Australia journal - June 1999

Return to Sydney

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When I got out of the bath it was dusk, and the view was all in grays. The ridges were silhouetted in various shades, with only the nearest cliff showing any of the red-orange that glows by day. A parade of clouds moved westward into the darkening sky. And the wind began again.

Dinner here at Echoes tonight, and we had the place to ourselves for most of our meal. The dining room is in the balcony above the front desk, with views out the front of the building as well as over the terrace and out into the valley.  We skipped dessert, being exhausted and stuffed and all, and split one piece of chocolate from our Paragon stash before Rita sailed off into dreamland. I'm on my way there myself, having come by this pleasant state of exhaustion honestly.

Friday morning was crystal clear and windy again, and we lay in bed watching the light change across the valley. A few wisps of cloud moved very swiftly eastward over the near valley, and larger banks of cloud worked their way in the distance. The cliff faces opposite us lost their pink glow as the daylight became full. "I could just sit here all day," said Rita, and my shin and calf muscles wheezed their approval of the idea.

As we prepared to leave the room for breakfast, I looked out the window again. The gum trees are swaying in the breeze, but there is no roar in the rafters. We'll find something easy to do this morning before hopping the train back into Sydney.

Having seen the cliffs right up close, it's even more impressive to view them from afar. At breakfast, we marveled at the way the light changes across the red cliff faces from minute to minute.

Breakfast at the Echoes guest house is included in the price. There's a buffet of cereals, juices, and fruits, and a short list of hot items to choose from. We had perfectly poached eggs with those bright orange yolks, accompanied by broiled tomatoes and (this morning) bacon that was not cooked into carboniferous submission the way it so often is back home.

We settled our bill at Echoes, stashed our stuff behind a counter there, and took a walk over to Echo Point to take a long last look at the Three Sisters and the Blue Mountains. Clouds were racing across the sky, throwing lovely shadows on the cliff faces, the forest below, and the ridges in the distance. Then we caught a "hail and ride" bus to the center of Katoomba, where we wandered in and out of shops for a while, heading back in the general direction of Echo Point. We bought a few gifts for people at home, and picked up some pastries for the train ride, and then stopped at the Hattery for lunch.

Back at Echoes, we rounded up our gear and rang a taxi for the quick ride back up the hill to the train station. Poster in the waiting room: "Expand your BRAIN - Study on the TRAIN! On-board courses for commuters now available."

On the train ride back into Sydney, we had an opportunity to see how the railroad keeps its passengers honest. The train was very busy, with many passengers boarding and departing at every stop. Somewhere along the line a cop entered our car -- a man in a dark blue jacket with a sweater over his shirt and a badge hanging from a lanyard around his neck. He went from row to row, asking everyone to show their tickets. We were able to oblige, of course, but the girl right behind us did not have her ticket. She had it when she got on the train, she said, but "I can't find it now." The detective asked her a series of questions - Where did you get on? How much did you pay for your ticket? How long did you wait for the train? - which seemed intended to determine credibility and sincerity. He walked away for a few moments and wrote in a small book, then came back and gave the girl some instructions on how to obtain a refund - so I guess at some time during the process he collected the ninety cents or whatever the fare was that the girl was or wasn't trying to evade. It was a frightfully civilized ritual, with the policeman giving the girl a dignified exit from the controversy.

Back in Sydney, we returned to the Cambridge for our final night, and to the Balkan for our final meal. This time we ordered more carefully, each starting with a bowl of cabbage and potatoes (the former cooked but not too much) in a nice light vinaigrette. My main dish was grilled chicken breast, which arrived on the place with a pair of small, sausage links. Everything was perfectly grilled, tasty, juicy, and light. Rita's seafood pasta -- two colors of linguine -- was a bit heavy on the cheese, but otherwise excellent and tasty. We skipped dessert, since we still had some Paragon chocolates.

We enjoyed watching the staff at the Balkan, many of whom seemed to be related. I liked the sound of their conversation -- all those consonants in their language come out quite mellifluously in their speech.

We took a walk down Oxford Street for a few blocks, enjoying the hustle and bustle of a Friday night in a happening district. We were treated to the unpleasant spectacle of a drunken fellow abusing a homeless person -- "You were here five hours ago, you stupid bitch!" I restrained myself from asking if that meant the son of a bitch had been inside drinking for five hours. We walked along behind this man and his two pals long enough to witness another unpleasant episode with another beggar. We stepped into a newsagent to peruse the magazines while the offensive trio staggered along.

We were asleep by 10:30 and awake at 6:30, off to the Roobar for one last breakfast, and then on the bus bound for the Sydney Opera HouseWe arrived just in time for the guided tour, which took us through two small theaters o the lower level, the symphony hall, and the opera house proper. Along the way we were given the history of this magnificent complex, which began in the mid-'50s with an international design competition, took ten years longer and $95 million more to complete than the original wild-guess estimate, and involved the resignation of the original architect after a change in government put an unsympathetic minister in charge. Our guide made reference to a current controversy over the acoustics of the symphony hall, which I read about earlier in the week: Edo de Waart, who was involved in a similar debacle at the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco a few years ago, is grousing here now.

After a too-brief walk through the Botanic Gardens, we returned to the hotel to check out and catch our van to the airport, where we enjoyed another surprisingly good meal before hopping aboard an Ansett flight to Brisbane for the next phase of our vacation. Sydney was stunning from the crystal-clear sky.

On to Brisbane...