Friday, May 28, 2010

four reasons why I love Vienna

1. Coffee, coffee, coffee. Overpriced yes, but worth it for the languid coffee house culture which sadly does not exist in America. You get something to eat or drink, and sit for as long as you like without being pestered by the wait staff. In fact, if you want anything else, you have to get their attention.

2. Cheap opera. How cheap? Cheaper than the coffee. I saw three operas three nights in a row for a grand total of 8 euro. They were standing room tickets, but since the second night at the Volksoper (Orpheus in der Unterwelt) wasn't sold out, us few standees in attendance were allowed to plonk our butts in velvet seats as soon as the lights went down. I had practically an entire row to myself. Since the soles of my feet are kind of wrecked from tromping around Russia, this was a good thing. The first night at the Wiener Staatsoper (Salome) was sort of brutal. Not only is Strauss a bit out of my opera comfort zone, the temperature in the gallery seemed to be rising steadily throughout the intermission-less performance. Still worth it, though. I'd do it all over if I could. But be warned that standing room in Vienna can be vicious. There was a minor kerfuffle involving shoving, fisticuffs, and police intervention the third night, back at the Staatsoper (appropriately for this trip, Eugene Onegin). No kidding!

3. Public transit. This can also be said for Moscow and St Petersburg. Cheap, efficient, barely any wait time between trains. And no matter how sardined the cars are, everyone pretty much behaves themselves (other than the one guy who was passed out in the Moscow metro). I can only imagine that Europeans visiting the Bay Area are shocked by the state of our public transit, where at times you need to wait 20 minutes for a train, and then once aboard, there's always a good chance of having some unpleasant experience.

4. You can ride your bike on the sidewalk, or your get your own lane in traffic, complete with traffic signal. Even the horse-drawn carriages don't get their own lane.

Tomorrow I'm off to Bratislava. I feel like I've rushed around town, yet barely touched the surface of Vienna, so I'll need to come back soon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Half the people on the streets in Vienna seem to be munching gelato cones, so soon after I hit the streets, I did the same.

I was slightly worried about leaving St Petersburg, since I had booked a ticket on an airline I had never heard of before purchasing said ticket (AirBaltic), and because I had heard there were some funky procedures when departing Russia via air. I left for the airport four hours before my flight just to make sure I could get through all the red tape in time, which meant I left the hotel at 0600 after falling asleep at 0300. Turns out it was all fine; there are two security checkpoints at Pulkovo-2 airport, both with long lines, but I got through both with loads of time to spare, and a full pat-down to boot. Plus I had this swell view of the propellor from my 2D window seat.

The last two weeks have been full-bore sightseeing. I get up and go each morning, and don't stop until dinner. I crash out as soon as I lay down. I have more blisters on my feet than I care to count, and some of them are in places that I didn't think it was possible to develop a blister in. I think I may need that treatment where you stick your feet in a tank of little fish who nibble off all the dead skin, but I'll need a really big school of those little fish. Anyway, I've arrived in Vienna with not much planned out, and not too much time. Need to hit the guidebook tonight, if I don't just zonk out.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Before I left home, I set my rucksack down by my front door and sat on it for a few minutes. My guidebooks say that Russians do this before a journey to bring good luck, and I figured when going to Russia...

Today is Tuesday, May 18th, and we've been running around non-stop since arriving. No time for proper writing! Here's a distillation of what's been happening.

We almost lost our luggage upon arrival in Russia, and got a first hand look into the remnants of a lingering bureaucracy that still requires everything to be in duplicate and stamped. Thankfully the wayward bags were merely tardy, and showed up on the subsequent Lufthansa flight.

The taxi ride from Domodedovo Airport to central Moscow took two hours. And our driver was cranking though, except when he was caught in traffic. We all managed to sneak in a nap to the lullaby of Moscow gridlock. Since it was a fixed rate ride, it wasn't as outrageous as it seems.

My first dinner in Russia was an entire chicken. I knew I had ordered "pressed chicken", but didn't realize it was really "a pressed chicken." More on the language barrier later; it deserves its own post.

Yeliseevsky's Gastronom - the fanciest grocery store I have ever been in. They have super high ceilings bedecked with chandeliers.

Gorky House Museum - gorgeous Art Nouveau interior.

dinner at Stolovaya No. 57 - a retro Soviet cafeteria in GUM. More chicken (a reasonable portion this time) in sour cream and tomato sauce. For side dishes I grabbed a beet salad, and picked up something fluffy looking that turned out to be somewhat of a savory cheesecake.

GUM - to be admired more for architecture, inside and out, than the range of designer stores within selling overpriced items. We checked out apparel at Bosco Sport, which is hawking Russian Olympic team gear, and almost nothing was under $100. Most items were well over.

