An old marketplace is the embodiment of a city’s soul. It is amidst the unique wares and potpourri of people, that one often discovers the personality of a place. Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market, known lovingly as the ‘Vic’, is no exception. The market officially opened on 20th March 1878, on 7 hectares of land belonging to the estates of Wurndjeri-willam clan of the Kulin Nation. It still remains one of the largest open markets of the Southern Hemisphere.
Of Melbourne and Vic
I landed in Melbourne on a breezy February morning, and the first impression it made on me was one of modernity and globalization. I happened to visit the upcoming western suburbs first, where the streets and houses were reminiscent of the upscale suburbs of the States. Modern architectural lines and carefully groomed greenery dominated the area.
But, when I visited family in the eastern and northern suburbs, the visual of the city transformed seamlessly. The older suburbs were spotted with Victorian architecture, a throwback to the rich past of Australia’s Gold Rush period.
It was as if the old and the new had found a sweet spot in the city of Melbourne, co-existing happily since time immemorial. The Queen Vic Market is an exaggerated reminder of the same trait.
The Back Story of QVM
The Vic is characterized today by its heritage buildings, the Meat Hall and the Dairy Hall – that are standing proud from the late 19th century. Across the street, stand rows of sheds, where traders from around the world gather with their wares everyday.
It is an interesting trivia that the market stands on what was once a cemetery of more than 10,000 early settlers. In the early 20th century, many bodies were exhumed and re-interred at other sites. But, even today, the car park is standing over burials of dozens of people, whose records have been lost to time.
It was in the 1960s that Vic came to be associated with Australia’s infamous Italian Mafia, the Honored Society. The mafia was most active along the Eastern Coast of Australia, and dominated the fruit and vegetable industry. A dramatic struggle of powers ensued in the early ’60s, after the death of Australia’s Godfather, Domenico “The Pope” Italiano.
This led to the “Market Wars”, leading to at least 5 shootings and 1 death at the Vic market.
This was possibly the darkest time in Vic’s history.
My Tryst with Vic
I entered the market with a strong sense of familiarity, despite it being my first visit. It was, perhaps, the amplification of sensory cues – the colors, aroma and crowds, characteristic to India, that transported me instantly. The sheer variety of the products – ranging from sheep skin rugs to hand-painted boomerangs, was a treat for the soul.
The traders were busy, and yet found time for a quick chat. Some of them advised me on what to try, others shared their journeys to the Vic Market.
I met an English man, who had left his home in the Sunshine Coast, to be part of the QVM legacy. He was selling customizable, recorded poems for little children.
At another shed, an old Korean man and his daughter, were selling boiled and roasted corn. They were connecting with their customers through a smile so welcoming, that no one noticed that they spoke no English. A happy music played somewhere in the background. I was told that it was a live musician outside the market, playing at a spot that held mini-concerts during night markets. A little cafe offered my toddler free chips, because she happened to flash a smile at the owner. Vic market made me feel at home in the heart of a new city!
I must also share the quirkiness of what was on display at the market. The products were mostly Australian souvenirs made in China, India or Bangladesh! But, every once in a while, we would come across a shed, where a local artist was offering her creations.
We indulged in a handcrafted wooden mat, that could transform into a fruit basket, a wine holder that used the weight of the wine bottle to stand, and even a little kangaroo pendant with a beautiful Australian opal where its belly should have been.
It was a balm to my Indian soul to know that I could haggle a little for the prices.
It was so satisfying to be able to negotiate a few bucks with a vendor, far far away from my homeland.
An Afternoon to Remember
My visit to the legendary Queen Victoria Market would be etched in my memory forever, as a beautiful time spent with my family. The ladies in the group brimmed with happiness as the day of shopping came to a close.
The rest of the party were equally satisfied with the delectable food that we enjoyed there – the most notable being the Lamb Borek!
Unfortunately, we had time enough to visit only about a third of the huge marketplace. Here’s wishing that we make it there again, in the company of our near and dear ones.
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