Across the bay from downtown Sydney you will find the not-so-sleepy town of Manly. It’s good for surfing, good for seafood, and has the best hike in the Sydney metro area — which may sound odd, but Australia is a wild place, and even in the middle of a city, you can find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no one else around. The best way to do this in Manly is to follow Manly’s network of trails, which will lead you from beach town to beaches, then up coastal cliffs to tangled woods, rolling grasslands, the ruins of World War II gunnery stations, and swamps full of thousands of thousands of frogs (actually probably hundreds, but they make enough noise for thousands).
In our recent article about the Rabbi Loew/Golem trail in Prague, we mentioned the statue of the Iron Knight (or Iron Man) that stands vigil over Prague’s Old Town from a corner in the city hall building. Because the other corner is occupied by a statue of Rabbi Loew himself, and because the legend of the Iron Knight is relatively obscure outside of Prague, an overwhelming number of publications — including many that should be respectable enough to check their facts, like a 1938 issue of Life — misidentify the statue as Rabbi Loew’s golem (a few also identify it as Darth Vader, but what can be done about that?). Of course, it looks nothing like the golem, but with Rabbi Loew hanging around on the other corner, most people assume any strange monstrosity must be his golem.
Which is perhaps why the Iron Knight still hasn’t been able to lift the curse placed on him over four hundred years ago.
The history of Prague seems tailor-made to appeal to a vast number of my personal obsessions, among them my fascination with the history of magic and alchemy and the story of Rabbi Loew and the golem. Modern Prague has not failed to capitalize on this history of mystery and magic, as places like the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians prove. Fans of weird and mystical history owe a debt of gratitude to Emperor Rudolf II, the 16th century Holy Roman emperor who, because of his own obsession with the occult, turned his home base of Prague into the capital of European mysticism and alchemical pursuits. Rudolf II’s endless quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, as well as his craving for a potion of immortality, brought such notable alchemists as Edward Kelley and John Dee to the city, not to mention Jewish mystic Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel.
It’s an amazing testament to my willpower that on my latest Frolic Afield over at Alcohol Professor, I did not title the article “Czeching out Czech Whisky” or “The Head of the Cock.” Anyway, On the Prowl for Czech Whisky is my look at two Czech single malts, the low-end Gold Cock and much higher end 23-year-old Hammer Head, as well as one of Prague’s coolest whisky bars, Whiskeria, inside an old medieval tower.
Spring has sprung in the northern hemisphere, and fall in the southern, marking the drawing to a close of a particularly nasty winter for us, and a particularly brutal summer for those down under. With Australian brush fires finally being extinguished, and with the polar vortex finally releasing its icy grip on America, thoughts now can turn to outdoor adventures that don’t involve ice-crusted beard or smoke jumpers. While Australia is known to those of us in the United States primarily for its surf beaches and its Outback desert full of steak houses and marauding bands of punks in dune buggies, I always enjoy seeking out the slightly less common avenues of leisure and adventure. Which is how I found myself in the Gold Coast Hinterlands, a sprawling collection of mountains cloaked in mist and primordial rain forests that are home to prehistoric plants and a collection of oddball wildlife.
Everyone knows the Czech Republic is the beer capital of the world, but as I discovered for my latest Frolic Afield to Alcohol Professor, the way bars and restaurants contract with breweries means you often can only get one type of beer at a location, and then only one of the macro-brews. But the Prague Beer Museum is a pub dedicated to Czech craft brewing, with thirty Czech beers on tap. Obviously research was called for.
My vacation was nice, but it’s time to get back on the alcohol beat with another Frolic Afield at Alcohol Professor. The Still on the Hill chronicles a visit to Napa and Sonoma, where I eschewed vineyards and went to the Charbay whiskey distillery — where I drank wine. Complicated story.
Nestled with irony between a McDonald’s and a casino is Prague’s Museum of Communism (only the KGB Museum has a more deliciously ironic location, next door to the heavily guarded U.S. embassy). It walks the thin line between being another tacky tourist trap museum (which I love) and an actual educational experience (which I also enjoy), with the over-arching message of, “Communism — that sure did suck.”
If Prague’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments proves a little too well-behaved and respectable for you, then perhaps you should switch gears a little bit and explore the two museums that make up the Mysteria Pragensia. Tapping into Prague’s rich occult and magickal history, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians, and its sister museum down the street, The Museum of Ghosts and Legends, offer up all the gruesome wax dummies and delicious strange lore you want from a proper tourist trap museum.
I think every city of even modest size in Europe has at least one museum dedicated to the cruel and imaginative ways Europeans tortured one another during the Middle Ages. Prague, being a city that deals quite cannily with tourists, has a few torture museums. I’ve heard that many of the implements displayed in these types of museums were dreamed up mostly for the museums themselves, but I’m no scholar of medieval torture, so I can’t say. They seem believable enough to me, based on the research I’ve done of watching The Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price.