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.
Had myself a little visit to the corner of Anchor Brewing that is dedicated to distilling Old Potrero whiskey. My latest frolic afield takes me back to Alcohol Professor and to San Francisco for Anchor Distilling: Making Whiskey Inside a Temple of Beer.
Kentuckians grow up with Stephen Foster. He wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” our state song, and The Stephen Foster Story has been playing at My Old Kentucky Home State Park for over fifty years. Although “America’s first composer” was born in Pennsylvania and later lived in Ohio (albeit in Cincinnati, which is just across the river from Kentucky), he is by right of his music an honorary Kentucky boy and a part of the fabric of the state. I’d been taught his songs since I was old enough to learn — “My Old Kentucky Home,” of course, but also “Hard Times Come Again No More,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” They’re what we learned in elementary school music class when we weren’t mangling “Greensleeves” in accompaniment to a classmate awkwardly tooting it out on a recorder. I had no idea until recently that he lived — and died — just a stone’s throw from where I work now in New York City, on a block that is packed with New York history both glamorous and sordid.