CONCENTRATION ETCHED on their furrowed brows, the two combatants survey the battleground before them. A crowd has gathered, circling the warriors in silence, eager to see who will strike the decisive blow. Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, one of the gladiators makes his move. ‘Knight to Queen Four.’
A palpable buzz goes around the onlookers flanking the giant chess board as they consider the strategic nuances of this ploy. Then silence descends again and in the early spring sunshine you can hear a pin (or a pawn) drop.
This scene would be unremarkable if played out in any other major city around the world. Yet this is Christchurch and the game is being played in the shadow of the ruined cathedral which now serves as a seemingly permanent reminder of the earthquake of 2011 (the church and the government are still discussing if or when the building will be repaired). Lives were lost and the city was devastated, but life – like the game – must go on.
Rebuilding has taken time and the CBD is still a mass of cranes and construction (my poor sat nav actually gave up trying to find a way around all the road closures and diversions). But this is still a fantastic city to visit with plenty to offer all ages and all interests.
The best place to start your explorations is aboard one of the restored heritage trams that traverse the city. The guides really know their stuff and will educate you on the city both pre- and post disaster, allowing you to get your bearings and identify all the major landmarks, such as the Cardboard Cathedral and Re:START Mall, a mix of retailers housed in shipping containers that have become symbols of the re-birth of Christchurch.
Once you’re on foot, you’ll soon realise why this is called ‘The Garden City’ with some 700 public squares and gardens. Head to the Botanic Gardens and you’ll see a myriad of local and indigenous species that have been on display here since it originally opened in 1863, or simply grab an ice-cream and sit by the banks of the Avon and watch the punters go by.
If you’re in the city on a Saturday, head to the Christchurch Farmers Market in Riccarton Bush where local growers, bakers and artisans peddle their wares. You’ll be able to pick up such delights as ‘posh’ porridge, organic ales and nut butter.
After all that walking you’ll need some sustenance and Christchurch has a number of top quality eateries. We had lunch at Fiddlesticks in Worcester Boulevard and it was the first restaurant I’d ever been to that had astro turf on the wall. I didn’t know whether to mow it, eat it or play golf on it! Anyway, the food was delicious: I had the tailor-made pie with pea puree while my wife tucked into the BBQ lamb sandwich.
For dinner, try the Harlequin Public House, which is helmed by award-winning chef Jonny Schwass and is sited in a restored 1899 Victorian villa. If your travel time permits, hire a car for a day and explore the city surrounds. The Christchurch Gondola is a cable car that takes you up to the extinct volcano crater of Port Hills and where, on a clear day, you’ll see to the horizon in every direction (you’ll have to take my word for it as thick fog blanketed the hill when we were there and it was a bit like being inside a light bulb).
From here, drive to The Tannery, a gathering of retail outlets, cafes and restaurants housed in a building modelled on The Strand in Sydney. Very boutique and dating from the Edwardian and Victorian eras, this is a great spot for some retail therapy and lunch at the Blue Smoke, which specialises in craft beer and soul food and often has live bands in the evening.
Christchurch has gone through tough times but with the resilience that its inhabitants are famous for, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, there’s a sentence emblazoned in neon on the side of the Christchurch Art Gallery by British artist Martin Creed. It simply says: “Everything is going to be alright.”
A more appropriate message of hope, I cannot imagine.
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