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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Venice on the Run

I know that taking you on a walk in Venice is not as original as a walk in Szekesfehervar or Bandar Seri Bagavan (Brunei) but still...Arriving at Venice Santa Lucia by train from Mestre is like receiving a beauty slap. I usually start telling things like 'No, it's not possible, no who built this place, there is no place like that and similar stupid things...'. Please someone tell me a city in the world where the dive in its vortex is so sudden. Usually, the traveller is prepared somehow, the curtain is slowly unveiled.

I am sorry that the pictures are again a bit dark but I was in the city at sunset again. It is already a deja-vu to hurry and try to capture the last sun rays.

Canale Grande

Rio Marin

As I was very hungry and thirsty, I got quite drunk from one cold beer so all the following pictures are taken is a state of light inebriation.

San Zandegola with the last rays of the sun

What I found funny in this picture is the contrast between the four windows - flowers go from 0 to n. Maybe one big family lives there: four types of people live in the different rooms: the austere (0 flowers), the minimalist (1), the golden average (just enough), the excessive (n).


Looking at the water from this angle I wish I were a boat, quietly gliding on the calm canal.

Canale Grande with Ca' Vendramin Calergi Palace

As if a river of gold flows into the canal. All you need to do is scoop it up and model it into any piece of jewelry you wish.

Contrejour at Canale Grande

This bridge is kind of built under a naughty angle and leads to house with some crazy windows.

Crooked bridge - San Boldo

In any side street there is not a soul in view. It's so easy to escape the crowd in Venice. Never tell Venice is crowded. Only the main streets in Venice are crowded, the rest are totally empty.

Just a simple side canal,
a bit of the liquid gold has flown into it

Palazzo Scranzo in Campol St. Polo

Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

I think the picture below is the best. The sleeping boats in the front as if some secret load is hidden in them in contrast with the houses in the back with dozens of restaurants where people do not even suspect this terrible blue secret.

Canale Grande

I took this picture and the next second the water was all over me and it's good that the camera survived.

Then I realized that our train was leaving in 25 minutes so Dora and I ran all the way to the station.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Urbino or the Eyes of Raffaello

Recently I formulated a principle: when at business trip, try to visit at least one place close to the destination. After shortly consulting the Rough Guide, there was no doubt that this would be Urbino - a fantastic medieval city - one that you wouldn't expect to find so close to the mass tourism beaches of Rimini.

Urbino reminded me a lot of the Tuscany hilltop towns located between Florence and Sienna. The town is located on a top of a hill, very dense and concentrated, with an inevitable palazzo at the top.

The main man there is Federico da Montefeltro (this family is everywhere in Marche) who - instead of buying 15th century equivalents of boats and cars - supported culture and architecture.

Being a walled city, the access to Urbino is through gates. There are no giants asking visitors questions before they let them in and killing them if they don't answer right.

Urbino Gate

In such towns houses and churches are perched on one another. In this case Palazzo Ducale is on the top.

Somewhere up there

The Duomo is the main church in Urbino. It was started in the 11th and finished in the early 17th c. I have always been amazed by those monumental constructions which take many generations to complete. What was the state of mind of the builders who were fully conscious that they will never complete the church in their life time? Or was such construction divided in small sub projects lasting a life time?

The Duomo, XI - XVII c

One perspective of the Ducal Palace, always on top, overlooking the valley and the rest of the town.

View at Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace)

Approached from below the palace looks like a multistory building. It has a light and spacious interiour though, obviously a place where many parties took place. I had often wondered how they used to sleep in these huge roomss and wasn't it cold and uncosy. This time I got an answer as there was a beautiful wooden structure (a room in the room) in one of the rooms where the bed used to be. I guess it was easier to warm up, put candles, etc.

Palazzo Ducale

We were fortunate enough as there was a Raffaello (Raffaello Sanzio) exhibition in the palace, a dozen works by him, his father (Giovanni Santi) and some other of their contemporaries. While looking at the paintings I was thinking that it is so contradictory to dedicate 5 minutes to a work completed in months and even years, to be moved just a tiny bit by something beautiful simply because the next one is coming. Don't these paintings deserve hours of contemplation? Isn't it better to pick one and study it in detail rather than gliding on the surface of a dozen of them?

