Secret tales of the cities

Qatar Happening, October 2016. Original article.

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Secret tales of the cities

If you look closely, cities are full of poetry. We went on a search for random and obscure poetic attractions and found plenty to love in New York, London, San Francisco – and also in Seattle, but only in the rain.

For a visitor, sights that only show up when they feel like it can be frustrating when you’re on a schedule. In New York, anyone can go look at the Statue of Liberty, but if you wanted to see the larger-than-life art of Jenny Holzer at the Guggenheim, you had to be there at the right moment in 2008. That’s when it was projected across the entire front of the museum: “More people and new offenses have sprung up beside the old ones – real, make-believe, short-lived.” For a moment, Holzer’s bold poetry prompted New Yorkers to stop in their tracks.

Temporary sights are often all the more magical: you’ve seen something that was only there for a brief moment. The permanent attractions are there for anyone, but these subtle, poetic installations are often the purview of locals. Created by artists, they’re placed not in galleries but where people might not expect to come across them, rendering them all the more powerful. Like four years ago, when visitors to London’s Shoreditch area could briefly spot the poetic art of Robert Montgomery out in the wild. You could be walking along the street, and suddenly be faced with giant posters with the artist’s poetic musings: “This city is wilder than you think, and kinder than you think. It is a valley and you are a horse in it. It is a house and you are a child in it. Safe and warm here, in the fire of each other.” Read on a giant billboard, it stayed with you all day.

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Image courtesy of Rainworks

In part because we don’t expect to find it, street poetry will often feel hard-hitting. Last year, locals and visitors in Seattle were treated to what was literally a rainy day project: local magician Peregrine Church adorned the city’s pavements with words that can only be seen when it rains. “Rainworks” used biodegradable, water-repellent spray to stencil poems onto the concrete pavement, rendering the letters dry when it rained and hence readable. “Worry is a misuse of the imagination,” declared the wet pavement, cheerily. Each poem wears off after about six weeks, but “Rainworks” sells kits to anyone who wants to create their own rain poetry – meaning they could pop up everywhere.

The New York City subway has been treating its passengers with random moments of poetry since 1992, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched “Poetry In Motion”. First off was an excerpt from the Walt Whitman poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt / Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.” London’s “Poetry on the Underground” scheme is 30 years old this year, initially launched to bring poetry to a wider audience. Shakespeare features frequently among London’s Tube poems, which may well be the perfect place to contemplate the meaning of sonnets written in Early Modern English: “Where the bee sucks, there suck I / In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”

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The marquee at the corner of Turk and Larkin streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin has been called the world’s largest fortune cookie, because there’s always something new to see there. The sign, with its rotating selection of quotes, is managed by Bill Brinnon, who works at the tire shop next to the sign. It’s been going since the 1958, and it’s still changing every three to six weeks, depending on the feedback and current events. This winter, a David Bowie quote appeared a few days after his death: “The truth is of course that there is no journey. We are all arriving and departing all at the same time.”

In New York, there’s a fantastic piece of city poetry that you can still catch, if you’re quick. It’s painted across the entirety of a Brooklyn parking garage, courtesy of Steve Powers. “EUPHORIA IS YOU FOR ME,” the garage boldly declares, in what has become known as a love letter to the borough. Earlier this year, the garage’s owner announced it will be torn down, causing an outcry among people who’ve come to love the upbeat poetry that you can’t help but read every time you pass it. The black and white text wraps around the entire building, creating what the artist calls a “block-long poem”. The garage is still standing, but don’t wait too long: by the spring the building, and the poem too, will be rubble.

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Hampi: A sacred patch of India

Qatar Happening, August 2015. Original article (p40-41).

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Hampi: A sacred patch of India
This spot in central India is out of the way, but Hampi’s elaborate landscape of ruins and relaxed village life is nothing short of magical.

It’s only 10 o’clock in the evening, but all of Hampi seems to be asleep. As India demands you adjust to its temperament, I’m trying to sleep too, but I’m distracted by a smell drifting in through my window. There’s only shutters separating me from the world outside, not glass, as Hampi is a small village and this is actually a family house. The smell is pungent but not unpleasant, so my curiosity drives me to peek outside: four cows stare back at me. They’ve gone to bed for the night too, and this is their spot: right in the middle of the street.

