Monday, March 31, 2008

The Bone Church - Kutna Hora, CZ

R and I visited a town about an hour outside of Prague this weekend named Kutna Hora. It was once one of the richest towns in all of Europe due to its close proximity to Silver mines. That wealth appears to have faded away in the last 1000 years or so.

By itself, Kutna Hora doesn't have a whole lot to offer; a small town square, some statues and the standard Czech restaurants and cafes. But there was one attraction that we couldn't miss.

On the outskirts of Kutna Hora, about a 20 minute walk from the train station, there is a small church named Sedlec Ossuary. Otherwise known as the bone church.

The inside of the church is "decorated" with the remains of over 40,000 people. There were bones all over the place. There was a bone chandelier (made out of every single bone in the human body), a coat of arms made of bones, a big ol' stack of skulls, etc. I haven't seen this many bones in church since I was an alter boy at my catholic grade school! (think about it... think about it.... there ya go)

I've been looking around for an explanation as to why the bones are in the church but have yet to hear an adequate tale. The best story I've heard is that they were cultivating the grounds outside the church in the 15h century and uncovered a mass burial. I'm not sure if the bones were placed in the church in a sacrificial type way or just because they looked cool. If the latter is the case, they certainly succeeded in their goal. I dare you to show me a church with more, ummm, personality.

Just think, after my visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul last week I nearly converted to Islam (I wanted to be on the team with the coolest toys). After visiting the Bone church, I'm squarely back in the Jesus camp. The Muslims can make one hell of a carpet, but it will take much more work than that to beat a bone chandelier.

The Bone church is best described in pictures, not words. Click on the pics below to see a bigger pop-up.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Istanbul, Turkey

We just came back from a trip to Istanbul, Turkey over the long Easter weekend. After all, what better way to celebrate the death of Christ than by visiting a Muslim country. (Interesting side note I just found out, Muslims actually believe in Jesus Christ. They think he was a prophet. They just think Muhammad is better).

We've been looking forward to this trip for quite some time. All of my friends who have been to Turkey came back with rave reviews. In fact, R and I talked the trip up so much we managed to convince other people to join us. Our only best friends in Prague - Mike, Sally, Mark & Bridget - joined us for the trip. (Mike and Sally are our friends who live around the corner from us. R met them on a plane to New York early last year. They've been in Prague for a couple of years but are moving to Sydney in a few months. We met Mark & Bridget when my dog B tried to sniff their dog's ass. It's always a great conversation starter. They are from New York).

Our first day in Istanbul we did what many people do: shop! R had made arrangements with her old friend Taji for our first day in Istanbul. Taji is a Turkish tailor/businessman that has quite the clientèle in New York. He comes to New York every 4-6 weeks and makes custom shirts & suits for his clients. Actually, he just measures his clients and shows them little swaths of cloth. He then makes a phone call to his army of Turkish workers who make the custom shirts and ship them back to the States. The shirts are extremely high quality and can be had at a reasonable price. It's a great deal.

First thing on Friday morning, Taji sends his nephew to our hotel to pick us up. The car fit 5 people comfortably but we had to cram 7 people into it (the six of us plus the driver).

Now is the perfect time to talk about the traffic in Istanbul. It is without a doubt the worst traffic I have ever witnessed or experienced. Cars everywhere, nobody follows the lane lines, cars flying around corners, stop and go traffic for miles at a time, cabbies gunning their ways thru side roads trying to get two spots ahead, etc. Not pretty. It makes Manhattan driving look like safety school. The trip to Taji's store in a cramped car was our introductory experience to the traffic of Istanbul. The distance was probably less than 2 miles but took us a solid 40 minutes to get there.

We make it to the store and are greeted by Taji with Turkish tea for everyone. We then spend the next couple of hours looking at cloth samples while the Turks measure us for our custom clothes. As a group, we order 16 shirts and a suit (the shirts are delivered to the hotel the next day, the suit has to be shipped a few days later) Not a bad way to start the day for Taji! He thanks us for the business by treating us all to a fabulous Turkish restaurant a few blocks from his store. To top it off, he gets us reservations at the two hottest restaurants in Istanbul for the next two nights. These are the same restaurants that our concierge tried to reserve for us but was denied. Taji has no problem. Taji is the fucking man in Istanbul. This is a recurring topic of conversation amongst our group.

After lunch, we head to the famous Grand Bazaar. It is one of, if not the largest covered markets in the world and has close to 5000 individual shops in it. Half of the shops sell rugs and the other half sell lamps and designer brand knock-offs. The reputation of the market is this: be careful. Every one is trying to sell you something and if you look them in the eye they won't back down until you get a sale. People will pretend to be from America and offer you tea or coffee as a "friend" but really just want to sell you a rug. It's also known to get a bit stinky in the summer.

