Australia’s capital, Canberra is often overlooked as a travel destination, both domestically and internationally. It has a reputation as being ‘quiet’ and a bit ‘boring’. Sure, it might not have the sandy beaches, theme parks or nightlife of the country’s other major cities, but scratching the surface reveals a number of hidden attractions and delights. Too many to experience in the one weekend I had spare.
An interesting fact is that Canberra is one of only a few worldwide destinations to have been planned as a capital city, and in some way this adds a unique charm to the place. Melbourne and Sydney wrestled to become Australia’s capital, but when the site for Canberra was discovered (in between the two) in 1908 the wrestling stopped. Walter Burley Griffin, a Chicago architect, won an international design competition to plan the city, and the city surrounds a lake named in his honour.
Canberra experiences each of the four seasons in its own way, and as a summer visitor I was hoping for the endless opportunities to enjoy the outdoors by getting out and walking. Unfortunately, the warm days with plenty of sunshine, little humidity and cool breezes alluded my arrival, and the welcome mat rolled out grey skies and sprinkling rain.
Staying at the Rydges Capital Hill Hotel put me in close proximity to many of the attractions I had come to see, including the National Gallery of Australia where I would be immersing myself in the works of 15th and 16th century Italian painters Raphael, Botticelli, Titian and Bellini at the Renaissance exhibition.
But before that, I got lost in discovering more about the Australian identity at the National Library of Australia. There are approximately 10 million items in the Library’s collection including books, journals, newspapers, archives, manuscripts, pictures, photographs, music, maps, website, oral history and folklore recordings, and ranging from the earliest European works about Australia to more current publications making it impossible to experience everything the Library has to offer in one day.
There are a number of events held at the Library, and on the day of my visit it appeared that everyone in Canberra had called in to escape the rain. Finding a comfortable seat in the Central Foyer, I was able to enjoy the Australian Voices audiovisual presentation which is compiled from the oral history and folklore collection and featuring interviews with renowned Australians including Mem Fox, Kath Walker and Fred Hollows.
The Treasures Gallery, costing nothing to enter, exhibits some of Australia’s greatest ‘treasures’ and tells some colourful stories. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the early maps, atlases, books, paintings and photographs, and other objects that feature in this room. I found the original manuscript for Waltzing Matilda, as well as a letter from James Cook’s Endeavour to William Bligh’s list of mutineers in amongst an eclectic range of objects.
With Canberra being the home of Australian Federal politics, if you’ve only got a couple of days in the city then a ‘must do’ is the modern Parliament House. Designed by an Italian-America-Australian, Romaldo Giugola in 1981 and opened in 1988, the modern Parliament House is a beautiful combination of contemporary and minimalist design that stands staunchly at the top of a hill behind Old Parliament House.The entry of greenish-grey marble columns, and black and white marble flooring is representative of Australia’s unique eucalypt trees.
Although you can collect a self-guided tour brochure from the information desk, and wander the public areas of the building, I recommend joining one of the free public guided tours available. Tours run for about 45 minutes during non-sitting days, and 30 minutes during sitting days. In the Great Hall a tapestry by artist Arthur Boyd and spanning 20 metres is one of the most important art works commissioned for Parliament House. Producing oil paintings on canvas as the initial sketches to this work of art, Boyd’s forest imagery is a complement to the native timbers used in the Hall’s panelling and flooring.
Our tour guide took us through both ‘houses’ of Parliament, where visitors have the opportunity to witness politicians at work during Question Time when Parliament is sitting, and provided a wealth of information on not just the stunning architecture of the building, but also of the fascinating history, art and documents that have contributed to the fabric of Australian creation and development.
Take the lift to the roof of Parliament House to where an 81-metre tall stainless steel flagpole flies a giant Australian flag. The view is spectacular and there is a sense of pride standing underneath the flag looking across to the sacred Australian War Memorial on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin.
Unfortunately, this trip did not provide the time nor the weather to visit the Australian War Memorial. The original reason for my visit to Canberra was to attend the Renaissance exhibition at the National Gallery, the first time a display of early and high Renaissance paintings has ever been held in Australia. Paintings by Italian Renaissance masters such as Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini and Mantegna were on show, many of which have never been seen in Australia before.
More than 70 paintings by artists whose names are forever tied to the Renaissance period featured in the exhibition, and many of the paintings captured an era when Italy was becoming an independent civilisation, reinforcing the meaning of ‘Renaissance’ which is rebirth or revival . It is likely that many of the magnificent landscapes and portraits were commissioned by high society private patrons, while the Church of the time was renowned for its requests for religious scenes.
The Gallery also had a number of other artistic displays, including Sidney Nolan’s great, iconic Ned Kelly paintings.
For me seeing the Renaissance was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I was not willing to miss, and as a bonus I was able to indulge in the variety of attractions Canberra has on offer.
To learn more about Canberra’s many attractions, head to the Visit Canberra website.