It seems to me that this is the main difference between horizontal and vertical perception of reality - people, places, art. While the former is linked with diversity, easy and constant change (a kind of zoom-out perception), the latter is more of a zoom-in, looking-deep-into-the-eyes perception. I guess the secret is finding the right balance between two of them as both extremes would lead to a kind of madness - the madness of constant change and superficial look or the obsession the depth, the danger of falling into an abyss.

This is Raffaello's famous self-portrait. Just look into his eyes. Raffaelo was an Urbino native and lived only 37 years.

Raffaello self-portrait

We were hesitating if we should go to San Marino but finally decided to spend an hour there especially having in mind that it is the oldest constitutional republic in the world with the oldest constitution (from 1600). Can one easily miss the cradle of constitutionalism and parliamentarism? I totally agree the Rough Guide which says that 'it is not an unpleasant place'. It would have been a very nice place if it was not for the hundreds of shops obviously selling stuff cheaper than in Italy because of the lower VAT. Calling it 'pleasant' would be too strong and would endorse the San Marino-mall approach, calling it 'unpleasant' would be unjust.

In San Marino I was reminded that you want to be different you'd better work on the symbols. Difference in some cases is mostly a semiotic exercise: the clothes of the policemen, their semi-dancing gestures, the way the local dialect is written and others.

San Marino Senate

This is the small and compact San Marino Church, opposite the senate.

San Marino Cathedral

This tower is located on Monte Titano where the first small church was built in 301 by Saint Marinus from nowadays Rab. It reminds me of some ancient battleship. If there is a new deluge Noah could save some wood and, embark and set sails.

Montale Tower

From San Marino we set sails (or rather pressed the gas pedal of the unfortunate, suffocating Fiat Punto) to Venice. And Venice should be drunk pure, it shouldn't be mixed with ingredients like San Marino or even Urbino.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Short Trip to Adriatic Italy or It's Good To Be Hated by the Bad Ones

This was definitely a crazy week in terms of travels. The itinerary of my body was Budapest-Treviso (flying) -Rimini-Ancona-Urbino-San Marino-Venezia (driving)-Ljubljana-Zagreb-Budapest (night train)-Belgrade-Lazarevats (driving). While my body is roaming around the Apennine and Balkan peninsulas my poor soul is trying to catch up, a small child running by his father.

However, this morning, after finally sleeping through the night with a humble one-hour spell of rumination, now reading quietly Huston Smith's The World's Religions, sipping Turkish-Greek-Bosnian-whatever coffee, hearing voices of playing children through the window (remember Rolling Stones' As Tears Go By) - body and soul might meet again.

And let me try to take you on a very short and incomplete walk along Italy's Adriatic coast.

Together with my two colleagues Venelina and Dora we flew into Treviso (north of Venice) into a hot summer afternoon. This made me regret even more the fact that I had lost my sunglasses. After renting a Fiat Punto we indulged in an ancient Italian ritual coming through the centuries - drinking of a cappuccino or as as the Italians say - cappuccio. For me, this is a great replacement of border controls and suspicious looks from border guards. Now an idea comes to my mind that border controls should have been legally replaced by a ritual welcome consumption of a national drink.

In Italy, the welcome should be like that: a smiling Italian girl approaches me and says: "Buongiorno, Ruslan. Welcome to Treviso! We are so happy you are finally visiting us. We have been impatiently waiting for you. Your cappucco has just been prepared and there is a heart shaped in the foam especially for you. Would you like to add some cinnamon or you drink it pure? And by the way, we would like to offer you a pair of sunglasses as we have heard that you lost yours and you would be driving 400 km. in the sun. Which is your preferred brand? And by the way what do you think of Umberto Eco's last book?" That's how Europe should be, shouldn't it?