Hampi is a place that’s very easy to like. The ruins of this once-grand city stretch out for several kilometres, meaning there’s endless things to explore. It’s truly an amazing place: it’s as if a group of giants once had a play-fight here, throwing the great big boulders around. Today the rocks sit where they landed in the landscape, and the villagers live their lives while the travellers roam about. It feels different here, like another kind of India: while most of the country will overwhelm your senses, Hampi will let you catch your breath.

Make sure to bring good walking shoes to Hampi, as most of the sights are spread out through the landscape. Stretches of road are surrounded by ever-more amazing ruins, and you never quite know if you’ve reached your destination because the maps are vague and directions general. But you’ll know when you’ve reached Vittala Temple, the star attraction in Hampi. Elaborate stone carvings are found on every surface, and one is more incredible than the last, concluding in the ornate stone chariot whose wheels could once spin. The architecture brings frequent of representations of Hanuman the monkey god, people with hands folded in greetings, rows of elephants, gods and goddesses, scenes from epic tales, flowers and patterns, plus the various stages of attraction. Everything is sacred.

The Royal Centre is the other key site in Hampi, and here the highlights come thick and fast: the Underground Shiva Temple, which is partially submerged; the elegant Lotus Mahal, with its onion-shaped arches; and the Elephant Stables, which are massive but playful with the various shapes of domes, each enclave big enough for numerous creatures. But maybe the best part is the random temples strewn around in the landscape? Hampi will constantly distract you from your plans, in the best way possible. One day I stumbled onto a massive statue with four arms, called the Mustard Seed Ganesha, and then some temple whose name I forgot to take down; it’s covered in elaborate carvings and anywhere else it would be a major sight – but in Hampi it’s not even on the map.

There’s always more to explore in Hampi, but you’ll be forgiven if you leave having missed a few sights: some of the best times you’ll have in Hampi will certainly be spent lounging around. Make sure to trim the nails on your eating hand, as most meals won’t come with cutlery: you shape the food into balls with the right hand and push it into your mouth with the thumb. After a vegetarian curry or dhal off a banana leaf, make sure to have some masala chai, or maybe a glass of sweet lime.

Every night, crowds are drawn to the ruins at Hemakuta Hill, where they watch the sunset, surrounded by the monkeys who seem to enjoy the sky spectacle too. The hill is just up behind Virupaksha Temple, Hampi’s working house of worship. People bring flowers and coconuts, the latter broken on a rock before offered to the god in question. As I tip-toe around inside, not quite sure where non-hindus can go, a holy man motions me over; he presses yellow powder against my forehead and tells me I’m welcome. The best part though, is Lakshmi the Elephant, who oversees the temple. She will let you pet her, and if you give her a coin, there’s a blessing for you too.

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Staycations in the London summer

The Billfold, June 2015. Original article

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.18.33Staycations in the London summer
I woke up by myself today in my little flat in Hackney. My husband is away for work, so I slept past 10 o’clock which I never do unless I’m alone. As much as I like company, I’m very good at being by myself, especially in London. Last weekend I meant to go to a neighbourhood book festival but ended up roaming around all day until it was dark, even though this is June, the lightest month.

Something like that might have happened again today, but my best friend K text me, wanting to meet for coffee. I said yes despite having to rush, because there’s never too much time to spend with K. I took the Overground to Whitechapel, which all of a sudden has plenty of good coffee, the calling card of an “up and coming” neighbourhood. K and I talked for an hour and I decide to walk home, taking the meandering route through the backstreets.

London is full of concrete, but I’ve never seen a major city that’s this green. There are trees and flowers everywhere, drooping over the brick walls and onto the pavements. This city is a very pretty boy right now. It’s been muggy lately but it’s warm, and before long you’re sweating under grey cloud. London is tough in the winter, but for six months over the summer, there’s nothing you can do to get me to leave the city. Right now, London is better than anything I can imagine.

