that fifty years ago.
Then I pedalled up the road to Carlton Park and the Royal Exhibition Building. This elegant, temporary structure was erected in 1880. I still can’t go in there without feeling inadequately prepared – we used to sit our university exams in the great hall.
Just across the courtyard was the smart newish Melbourne Museum. It charged $10 admission but it was free for scrooges with student or seniors concession cards. You beauty!
I skipped the rooms with the dinosaur bones and the visiting Tutenkhamen exhibition. I’d seen mummies in other places.
Instead I went straight to the Melbourne room, with the stuffed hide of the iconic Aussie racehorse Phar Lap. He was a much-loved feature of the old Melbourne Museum.
I also loved the quirky, nostalgic history of the old town, featuring a replica of Coles Book Arcade with Coles Funny Picture Books.
Outside the museum I picked up another city bike (I’d paid my $2.50 and was determined to get my money’s worth out of the deal). It was downhill all the way to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia’s greatest sporting venue. I’ve paid upwards of $50 to see test cricket here, but it was free to see the end of the Victoria v Tasmania state match.
The facilities at the ground had been much improved since my last visit, and I could have taken my pick from the 100,000 seats.
When lunch time rolled around, I saw no need to pay inflated inner city café prices. A picnic in the lovely Botanic Gardens would do the job perfectly. They are one of Melbourne’s glorious assets, but there were surpisingly few visitors.
Federation Square, across from the clocks of the old Flinders St Station, has been a controversial development. Depending on whose opinion you read it’s either an architectural marvel or a disorientating shambles of a complex, with its odd angles and uneven zinc surfaces. It does smack of someone setting out to win an award rather than making a people-friendly space. There’s no doubt it creates interest, however.
And few would argue that the Ian Potter Centre inside it, a branch of the National Gallery of Victoria , does not contain much of the greatest Aboriginal and other Australian art there is. The gallery’s international collection is across the river. Entry to some touring exhibitions can be pricey, but wandering round the permanent collection was, you guessed it, free!
I had a dinner and show appointment at Melbourne’s alternative Malthouse Theatre, but that left me time to ride the bike past the Southbank bars and restaurants and down to the flash apartment development of Docklands.
I felt entitled to a drink and a good meal before the show. I’d burned off a few calories and I still had money in my pocket.