Well, I drove south without the glasses, stretching the capacities of the rented Fiat Punto so much that I thought it would collapse in exhaustion with foam on the mouth. Where is a car's mouth by the way? We drove by Padova (thinking of Paulina), Ferrara (thinking of Jelica), Bologna (thinking of Umberto Eco - what's up with this man?), Faenza (thinking of bathroom tiles). When we started approaching Rimini I started thinking of Frederico Fellini but also of a nice dinner by the sea.

The Rough Guide has quite a disparaging attitude to all Adriatic Italy. The most common adjectives are 'bombed', 'modest', 'mass tourism'. Well, everything is relative.

That's the cetral square in Rimini. It is modest but only in Italian terms. It has an 'inconspicuous' palazzo on the right side from the early 13th c.

Cavour Square - Fontana della Pigna
(The Pine Cone Fountain)

Cavour Square - Pope Paul V
On the right - Palazzo dell'Arengo e del Podesta (1204),
Palace of Judiciary and Administration

To me, this bridge from year 21 (not 1921!!!) was the most beautiful thing in Rimini, especially at sunset. The bridge is still functioning, it is build in Istria stone and it spans over the river Ariminus (nowadays Marecchia) river. The bridge leads north to ancient Via Emilia and Via Popilia. I like this ancient fashion of giving names to the roads.

Tiberius Bridge, I c. AD

I don't know the name of this church but as I have a fascination of the interplay of setting sun and churches, I decided to put this picture here. For me, these three colours - ocher, green and blue - are the colours of Italy.

Church of the Setting Sun

This frightening and un-Italianly inelegant palace was the residence of the local feudal lord - Sigismondo Pandolfo. I liked the fact that he often acted as a condottiero (mercenary) to gain money in order to embellish the city: beauty was more important than peace after all, let alone than other details like human life.

The Residence of Sigismondo Pandolfo, XV c.

All three of us wanted to go and have dinner by the sea. I stopped a guy and I asked him the fundamental question 'Dove il mare?'. After laughing a good deal, he explained to us. Well, here it is on the picture below: that's the mass tourism a la Rimini, not very attractive.

The Beach in Rimini at Sunset

We had a good pasta dinner in a nice restaurant. When asking the waiter about the connection between driving and drinking in Italy and if I was allowed to have a beer, he smiled and said 'You are allowed two if you are a real man'.

Late in the evening, we drove into Ancona where we were headed to for work. Ancona is the centre of Regione Marche which is a partner in one of our projects. The next day together with Cornwell (UK) and Burgenland (Austria) we tried to figure out how to best use 220,000 EUR to develop a framework methodology for assessing the potential for low carbon economy of a region. We were thinking of this for some 11 hours in a 30 degrees room.

After solving this fundamental issue we were rewarded by Cinzia with a dinner by a beautiful beach in the Natural Park Il Conero, south of Ancona: mountain and pine forests going into the sea, white pebbled beach, the lulling sound of the waves: these were our companions for dinner.

The next day was dedicated to travel and pleasure. We decided to start with a walking tour of Ancona - after all, it's so bad to be somewhere and not have at least an hour of walk. Ancona is also very 'modest' and bombed in WWII. There is a huge industrial port and unfortunately the seashore is not an integral part of the city - you see it but you can't go close to it. I wonder if they are not contemplating a reshuffle a la Genova where the industrial port was moved away and the seashore was given back to the people.

Historically, it is interesting to note that Ancona was an important maritime republic after the 11th century and often fought against Venice. It was taken over by the same naughty guy who lived in the castle in Rimini before becoming a part of the Papal State in the 16th century. Ancona was the sole city in the Papal States in which the Jews were allowed to stay after 1569, living into the ghetto built after 1555.

Central Ancona

This is a church in central Ancona, I think Santo Sacramento. I was attracted by the spear in its tower as it reminded me of Babylon in the famous paintings by Brueghel - Tower Construction at Babylon.

Ss Sacramento, Ancona

Look at the spear and compare it to Brueghel's painting below.

