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WALKABOUT IN OZ

Five-star Sydney

Visiting Sydney, S. MUTHIAH rates the five top attractions in the city.



Inside the Queen Victoria building: The United Kingdom clock with the Queen Victoria display in the background.

SYDNEY COVE is where the First Fleet of nine convict ships and two naval vessels with 750 convicts and 300 crew, guards and their families first landed in 1788. Today, standing sentinel at the western and eastern tips of the entrance to the anchorage are Sydney's best-known landmarks, Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Neither is a favourite of mine.

The bridge, coathanger-shaped and looking as though it has been assembled with pieces from a giant Meccano set, is an impressive feat of engineering that links the city with its northern suburbs. Built between 1923 and 1932, the 1650-ft span is said to be just 25 inches short of the longest single span bridge in the world. But asesthetically it is nowhere near as pleasing as the ANZAC bridge opened in 1995 to link the western suburbs.

A bigger disappointment was the Opera House, conceived by Danish architect Jorn Utzon in 1957 as representing `sails over Sydney Harbour' and built over the period 1959-1973. To me it had always seemed one building in all those beautiful photographs that make it a symbol of Sydney re-born. But in real life it is two large and one small building, not particularly well juxtaposed at ground level.

Vibrant life

Linking the two landmarks is Circular Quay, whose splendid shops, restaurants with cuisine from all over the world, and bars, pubs and theatres make it the place to be of a summer's evening. Sydney's several such wharves and quays, given such vibrant new life, draw huge crowds.

There are also here the panhandlers and buskers. One young tight-rope walker provided me one of the best quotes of my holiday. As his derring-do and slick patter, came to an end, he had one last word as he and his pretty partner passed the hat around: "Don't feel shy, it's your donation that keeps me on the street!" Almost as memorable were the words on a billboard `selling' the opera further down the quay. "LIVE DANGEROUSLY. Live life to the full. Escape the everyday and succumb to the romance of opera."



Queen Victorial with all her regalla.

To most people, the two landmarks and the lively harbour precincts would be three of the stars of a city that appears to have emerged from its British cocoon of insularity into a cosmopolitan metropolis only since the 1970s. But they are not among my five stars of a city, which blends an enormous respect for heritage and its beautiful green and the blue environment with the internationalism of high rise and glass-and-metal glitter, seemingly infinite energy and an all-day sensual appeal.

Heritage brought alive

Three of my stars are heritage brought alive to throb to the pulse of shoppers, diners, guzzlers and the awe-struck. The other two are new creations, one mainly for `star' gazers, the other for everyone on the move. Significantly, the five, all in the heart of the city, have lessons that make me wonder when Indian metros will take a page out of the Sydney book that shows how a city can be transformed in 30 years.

The first of my stars is the Queen Victoria Building, one of the most significant restorations I've seen anywhere. Built over five years on the site of Sydney's main George Street Market, it was inaugurated as the Queen Victoria Market in 1898. For a market, it was sheer grandeur sprawling over a whole block of the city. The masterpiece, however, guzzled money, not only the 300,000 spent on building it, but its maintenance thereafter as market, gallery, shopping arcade and dining and banqueting space. High rents kept potential occupants away, and a white elephant is what it soon became. By 1959, everyone was fed up and there were heard the first cries to demolish the Old Lady. A decade later, the heritage brigade had won and it was decided that ways and means of restoring her would be explored.

In 1983, Ipoh Garden Berhad, a Malaysian developer with which a Madras Chettiar family had links in its early days, entered into a 99-year lease and a profit sharing arrangement with the City Council. Investing A$75 million in the project, Ipoh Gardens turned out a star when it revealed the new QVB to the public in 1986. It was a star which pleased all concerned, the Council, developers, the architects, the public and, above all, the conservationists who realised that there had to be some give and take if the building was to survive.

When the market moved out of Queen Victoria's view, it moved close to Chinatown, where Market City is where shopping and dining malls today flourish on the upper floors, but whose ground floor, four days in the week and on holidays, is my second star. Then it becomeS Paddy's Markets, its 800 and more stalls of everything from fashion accessories to homeware and souvenirs gridironed like Calcutta's New Market and, behind them, Moore Market's vegetable and fruit stalls re-created, with the meat and fish stalls still further behind in chiller surroundings. Almost all of this is Chinese-run, some bargaining is possible and the crowds here are out of the United Nation's corridors — or the Tower of Babel.