In reality, I didn't find it bad at all. Yes, everyone was trying to sell you something. But, if you told them politely that you were not interested 95% of the time they would stop bothering you. In fact, the Turkish people in general were some of the most polite and nicest that I have been around. Yes, it is true that they are always trying to sell you something. But they realize that the best way to sell is to smile, make jokes and be friendly. There is nothing wrong with that. The people of Prague could learn a thing or two or ten from the Turks about customer service.

The final shopping journey of the day was done at the Spice Market. This was a slightly smaller version of the Gran Bazaar but they sold food instead of rugs. Mostly spices, tea, apricots and nuts. And lambs head. Don't forget about the lambs head.

On Friday night, it was time for dinner at Al-Jamal, one of the hot places to go in Istanbul. Getting there, however, was a challenge. The hotel gave the wrong address to the cab driver who fought with god-awful traffic for 30 minutes until we stopped at a place with an "Al-Jamal" name plate on the outside... but it was absolutely closed. We took out our phone and called Taji (you know, Taji the fucking man in Istanbul) who spoke to the cab driver and told him the right place to go. Another 30 minutes of fighting traffic and we arrive at the front doors of Al-Jamal where the night goes from a bad start and just takes an amazing turn.

The night at Al-Jamal was easily top 10 restaurant experiences in my life. The interior is gorgeous and we get seated to a great table with a killer view. We don't get any menus from the waiters because the place does not have any menus. You just sit down and get served. It's all family style and the food is out of this world. It's all turkish so I don't even know what some of the dishes were, but every bite was amazing. The best part about Al-Jamal is that it is not just a restaurant, but also a night club. So as the place gets packed and the dancing starts we have prime seats. I should also note that the dinner included all-you-can-drink wine. No wine glass at our table was ever empty. As soon as it was getting low, the waiter came by and made sure it was filled.

I won't go on and on, but let's just say we all had a great time. Three out of the six people in our group came back to the hotel and immediately paid for the good time by rushing to their rooms and getting violently ill. I'll leave you guessing at which three it was.

Rather than go on and on with our detailed itinerary for the rest of the trip, I'm going to finish this blog post in bullet point style.

  • Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia - No trip to Istanbul is complete without a trip to the Blue Mosque. And rightfully so. The place is gorgeous from the outside. Rather than tell you my experiences from this trip, I'm just going to steal a few lines from my friends opinion when he visited Turkey. I can't say it any better than Brian can:

    "Until this point, I’d never before seen a Muslim-world mosque. Upon seeing these though, my first thought was “Jesus is gay.” Clearly, the Muslims in old-world Constantinople really love Muhammad. That guy gets serious love in the form of huge domes and tall, piercing and majestic minarets.

    On the way inside, most Muslims wash their feet under small spigots outside. I still do not know the reason for this, considering the rest of their bodies are typically in dire need of this level of attention. Once inside, you realize the grand exterior is masking the fact that it’s more or less just a big cavity, with areas of worship and next to them, areas to watch, point, and stare."

  • Reina - Our second big dinner in Istanbul was at a place called Reina. Once again, one of the hottest restaurants/clubs in Istanbul with a table reserved by Taji the fucking man. The food here was very good, but it didn't rival the experience of the night before. The group was a bit more tame as well since some of us, errr I mean, three random people in the group were still fighting off serious hangovers.

    The one thing to point out about Reina was the type of club it turned into around midnight. The club felt like it was right out of New York/Vegas/Miami. In fact, the people at the club in Istanbul were decked out much more so than any place I have been to in New York New York. And it wasn't just at Reina. When we left and got into a cab you could see a bunch of clubs in this part of town with a similar clientèle. I wasn't expecting this in Istanbul.

  • Turkish Bath - One of things that everyone must do in while in Turkey is go to the Hammam - also known as a Turkish bath. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical going in. I've heard mixed reviews from many people. None of the guys joined me so I went alone. When you first go in, you get handed a towel, a brand new "scrub mitten" (for lack of a better term) and some Turkish guy grunts and points upstairs.

    I get undressed and wrap the towel/loin cloth around me. Another Turkish guy grunts and points for me to go downstairs. I open the door and I am in this huge dome room with a big marble slab. There is about 15 dudes lying on the slab. Fortunately, all men are wearing towels so the amount of exposed cock is severely limited.

