Geoffrey Moorhouse is the kind of writer who reminds you that "Travel Literature" not just "Travel Guides" used to be a prominent section in good bookstores.

Sydney: The Story of a City is beautifully written, casual, conversational, almost unobtrusively suffused with information, and wittily opinionated all at once. It adds to the picture-postcard view of Sydney an engrossing humanity and a sort of rude health that reminds us how young a city it is, founded notoriously as a penal colony only in 1770.

Moorhouse's sentences have a rare and seductive rhythm, and his adjectives a particular aptness. Consider the polish, and the visual acuity, of a simple vignette of the harbor traffic: "Ships arrive with superstructures rising abruptly in umpteen storeys like an apartment block; ships with the bulbous bow that became fashionable again after being out of favor for the best part of a century; ships so top-heavy with containers that they resemble a railway marshaling yard, and you wonder why they haven't turned turtle in the latest storms; ships that are nothing more than boxes on keels, so unspeakably ugly that whoever drew up the blueprints must have thought they were being asked to design a septic tank; ships that have become floating advertisements with their owner's name flashed ostentatiously along the side an unthinkable vulgarity not so long ago." Not only that, but his masterful prose allows him to ramble from past to present, conveying astonishing amounts of fact and detail without ever seeming pedantic.

"It is still, but only just, possible to appreciate what terra australis looked like round here when the Aborigines had it all to themselves. To do so you need to go up the Parramatta River, where there are still small mangrove swamps in Home Bush Bay and near Rydalmere, where duck and pelican, cormorant and sandpiper flourish, just as they did when they were hunted to keep aboriginal hunger at bay; or you must go some distance north of the city, where the Hawkesbury River winds down to the sea at Broken Bay, through hundreds of square miles of national park and its blessedly unexploited bush. . . . [R]oots and fruits were abundant here, together with witchhetty grubs which could be found in rotting trees trunks and were regarded as a great delicacy when lightly grilled." Moorhouse is no respecter of church or state, unless either earns it; he takes shrewd and unshakable aim at the selfish, the aggrandizing and the prejudiced of town and gown and chalice. But he is also unstinting in his admiration of the generous and far-sighted, and unusually imaginative in his portraits of some of the complex and contradictory figures in Australian history. He peeks in at the Parliament, with its very English habit of exquisitely insulting circumlocutions.

He makes palpable the idiosyncratic pleasures (and shadows) of national holidays, from the we're-all-green over-indulgences of St. Patrick's Day to the solemnity of Anzac Day, a veterans' day salute to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps forces slaughtered at Gallipoli in 1915.

And he conveys the sense of physical energy that pervades the city. The host city for the Olympic Games in September, Sydney is famously sports mad: cricket, horse racing (there are 11 tracks), greyhound racing, American and Australian rules football, rugby league and rugby union, golf and bowling, basketball, soccer and, swimming, and surfing (despite the many hazards of freak tides, deadly sea snakes, sharks, and Portuguese man Ôo war jellyfish). Moorhouse manages to explain how the adherents of these often internecine sporting traditions squabble, coexist, battle for attention and scramble for media coverage. Altogether, this is a book of chewy pleasures, witty, sympathetic, finely descriptive and thoroughly accessible and it demands a suitable wine. The nearest wine region to Sydney is the Hunter Valley, and from that area Rosemount produces unpushy but broadly aromatic Semillons, with a softness to the texture often likened to lanolin but more like mango juice. Although the ordinary Semillons are good, and bargain-priced, the vintage wines, such as the 1996 Show Reserve (about $17) begin with a clearwater stoniness, turn a neat ankle of white peach and honey cream and ring down the curtain with a lingering, palate-cleansing almond. A showstopper.

 

P.S. If you are going to the Olympics, you might get a kick out of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Deluxe Gift Edition: Sydney (Dorling Kindersley, $40, ISBN 0789456443). In addition to DK's usual lush, full-color format and intriguing historical tidbits (and hotel and restaurant info, of course), the special version has a plastic case, wallet-sized info cards and a take-along map.


Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post. This column reflects her dual interests in travel and wine.

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