Archive | December, 2012

Warming up with Spirits in the Czech Republic: A Top Five Countdown

31 Dec

Many European cities require more from the common traveler to get the whole Experience with the requisite visiting of street vendors, participating in cafe ‘culture’, or spending a night’s stay in a hostel on a ‘good’ meal, but it’s different in Prague. Prague is for the drinkers.

Below is a countdown of my MUST try drinks for any visitor that wants to get to know Bohemia.  Fuck coffee.

prague 9115.  Svarek (hot wine)- This delightful drink is available during the cold months by many vendors for take-away.  It is especially omnipresent at the Christmas markets during December.  Do yourself a favor and grab a to-go cup of hot wine and sit down in the Old Town Square to people watch while you enjoy your wine.

4.  Pivo (beer)- DUH.  The Czech Republic is known for beer like Kentucky is known for Bourbon.  The first known brewery dates to the year 1118 and the hops grown there to make the beer have been exported since the 12th century.  The most famous beers are Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar, but one interesting beer to try is in the Castle District at Saint Norbert’s Brewery in operation since the 17th Century (look for signs that say Strahovský klášter, or in English Strahov Monastery).

The monastery is the only place that you can try Saint Norbert’s beer and with no Pilsner option, it is different than other breweries you find get in Prague.  The beer is seasonal so in winter time they have a strong dark beer that actually feels like Christmas.  During the summer months they offer a lighter, refreshing beer.

3.  Becherovka One thing you will notice is that Czech people often talk of ‘herbs’ and when they buy you a drink they will most often give you Becherovka.  The recipe is the best kept secret in Central Europe and since no one has a damn clue what is in it, they swear it’s good for your health even though it’s strong enough to knock down a door.  I happen to LOVE it, so even though you will have no choice, try it!

prague 5952.  Slivovice- If you’ve ever had moonshine, this is pretty close to that.  A liquor that is made from plums, it is certainly a Czech national treasure.  They also have less ‘offensive’ versions with pear and apricot.

Pro-Tip: In the last few months the government placed a temporary prohibition on production of alcohol over 20% due to a rash of fatal methanol poisonings.  The prohibition is over, but the Czech Republic still does not require a license to brew these liquors.  If you are going to buy any of the liquors (beer and wine are ok) make sure that you buy them from a grocery store or other reputable place and DOUBLE CHECK to ensure the seal has not already been broken.  If the seal has been broken, do not purchase the alcohol. 

And now for my number one choice of best booze in Czech Republic…

1. Citrus Fernet– If you are a drinker, and I imagine you are if you’re still with me, I bet you have had Fernet: Jagermeister’s classier sister that doesn’t make you throw things.  This classic Czech drink unbeknownst to me also comes in a citrus flavor that is fantastic.  Buy one for all of your new friends and cheers to enjoying life in Prague.

The Many Signatures of Dali

27 Dec

I recently visited the Dali Exhibition in Prague and was struck by how many times his signature changed throughout the years. Just another piece to love of the Surrealist puzzle.

prague 1093

prague 1099prague 1109prague 1110prague 1112prague 1103

My 5 Favorite Slices in New York (and one in New Jersey)

13 Dec

I know, I know. Everyone knows the best pizza in New York is Grimaldi’s, right? Please. I’m talking slices, not sit down. Slices that you can grab and go and not have to wait an hour for. They may not be the best, but they are my favorites.

iphone pics incl. paris and prague 4251. Artichoke Basille’s Pizza– Artichoke slice: They have only a few different slices to choose from, but the star of the show is the Artichoke slice. It is a huge, thick slice slathered with hot artichoke dip for sauce and covered in fresh mozzarella, baked to a bubbling, golden brown.

I wish I was banished to a deserted island so I could choose this as the only thing I eat for the rest of my life. $4 is totally worth the price (14th Street between 1st and 2nd Aves (212) 228-2004).

