Friday, May 29, 2009

A Memorable Bench

The park bench in the photo is a memorable one. Behind the bench is the Danube canal. In front across the road, Schuttelstrasse, was the apartment building of a family friend I visited a few years ago.

From the living room window, one can see the street that leads to Hundertvasserhaus. The unique apartment building was designed by Friedensriech Hundertvasser to counter anything ugly going up on its site. The building features undulating floors, roof with grass on top, trees inside the apartments, branches sticking out windows that do not match. It is a cultural landmark, one of the most visited buildings in Vienna.

From the kitchen windown of the apartment, on the other side of the apartment, is the city park that leads to the Prater. The year round amusement park features the world's largest wooden ferris wheel. The view in the photo is from inside a carriage of the ferris wheel.

On September 11, 2001, at 3:00 pm I was sitting on this bench by the Danube canal. I was to meet Ruby, the family friend, at her apartment. Fifteen minutes later, I heard someone calling me from the bus stop on the other side of the road. It was Ruby and her assistant, saying something about an airplane that crashed into the World Trade Center.

In the apartment, she turned on the tv. My first reaction was, "Ah, this is a tv movie!" As we listened to the reporters, another airplane came into view, like a mosquito coming closer to the other tower. I said, "It must be one of those news helicopters." Of course it wasn't.

As we watched, we saw people jumping out of the windows. We wondered how people on the top floors were going to escape the raging inferno. Suddenly, the first building started to buckle and collapsed straight down. By then, Ruby was already in hysterics. I could only say, "This is so neat, so clean. How can that happen?" I was thinking a skyscraper like that wouldn't topple on account of fire. Then the next one came down the same way.

That was how I learned about the tragedy of September 11, European time. I didn't read about the "conspiracy theory" until 2 years ago. I guess I had the same questions back then.

It was nice to go down memory lane, one day during Easter week of this year. Ruby had moved since. Schuttelstrasse remains the same, a quiet street with the Danube canal in front and the city park to the Prater behind.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Most Livable City"

In the 2009 Mercer Report on Quality of Living of cities, Vienna takes the #1 spot. Why it took so long for them to recognize that is beyond me. I reached the same conclusion on my first visit to Vienna almost 15 years ago. At least, they agree with me now.

Enroute to Toronto from Kiev, I stopped in Vienna for a week in April this year. It was my 5th time there, my 2nd time during Easter week, not by design but due to scheduling. This time I had a whole week to explore and chill out. My past trips were weekend getaways or brief stopovers while in that part of the world. (The cozy airport, VIE, happens to be a hub from/to eastern Europe and beyond.)

The city remains the same as in previous times: charming, civil, cultural, cosmopolitan, efficient, uncomplicated, upbeat combining quaint, grand, clean and safe in one adjective. Although there seems to be a lot more tourists, I don't think it has grown in size. It is as civilized as it can get especially when it comes to your wallet. You get more bang for your euro than in other European capitals.

I stayed off downtown at a no name pension near Volkstheatre, about 25 minutes from Stefansplatz, the city center. Except for one time when visiting a family friend, I generally book at Penzion Sacher, a favourite apartment hotel on Rotenturmstrasse, with a great view of Stefansdom, day or night. Yes, operated by a branch of the famous family name as in Hotel Sacher and Sacher torte. (The Sacher family no longer owns Hotel Sacher nor have proprietary rights over the name of the famous cake.)

Staying away from Stefansplatz had its blessings. The downtown core seems to be undergoing a major facelift. The cobblestones on the streets radiating from the Cathedral were getting ripped up, replaced with rectangular concrete blocks. On the Graben, a popular pedestrian mall, construction crew, material and equipment share the landscape with cafes, bistros, espressos, gelatos and hot dog stands. The pictures explain the scene.

I wondered if this is Vienna's version of the stimulus package or Boston's "big dig". But in a place where bitte is the most commonly uttered word, it wasn't so bad going around construction barriers. Just a few bitte this and bitte that.

p.s. I discovered "bitte" in Austria is more than just "please". It can have 1001 uses, all polite.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kiev's Interesting Beginning

Kiev sits on the banks of the wide Dnieper River, which originates in northern Russia and flows out to the Black Sea. The downtown core and the old city is on the hilly right bank where Kiev started.

The Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota) is one of three gateways built by King Jaroslav in the 11th century. The wall was destroyed by the Mongol invasion, and excavated in 1932. The Golden Gate is a UNESCO heritage site, about a kilometre from St. Sophia's Cathedral, another UNESCO site.

Jaroslav, the national hero, is the Kievan Grand Prince, who united the principalities of Novgorod and Kievan Rus in the 10th century. He married the daughter of a Swedish king which was not unusual since the Scandinavians were very much part of Kiev's early history.

Vikings arrived in Kiev in the early 9th century, established a trading post, settled and married into the local Slavic gentry. The place was called Kievan Rus, which covered Ukraine, Northern Russia and Belarus. Rus means red in the Norse language and Kievan Rus was the predecessor to Russia.

For a more detailed post on my three weeks in Kiev, please check the link to, Trip Advisor Kiev.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Gold Onion Bulbs

I was in Kiev for 3 weeks at the end of March to the first week of April. What caught my eye even in gloomy late winter weather were the golden cupolas of the Russian Orthodox churches. And Kiev has a quite a few of these churches. From up close, they look like gold onion bulbs plastered with individual gold candy foil. Rain or shine, they just keep looking mighty golden.

I asked around in the little office I worked out of how they kept them so shiny. Antonina, said with a laugh: rain and wind. The rain washes, the wind polishes.

The first set of cupolas belong to a nunnery whose name escapes me but it was next to the office building. The office is in the university hostel of the pedagogical institute off Artema St., across fhe lane from the US consulate. The nunnery I believe is a few hundred years old and it looks its age.

The next set belongs to St. Michael's Church, on Michailivs'ka in downtown. The church is vintage 1990's reconstructed on the old site. The communists tore down the original church (or cathedral, I'm not sure) in the 1930's to make way for government buildings of the old Soviet Union. Luckily, the communists never had the chance to build their utilitarian offices. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, St. Michael's, like the phoenix, rose from the ashes.

Finally, the mother of all churches in Kiev, St. Sophia's Cathedral, which dates back to the 10th century. and represents the historical foundation of Kiev. In the cathedral grounds are museums, a nice park and a bell tower. There's entrance fee to get inside the grounds, another fee to get to the church museums, and another to go up the bell tower. St. Michael's, however, was free to the public. The nunnery, I wasn't sure if it was open to the public but I enjoyed seeing its gold onion bulbs every working day.