Tower in Ss. Sacramento, Ancona

And that's Pieter Brueghel's construction of the tower in Babylon. It deserves a separate posts though.
Pieter Brueghel, Tower Construction at Babylon

Our short early morning walk ended by the beautiful fountain below from the XVI century. Then off we drove to Urbino, San Marino and Venice.

Fontana del Calamo (delle tredici cannelle), XVI c.
Translation: The Stem Fountain (of the thirteen pipes)

And something totally different from the book I am reading. This comes from Confucius' Analects.

The King said: 'What would you say of the person who is liked by all his fellow townsmen? 'That is not sufficient' was the reply. 'What is better is that the good among his fellow townsmen like him, and the bad hate him'.

So, if someone around you hates you that's how it should be after all.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Jewish Budapest

Since I first came to Budapest in 1994, the Jewish neighbourhood has been one of my favourite places in town. Between 2001 and 2006 I used to live nearby so walking there was quite usual. Although now we live on the other side of the Danube, I like getting back there very much.

In April with Jelica we decided to have a childless walk there and some of the pictures were taken at that time. Yesterday, I decided to go on a lonely biking image hunt while everybody else was sleeping.

Biking slowly in different Budapest neighbourhoods is something that I like doing a lot. It is quite a nostalgic exercise as my thoughts go like that: in 1994 I walked this street, a friend of mine lived here in 2001, I used to come to this restaurant in 2002, etc.

This is the Budapest Great Synagogue or otherwise known as the Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest functioning one in Europe and second largest in the world. It is a beautiful piece of architecture and such a colourful spot in the middle of the town with its red and yellow hues. The synagogue is built between 1854 ans 1859 in a Moorish Revival style. Those who have been to Alhambra, Andalucia can see the similarities.

Budapest synagogue

Aiming to the skies, it looks like the perfect shell for travelling towards the depths of one's soul.

Budapest synagogue close up

Only the trolley lines and the tree leaves are new on this picture. Isn't every present moment born from the constant interplay between old and new: old memories and new impressions or old buildings and new modes of transport?

You can't avoid the trolley lines

This is the cemetery in the back yard of the main synagogue. 1945 is the year of death on most of them.

Cemetery plates

Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was born next to the synagogue. He was the first to imagine a separate state for the Jews in his book the Jewish State, 1896. He saw this as a solution to the rising Antisemitism in Europe. He did not necessarily envision the new Jewish state to be based in Palestine. Argentina was one of the options. If his ideas had been implemented earlier in the 20th century some lives could have been saved.

Theodore Herzl birth place
was next to the synagogue

This is the Rumbach Sebestyen street Status Quo Synagogue, located not far from the main one. This is a smaller but very elegant synagogue built in the Romantic style in 1872.

Rumbach street Status Quo Synagogue

And.....the derelict entrance to the synagogue. I wonder why it is in such a state.

Same synagogue, door

It is obvious from this picture of the towers of the synagogue that mosques and synagogues are not that far apart from each other from an architectural point of view, kind of second cousins. I am not sure but I imagine that this architectural cross-fertilization took place in Moorish Spain rather than in Palestine lands.

Towers of Rumbach Synagogue

This monument - Tree of Life (weeping willow) - is dedicated to the victims of holocaust. It is located behind the main synagogue, in a park named after the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews by providing them fake Swedish passports. There are 30,000 names of Jewish holocaust victims on its branches.

Raoul Wallenberg tree

And, of course, there aren't only synagogues in the Jewish neighbourhood. This is a residential house on Dob street in the art nouveau style. You can see the beautiful metal balcony and Jewish symbols on the windows.

Dob street house

The Kazinczy street Othodox Synagogue stands like an ancient temple on a treeless winding street. What is there behind the corner?

Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue

There was a period in 1944-45 when the Danube was clogged with dead bodies.

Picture: Dennis Leaf

In contrast to the other, emotionally-laden pictures, this is a picture of a weeping willow on Hollo street, meaning Raven in Hungarian. I took the picture as I made the association with a famous poem by Edgar Allen Poe , the Raven in which the raven, an uninvited guest keeps repeating 'nevermore'.

