Travel: Melbourne, Australia

LET’S go for a drink in that bar that used to be a famous brothel,” I say to my friend Julia Holt, a former Assembly Theatre producer who now lives in Melbourne.

Soon we are on the terrace at Madame Brussels, once a knocking shop, now an eccentric rooftop establishment, with a drinks menu dripping with innuendo, a tower of fresh grapes on the bar and a rather sticky carpet.

“How on earth did you know about this place?” says Julia. “You’ve only been here five minutes.”

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Melbournites love to know their way around their city and particularly love to seek out secret places – lots of venues have hidden entrances, like Madame Brussels, which you find by travelling in a service lift in an office block.

My trick was to join a Hidden Secrets tour – a walking tour that gave me an insider’s insight to this wonderful city.

On the surface, Melbourne is huge, with skyscrapers, Louis Vuitton and Chanel boutiques and lots of men in suits striding through the streets and speaking about deals, percentages and profit margins.

But there is also hipster Melbourne. This is a city of Victorian arcades with kiosk coffee shops where men in shirt sleeves with long, curly beards compete to make the finest coffee in town. There are tolerance zones for graffiti artists, hidden artworks hanging above street level and, oh, the restaurants.

Melbourne is a city wired on fantastic coffee and obsessed with eating out – and the cafe culture is amazing. You can have traditional French, Indian, Asian fusion, Italian, Vietnamese – all made with super-fresh ingredients and presented in an unfussy, friendly Australian style.

I’ve never eaten so well in my life – there was an amazing meal with friends, sharing tasting plates of octopus, courgettes in buttermilk and soft shell crab at trendy eatery Cumulus Inc; a fabulous meal at Coda and I managed to get in a sneaky solo lunch at Chinchin, the Asian fusion place that is currently the hottest table in town.

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Melbourne was recently voted the most liveable city in the world – and from my room 24 floors up at the Grand Hyatt I can see a heap of reasons why.

The clear blue Yarra river, used by rowing teams and sailing clubs, meanders through the city. There are vast green spaces and amazing sports stadia – the legacy of the 1956 Olympics.

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Along the south bank is the cultural quarter; museums jostle with theatres, art galleries and, during my visit, the Famous Spiegeltent, erected for the Melbourne Comedy Festival. But this is a city alive with events at all times of the year, with a food festival, a flower festival and major exhibitions passing through.

I’m blown away by the Aboriginal art at the National Gallery of Victoria – the intense colours and designs make my head spin and I have to go and lie down. There were once Aboriginal people living on the Mornington Peninsula, an astonishingly beautiful ribbon of land that reaches out into the sea just south of Melbourne. Today, the site of a Victorian leper colony and an isolation hospital for people with Spanish flu is deserted. You can take a little tractor train along the dirt roads to the end of the point. It’s breathtakingly lovely but the air is tinged with sadness.

I visit Mornington Peninsula by tour bus. If you can bear to tear yourself away from the city there are a number of tours available from outside the National Gallery of Victoria.

You can explore the wine-growing regions of Yarra Valley and ride on Puffing Billy, a miniature steam train operated by a happy band of bearded rail enthusiasts.

At Healesville Animal Sanctuary you can get close to kangaroos and koalas and watch a fantastic bird of prey show where giant eagles and hawks swoop inches from your head. You can even meet duck billed platypuses, the weirdest and most elusive animals in Australia.

Back in Melbourne I discover more friends. I catch up with Linsay Watts, one of the founders of Edinburgh’s Free Fringe. We have a hearty lunch at Pelligrini’s Italian cafe, a Melbourne institution since the 1950s. Co-owner Sisto Malaspina, who has been here since 1974, keeps us riotously entertained.

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I want to find out more about Vali Myers, an Australian artist who ran away to Paris in the 1950s, knew Dali and Cocteau, became an opium addict, went to live in a hidden valley in Italy with 100 dogs, then resurfaced in New York in the 1970s where she entertained in the Chelsea Hotel, encountered the Warhol crew and hung out with Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and Shane MacGowan.

Strangely for a city that loves its secrets, hardly anyone in Melbourne has heard of her, even though she ended her days here in 2003.

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All my friends get involved in my quest. Julia finds out Vali’s studio was in the Nicholas Building, Linda shows me how to find the entrance through a Victorian arcade. Linsay comes with me to the Outre Gallery to see some Myers prints.

On the seventh floor, there it is, behind a door decorated with a picture of Vali holding a rabbit, her hair wild. In the next studio I say hello to Nicholas Jones, a sculptor who remembers hanging out in her studio. “She would welcome anyone. She was very kind,” he says.

The studio has become a shared office space used by .... Hidden Secrets Tours, and my friend Linda, who knew Vali had a studio in the Nicholas Building but had no idea it was now her office. How bizarre to go halfway round the world on a quest and find someone you know behind the door.

I feel Vali has blessed my trip and understand why she came to end her days in this funky, quirky city so full of life.

THE FACTS There are daily flights to Melbourne from London Heathrow priced from £1,020 including taxes, The Grand Hyatt, Melbourne offers double rooms from AUD$288 (£180) per person per night,;; For more information about holidays in Australia, visit