Controversy In Czech Republic Over Making Water Cheaper Than Beer

If water is cheaper than beer, what do you choose? Beer. No wait, water. No, beer. Water?

It’s not an option most of us are presented with – a free glass of water is easy to come by. But in bars and taverns across the Czech Republic, the birthplace of pilsner, opting for beer is in fact often cheaper than water. But according to the Wall Street Journal, that could soon change.

Beer (and drinking in general) is a cornerstone of Czech culture, in fact Czechs drink an average of 37 gallons of beer per year, but Health Minister Leos Heger thinks the country needs healthier options and wants to require restaurants and bars to offer at least one nonalcoholic drink that is cheaper than beer.

Such a proposal sounds easy enough, but it has left some bar and tavern owners in a fit. “It ticks me off,” said Eleni Atanasopulosova, 34, the manager at U Zelenku, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

The deeply ingrained beer culture in the Czech Republic might not make Heger’s proposal easy to get through. For now, it haven’t even been approved by the cabinet, but if it makes it any further, it could spark some cultural controversy, pitting beer lovers against those wanting public health changes.

After all, it’s hard to change tradition – especially when it comes to beer.

[Photo Credit: Debarshi Ray]

Scientists Develop Tractor Beam (On A Microscopic Scale)

tractor beamA research team in Scotland and the Czech Republic has developed a tractor beam.

A press release from St. Andrews University reveals that scientists at that university and at the Institute of Scientific Instruments in the Czech Republic have for the first time been able to use light to draw objects closer, although only on a microscopic scale.

It has long been known that photons create a small amount of pressure. Johanes Kepler described the effect way back in the 17th century when he observed that the tails of comets point away from the sun. Experiments using light to push microscopic objects have been conducted for decades, but the current research is the first time light has been used to attract objects.

The team discovered that under a certain set of parameters with a special optical field, the pushing effect turns into a negative force and the object is drawn closer.

The negative force is specific to the object’s size and composition, allowing scientists to pick and choose what objects to attract. This would have applications to medicine and biological research, enabling researchers to sort cells or even parts of a cell. The team’s results have been published in Nature Photonics.

A real science-fiction-style tractor beam would have to be on a vastly greater scale than these experiments, however, so don’t expect it to be used for transportation anytime soon. We’ll see space tourism long before that. The tractor beam experiments are a bit like teleportation experiments that made headlines a year ago. We’re seeing what our grandkids might one day take for granted.

[Image courtesy St Andrews University]

Discovery Adventures Announces New Tours For 2013

Discovery Adventures offers new options for 2013The calendar may still say 2012, and I know we all have a busy holiday season to navigate yet, but it is never too early to start planning our trips for the new year ahead. To help us out with that process, Discovery Adventures has announced a host of new tours and destinations, adding even more depth to an existing line-up of stellar itineraries.

For 2013, Discovery has unveiled 13 new tours to 11 new countries, offering diverse and unique experiences in some of the most amazing places on the planet. Those new destinations include Malaysia, Bhutan, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Iceland, Colombia, Chile, Israel and Singapore. The trips are designed to immerse travelers in the local culture and provide opportunities that aren’t easily found anywhere else. For instance, on the new Moroccan Dreams itinerary, visitors will camp in the desert and explore remote mountain villages, while the Malaysia & Borneo Adventure will provide contrasts between the bustling urban settings of Kuala Lumpur with the tranquil and serene rainforest. Other options include a visit to Iceland‘s lava fields, learning to cook in India and searching for the Big Five on safari in Kenya and Tanzania.

As the travel arm for the very popular Discovery Channel, Discovery Adventures feels that it has an outstanding reputation to live up to. That’s why the company is so selective about the destinations and tours that it offers. These new additions to their catalog bring the total number of trips to just 34, which is in sharp contrast to some other companies that offer dozens of options.

Their commitment to providing high quality tours for their guests doesn’t end there, however, as the company has also announced a new policy that guarantees that 100% of its trips will depart as scheduled. The new policy begins in January of next year and ensures that clients will be able to both book, and travel, with confidence.

[Photo Credit: Discovery Adventures]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Europe’s ‘Most Beautiful’ Women And Other Reasons To Love Bulgaria

hot bulgarian womenI had to go to Bulgaria just to see if Bill Bryson was full of crap. In his book, “Neither Here Nor There,” published in 1991, Bryson wrote, “Sofia has, without any doubt, the most beautiful women in Europe.” I was in college when I read the book, and at the tail end of the Cold War it seemed like an improbable assertion. We’d been led to believe that women behind the Iron Curtain were ugly, and, given the fact that our only exposure to them was watching the Olympics, where all we saw were women with hairy armpits named Olga who could powerlift 800 kilos, it was easy to believe the jingoistic Cold War propaganda.

But Bryson’s line about Bulgarian women stayed with me, and in 1997, when I was 24, I finally had a chance to see the place for myself on the tail end of a long overland trip that started in Portugal and concluded in central Turkey. For a young, single guy on a tight budget, Bulgaria was like paradise. In smaller cities and towns, you could get by quite comfortably on $10 per day.

