Paint splatters encrust the cobbled street. Drooling strands of colour trickle down the walls and spread across the pavement.
Down an even smaller alleyway a group of teenage girls fling their bodies towards the smudged concrete, practising their breakdancing. I look around for a film crew, feeling like I have walked onto the set of a music video.
This is Hosier Lane, or ‘Posier Lane’ as someone has cheekily relabelled the street sign, possibly the most instagrammed street in Melbourne.
Though large in reputation, Hosier Lane is short – barely 100m – and growing narrower by the day with layer upon layer of painted graffiti. A soaring mural with the serene portrait of a child overlooks the scrawling cacophony of angular letters bursting with colour and energy.
The lane and its rock'n roll neighbour, ACDC, are not anomalies in Melbourne.
Far from being cloaked in corporate grey, the city has colourful surprises around nearly every corner. From the heavily tattooed central laneways to the splashes of colour leading off Chapel Street in the south – giant words stretching like pulled toffee across walls – to the quirky murals that splay out along Brunswick Street in the north, there is an abundance of urban vibrancy.
Brunswick Street in Fitzroy will be our home base for the weekend. We attract curious side eyes from the patrons of the famous Blackcat café as we unlock the door next to the outdoor tables: the entrance of our exceptional Airbnb find, Beswicke Terrace.
The ‘penthouse’ descriptor should’ve been a giveaway. We haul our luggage up the four flights of an Escheresque stairwell – landings cutting vertiginously across the triple storey space.
Inside, the apartment evokes the quirky style of the murals we’ve spotted outdoors: a giant abstract painting of a woman’s face hangs above the fireplace, tears of spray painted mascara spilling down her cheeks. An oversize lampshade like an inverted cupcake wrapper hovers over the king-size bed.
Just after sunrise I stand, tiptoe, on the roof terrace in a fluffy white robe. On the street below, the florist with his manicured beard, cheese cutter cap and denim apron attaches hanging baskets under the shop’s awning. Pops of floral colour warm up the morning.
Fitzroy is one of Melbourne’s central suburbs in the flux of gentrification. The hipsters have moved in. Rundown Victorian brick buildings have been spruced up to house shops and cafés catering to the culturally astute and upwardly mobile. We pore over taxidermy, antiques, pastel and blonde wood homewares, acres of distressed denim and many walls lined with apothecary-style bottles of beard oil.
Perhaps the only thing Melbourne is more famous for than its street art is its caffeine scene. Coffee is a very serious endeavour, particularly at Industry Beans. Beginning as boutique roasters and expanding to become an exceptional café, there is an eye-twitching menu with pages of individual coffee blends and extraction methods. I choose the house speciality, a ‘Fitzroy Street Espresso,’ with its notes of ‘sweet citrus, plum and chocolate.’ It tastes like coffee.
Our first attempt to explore Melbourne’s markets is thwarted by poor timing. We arrive at the historic Queen Victoria Markets at discount hour. Most of the stallholders are stacking trailers and packing away their wares for the day. Men sluice concrete walkways in white gumboots while others apply Gladwrap to trays piled with an abundance of glossy proteins.
Luckily, the Deli Hall is still open. We quickly buy wedges of cheese and tubs of dips, olives and delicious marinated seafood to take back to the apartment.
By contrast, Saturday morning sees the South Melbourne Market bustling. Families arrive pock-marked with raindrops, shoulders high and tense against the cold, puffing their breath
in clouds. It is warm and fragrant under cover, the air cut with smells of baking pastries, fresh flowers and the ubiquitous aroma of freshly ground coffee.
We disperse to the compass point corners of the market and rifle through stalls of handmade clothing, quirky toys, terrariums studded with succulents and more artwork.
Reluctant to venture back out into the lashing rain, we seek cover in the NGV, the National Gallery of Victoria, a hulking modern building on the banks of Yarra River. Continuing our cultural edification, we gaze in awe at original versions of paintings made familiar by postcards and placemats: Renoir, Picasso, Monet, Manet, Cézanne. The whole gang is here.
It’s this movement of paint, from canvas to brick and concrete, that captures the spirit of Melbourne. From the girl’s face with the insouciant pout on the side of a building off Gertrude Street, to the crazy-eyed octopus battling a cloud of stick figures on the wall outside another café, to the startling plumes of colour emerging from the alleys between innocuous brick buildings, Melbourne’s pulse is liquid and colourful.
Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Winter 2017 issue
AA Members can save 10% on travel insurance.