On Monday 27th January I took the Greyhound bus from Sydney to Canberra to explore the Australian capital city. En route we passed through Goulburn, Austrlia's first inland town and with many historical buildings including a station built in 1865 and painted such a shocking red it reminded me of the Clint Eastwood film 'High Plains Drifter'. The town is also home to 'The Big Merino', a 15metre high concrete ram nicknamed Rambo by the locals, and built as a monument to the district's wool industry. There is a gift shop on the ground floor that sells all kinds of Australian made wool items including ugg boots.
A, very brief, history of Canberra. When the six separate British self governing colonies of Australia finally agreed on Federation the 'Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (UK) was given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria in July 1900 and proclaimed to the new nation in Centennial Park, Sydney, in January 1901. Both Sydney, the oldest colony in the Country, and Melbourne, the largest city were in dispute about where the home of the federal capital should be. Compromise was made and the new constitution stated that the capital could remain in New South Wales but it would be within a separate territory designated as the 'Australian Federal Territory' (now the Australian Capital Territory or ACT) and it had to be at least 100 miles from Sydney. Parliament would meanwhile sit in Melbourne.
Nine sites were considered and, in 1908, the area later (1913) to become known as Canberra was chosen. The name Canberra is said to derive from the Aboriginal word Kamberra meaning meeting place. In 1911 an international competition was held to select a design for the layout of the new city and this was won by an American architect, Walter Burley Griffin in collaberation with his architect wife, Marion Mahoney Griffin. The design was a series of hexagonal shapes which could be extended ad infinitum as the city grew.
The current map shows some of these but also lots of interconnecting circles that have become the Canberra of today. The marked area is the one that I had the opportunity to explore during my three day visit.
I stayed in the YHA hostel which is very centrally located on Akuna Street and not far from the coach station on Northbourne Avenue. The hostel itself is pretty good with a pool, sauna and bar in the basement and a vey nice rooftop bbq area with great views. January 27th is a national Bank Holiday so the city was very quiet and a good time to walk around the area and take photographs. What struck me most was how spacious the city is, it's not that the roads are particularly wide but the verges leading from them to buildings, both corporate and domestic, are and there are trees everywhere.
The 'city' is where most of the businesses and the shopping areas are and this is on one side of Lake Burley Griffin and on the other side is the 'Parliamentary Zone'. These are connected by two road/pedestrian bridges from which you can get a brilliant view of the fountain in the centre of the lake.
The city centre is full of interesting statues and in the middle of the shopping area is a childrens carousel and fountain. The shopping centre has a good mix of shops and the number and style of restaurants you would expect from a business district as well as some off beat businesses and interesting little arcades.
On Tuesday I visited the Canberra Museum and Gallery and the Australian War Memorial a remarkable place that acknowledges sacrifice on all sides, without judgement, and presents the history of conflict in a factual but completely galvanising way. It's respect for the nation's dead is palpable and the Hall of Memory contains the actual tomb of an unknown Australian soldier brought home and laid here to represent all those lost on foreign battlefields. The view from the War Memorial is straight down Anzac Parade over the lake and up to Parliament House and Anzac Parade is lined on both sides with statues commemorating the dead in all the various wars and actions. Right alongside this quite busy thoroughfare, and actually in the middle of the city, are quiet leafy suburbs. It's like walking between two different worlds!
The National Capital Exhibition on the North shore of Lake Burley Griffin is a good starting point for anyone visiting and gives a thorough background to the origin and development of the city.
On Wednesday I did the half hour walk over the lake into the Parliamentary Zone and up to Parliament House. It is built into Capitol Hill in order to 'blend' more but it still seems fairly conspicuous to me. The interiors are light and modern and there is an excellent exhibition explaining the parliamentary system and with some extremely good art works but I found the chambers to be quite stark. Interestingly, and obviously by design, both chambers are exactly the same size despite the fact that there are 76 Senators and 150 members of the House of Representatives. I believe this was so that neither chamber would be seen to be more significant although clearly those in The Senate enjoy significantly more comfortable seating.
The Old House of Parliament, now the Museum of Australian Democracy, has a much more traditional interior and the chambers there are what we would expect from a building first used in 1927. It was built to house 300 people as a temporary measure whilst a more suitable design could be arrived at. The intervening wars meant changing economic policies that would not allow the cost of erection of the new Parliament House and it was not until 1988 that the current Parliament House was opened. By this time 3000 people were working in the old building and toilets, broom cupboards and any other space was being pressed into service to accommodate desks. The last Prime Minister to sit in Old Parliament House was Bob Hawke and his old office and admin rooms are open to the public.
Outside the building a few protesters sympathetic to the Aboriginal cause have pitched tents and erected an 'embassy' there was no police presence and, in fact, not much evidence of anybody. Perhaps it was too hot!
The National Gallery of Australia was fascinating but I was not allowed to take photographs inside. and, right next door, the High Court of Australia is by it's own admission 'an example of late modern Brutalist architecture'. Inside 'though it's spaces are amazing, none of the three courts, including the High Court, were intimidating. and the view from it's windows is lovely.
Between the High Court and Questacon is Reconciliation Place built in 2001 as a symbol of reconciiation between the Indigenous and settler populations and the winning design for it includes for additions to be made over time to recognise that reconcilaton is an ongoing process.
I poked my nose into Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre which has 200 interactive exhibits, but this was obviously on the '10 Must Do Things With Your Family' list so I gave it a miss and headed back to the YHA bar for a cold beer.
With my last few hours on Thursday I walked around the lake to the National Museum of Australia and wow! I think this is possibly the best museum I have ever been to! The gallery spaces are extraordinary and the exhibits are well designed and completely relevant and although I spent three hours there a whole day would have been more satisfying. To put it in perspective, Australia is a very young country and so museums here do not have to cover the centuries of historical, cultural and political information and artefacts that European museums do, nonetheless what they have done here with what they have got is truly impressive.
Canberra is a modern, urban and architecturally stark city with wide lanes of traffic and Lake Burley Griffin bisecting it. It is also a place definitely worth visiting and unfortunately my limited time there did not allow me to go to the Botanical Gardens, the Arboretum, Telstra Tower or the National Film and Sound Archive. I will just have to go back! ?