A Tour of Canberra

» Featured Columnists | By Alma Kadragic | September 15, 2010 3:00 PM ET

(CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA) -- Years ago an Australian friend who I met in New York used to tell me how dull Canberra was and that he would never live there. He was working in the Australian foreign service but wanted to quit because in between postings to foreign countries, he would have to live in Canberra just as American diplomats live in Washington D.C. when they aren't serving in another country.

Like Washington D.C. and Brasilia, Canberra is an invented capital, not a city that developed organically and eventually became the center of the national government. Like them Canberra was created for a purpose, to settle the claim of major cities that used to be or wanted to remain the national capital.

In some countries, the main city, the one everyone knows, is the capital; London and Paris are good examples. Often people outside the US are surprised to learn that the capital isn't New York. Same goes for Turkey where Istanbul is by far the leading city. But Istanbul which lies half in Europe, half in Asia, with its Ottoman Empire history was avoided by the government of the smaller new Turkey which made Ankara on the Anatolian plain the capital.

In Australia, Melbourne and Sydney both had claims to become the national capital. However, in 1908 Canberra was accepted by the major cities and everyone else in the federation, and plans to construct the new capital began. When I arrived in Canberra last weekend, I had a general idea of the history and didn't expect the city to be interesting. I wanted to visit friends, and being only three hours away by bus in Wollongong, it seemed a good opportunity.

I have known them for many years; we are related by a cousin's marriage. But we have seen each other only in the US, the UAE, or in Perth on the west coast of Australia. This was the first time I would see where they live.  To my surprise, Canberra of which I expected nothing - like Wollongong as I wrote last week - is a beautiful city in a gorgeous natural setting.

My friends have lived and travelled around the world. They know what they have at home and made sure I saw enough to appreciate it. Without planning, I managed to hit the best weather Canberra had seen recently, two days of full sun and temperatures 15-18C (59-65F), perfect for walking and sightseeing.

Saturday they met me at the bus station and took me straight to the first day of Floriade, the annual spring festival of flowers that lasts a month. I used to go to the Chelsea Flower Show each year when I lived in London. It is a unique exhibition of plants with unusual and expensive flowers among the more common ones, and exhibitors compete to create the most extravagant compositions.

Floriade is entirely different - and typically Australian. It's simple, not manicured and perfect, with acres of daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, pansies, and other spring flowers piled up in massive beds, organized by colors or mixed seemingly at random. There is no fencing or edging around the beds, and no garden furniture or anything around the flowers. Everything is fresh and lovely and natural.

The flowers are in a huge park on one side of a lake. On the other side are the Old Parliament and current Parliament, Science Museum, National Art Gallery, Courthouse, and a lot of greenery.  Sunday we walked around the lake at the same time that some 10,000 enthusiasts were participating in the 10K Fun Run. We walked toward them on an adjacent track; they seemed to keep coming and coming. They must have started at different times because their path was about 10 feet wide. It was about 40 minutes before the last runners passed us.

Walkers moving crisply can go around the lake in about an hour. We got back to the car in 90 minutes, having slowed down near the National Art Museum to look at the sculptures in the pine garden behind the building.  During the walk and later it was clear that nature and manmade structures harmonized, something that was part of the plan and no accident.

After 1908 when the Australian Federation agreed to Canberra's becoming the capital, the search for an architect began. Plans were drawn, objections made, building slowed up, many hitches in the process. One hundred years later, the result is a livable city with a clear design that avoids the sterility that has plagued Brasilia since it was planned in 1960. Perhaps Brasilia - which I haven't visited - needs more time.

From Parliament across the lake to the Anzac War Memorial and up to Mount Ainslie is a straight line planned by the architect Walter Burley Griffin. Standing at Parliament, you look toward Mount Ainslie with the Memorial in between. We saw that and also the reverse, looking down from Mount Ainslie to the Memorial and the distant Parliament. From Mount Ainslie the entire valley of the city of Canberra spreads out below.

Then we drove to Parliament, an enormous building that harmonizes with the lake and the undulating land around that isn't stopped by the building. In fact, grass grows on the roof. With the lake behind, Parliament is a low spread out white structure that seems to fit into the landscape. On the ground outside is brown gravel which recalls the dry landscape of much of the Australian continent.

Inside we joined a tour that took us to the chambers of the two houses of Parliament, organized like the American Congress into the lower House of Representatives and the upper Senate. The House is decorated in medium green, the Senate in medium red. Both strike me as combinations of British Parliament and US Congress style which reflects how they are organized.

The bus to Sydney International Airport left Canberra at 4 pm Sunday, and I was on the way back to Abu Dhabi. I had spent just over 26 hours in the city. It was wonderful to see my friends again, and they gave me a good sense of their city, so much so that I'm ready to visit Canberra again next time I'm in Australia - even if they're out of town.


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