2. Pizza Gruppo Truffle pizza: If you want the truffle pizza but don’t want to sit in a restaurant, go to Gruppo. Grab some truffle slices and head down to my favorite loner haunt Mona’s, an interesting Irish bar down the street. Trust me, you’ll love it. Gruppo has the thinnest crust I’ve seen in NY, which is saying something. (Gruppo- 186 Ave B (212) 995-2100, Mona’s 14th and B)

3 Certe Pizza– Saw-seech slice: I used to have to work in Midtown Manhattan, known as lunchtime wasteland. This place, NY’s first official ‘green’ pizzeria, was the best thing that opened up in that neighborhood, and still is to my knowledge as far. I go back every time i’m in Manhattan for the saw-seech slice, a little spicy with crumbled chicken sausage, rappini, and red peppers. They also have amazing infused garlic or pepper olive oils to dip your crusts into! (132 East 56th Street, (212) 813-2020)

iphone pics incl. paris and prague 4564. Driggs Pizza Grandma slice: directly off the Bedford L there’s a whole lot of haircuts and expensive hip places, but if you exit off the Driggs side instead of Bedford and turn the corner, you will see Driggs Pizza, that has been in the neighborhood since 1968, which is quite a long time for ever-changing Williamsburg.

They have the best for your worst hangovers, and my favorite is the Grandma slice. It is pesto, red sauce and fresh cheese that is simple, and cheap. Don’t forget to get a few pepperoni bites for the road. (558 Driggs (718) 782-4826)

5. La Bella Mariella: This place has changed names a couple of times, but the menu stays the same. People either love or hate this one but I think that’s because they haven’t ordered the Vodka slice. The pizza is a perfect NY thin crust with tangy vodka sauce and cheese. I LOVE this slice and it’s super convenient if you are going to see a show at the Knitting Factory. (374 Metropolitan (718) 963-2378)

*Disclaimer before I get death threats- Roberta’s is awesome too; just not in my top 5.

5.5. And for New Jersey, it’s Benny Tudino’s: If you are going to see a show at Maxwells, take the time to stop by this place for a plain slice- don’t get fancy. This one is my favorite plain slice, or “cheese slice” hands down. They have the best sauce I have ever tasted because it actually tastes like tomatoes and doesn’t have any sugar added to it. It is also ‘home of the largest slice.” (622 Washington Street, Hoboken, NJ (201) 792 – 4132)

Museum of Medieval Torture

13 Dec

I don’t know what I was thinking going here, I really don’t.  I mean, I can barely see the news or most new movies now without getting that panicky ill feeling in my gut and I just can’t watch.  Yet, there I stood.

iphone pics incl. paris and prague 812Today I did not have anything really planned because it is the coldest day of my trip in Prague (low of 18 degrees) so I was taking a leisurely stroll across the Charles Bridge right before dusk.

I got to the other side and noticed the Medieval Torture Museum was right there.  I must have thought it would be cheesy, I actually was hoping for some really ridiculous dioramas that talked or something but it was ONLY instruments of torture with old illustrations of the devices in action.

iphone pics incl. paris and prague 832iphone pics incl. paris and prague 842

iphone pics incl. paris and prague 834

It’s a pretty lousy museum for many reasons but for the price of 150 ck (around $7.75), you too can be truly horrified at how terrible human nature is.


Moulin Rouge

13 Dec

Moulin Rouge

Memento Mori- My Morbid Paris

12 Dec

If you have been to Paris before, I am sure you’ve seen the Arc de Triomphe, visited the Louvre and Notre Dame, perhaps a tour of the Siene, and of course the Eiffel Tower but what do you do if you’ve seen all the things you’re supposed to see?

You do what you want, and I want to see cemeteries.

1.  Pere-Lachaise Cemetery ($ Free)-  Yes, this is the one with Jim Morrison’s grave, but it also has many more (around 70,000 dating from 1804) graves in total, and is the eternal resting place for other greats such as writers Oscar Wilde, Honore de Balzac, Jean-Baptiste Moliere, Marcel Proust, composer Frederic Chopin, painter Gustave Dore, and dancer Isadora Duncan.

