Milton Keynes with Kangaroos?
"A Capital? Really?"
I first visited Canberra in January 2002 and managed one overnight stay and a whistlestop tour of the sights. Well, when I say tour, I mean, we were mainly lost on roundabouts trying to find a mythical motel and then trying to find our way between various tourist spots that we could often see, beckoning cheekily over the other side of a flyover or grassy mound, but never actually reach. This was because of the interminable grid and roundabout system left as the legacy to planned, utterly artificial urbanscapes by the American architect Walter Burley Griffin. Canberra is the act of nation building, writ large. In concrete. And with roundabouts.
Canberra, which has been translated as 'Meeting Place' from the local Aboriginal language, was chosen as the site for a prospective capital of the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia in 1908, about 7 years after federation and after a lot of political bickering. Melbourne, at that point the largest of the continent's cities remained the home to parliament until 1927 when the 'provisional' parliament house was opened. In 1988, as part of the bi-centenary celebrations, the 'new' parliament opened, completing part of Burley Griffin's plan for this city of concentric circles and axes with its pyramidesque centrepoint.
In 2005 I returned to Canberra, for two weeks to undertake research for my Masters. Now, Canberra isn't the best city to pick in the southern hemisphere to visit during the middle of winter, because it can get fairly cold. I say cold, well, it can drop to zero at night, although during the day I didn't really find it that depressing, mainly because you still have a fairly decent amount of bright daylight throughout the working day.
I have to say, Canberra is not one of my favourite cities, but it has a lot of things going for it, if suburban domesticity is your thing, dualled with some pretty rugged landscapes, bordered by mountains. And because of some legal anomoly of the Australian Capital Territory [ACT] you can both film and purchase pornography there. Oh and with kangaroos on your doorstep - this was the place I saw my first, and very nearly my last, kangaroo as it hopped straight out in front of the car just as I was turning into a friend's street. In fact, the best description I've heard of Canberra is 'A farming town with suits'. Basically, it's got an educated, mainly out of towner population, most of whom have come to Canberra for that all important, cushy number the Australians call, being a Public Servant (English translation, Civil Servant) along with a large student population. In a sense, Canberra is provincial playing at being cosmopolitan.
A lot of the nicer bars and restaurants are rumoured be be out in the suburbs rather than in the town centre, known as Civic. After 5 o'clock, when all the offices, banks and civil service buildings - oh, and museums - have closed, Civic is dead! Absolutely eerily dead! I've never seen anything like it in fact! Canberra does have a reputation nationally as one of the dullest and most sterile places in the country, and it's not really somewhere you're likely to be staying in for any lengthy period of time, unless you know people or you've got a specific reason for staying. But pick a sunny, warm time to go, make sure you've got some mates with you and preferably a car (public transport is notoriously unreliable in ACT) and you could make a worthwhile trip of a few days. Bearing in mind that it's just 3 and a half hours by bus from Sydney, it's kind of silly not to tick it off the list.
What often surprises me is actually just how many Australians have never been to Canberra, and how many others will say with some pride, 'Oh, I've been to Canberra, once, many years ago...' like this is some major achievement. Ok, maybe that's a bit cheeky of me coming from a teeny tiny island country where many people's idea of foreign travel is a weekend in Llandudno (well, they speak a different language don't they?!) or Cyprus (well, they all speak English don't they?). This is indeed a city best avoided in winter, the concrete and planned, low rise city that it is, is just too soulless if the sun isn't shining. However, it is the National Capital after all and that means that if you're into visiting a national this, a national that and not forgetting the national the other, this is the place to come. Some essentials in my opinion are the National Museum, New Parliament, the National Capital Exhibition and the War Memorial, which is a museum rather than simply a statue. Oh, and don't forget Lake Burley Griffin, the artificial corridor of water that separates the city into north and south, Civic and the Government Triangle.
While the thought of actually living there fills me with dread, in some twisted way I have a soft spot for Canberra. Dull as it is, it's all a bit of a contradiction - Capital and Farming Town, urban and country, it's oddly representative of the nation's own identity crisis.