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“I’m an unrepentant Londoner, and the places that have chosen me – because I think it’s that way round: places choose you, rather than vice versa – have already done so. I think you only have room for two or three serious affairs of place in a lifetime, just as you only have emotional space for two or three serious love affairs,” said the writer Will Self.

I first read this a few years ago and I keep coming back to it. Familiarity isn’t enough to love a place, as I was familiar with the village I grew up in but it never felt anything like this. I’ve lived in London for 12 years now – it wasn’t love at first sight because this city is hard on newcomers, but if you stick it out, this place will reward you. I always say it takes two years to get on good terms with London, and it took me even longer to love it, maybe six years. That’s nothing like my experience of ever falling in love with a person, but make no mistake: London is it for me.

Most of the time it’s nice but nothing unusual, and then suddenly it’ll come over me: I’ll be walking along and I’ll look up and I realise that damn, I love this city. If I’m on a bus crossing the Thames, it’s bound to happen. Often though, it happens during the moments when London’s not so shiny, when I’m distracted or thrown off course. London has a knack for keeping you in that in-between space: a little hot, a little cold, leaving you guessing what’s coming.

Like the other night when I was out with my friend G. We just wanted to leave the house for beers, but suddenly we were wrists deep in barbecue sauce because that’s what Hackney is like now: cocktails and ribs. It was too cool to be wearing shorts down by the canal but we walked along anyway, shivering in the early London summer. Because isn’t this the best part? It’s so light, so much summer still to come.

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I have a list in my head of things I want to do this summer, during the annual London staycation when I won’t leave the city. I want to go see Agnes Martin at the Tate Modern, and the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. I want go out to the Thames Barrier Park – this is the city’s flood barrier and a work of art. I haven’t been there in years as it’s a bit out of the way, but I want to go with my husband and a bottle of prosecco. I want to try this cocktail bar in Soho with my new friend R, and talk about work the whole time because sometimes that’s the best.

I saw a picture on Instagram from the Nunhead Reservoir recently, which apparently has amazing views of the city, a rare find in a shallow dish like London. I’ve never been to Nunhead. A few years ago, I went cycling up past the Hackney Marshes with the then-boyfriend who got me to finally buy a bicycle, and I’ve been wanting to go again ever since. There’s a grotty pub up the River Lea where you can get lunch, and even though the food won’t be great it won’t matter.

Sometimes though, the best way to go see the sights is having guests from out of town. When my mother visited recently we went to the London Transport Museum, which is brilliant: it chronicles the history of the Tube so it’s part trainset playground, but it’s also partially an archive of functional graphic design. Away from the rush hour, the Underground is a treat to explore, even after all these years – each line a different pattern of colours, each station a different style. I passed through Baker Street station the other day, on the platform that was part of the very first Tube line. The light wells are still streaming daylight down onto the platform.

I got out at Paddington, just onto the canal, which in West London is the same water that runs past my house in East London. It’s funny – I always tell people the key to London is to find your neighbourhood, that’s how the city will start making sense to you. I once spent three months not leaving Hackney, which would be easy to do again – like when I get Vietnamese on Kingsland Road with my friend C and we order the same things every time. There’s so much more to London than the patch where I live, but there’s a reason why I live here.

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Last weekend I met up with K again, we walked along the canal up past London Fields, taking the long back around to my house. It’s quiet on the roads around here, away from the main stretch where the buses run. Heavy with green and flowers, and all the beautiful yellow-brick victorian terrace houses we can’t afford to live in. Then we came across this odd building made from corrugated iron plates, sticking out like a sore thumb in the row of pretty houses. It’s the Sight of Eternal Life church, said the internet, thought to be the oldest surviving “Tin Tabernacle” in the world. I took a photo and we walked on, but that’s the best part, I think: finding a piece of curiosity in a place I’ve lived for years, but somehow it’s something I’ve never noticed.

I took my mother on a long walk along the canal too when she was here, spending a whole day away from the London she knows from the pictures. Down past the canal locks and up through the market, into the park and down through the quiet back roads – I’ve walked this route so many times, and looked up to think, so many times, how much I love this city. Almost everything big that’s ever happened to me has happened in London. I know I keep saying things are the best, but there’s always something else about London that’s the best. Now how’s that for a love affair.

