Melbourne is filled with more short-cuts and hidden passageways than a Snakes and Ladders board. Its highly likely you've walked through some of them, perhaps even a lot of them, in your race to get from A to B in the speediest manner possible. But these routes are more than just time-saving passages. They have history, and more often than not, they have more beauty and detail than you could appreciate in a speedy power-walk on your way to work. So this weekend, why don't you go back and take it slow through one of them, savouring the detail and the culture, for if anything, it's these passageways that make up the veins of Melbourne's history and culture.
A personal favourite is the Block Arcade, located between Swanston St and Elizabeth St and accessed through Elizabeth or via Collins St or Little Collins St. In this arcade it's easy to ignore the modern touches and see things the way they were two hundred years ago, and it does indeed hold a strong place in Melbourne's history, growing from humble beginnings as a bulk grain store to the place of elegance it is today.
Not only is the site notable for being one of the earliest land auctions in Melbourne in 1837, but not long after the grain store owners hit the hay and sold the property to the George brothers to open up the very first Georges store in the town (ask your grandmothers about Georges - mine goes on and on about it being the only place to buy a reel of cotton), there started a terrible fire on the property, the likes of which had never been seen in Melbourne at that time. This event was in 1889, and two hundred thousand pounds of damage and ridiculously useless efforts of insurance company fire fighters to douse the flames using water carts later, the city decided to create the Metropolitan Fire Brigades "MFB", an important step which is still highly appreciated by Melburnians today.
It was after this dramatic event that the plans to rebuild the site as an arcade were laid and we got the beauty of architecture that still survives today as part of the National Trust. Modelled on Galleria Vittoria in Italy the arcade incorporates stylistic elements from the French Renaissance in the plate glass windows, octagonal junction joining the walkways two arms, and the black and mosaics and black and white tiles which make up the floor. These features are emphasises by the abundance of natural lighting from the skylights and stained glass windows up above, held up by eye-catching cast iron roof principles. Take note of the bluestone dotted around the place as well, salvaged from the wreckage of the fire that brought the arcade into being.
For all its architectural and historical worth, though, it is still enjoyable and loved as a functioning place of business and retail. 29 retailers abide on the street and lower ground level of the arcade, while if you venture up the hidden staircases you can find the out of sight premises of commercial tenants who take up the four upper floors. From the mouthwatering chocolate shop, Haighes, which gives away free samples on the odd occasion if you are lucky enough to walk in at the right time, to the quirky design store with a stock of beautifully made quilts, clothes, knick knacks and items of beauty, you may be tempted by an impulse purchase or two.
There's also Card Caboodle, a shop with the commendable ability to turn something as ordinary as wrapping paper and gift cards into desired items that make you want to buy them and keep them rather than give them away, or Skin Deep, offering the sale of beauty treatments and products as well as a private treatment salon hidden away on the upper levels. Further along are shop fronts for portrait photographers, Australian coin auctioneers, a beautiful double-story toy shop, a designer glass store, and along the café laden strip heading towards Little Collins is the easy-to-miss stairwell entrance to Basement Discs, which is not only spectacular for its setting in the original, pre-1889 basement, but for the jaw-dropping, eclectic range of CDs and vinyl.
And when all this browsing has worn you out so that your feet are sore and your inner five-year old is about to dig in its heels and throw a tantrum, there are plenty of snug looking options to suit any palate. There's the stand-out and two-century old establishment of the arcade, The Hopetoun Tea Rooms, which have always been a place of refinement to go with your best hat and gloves to eat from the à la carte menu or indulge in the daily High Tea. If that's not to your taste, there is the traditional-esque English pub, The Charles Dickens Tavern, or a number of commendable cafés for you to choose from as you walk towards Little Collins, with a fantastic pie shop hidden amongst them. Either way, wherever you choose to eat, its sure to cap off a great morning or afternoon of browsing in a beautiful setting.