Russian fast food in the form of bliny, which were really quite tasty. Cheese, mushroom, and yogurt.

The Kremlin - cathedrals, enormous cannons and bells, and displays of goose-stepping and rifle-flipping during the Presidential Regiment procession. Despite being born and raised without a shred of religiousness, I quite like the Orthodox churches, with their iconostasi and how every inch of the interiors have been painted. And I finally saw a Fabergé egg in all of its eggness at the Armoury. I remember being shown some pictures of them when I was a kid, and I couldn't really fathom why someone would want to decorate an egg quite that much. They didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. It makes more sense now, that I understand the importance of Easter in the Russian Orthodox church, but was disappointed by the eggs on view. I expected them to be...more Fabergé than they were.

dinner at Cafe Mu-Mu. I had to go because it's cow-themed, with chairs, bowls, and cups patterned like Holsteins. Also, it's two blocks away from our hostel.

breakfast at Cafe Mu-Mu. Kasha, apricot bliny, eggs on toast, and a little container of a yogurt drink that seems to get handed out with every breakfast.

Walking around Moscow at midnight on a Saturday. The atmosphere was almost exactly the same as it had been twelve hours earlier, except it was dark out. Crowds of people were clogging Red Square, lolling about the lawns in the Alexander Gardens that border the Kremlin, snapping photos on the bridges of the Moscow River, making out along the embankment of the same, riding bikes through the plazas, and in general milling about the streets. Traffic was just as nuts as it had been during the day. Saturday night was an event called Museum Night, where the museums are free and stay open late, past midnight. Lines were still spilling from the doors of some, and on a whim I hopped into a line that was moving quickly, and saw a photo exhibit from the Moscow Biennale.

Lenin - I suppose this is what you look like after you've been mummified and maintained for over 80 years by a secret (not-so-secret anymore recipe). Kinda waxy. The interior of the mausoleum is all black marble and the lights are low, which can be hard to navigate after you've entered from sunlight outside. Not to worry, there are guards posted at every turn and corridor whose only movement is to raise an arm to indicate the direction to go. There's no stopping to gawk once inside the room; if the sight of the guards posted at each corner isn't enough to keep you going, I've read they will physically prod you forward, should you come to a halt. Lenin's tomb shines like a beacon in an otherwise black room. I was concentrating so hard on him during my walk through the room, I took in no other details. Once inside the mausoleum, you're out again with just a couple of minutes.

Communist kiddies singing anthems on Red Square - I don't actually know if they are some Communist Youth League, but as we were waiting around to view Lenin, we saw groups of children sporting red caps and white shirts, waving red flags with depictions of Lenin and the hammer and sickle starting to gather. As we left the mausoleum, we saw that the entirety of Red Square (and it's pretty big) had been closed to everyone else, and hundreds of kids were gathered in the middle singing anthems.

Saint Basil's Cathedral - if you've seen a picture of Moscow, you've seen a picture of Saint Basil's. The interior is a number of small chapels, rather than one large space. Wandering through the corridors and navigating the staircase within a wall made me feel like I was in The Name of the Rose. Inexplicably, there was a couple on the verge of making out in one of the chapels. Public displays of affection are pretty common here, and don't tend to raise any eyebrows that I can see, but I sort of assumed there was some rule that applied when inside a church. Apparently not.

Moscow River Cruise - not terribly stimulating, and the boat really poked along, but I was happy to be off my feet for a few hours. I have at least four blisters from pounding the pavement.

Novodevichiy Convent and Cemetery - nice for a wander, and a fun scavenger hunt for graves of famous people. I sought out Russian composers. The cemetery is very green with lots of trees, birds making a nice-sounding rackets, and extra large bumble bees drifting around the flowers.

Romanov Boyar House - a glimpse into how the boyars lived. I was pleased to see some of the textiles on view looked exactly like those illustration in The Firebird.

Getting lost wandering around the streets. I like to wander cities I've never been to, and just get lost in the streets, including going to neighborhoods the average tourist may not venture into. As stimulating as places like Red Square can be, I want to see the places that Ivan Average spends his days.

In two days I'll be on a train to Saint Petersburg. There's still so much to see here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

searching for Baba Yaga

здравствуйте comrades, from Moscow!

My mental image of Russia has been indelibly shaped by Boris Zvorykin. He's the illustrator of an edition of The Firebird and Other Russian Fairy Tales that my parents bought when I was a kid. I think they actually bought it for my sister, but I've, uh, acquired it. And now here I am in Mother Russia. I'm hoping to come across some clever, talking animals and toys who can get me out of a jam, beautifully patterned fabrics, colorful architecture, and Baba Yaga. I suppose I'll realistically only find two of the above, but I'll still be keeping an eye peeled for a little house on chicken legs.