Sicily: The eyes, the belly, the heart

Qatar Happening, May 2015. Original article p106-107.

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Sicily, Italy:
The eyes, the belly, the heart

Sicily’s overwhelming Baroque architecture will fight hard for your attention, but in the end it’s the food that will win you over. The pasta, yes, and certainly the gelato – but best of all, the cannoli.

You think Sicily is going to be similar to the rest of Italy, but it really isn’t. This island is a different creature, a unique culture found across the water from the boot-shaped mainland. Sicilia may be an Italian island, but its soul is its very own.

There’s a lived-in feel to Sicily, creating an atmosphere far more homely than the polished squares of Northern Italy. Sicilian village squares fill with ladies in black at lunchtime, and coppola-clad men at dusk, as the locals claim these spaces as their own. Though the backdrop to this neighbourly charm is gorgeous, elaborate baroque architecture, which is found all across the island. Curvy, deep façades host dozens upon dozens of stone sculptures, showing us the detailed faces of the saints, the cuddly cherubs, the swooning angels.

3000-year-old Palermo remains a city the making, proud and ready for its next heyday. Sicily’s biggest city is a little worn around the edges, sure, but it’s got better things to do than to stay on top of all this upkeep. So many little churches, all those charmingly narrow streets, not to mention the massive cathedral and the Norman palace, the latter not just a historical attraction but also the seat of the Sicilian Assembly. Don’t miss the Fontana Pretoria, a Renaissance concoction of nymphs rummaging around in the water. When it was built in 1573, the spectacle shocked the church-going locals to the extent they named it the Fountain of Shame.

The pride of the newer part of Palermo is the Teatro Massimo, the third-largest 19th century opera house in Europe and a symbol of Sicily’s key heritages: cultural creativity, old world bureaucracy, and Mafia influences. All the travel books are clear on this: Don’t mention the Mafia! But sometimes a friendly local, eager to set things right, will bring it up: “You do what you can and try to make an honest living,” one man said. “Sicily is so much more than just the Mafia.”

Like the food. The food! The Sicilians may have invented the Mafia but they also created the wonder that is gelato ice cream. This island has gelato shops the way the rest of the world has tobacco shops, always there to provide a hit of creamy, sweet goodness in a whole alphabet of flavours. Ask for black chocolate, Sicilian almond, or maybe best of all, the local pistachio. The best gelato is found on Sicily’s east coast, which is two hours from Palermo by car. Noto is a little town boasting a stunning little historical centre, but the star attraction is possibly Corrado Costanzo, supposedly one of the best ice cream shops in the entire world. Try the almond and cinnamon and eat it while swooning up the street, taking in the stone buildings which glow red as the sun is setting.

Another medieval hillside town worth a visit is Modica, where you’ll exhaust yourself climbing the steep streets, passing a cattedrale here, a chiesa there. While Noto is the place for ice cream, Modica’s claim to fame is its chocolate, specifically that of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. Everything is made from traditional recipes in the kitchen behind the counter, creating bold chunks of chocolate flavoured with vanilla or lavender, or maybe have some with chilli pepper that goes straight to your head.

But the star of Sicily’s east coast is probably the Ortygia peninsula in Syracuse. Ortygia looks like it’s been dug out of yellow stone, stacked within the walls like a perfect timepiece. Myriads of alleys open onto little piazzas, where espresso is served to patrons stood at the counter, one foot resting on the low-slung rail. The Siracusa cathedral incorporates columns from the Greek temple which once stood in its place, renowned throughout the ancient world for its large golden statue of Athena. Mary stands in her place today. Make sure to stick around in Syracuse until dinner, maybe for a plate of tomato-salty linguini topped with piles of claims, or go for the gnocchi – it’s made not from potato but from clouds. Then, round off the evening with a trademark cannoli: the crispy pastry, ricotta cream, and a sprinkle of pistachio will be the highlight of your day. You may not speak Italian, but this is a language you’ll instantly recognise.

