sydney autumn weekend

The Labour Day weekend in Sydney was a relaxing affair, although I did walk my socks off (and have a huge blister to prove it).

I met up with Orlando on the Thursday evening at his hotel on the North Shore. The Vibe Hotels are good value, less stuffy than your usual mid-priced hotel with young staff, funky uniforms and a modern lime-green-and-purple colour scheme. Nonetheless, the whole seventh floor smelled damp. They told us it was because the laundry was on that floor, but my nose suspected a serious leak in the recent past which had gotten into the carpets and underlay.

We didn’t stray far on Thursday for dinner. Kirribilli is just on the other side of the railway tracks from the hotel. Apart from being famous for Kirribilli House, the Australian Prime Minister’s residence, it boasts spectacular views of the Opera House, city skyline and Harbour Bridge from the riverside.

Sydney’s Luna Park is just a minute’s walk too, as is Sydney’s open-air Olympic-sized swimming pool where Orlando regularly swims when here on business. It must have one of the most spectacular view of any public swimming baths in the world – like having a pool in London which overlooks the Houses of Parliament. Not a bad place to be stuck from week to week as he often is.

Stir Crazy is a tiny loud local Thai place nestled in between about a dozen other eateries. They don’t take bookings and the place is tiny. Prospective diners stand around outside on the pavement alongside the open-air diners crouched over their food on stools. Inside it is cramped and loud; the waitresses waver between friendly and harried but they do their best. But the food was fantastic. I ordered a vegetarian sitr-fry – hot, I told the waitress – and Orlando ordered the chicken and beef stir-fry. They arrived in shallow bowls on banana leaves, steaming hot, incredibly spicy and quite sweet. I devoured mine with a sprinkling of steamed rice. As soon as we were finished the bill was thrust under Orlando’s nose – no standing on ceremony here. For two huge dishes of food the total was $32. Such good value that we ate there twice.

Friday meant exams for Orlando, and a lazy start for me. After a hotel breakfast (mediocre, I have to say) I walked across the Harbour Bridge into the CBD. It really is the only way to arrive into Sydney. Naturally everybody walks on the eastern side of the bridge so as to get the stunning views of the Opera House and harbour as you walk along. The bridge was alive with schoolchildren on a day trip, tourists from the ocean cruiser docked at Circular Quay below, and other ordinary Aussie sightseers. A group of BridgeClimb people climbed one of the joists on steel walkways as I walked past. I remembered my experience doing that with Orlando back in early 2001, and wondered why they couldn’t have chosen something better for people to wear than those dreadful grey polyester boiler suits.

At the other side I wandered down back lanes in the direction of Circular Quay, meeting a number of Sydney cats along the way (they would turn out to be the first of many animals we would encounter on our city break). But I was headed for the bright lights of the shopping area: I had a mission to buy a new autumn wardrobe. In the end, Orlando caught up with me and I bought nothing, just got frustrated by the fact that everything in Jigsaw and Carla Zampatti seemed to be made for stick insects with impossibly long legs and no hips. In Jigsaw, the size twelves were uncomfortably small, whilst in Carla Zampatti the woman tried to convince me to try the size eight trousers as the size ten was swimming on me. Why we pay any heed to these numbers I shall never know.

After an afternoon break for a sit-down and a glass of bubbly back in the hotel we met up with my brother-in-law Pat for dinner. We started off in PJ O’Brien’s, which was full to the gills with people with Irish-shaped heads (apart from the people who were Chinese, Indian, and every other possible rave known to man). We found a corner and shouted our news over the racket. Around the corner in Cockle Bay Wharf we dined at Nick’s, a lovely seafood restaurant. Lucky for me I chose the grilled fish and salad for dinner, as Pat and I put away more than two bottles of wine over the course of the evening. No way to continue my diet, I thought. Back in Pat’s penthouse apartment, we sipped more red wine and contemplated the Sydney skyline from the balcony before retiring to bed (actually, to be honest I don’t really remember the taxi ride – see above regarding wine consumption).

The following morning I was surprisingly chipper. Brunch was partaken in a little local place called the Living Room, all roughly-hewn tables, mismatched chairs and huge breakfasts. My vegetarian omelette replaced a few of the brain cells I had killed the night before while I read the Saturday paper from end to end. Orlando favoured the more traditional breakfast with all the trimmings, and we were set up for the day.