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

horizontal space

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Book Thief

Yesterday the postman delivered my latest order from Amazon, which contained, among other things, "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak.

Since it was a rainy day and I was too sick to go out anyway, I started reading it as soon as I put Andrej to bed for his afternoon nap. Roughly five and half hours and 550 pages later I was done and I put it down with mixed feelings.

It's a story about a nine-year old girl who lives with a foster family in a small German town of Molching, on the eve of the WWII. She steals a book after her brother's funeral and so begins her book thievery, her uneasy relationship with written words and her growing up in the midst of one of the most awful periods of modern history.

Her story is narrated by the Death himself, which gives us a unique perspective. He intersperses the narration with his own commentary--sometimes witty and funny, other times a bit awkward, or just off the mark (Talking about the work he had to do after the Battle of Stalingrad: "It was no ski trip, I can tell you." Huh?)

I liked the way Zusak builds the storyline and I definitely don't agree with those reviewers who said the book was boring. It's not, but it does have many flaws and one of the bigger ones, for me, is that his characters are quite stereotypical and two-dimensional. There is not enough life to them so we can't see their motivation, why they do the things they do. Liesel's father is a simple man but with a good heart; her mother is a big and foul-mouthed woman but she too, turns out, has a heart of gold. And the bad guys are very bad, and that's that. This kind of characterization is typical for fairy tales and children's stories but this book is supposed to be for adults so it doesn't work.

I also had an impression that he is using the Nazi Germany settings and references to Hitler and the camps to create shortcuts to powerful emotions that he is not capable of creating by his narrative. It's easy to piggyback on the Holocaust but infinitely more difficult to add value to its story and I don't think Zusak succeeds there. There is certainly potential, and he takes an interesting angle--a German family that helps a Jewish man and suffers consequences--but he can't really decide which story he wants to tell. Is it about suffering of the good Germans, or is it about a little girl discovering life through books, or is it about how difficult it is to be Death?

And there are passages like this one:
"You see, people may tell you that Nazi Germany was built on anti-Semitism, a somewhat overzealous leader and a nation of hate-fed bigots, but it would have all come to nothing had the Germans not loved one particular activity--to burn.

The Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Rechstags, houses, personal items, slain people, and, of course, books."
This is not literature. At best it's a history lesson masking as literature and it's completely unnecessary--all of a sudden Death speaks with a voice from the 21st century. Zusak is trying to tell a complex story but with simplistic comments like this he just shoots himself in the foot.

All in all, interesting story and lots of clever devices but Zusak's ability is a poor match for his ambition.

A Chance to Rest

While browsing through the wonderful blog Hazy Moon yesterday night I came upon the following haiku by Matsuo Basho.


Clouds appear
and bring to men
a chance to rest
from looking at the moon

I thought that we all need a break from happiness sometimes. Of course, the most beautiful clouds are those quickly travelling ones that do not hide the moon from our gaze for too long.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Banitsa, the comfort food of the Balkans

I had a miserable day today, with a massive headache, lymph nodes the size of plums and a non-stop stream running out of my nose. I drowned in paracetamol (which only made me sleepy) and paper tissue--after three packs and a roll of toilet paper, I stopped counting. I will have to work for a year on my eco karma just to compensate for all the trees I killed today.

Anyway, to alleviate my misery I decided to make banitsa--a cheese-filled pastry dish which is common across the Balkans with some local variations. The Serbian version would be gibanitsa, which is practically the same dish except that it is thicker and greasier. I make it the Bulgarian way because it is much easier.

Both are related to their much more famous cousin, burek, a filled pastry made with thin dough and popular in the Arab world and all over the former Ottoman Empire. It is best when it is eaten with joghurt although some people (especially in Bulgaria) swear by boza, which is an acquired taste (I never met anyone who tried it for the first time as an adult and liked it--I think you need to have grown up with it). When I think of burek and joghurt my immediate association is manual workers eating breakfast, since this combination was a typical grub of the working classes, at least in soc times.