A Swedish treat

Qatar Happening, March 2015. Original article p110-111

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A Swedish treat
The cobblestoned old town, the royal castles, the Södermalm cafes, and the archipelago wilderness just at the doorstep – Stockholm is the picture of Scandinavian cool.

Is Stockholm the best little city in Scandinavia? The capital of Sweden is certainly a hot contender: a picturesque town with yellow-toned buildings and cobblestoned streets, surrounded by water as the city spreads out across the neighbouring islands. Stockholm feels like a metropolis, but any local will tell you that the skärgård is possibly the best part: over 30,000 rocky islands make up an archipelago ripe for discovery.

Landscapes vary widely across the archipelago, from ancient villages where many Stockholmers have summer houses, to coves, beaches, lush greenery, and big flat rocks. Waxholmsbolaget runs a comprehensive ferry service around the archipelago, with the five-day ticket as the top choice to really get a chance to explore the historic community at Dalarö, the nature reserve at Grinda, and the cradle of Swedish porcelain at Gustavsberg.

But there’s plenty to charm you in downtown Stockholm too, starting with the Gamla Stan neighbourhood. The city was founded here in 1252, and today it’s a popular place to eat, drink, shop and wander. The winding cobblestoned streets require sturdy shoes, but it’s worth it for the scenery of sagging buildings in shades of yellow, red and orange. A walk around Gamla Stan will take you to the Nobel Museum, which has the story of the prize and its founder, Alfred Nobel. The Swedish chemist and engineer held 355 patents, and his legacy continues to honour men and women around the world for their achievements in science, literature and peace.

Stockholm’s Royal Palace is located downtown, but the most impressive royal experience is the Drottningholm Palace, a quick boat ride away. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed castle is the home of Sweden’s King and Queen, but in true Scandinavian spirit, part of the building and the grounds are open to the public. The beautifully manicured gardens are worth the trip alone. ABBA fans can get their fill at the ABBA Museum, which has everything and then some: all that elaborate clothing, lots of gold records, Benny’s piano, and the helicopter from the ‘Arrival’ cover. You’ll walk in, promises the museum, but you’ll dance your way out.

Sweden’s world class art museum is the Moderna Museet, with its excellent collection of art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Visitors will find works from big names such as Picasso, Dalí, and Irving Penn, and benefit from the museum’s tradition of keeping close relationships with artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. This mix of worldly connections and Scandinavian cool is typical of Stockholm, whose cutting edge style still manages to remain true to its traditions. Look for the Dalahorse to take home as a souvenir – this distinct shape has become a symbol of Sweden. Visit around midsummer and you’ll experience something uniquely Swedish: tall maypoles are raised as the country pretty much shuts down, as everyone gathers to sing, dance and eat on the lightest night of the year.

While it’s not the cheapest place to travel, Stockholmers will go a long way to compensate with their friendly, polite manner. A good place to meet them is the thriving Södermalm district, which has some of the best coffee houses and watering holes in the city. Try a jam tart at Gildas Rum, browse a haven of vinyl records at Pet Sounds Bar, or a burger and fancy beer at Akkurat. Local treats such as lingonberry jam, crayfish, crispbread, and pickled herring are ones to look out for, plus the classic Princess cake topped with green marzipan.

Most Swedes speak great English, but you may want to learn a few words: hej (hi), tack (thank you), and fika – the latter is untranslatable but provides a vital clue into the Swedish way of life. Practically speaking, fika is a coffee and a sticky cinnamon bun, but it’s all about the spirit of sitting down and taking a moment to enjoy life.

Getting lost in Morocco

Qatar Happening, January 2015. Original article p110-111.

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 01.56.50Marrakesh and Essaouira: Getting lost in Morocco
The thousand-year-old square at the heart of Marrakesh is covered practical black asphalt these days, but the snakes seem to have no problem charming their way across the paved Djemaa el-Fna. It’s an intriguing place, Marrakesh – even with the new century elbowing in, there is something indisputably ancient about it. Every night the crowds gather around the storytellers in the square, where grilled meats and rich couscous are the grand prize as smoke rises from the market stalls.

