A walking tour gets to the heart of Dunedin

The city could easily be called New Zealand’s city of firsts: first university, first medical school, first dental school, the first newspaper, first art school, and the first public art gallery.

For Athol, the city is an art gallery and history book and he guides us with enthusiasm around the inner city

IMG_1626Dunedin, New Zealand’s oldest city is apparently drier than Auckland; warmer than Christchurch, and less windy than Wellington. Christchurch’s quakes have also put Dunedin at the top of the list of best historic buildings in New Zealand. The inner city in particular has many Gothic and classical Victorian-Edwardian buildings and I join Athol Parks (founder of City Walks) for a 2-hour stroll around them.

Otaku, as Māori called the area, was first settled by Europeans in 1848 when the Scottish settlers arrived. It quickly became extremely wealthy from gold and state-led investments and is considered to have funded the rest of New Zealand’s growth.

The often considered ‘austere or dour Scots’ community was soon overrun with international gold-miners as well as Jewish and Chinese settlers who have left a lasting mark on the city. This includes the fabric merchants Hallensteins who were among the earliest Jewish arrivals. Interestingly, Dunedin still has the world’s southernmost synagogue. Vogel’s, Bell Tea, the oven-maker Shacklock, Cadbury and Speight’s brewery were all founded here.

The city could easily be called New Zealand’s city of firsts: first university, first medical school, first dental school, the first newspaper, first art school, and the first public art gallery.

For Athol, the city is an art gallery and history book and he guides us with enthusiasm around the inner city.From Robbie Burns and St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in the Octagon to the Fortune Theatre, which began life as a Wesleyan Church then down Moray Place to the former Jewish synagogue. It then became a Freemason temple, then art gallery, and now a fabulous looking inner city home.

Walking and talking Athol tells us, ‘I want visitors to understand what makes Dunedin a special and creative place’ he says as we head to the railway station. The City Council bought the iconic railway station for $1. Now restored to its full 1906 splendour, it’s now, eclectically, site for the weekly farmers’ market; every year the platform becomes the runway for the city’s pre-eminent fashion show, and the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame lives upstairs.

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Beside the station, an art deco bus station has been restored and combined with the expanded Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, which re-opened in 2012 – and which I totally recommend

IMG_1638The First Presbyterian Church of Otago had been designed to sit on a large hill and the Free Church of Scotland settlers thought they had claimed the city’s prime site and had a 29-year-old architect, Robert Lawson, design an extremely un-Presbyterian-like church. However, by the time his winning plan was built, convict labour had lowered Bell Hill by 12m to provide fill for the reclamation of the harbour below. Although not as prominent as first envisaged, the cathedral-like structure remains impressive. Of course the English Anglican church ended up with pride of place in the Octagon, the city centre – although the Scottish bard, Robbie, stands with his back to it! In those early days the Reverend Thomas Burns, a nephew of the poet provided spiritual guidance for the new community.

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It was the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland that founded Dunedin at the head of Otago Harbour. Its name comes from Dùn Èideann, the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland and the city’s surveyor was told to copy the characteristics of Edinburgh.

Athol, under questioning, tells us he studied history and politics at the University of Otago. He also has a historical novel underway. Its beginnings started with history project about the local pie-cart which made him realise history could come alive. Victorian Dunedin is the setting for his uncompleted novel, and considers the relationship between Dunedin’s early architects. (Lawson and Petre)

I liked his comment that ”Architecture is the most public art form, but most people pay it little regard. If you come to appreciate it and learn about it, it enriches your life’.

Walking his dogs around the street every day he thought ‘it would be great to show people this place.’ City Walks started in 2006 after deciding he was going to have to work for most of the rest of my life, ‘So, I might as well do work I enjoy’. Now, for six months a year, for six days a week, he guides walking tours around the inner city – and despite never having lived here I have strong Scottish roots and found this tour well worth doing.

It also reminded me of the huge losses Canterbury suffered during the 2010/11 quakes – I’m glad New Zealand still has its history alive and being preserved in this southern city.

My ten days in Dunedin – was spent traveling in a NZ RentaCar and the City walk ended with us being offered a wee dram and some haggis!IMG_1694

Author: Heather - the kiwi travel writer

Nomadic travel-writer, photographer, author & blogger. See more on http://kiwitravelwriter.com and Amazon for my books (heather hapeta)