Heritage imaginatively restored for adaptive re-use is The Rocks, my third Sydney star. The Rocks, a rocky outcrop on the west bank of Sydney Cove, was where the First Fleet's convicts hacked roads out of the rock, built stone houses for their keepers and mud-and-palm huts for themselves. No sooner the ships with women convicts began to arrive a few years later, The Rocks, by then a squalid crime-and poverty-ridden settlement, became a den of debauchery and depravity. Yet, midst such conditions, free men began to build many of the houses that remain today.

PARVATHI-RAMA

The Austrialian clock opening on the hour on a cricket scene.

Bubonic plague in the early 19th Century, and the clearing of space in the 1920s for Sydney Bridge and the highway to follow, led to a large part of settlement in The Rocks being demolished. But when the rest of the area was threatened with demolition for new development in the 1960s, the conservationists fought to save the area — and succeeded. Today, the Victorian and early 20th Century houses, hotels and pubs have been impressively restored to serve their original purpose or become part of the chic new shopping area.

What however makes The Rocks a star is its weekend market held under sail-like canopies on two streets. Here professionals and housewives discard their workaday images and become hucksters offering the output of their hobbies. To a few the ingenious artefacts they've created are full-time occupations, to most they are a part-time passion, but all of them, in over 150 stalls, offer creations of rare ingenuity. But my winners were a Chinese girl offering the delicate ribs of leaves that had been pressed dry, dipped in 22 carat gold and teamed with opals or pearls to became exquisite jewellery, and a woman who had somehow got the heads of people found on stamps — including Bradman — to stand out in 3-D fashion and then framed them as wall decorations.

Aquarium

A city with a long oceanfront, a city with rivers flowing through it, can it be without an aquarium worthy of the wealth of its waters? Of all the ones I've seen, Sydney's has sufficient outstanding features to make it one of the city's stars.

On the edge of Darling Harbour water's edge and shaped like a breaking tsunami wave is Sydney Aquarium with its 11,000 exhibits. I've seen more colourful collections of fish elsewhere, but the displays here are noteworthy for the vegetation created in the recessed tanks with their glass walls facing the viewers' corridors. What is spectacular is 150 metres of underwater tunnels and seeing through the protecting glass acres of harbour water that divide up into the Seal Sanctuary, the Oceanarium of Sharks and Giant Rays, and the Great Barrier Reef display where live coral helps make it come alive. Walking through the tunnels and seeing a Shark coming at you only a glass breadth away with all its teeth bared in menace or a Giant Ray providing a huge umbrella over your head or the reef buzz with life and colour is for the viewer to become part of the ocean scene — and that's what gets Sydney Aquarium a star.

Making visiting these four and much else in Sydney possible in comfort is a variety of public transport. Not inexpensive, but available, even if Sydneysiders feel City Rail, which covers the inner city and most of the suburbs, is not always there for them. It was, however, always there for me, as was other State-owned transport, like buses that we would consider luxury buses, and numerous ferries which carry millions of commuters a month between the northern suburbs and from them to the city. Apart from these, there are the newer transport facilities the private sector provides the inner city; the pleasantest ways of getting around and which give Sydney its fifth star.

Easy travel

Sydney's bicentennial gift to itself, the Monorail, which carries four million passengers a year, travels on a single rail 25 feet above the ground. With a train every 3-5 minutes, it covers a circular route around the city centre, offering seven stops near which are all the city's best sights as well as major business, shopping and entertainment centres. The same company also operates Light Rail, Sydney's 1997 replacement for the trams it phased out a couple of decades earlier. These smooth, almost soundless vehicles provide access in the inner city as well as the upmarket inner suburbs to the west of city centre. If only we had travel facilities like these in our cities! But then, the only glitch I found in service in the transport sector or any other sector in Australia was at one of the ticket counters in a CityRail station. On duty was an Indian woman, disinterested in the public and gossiping on the telephone, taking her time to issue a ticket and offering none of the pleasantries I'd heard from others at such counters.

Urban India can benefit immensely from the Sydney experience, especially as found in my five stars of the city. But then, at the end of the day, I wonder whether our human resources, exemplified by that one woman, will make them work.

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