The Medina, the old town of Marrakesh, contains the soul of the city. Colourful spices are stacked high and newly tanned leather pokes at your nostrils as you wander through the streets; the fresh orange juice from the square doesn’t taste like any other juice. If you do nothing else in Marrakesh but wander around its deep, sprawling souk, you will be just fine: this is the stuff of fairy tales. Deep into the maze the shops get less glossy, with the whizzing and banging of goods being created on the spot, in the spaces between the display fronts. Pale leather is tanned, dyed fabrics hang overhead, metal is hammered into shape.

Marrakesh is the sort of place you come to experience, not to tick off a list of attractions. But of course, there are plenty of sights worthy of visiting too: the Badi Palace is massive in stature and an oasis of calm in a hectic city. The name means ‘The Incomparable’, a testament to its former glory, but now it all belongs to the storks, with its decaying walls surrounding a tranquil square. The Saardian Tombs is another prize sight; no expense was spared when building this decadent mausoleum. The Berber Art Museum is located in the beautiful Jardin Majorelle, providing insights into the culture of the region’s original inhabitants.

Courtesy of a well-developed train and coach network, visitors can travel around Morocco with ease. Two hours west of Marrakesh is Essaouira, a small coastal town with a distinctly bohemian vibe. Tucked inside white walls that are slowly being eroded by the salty wind, Essaouira means ‘The Beautifully Designed’, and this is no lie. Apparently Jimi Hendrix wrote ‘Castles Made of Sand’ before he came here, but looking at the crumbling castle just off Essaouira beach, you may well choose to believe the myth that the song is indeed about the Borj El-Berod. You’ll get your feet wet, but you can wade out to the sand-covered ruin, which is split down the middle now, and halfway reclaimed by the sea.

Essaouira is a place that encourages you to remain shoeless on the beach, eating berries for breakfast and fruity tagine for dinner. It arrives underneath its flowerpot lid, a few chunks of meat with a few nuts and prunes chucked over the top. Bright yellow couscous is served on the side, no alcohol and asleep by 10pm. The fish market provides a cheap and quick lunch – point to what you want and they will cook it in front of you. Around the ramparts of old Essaouira the waves never stop crashing, covering the expanse of rock below with bright white foam. Keep walking a while longer and you’ll reach beyond the tidy, more touristy part of the city, entering into the area where the locals live. School children squeeze by in the narrow streets where the grannies linger in doorways. The shops are attended by the men, chatting to each other while serving customers. Naked chickens are nailed to walls and eggs are balanced precariously, everything available for a prize.

And no matter where you go, the smell of mint hits you square in the face. Moroccan mint tea may well be the most memorable thing about the country. This isn’t some lazy teabag in tepid water, but a revelation: a fistful of fresh mint leaves gets showed in a glass, hot water is added and a bowl of sugar provided – who’d ever think something so simple could be so wonderful.

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Coffee houses of Melbourne

Escapism Magazine, February 2015. Original article (p64-68).

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 15.15.42Coffee houses of Melbourne, the caffeine addict’s paradise
To tell you the honest truth: you don’t need any help to get good coffee in Melbourne. Australia’s second city is a haven for caffeine addicts, as you’d be pretty unlucky to get a bad cup. As mayor Robert Doyle discovered when he dared suggest that “coffee is coffee; it’s not life or death” – Melburnians take their black brew very seriously. Lucky for them, and for everyone who visits, the overall quality of the city’s offering is nothing short of outstanding. But that doesn’t stop people from battling it out over who’s got the best beans in town.

Melbourne’s thing for coffee is a running theme in the cityscape, as you don’t have to walk far between watering holes. The grid that makes up the downtown area, the CBD (Central Business District), is a mixture of broad streets and tiny lanes, both equally busy as people are always popping out for a cup or three during the day. It’s not uncommon for a Melburnian to get up a little earlier just to have time to sit for a bit in a café, either for a slap-up breakfast or to just read the paper over a wake-up shot before work.