Pere-Lachaise (22)Oscar Wilde’s grave you will notice now has a guard rail around it, then another plastic barrier protecting the actual grave.  This atrocity is because years ago, people could kiss the grave and leave lipstick marks behind.  It made for a decoration I think Oscar himself would have been fond of but it has since been stopped.  People still mark up the plastic covering with nail polish and lipstick; confessing their love for Wilde and outcasts everywhere.

Pere-Lachaise (58)The only other grave with a guard rail is that of Jim Morrison’s, which once had an armed guard looking after it so I guess activity there has calmed down.  People still jump the fence to leave their terrible seventh grade poetry and joints at his grave.  I would imagine that Oscar is rolling in laughter and Jim is face down at the torture of the grave side sing alongs alone.

Pro-tip:  There are many entrances to the cemetery, but only one that will give you a paper copy of the map to take with you (trust me, you need this).  The front entrance can be accessed from Metro stops Phillipe-Auguste or Pere-Lachaise.  If you come from Porte Gambetta, go ahead and walk straight all the way through to the front. 

2.  Montmartre Cemetery ($ Free)- While looking for something to make my less than thrilling trip the Moulin Rouge worth it, I found this ‘little’ gem.  It is sometimes referred to as the little Pere-Lachaise, with around 20,000 tombs dating from 1825.

Montmartre Cemetary (28)It does not carry quite the star power as Pere-Lachaise, but does have a lot of legends, such as writer Emile Zola, Painter Edgar Degas, singer Dalida, surrealist painter Victor Brauner, writer Alexandre Dumas, clown Annie Fratellini, and my favorite German poet Heinrich Heine.

This cemetery is especially great if you’re into ‘ruin porn’ as it has not been kept up well and many graves have been broken or overrun by nature.

Pro-Tip:  Get a map when you enter from the guard station but it still might not help much.  This one is WAY more confusing than Pere-Lachaise so allow for about the same amount of time.  I was there for three hours, playing with cemetery cats and searching for Heinrich, whom I never did find. 

3.  Musee de Cluny, or the Medieval Museum (8.50 Euros with English audio guide)- I cannot say this enough, this is my favorite museum I have ever been to.  I am glad that it’s hard to find, and not one of ‘the’ places to see in Paris.  Let them have the Louvre, I’ll take this majestic time warp.

Musee Cluny (9)You start with a room of relics, and they have quite a few- WITH the bones and skulls still inside.  I have come to learn that a lot of museums have ‘relics,’ meaning the ornamental case or flask holding the relic, but not the actual relic.  I was beyond pleased to see an entire room of them.  I am not Catholic and did not even know about keeping ‘relics,’ also known as ‘body parts,’ of Saints until I lived in Spain and we had to go look at a finger in a wall (Avila).

Musee Cluny (18)I was unimpressed as I was sure it was symbolic but then I found out it was real and I’ve been obsessed since. Many of the relics in the collection are Croatian and are beautifully displayed.

photoThere they also have a large room filled different types of medieval board games from around the world.  Of course, the pieces and games came from what was lying around or from the earth so many of the pieces are made of bone.  Here is one chess set made from bones where you can see where the marrow used to be.


Another fun way to pass the time if you were rich and bored was to toss knuckle bones into a cup with a small opening.  Weeeee!

photo (1)

Pro-tip:  This museum is dangerously close to Notre Dame so if you plan on eating after, you might want to head away from this part of town because all of the restaurants will be filled with the very Americans you came to France to get away from.  There are always reasonably priced Turkish kabobs or Indian buffet in case of emergency.





4.  The Catacombs (8 Euros plus 3 if you want an audio guide *recommended although there are signs in English, Spanish and French.  The audio just gives you much more information)- Let me begin with good luck getting in.

