Andrew Taylor drops into Melbourne for a culture fix, from Napoleonic treasures to video arcades.
If you need confirmation that the rich and powerful live differently fromthe rest of us, look no further than the crockery of the wife of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette.
Guests at the royal court of Versailles could retire to the laiterie – or dairy – to drink froma breast-shaped porcelain cup, complete with a pert little nipple.
The Jatte-teton, dite bol sein is one of the many treasures to be found in the National Gallery of Victoria's Napoleon: Revolution to Empire exhibition.
Sadly, the NGV's cafe does not follow Marie-Antoinette's fine example by serving beverages in cups shaped as breasts or any other body part.
But the exhibition provides plenty of other reasons to loiter inside Melbourne's premier public gallery on St KildaRoad.
Part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series of blockbuster exhibitions, Napoleon charts the story of a manwho emerged fromthe anarchy of the French Revolution to become one of theworld’s most powerful rulers.
The show,which runs until October 7, also highlights the connections betweenNapoleon and Victoria, orTerreNapoleon as itwas called by the French explorer Nicolas Baudin.
Baudin charted the south-eastern coast of Australia, collecting plant specimens and a menagerie of animals – black swans, emus and kangaroos – that miraculously survived the arduous voyage back to France, ending up in Napoleon’s Malmaison country estate.
You don't have to be a Francophile or fearful of Melbourne’s chill to spend hours admiring the 300 exhibits, including paintings,weaponry, furniture, clothing, jewellery and sculptures.
Those pressed for time can always keep an eye on the gilt and enamelled bronze Skeleton clock,which tells the time according to the French Revolutionary Calendar, dividing each day into 10 hours of 100 minutes that were in turn divided into 100 seconds.
Melbourne might be obsessed by AFL players' injuries in winter, but it is also the ideal time to explore the city’s various cultural attractions.
Many of Melbourne's galleries, museums, stages and graffiti-decorated alleys are within walking distance, or a few tram stops, of each other along Swanston Street and St Kilda Road.
Melbourne's other winter masterpiece also looks to history, but the battles it celebrates were fought from the comfort of a bedroom or video arcade.
Game Masters at the Australian Centre for theMoving Image, on the corner of Flinders and Swanston streets, features more than 125 games played in arcades and on consoles, PCs and mobile devices, designed by theworld’s most influential video game designers.
Further along Swanston Street, the Melbourne Town Hall, home to the enormous 8000-pipe Grand Organ, hosts Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts and a number of Melbourne Writers Festival events, including this year's opening night speech on Charles Dickens by British actor, writer and director Simon Callow on August 23.
The Wheeler Centre at the State Library ofVictoria hosts a yearround programof author talks and debates through its Lunchbox/Soapbox series,which showcases writers and other public ranters – think Bettina Arndt on why sex matters so much to blokes.
In the evenings it hosts The Fifth Estate, a forum for discussing hot topics like slavery, sex as aweapon of war and the population debate, hosted by anthropologist and broadcaster Sally Warhaft.
Queen Victoria might have won state naming rights over Napoleon but it's refreshing to find even a fleeting French influence, especially cultural and culinary, in the Victorian capital.
Sydney chef Mark Best's new venture at Collins Place, Pei Modern, is named in honour of the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, who was responsible for one of Paris's most iconic modern landmarks, the glass-and-steel pyramid at the Louvre museum.
Another modern icon, Barry Humphries, is at the next table as we tuck in to Best's signature dessert, a caramelised tomato stuffed with 12 flavours and served with star anise ice-cream. It divides opinion on our table but its inventiveness is certainly admirable.
At the other end of the CBD is Henry and the Fox, an eatery on Little Collins Street with its own little front lawn. Hearty dishes of rabbit terrine, braised lamb neck and pork belly to name a few are cooked up by chef Michael Fox, the 2011 Age Good Food Guide Young Chef of the Year.
Fox says the restaurant's name was thought up by owner Paul Mathis and is based on a children's book he use to read to his young son.
Three other cultural things to do
1 Fresh from exhibiting two conjoined horses hanging from a tall scaffold, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art's next show is a retrospective of photo artist Pat Brassington, A Rebours, which opens on August 11. The innovative gallery in Southbank is Australia's only Kunsthalle, focused on commissioning rather than artworks.
2 The ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, in what is now modern Iraq, Syria and Turkey, laid the foundations of science, communication, art, literature and law. The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia at the Melbourne Museum until October 7 features more than 170 artefacts from the British Museum, including jewellery and sculptures as well as photos of crime writer Agatha Christie at archaeological digs with her husband, Max Mallowan, in the 1920s.
3 Melbourne is giving Broadway a nudge when it comes to hogging the musical limelight these days. Yusuf, as Cat Stevens now calls himself after dropping the surname Islam, has been in town for the premiere of Moonshadow, based on his back catalogue. The musical plays at the Princess Theatre on Spring Street until next Sunday. Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush will be treading the boards in Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which opens at Her Majesty's Theatre on Exhibition Street on October 20.
Westin Hotels are renowned for their plush beds that really are hard to tear yourself away from. The Westin Melbourne on Collins Street is no exception; its beds are as heavenly as its views of St Paul's Cathedral. Prices start at $285 a night. starwoodhotels.com.