The local taste calls for a gunpowder strong brew: ask for a Short Black and get a tiny yet forceful shot of espresso that hits you at the back of the throat. A Long Black will give you the same, eased out with some hot water. Starbucks may be serving Flat Whites now but if you want a great one, Melbourne will sort you out: the Flat White is an Antipodean invention that’s been going strong since the 1980s. Speaking of coffee chains, you’ll find very few of them in Melbourne: Starbucks closed almost all of its Australian branches back in 2008, realising they were selling ice to Eskimos.

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 15.15.54While coffee was originally brought to Australia by the First Fleet of ships from England, Melbourne’s love affair with coffee started in earnest during the 1830s, during the Temperance movement. Italians, who remain the city’s second-largest ethnic group after the Anglo-Celtic, took it to the next level when they arrived after World War II, bringing with them the custom of espresso.

Today, this tradition has blossomed into a city that’s nothing short of obsessed with coffee, to the point where baristas become local celebrities and people proudly proclaim themselves to be coffee snobs. In addition to the usual fare, espresso menus often offer up things like single origin beans, cold brews, signature blends, or siphon drips, all created by expert hands who see their jobs as a calling.

Don’t worry, you can get decaf or soy milk in a Melbourne coffee house too – after all, what’s most important to a good barista is that customers enjoy themselves. Just don’t ask if they have any flavoured syrup.

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Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 15.16.04Market Lane Coffee, 163 Commercial Road (Prahran)
The proprietors of Market Lane Coffee run a single-minded operation, obsessively sourcing “memorable” coffees that can stand on their own without blending. Serving only beans that are in season, there is full transparency around the process too, meaning the barista will probably know who grew the beans and how they got from there to your cup. Located next to Prahran Market in an airy building that mixes glass and steel, Market Lane Coffee takes its role as educator very seriously, offering free tastings, or “cuppings”, every week. If that doesn’t inspire confidence, we don’t know what will.

Atomica Caffé, 269 Brunswick Street (Fitzroy)
It’s a bit rough around the edges, with the peeling paint and scruffy decor, but you’d expect that in Fitzroy. Atomica Caffé fits right in with the funky vintage and cool design shops on Brunswick Street, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that this place has a heck of a reputation for its beans. Roasting its custom mixes on site twice a week, Atomica’s style is to deliver the goods without fuss or frills, keeping flavour squarely in focus. Duck into the dark interior with the chequered floor, bring a book and hide from the world but not for long: in 20 minutes that caffeine will kick in.

The League of Honest Coffee, 8 Exploration Lane (CBD)
Coffee is a way of life for the proprietors at the League of Honest Coffee, who serve up single-origin or custom-mixed brews, roasted in small batches with the goal of “create a fulfilling flavour profile for every bean”. As hardcore as this may sound, rest assured the shop on Exploration Lane is just the opposite: a light and airy space where concrete floors meet wooden ceilings, with friendly baristas inviting you to sit and relax. Coffee snobs will appreciate the Slayer coffee machine, the ultimate reassurance that this place really is second to none.

Pellegrini’s, 66 Bourke Street (CBD)
Melbourne’s first espresso machine was delivered to this address in 1954 – at least that’s what the proprietors claim, and we have no reason to doubt them. Pellegrini’s is one of Melbourne’s oldest coffee houses, and a proud piece of Italy. Everyone come to Pellegrini’s: kids, office workers, Saturday shoppers, theatre-goers – everyone is encouraged to take a seat at the counter or communal table, and order a shot or two from a waiter in a white shirt. You could even have lunch – it’s not always listed on the board, but they often serve up some pretty decent lasagna or gnocchi.

St ALi, 15-18 Yarra Place (South Melbourne)
Walking through the eventless streets leading up to St ALi, you’d never think there’d be a world class coffee roastery hiding around the corner. The converted warehouse makes for a great place to linger, as the spacious café has plenty of rugged atmosphere with its mish-mash of chairs, plants and coffee sacks. If you have time, stay for lunch: the eggs are excellent. Though the main draw is the coffee, which is roasted “with care” and brewed “to exacting specifications”. In any case, you can’t go wrong with St ALi: come and hang out a while, bring your friends, and leave jittery. Remember what it says on the wall: “Decaf is like kissing your brother.”

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