But back to banitsa--here is how you make it (from Wikipedia, I was too lazy to type):
In a large greased baking dish, individual sheets are layered one by one with small amounts of filling and vegetable oil between them. After half of the sheets are placed in the pan, a large portion of the filling is spooned onto the leaves and is then covered with the remaining sheets and filling in the same manner. The pastry is then baked at 200-250 degrees Celsius.
And here is the result:

I'm pleased to report that it was yummie and, although I'm still snotty and the headache shows no signs of going away, at least I enjoyed my food. Temporary alleviation of misery: accomplished.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Brussels at Dusk

Yesterday I had the chance to spend an evening in Brussels so camera in hand I went image hunting. I started at 7.30 so I had to be quick and efficient. I go to Brussels several times per year but I rarely have the chance to make some pictures. I am either very busy, it is gray and rainy or it gets dark by the time the work is over. Yesterday I was lucky as I managed to steal two hours from the dying day.

Brussels has a special meaning for me as my paternal grandfather whom I don't know used to study here between 1922 and 1927. His stepmother was Flemish from Brussels. One of the things I was trying to understand yesterday was what was there while he was walking the streets and what wasn't.

Most streets in the neighbourhood (behind Berleymont) are named after renaissance painters. This beautiful 205 year house was on my street, rue Veronese. The house stands so proudly and is in such a good form as if it is getting ready to be there another 200 years at least.

205 years old

This preserved piece of old wall was next door to my hotel. It must have some historical value as obviously the city had taken good care to preserve it. I was not able to read what is written but I think it is in Flemish. Aren't old inscriptions on walls and shops an excellent way to travel back in time? How many years will this paint last before fully disapearing?

Old Wall

The house below carries its balcony like a kangaroo carries its baby. This one is so beautiful that it will never let it go.

Baby Balcony

I realize that I repeatedly make pictures of house walls showered by the sun. As if I will be a lizard in my next life and I am mapping walls to crawl on.

The Sunny Side of the Street

I find that the moment of exiting a metro station is very exciting. I remember that I was so thrilled when I arrived in London for the first time in 1992 and when I dived into the city through a metro station. I can't remember the name of the station. I was equally thrilled in early April this year when getting out of St. Michel metro station in Paris. Moles must feel in a similar way when getting out of their holes.

Station Parc

And the purpose of getting out at this particular station was to make a picture of these embracing trees. If one is a monkey, one can go around the park without touching the ground.

Embracing Trees

These terrible scary creatures looking down at us from the cathedrals have always fascinated me. Look at this one: it is as if it is wearing fashionable sunglasses. Its toothless mouth is ready to swallow an occasional passing sinner for dinner.

(St. Michael and Gudula Cathedral - 11-13th century)

This tender little tree has grown from the cracks in the wall of the cathedral, ancient and young coexisting so well. With a little bit of help from God this 10 century old cathedral is still in a child bearing age.

Furtive Tree
(St. Michael and Gudula Cathedral - 11-13th century)

Belgium is traditionally strong in comic books (remember Les Avantures de Tintin) but also urban murals. I found this one particularly cool: there is a masked killer with a knife in the back attacking the lady and then a young blonde guy coming to her rescue while the pipe-smoking detective is also heading to the crime scene. Isn't it romantic?

The Blond Saviour and the Detective

It was already almost 10 pm and the sun had to set at one point after all. Then, behind a corner, I came upon this marvel of a church. What struck me are the oval side windows, not easy to see unfortunately.

St X of the Setting Sun

Very close to the above church I stumbled upon an old market - St. Gery. I looked at the symmetric figures of the year 1881 and thought that actually there is only one year per century where the numbers are symmetrical. I thought that all of us have lived through two such years - 1991 and 2002. Most probably none of us will live to the next one which will be in 2112 unless there is a major breakthrough in medicine very, very soon.

St. Gery Market

I meanly used the beautiful St. Nicholas church as a fullstop to my walk. One of the oldest churches in Brussels, it is constructed between the 12th and the 15th centuries.

St. Nicholas Church