We wake to a light drizzle. The storm of the night before has cleared the air but it's cloudy and damp. Because it's wet we decide to spend the day Christmas shopping and sightseeing. At breakfast we meet a Canadian couple, Diane and Doug, from the Vancouver area. They're on their way to Perth to visit their daughter. We empathise with each other - far-flung daughters are a shared experience. They're leaving today and kindly give us their Multi Weekly Travel passes which have some days still on them. These entitle one to travel anywhere on the City Rail Network including all the ferries. The kindness of strangers. They also give us a large umbrella they don't wish to take to Perth (it never rains there).
We spend most of the morning recreating the 19th Century shopping experience, at 21st Century prices. First we visit the Queen Victoria Building in George Street. This was described by Pierre Cardin, no less, as "the most beautiful Shopping Centre in the world". It was built in 1898 as a produce market but restored beautifully in 1986 and is now a very grand shopping mall. It has two amazing clocks suspended from the glass roof. One is based on Balmoral Castle with a copy of the four dials of Big Ben. The other depicts scenes from the discovery of Australia, and its early history. It shows hours, minutes, days and calendar in a system of rotating metal bands. (I couldn't work out the time). On the top floor, children are being introduced to Santa for the first time. It's a terrifying experience. One starts screaming which sets the others off. Harassed elves and anxious mothers attempt to pacify their charges so that they look cheerful in the souvenir photo. There's something unnatural about Christmas in a hot climate.
Of course, there is an Irish connection. When they had refurbished the building, the owners were casting around for a statue of Queen Victoria to set the scene outside. Where could they get one? Ireland, that's where. A worldwide search ended in 1983 when the statue was found in a small Irish village. It had lain there neglected and forgotten since being removed from the front of Leinster House, home of the Dáil (Irish parliament) in 1947.
We cross the road to the Strand Arcade, a similar vintage, and even grander: built 1892, restored 1976. I know I mentioned Christmas presents above, but those of you expecting something, don't get your hopes raised. We spent more time admiring the architecture than buying things. Some of the shop displays were themselves works of art. There was one shop selling bottles of herbal remedies. It had a display reminiscent of a Damien Hirst piece.
After lunch we return to The Rocks for a conducted tour of Susannah Place, just below the hostel. This terrace of (Irish built) four brick houses dates back to 1844, and was continuously occupied from that date until 1991. The guide shows us the various rooms and tells us about the inhabitants. What is surprising and shocking for younger vistors: outside toilets, primitive cooking facitities, is déjà vu for me. In the 1950s my grandmother lived in a terrace like this, and many of the artifacts and wall decorations could have been hers. It is strange that my childhood recollections are someone else's history. I must be getting old. Below is a life-sized mural of how The Rocks used to look. It's a bit fancier these days.
In the evening we walk across the Harbour Bridge. There are a few joggers and tourists but it's mostly empty. There are several overweight security guards positioned along the path to discourage any illegal activity. Monica makes a good stab, given the camera, at photographing the Opera House from the bridge. Judge for yourselves.