We bought a day-tripper ticket and jumped on a train to Bondi Beach (as you do). It was a beautiful sunny day, and Bondi was crowded. We saw the TV cameras of the Bondi Rescue show wandering around on the sand, and Orlando counted the topless ladies while I gazed upon the beauty of the sculpted men. A lovely way to spend an afternoon. We strolled up past the Bondi Icebergs swimming club with its famous waterside pool:

The Swimming Club’s origin dates back to 1929 and owes its origins to the desire of a band of dedicated local lifesavers who wished to maintain their fitness during the winter months. They formed the Bondi Icebergs Winter Swimming Club and drew up a constitution and elected office bearers. Included in the constitution was a rule that to maintain membership it was mandatory that swimmers compete on three Sundays out of four for a period of five years. The Icebergs are the only licensed Winter Swimming Club in the world.

Back at the waterfront we relaxed at a café in the pavilion before heading back on the bus to freshen up for the evening. We ate back in Stir Crazy Thai before heading down to the CBD in search of a bar called the Basement. After a few wrong turns and a tour of a less-than-scenic part of town (complete with huge rats and cockroaches) we walked back through St. James Park and frightened the living daylights out of a little wallaby who had been hiding behind a tree. I didn’t realise you would ever see a wild wallaby in the middle of the busiest city in Australia.

The Basement finally located (right behind Circular Quay as it turned out) we stood outside to hear whether the band that night were indeed a soul/funk/jazz outfit (you really need to double check these things here). Satisfied, we paid our $28 each only to find that it had been the last of the support band’s gig we had heard. We found a spot near the stage (where I could perch on a table and rest my blistered feet) and waited for Georgia Muldrow and Dudley Perkins to come on stage.

Muldrow was first: it was less a gig than a personal appearance, it turned out, as she played her backing tracks on a machine plugged in behind her on stage. Clearly, mind-altering drugs were in play here, which sadly did not serve to improve the performance of somebody who thought she was Eryka Badu, but wasn’t. Each track seemed to be little longer than a minute or so (indeed, Orlando timed a few) and the audience worked hard at liking her, and even realised it was time to applaud once or twice. I stood staring at the Emperor’s New Clothes while the rest of the place nodded their heads to the beat (as best they could interpret it at times) and thought they had to like her. I didn’t.

Dudley Perkins was a different horse of a colour, as my father would have said. Long and lanky, with soulful eyes and a sardonic smile, his mind-altering drugs had not managed to completely removed all consciousness from his act, and at times he engaged the audience with wit and intelligence. The music was obscure, but less so than Muldrow’s (she was still onstage, singing futile and occasionally off-key backing vocals).

I actually think I nodded my head to the music a couple of times, and whilst it was not the gig of the year, at least I came away half-entertained by Perkins.

Sunday morning, back in the Living Room with another vegie omelette, I suckered myself into buying the same weekend paper as I had read from cover to cover the day before (what big city sells one edition of a paper all weekend???). Orlando is still laughing now.

Despite my blisters, we walked over the bridge again, and followed the green-clad crowds to the city St. Patrick’s Family Day. They were celebrating a week early so as not to clash with the 75th anniversary of the Harbour Bridge on the 18th. We had missed the parade, deliberately: it started at noon and it’s the weekend, dammit We needed a lazy morning. But the crowds in Hyde Park were just warming up to the strains of the Dargle River Band, a handful of Men of a Certain Age sporting green and orange waistcoats, and a fiddler in a black velvet frock. They played tunes from Christy Moore, the Wolfe Tones and the Fureys to an appreciative crowd.

There were more GAA shirts than I’ve seen in one place in years. There were spangly green dresses and shocking green wigs. There were Irish dancers and a man dressed like a leprechaun and lots of Guinness felt hats.

There were green earrings and green teeshirts and babies in green babygros and hundreds of people (me and Orlando included) in green Shrek 3 ears.

The queues for the Guinness tents were the longest of course, and there was Irish food from “Scabbie Babbies” Irish chipper (I really couldn’t bring myself to, no). Although Irish chicken curry would have been an interesting thing to try… There was a stand selling Odlum’s flour and Tayto crisps and Cidona and Club Orange and Erin packet soups. There was a “Celtic Dreaming” jewellery stall and the Irish Echo or similar Irish diaspora newspaper on sale.

There were huge families sitting around, one group under a little portable Gazebo signposted “Louth”. There were grannies drinking tea from flasks, young girls twirling batons and children queuing up for the face painting and the bouncy castle. And it was only one o’clock.

We left after doing a circuit or two, missing the rest of the afternoon’s entertainment, which included Australian Idol Damien Leith (from Kildare I believe) and Achtung Baby. Pretty good all-day entertainment for free right in the heart of the city.

Sunday afternoon saw us strolling around Darling Harbour before a wonderful dinner in the famous Jordon’s. I was really hungry, and despite the waitress’ protestations I ordered the bouillabaisse. It was enormous. People at adjacent table (including one very generously-proportioned couple) pointed a laughed. I hid behind my hands, entreated Orlando to help me eat it, and he sat there looking virtuous with a small barramundi fillet in front of him.

I pretty much finished it too…

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