I had heard tales that the Catacombs are difficult to get into and that they close without warning, are only open some mornings, and organization never posts anything on their website, etc. but this didn’t even cross my mind as I set out to see them.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, they had been closed since the 27th of November and just reopened yesterday at 10 am.  By the time I got out and ate lunch around one o’clock, they were closed again.  I wish I could get a government job in France…

On with the show- the Ossuary, or arrangement of bones, was created in 1780 underneath Paris’ then city limits in the now 14th arrondissment.  The tunnels had been already excavated because it was initially an underground quarry, whose limestone rocks built many of the most famous buildings in Paris.

Catacombes 2012 004One thing I had never heard about (probably because no one can get in to the catacombs) is before you get to the ossuary, there are two sets of sculptures built by one of the quarrymen, Decure.  Decure had been held prisoner by the English in the Balearic Islands at one time and went about painstakingly recreating the fortress of Port-Mahon, in which he was imprisoned.  He died when the quarry collapsed.

You then wind down the labyrinthine corridors until you reach the ossuary, filled with more than six million Parisians.  The bones were thrown down a hole without regard to gender or age and stacked as best would fit.  Millions of bones, thousands of hollow eyes once walked the streets above you and laughed with their friends.

Catacombes 2012 025

Some of the bones amongst the piles belong to tax evaders, revolutionary war victims, even  Alexandre Dumas, but where is not even a reasonable question.

Pro-Tip: CALL AHEAD.  Do not rely on the website as it is never updated with closures or hours.  Try to make a reservation if at all possible and get there at 10 am when they open (they are ALWAYS closed on Mondays).  Also, it’s a little wet and cold –READ- don’t wear heels.

5.  Pet Cemetery– this one is quite a hike and is probably only accessible if you have a) lots of time or b) a car at your disposal.  However, it is where Parisians have been burying their pets for years and there is even a rat section.  Awwww.

Monument Monday

10 Dec

While walking on Boulevard Henri IV toward Saint Germaine to the Musee Cluny (Medieval Musuem in Paris) I passed a sculpture that I kept thinking about for two blocks.  The New Yorker in me had somewhere to be, but the Southerner in me made me turn back; not actually having to be anywhere at any distinct time.

photo (1)I was glad that I did because as I got closer, I could see the phrase, “L’homme aux semelles devant,” literally, “the man with soles before him” or actually, “the man with soles of wind.”  HIM.  I turned the corner to see the front; simply, ‘A. Rimbaud.’

Rimbaud was second wave adored by the Beat poets, third wave worshiped by the New York punk/poet scene in the sixties and seventies, who in turn has my generation as fourth wave devotees for love of them all.

He was described in his time by Victor Hugo as “the infant Shakespeare,” was Paul Verlaines lover, and wandered most of Europe by foot, hence the inscription on the statue.

A poem-

Morning of Drunkenness by Arthur Rimbaud, trans. John Ashberry, from Poetry (April 2011)

my good! O my beautiful! Atrocious fanfare where I won’t stumble! enchanted rack whereon I am stretched! Hurrah for the amazing work and the marvelous body, for the first time! It began amid the laughter of children, it will end with it. This poison will remain in all our veins even when, as the trumpets turn back, we’ll be restored to the old discord. O let us now, we who are so deserving of these torments! let us fervently gather up that superhuman promise made to our created body and soul: that promise, that madness! Elegance, knowledge, violence! They promised us to bury the tree of good and evil in the shade, to banish tyrannical honesties, so that we might bring forth our very pure love. It began with a certain disgust and ended—since we weren’t able to grasp this eternity all at once—in a panicked rout of perfumes.
Laughter of children, discretion of slaves, austerity of virgins, horror in the faces and objects of today, may you be consecrated by the memory of that wake. It began in all loutishness, now it’s ending among angels of flame and ice.
Little eve of drunkenness, holy! were it only for the mask with which you gratified us. We affirm you, method! We don’t forget that yesterday you glorified each one of our ages. We have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole lives every day.
Behold the time of the Assassins.

Rachel Louise Martin, Ph.D.

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