    After I laid down for about five minutes, a Turkish guy grab me and begins scrubbing me body. Layers and layers and layers of dead skin are just rolling off. Disgusting and refreshing all at the same time. I then get the most painful massage that I've ever had. Every time I would grimace in pain my Turkish masseuse would just grunt and push harder. It ends 10 minutes later when the guy gives me a thorough shampoo and throws multiple buckets of water over my head.

    The whole situation sounds much worse than it actually was. In truth, I quite enjoyed my time at the Turkish bath and would go again. It felt like I went back 1000 years in time. R felt the same way. Her experience was similar to mine except all of the women giving the baths were naked. And apparently they had HUMUNGOUS, droopy, pancake boobs that were flying all over the place during the message. We'll have to take her word for it because at this place they keep the guys and the girls totally separate.

  • No Asia for Nino - Istanbul sits on the cusp of the Europe/Asia border. One part of the city is on the European side and the other half is n the Asian side. Of course, this is all separated by water so you can't just run from one side to the other. In order to go to the Asian side, we all jumped on a boat on Sunday afternoon.

    We start making our way down the Bosporus and get a good look at the sites along the way. It's a very cool view. But I'm more excited to step foot in Asia. I have never been on the Asian continent. The closest I have come is Tahiti but that doesn't count. So I figured that this one little boat ride would take me to the Asian side, I could jump off and put my two feet on the solid Asian ground, I can check off one of the boxes on life's to-do list.

    Unfortunately, the boat never stopped. We just made our way down the Bosporus for about an hour and then turned around and came back. On the way back I was literally a Sand Wedge away from Asia, but I never hit solid ground. Alas, that check box is still left unchecked.

  • Whirling Dervishes - If you are in Istanbul and someone asks you to see the Whilring Dervishes, politely decline. It would be a very interesting 5 minute show but unfortunately the show last 55 minutes.

  • The City of Istanbul - The city of Istanbul itself was very unique. First off, the city was absolutely huge geographically. We traveled in cabs every which way but only saw a small fraction of the city. It also has some very old buildings. You would see 3 small buildings lined up in a row and the middle one would just be a pile of bricks - having collapsed years or even decades ago. This was the scene all over. But it was also part of the allure.

All in all we had a great trip. Istanbul was everything we thought it would be. It was also very fun to travel as a group - we really enjoyed ourselves. So thanks to Mike, Sally, Bridget, Mark and, of course, Taji the fucking man in Istanbul!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

40 hours in Milan, Italy

This past week was a special one in the Savarino household. R's father celebrated his 70th birthday and - just a few days later - her parents had their 40th wedding anniversary.

R and her sister, Alex, thought it would be a good idea to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Alex and her husband Brendan flew from New Jersey to Milan on the Thursday night redeye. R joined them in Milan by taking a 6:20 AM out of Prague on Friday morning. I had some work obligations to take care of, so I couldn't head to Milan until the 6:20 AM Saturday morning flight.

Of course, R's parents had no idea that any of this was taking place. They were just expecting a quiet typical weekend at home. They had dinner plans with their friends on Saturday night, but nothing to special.

These dinner plans tunred out to be a complete hoax. Alex had planned it all weeks before. She picked out the restaurant named Giannino, which happened to be the same place where they had their reception 40 years earlier. When R's parents walked into the restaurant, their friends were no where to be found. Instead, R, Alex, Brendan and I were there to surprise them. It worked!

Dinner was a fantastic experience. Probably the best restaurant experience I've had in Italy (nothing still compares to home cooked food). Which is funny, because we all commented that the restaurant had a very "New York" feel to it. I guess there is no place like home.

On Sunday, we had another surprise lined up for R's parents. We invited 20 of their friends to a restaurant for the official celebration. They weren't as surprised this time (they were following me in their car and I got lost and had to pull over and ask R's dad for directions to his surprise party) - but they still had a great time.

On Sunday night, I was back on the 9:00 PM flight back to Prague and ready for work the next day. R stayed in Milan for a few extra days to spend some quality time with her parents.

The weekend was very short but I had a great time. This is a great example of why we decided to move to Europe in the first place. It was no problem to take a 40 hour vacation to Milan for the weekend. I flew in, had 4 fantastic meals. spent time with the family and then flew home. Perfect.

Since this post has been completely lacking in comedy, let me leave you with this note. I was speaking with one Italian guy this weekend who follows US politics pretty closely. he probably knows more about the upcoming US elections than I do. When I asked him what he thought of the candidates, he had this to say: "I don't trust that black guy"

In a world that seems to constantly change, it's nice to know that old Italian stereotypes die hard.