Can a Canadian tell me anything I don’t already know about the Australian city I’ve called home for nearly 20 years? The answer is yes…if he’s Blair Allsopp, who’s lived in Brisbane for 35 years “off and on” and who knows nooks and crannies, and alleys and arcades, and secret corners I’ve never explored.
After an absence of seven years, I’ve returned to live in Brisbane. It’s familiar, and yet it’s not. Some days I feel like I’ve never been away; on others it’s like living in a completely foreign place.
So I sign up for a free tour with the Brisbane Greeters program. Yes, free. To anyone, not just tourists. There’s a list of walking tours to choose from, depending on your interests.
I chose the one-hour Public Art tour. We meet at the tourist information kiosk in the Queen Street Mall, the heart of the central city. I’m the only one on today’s tour, and that’s one of the beauties of this program – you can join others, or have your own exclusive tour guide.
We start by looking around us in the mall. Things have changed a bit since last time I was here. “Look up,” says Blair, a refrain he will repeat often as we walk, and good advice for anyone. I look: the otherwise dull wall of the Wintergarden shopping arcade is alive with butterflies.
It’s a morning of revelations. Blair leads me into alleys and corners of the city that have undergone major transformations. And – dare I say it? – some parts remind me a little of Melbourne’s grungy but alluring laneways. After an hour, we’re in need of a caffeine shot so we head to Burnett Lane and sip on lattes in a cafe tucked at the end of the alley.
I’m also reintroduced to some old favourites: the metallic City Roos, the stark white forms of The Drovers (relics of Brisbane’s hosting of World Expo 88), brass plaques under our feet in Albert Street that mark the city’s Literary Trail.
But there are new things to enjoy too. Anyone who went to a concert at the old Festival Hall in Albert St should step inside the foyer of the apartment building now on the site – and the memories are sure to flood back. The wall is lined with portraits of every performer who played Festival Hall during its heyday.
Blair spins the stories that go with each piece of art. This might not be art as you recognise it. I mean, who knew that the swirling designs on the side of the parking building in Albert St are really topographical maps of the Cunningham Ranges?
I’m loving it, and Blair is happy to extend the tour for another hour. So on we walk in a meandering loop, pausing here and there for yet another over-looked treasure. At St Stephen’s Cathedral a service in progress puts a halt to our exploration inside. An adjacent chapel is dedicated to St Mary McKillop, Australia’s first saint, claimed as one of Brisbane’s own (tell that to the good folk of Penola, South Australia!).
My favourites are the hidden critters who inhabit the old-fashioned lamp-posts along Adelaide Street…snakes, possums and flying foxes. Look up and you’ll find them looking down.
I could go on and on. But I won’t. Instead I’ll let the images that I took as we walked do their own talking. And I’m not going to tell you exactly where they are…hit the streets of Brisbane and find out for yourself.
I recommend you take a Greeters tour of your own, whether you’re a visitor or a resident of this fine city. Blair is just one of a team of talented and knowledgeable volunteers who will guide you. Other themes include a tour of the suburb of Paddington’s distinctive “Queenslander” architecture, a churches and shrines tour, and a major heritage buildings tour, and one called “Artful Nature”.
The only cost involved is for any public transport that is used or admission fees to attractions (and you’ll be told what these might be before the tour starts).
The Brisbane Greeters program is part of the Global Greeters Network, which began in New York in 1992 and now runs in 27 cities around the world including Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia, as well as Toronto, Paris and Berlin.