A bed in someone’s home went for $5, you could eat out for a buck and big bottles of beer went for as little as 30 cents. There were cities filled with history, medieval monasteries to discover, beaches on the Black Sea, and of course, dark-haired, head-turning beauties everywhere. But were they, as Bryson insisted, the most beautiful women in Europe?The Internet is filled with contrived lists ranking the best-looking women and men around the world. A list of the top ten cities with the most beautiful women on Traveler’s Digest, for example, places Kiev at the top of the heap, but Varna, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea came in a very respectable fifth.
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Trying to quantify beauty on an international, comparative basis is, in a way, ridiculous because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But just about any seasoned traveler will tell you that they’ve been to a place where they found the locals to be simply irresistible. I’ve never heard any Western women rave about Central and Eastern European men, but there is something very compelling about the women in this region. (Traveler’s Digest’s list of top ten cities with the hottest men completely excludes this region.)

sexy bulgarian womanBut are Bulgarian women the best looking in Europe? I wouldn’t argue with Bryson or anyone else who makes that case but the competition is awfully fierce. I’ve been to a handful of countries around the world, which I won’t name, where I didn’t find members of the sex particularly attractive, but one can make a pretty compelling case that the women of almost any country in Europe are the most beautiful. If you don’t believe me, take a long walk through the streets of Belgrade, Kiev, Zagreb, Budapest, Copenhagen, Berlin, Rome or Madrid, and you’ll see what I mean.

After I joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Skopje, Macedonia, for two years as a married man, I found other reasons to love Bulgaria. After Bryson visited Sofia in 1990, he wrote, “I’m certain that if I come back to Sofia in five years, it will be full of Pizza Huts and Laura Ashleys and the streets will be clogged with BMW’s.” His timetable may have been a bit off, but he was basically right.

Sofia is a very interesting city but living in Skopje, I was most impressed by the fact that they had Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway. (Married men can still enjoy munchkins and foot-long meatball subs.) But my favorite places in Bulgaria were all outside the capital – I loved Veliko Tarnovo’s gracefully crumbling architecture, Varna’s tacky seaside charms, Melnik’s wineries, Blagoevgrad’s youthful energy, Koprivshtitsa’s colorful houses and Plovdiv’s sense of history.

bansko bulgarian gypsy bandBut the place that really hooked me was Bansko, a lively little town nestled in the Pirin Mountains in the southwest of the country. Bansko now hosts a World Cup ski race and it has plenty of hotels and bars, but it’s still a place where local farmers walk their cows through the streets, wedding processions take over the center on weekends and photos of the dead are plastered all over buildings.

Bansko’s bars alone make the place worth a visit. They serve the excellent Pirinsko beer on draught, dirt cheap, and feature live gypsy bands almost every night of the week. But what I liked best of all about Bansko, was the way I felt each time we visited: blissfully cut off from the wider world and all of its problems.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

(Photos courtesy of Klearchos Kapoutsis on Flickr and Dave Seminara)

How To Get Drunk In The Czech Republic

I was blind drunk in a town most non-locals can’t pronounce. I’m blaming the waitress for this. Pronounced “Slav-oh-neetzay,” this town of 2,500 is too small to occupy the visitor for more than a day, which is one of the reasons I was spending the afternoon in a pub.

A few minutes earlier I had checked into a Spartan hotel on the town’s main, triangular-shaped square, where the friendly receptionist almost gasped when I told here where I was from. “New York?!” she said, covering her mouth, reacting as if I said I’d gone on a walk, got lost, and ended up here a couple miles from the Czech-Austrian border.

Which was sort of true. I had just finished a 15-mile walk where I strolled by a plus-sized monastery in the middle of nowhere, around crumbling medieval Landstejn castle, through a field dotted with World War II-era bunkers. I was hiking around the southern part of the Czech Republic, following a series of trails that goes from Prague to Vienna. And what I really wanted at this moment was a beer. I got several of them, thanks to my waitress.

I sat myself down in a pub and within seconds the toothy middle-aged waitress whisked by and plopped a frothy pint of beer in front of me, its head of foam so thick it seemed more like a caricature of a beer than an actual one.

And then, about 15 minutes later, as my beer was three-quarters finished (I’m a fast drinker), there she was again. “Here you go,” she said, setting down another pint next to my nearly empty glass. I took a few swigs of beer and tried jotting something down in my notebook. I was already starting to feel a little tipsy. Then, a few minutes later, boom! Another pint landed in front of me, and she was gone. A soccer match was on the TV. No one seemed to care about it except for a Grizzly Adams-looking guy. I considered trying to talk to him, but thought better of it when I saw someone ask if the empty chair at his table was free and he responded with a growl.

These kinds of pubs – where an almost-empty pint glass is an invitation to have another – were once de rigeur in the Czech Republic. They’ve slowly faded into history now, a relic of the Communist days when you could sit in a pub all day and not worry about losing your job. If you look hard enough, though, there are still some around. U Zlateho Tygra and U Hrocha in Prague are two where you still might find this kind of service in Prague.

Or come to Slavonice. Tourism here was nonexistent during the communist era. It was simply too close to the border for the ruling government’s comfort. Over two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, tourists are still not really coming, which is a shame because this town is a gem. Founded in the 12th century, Slavonice began to flourish during the 15th and 16th centuries, as it was on the main trade route between Prague and Vienna, hence the many remarkable Renaissance houses that line the gorgeous triangle-shaped square. But damage from the Thirty Years War, the return of the plague in 1680, and a change in the trade route caused the city’s rapid decline. By the 20th century, its unfortunate location next to the border kept the communists from building in the town as well. No one was allowed to move this close to the border – unless, of course, you were a proven tried and true party-liner. That’s why today, little exists outside of the square. There are a couple streets past the town’s thick late-medieval walls. Then the town just stops. There’s no sprawl of dreary communist-era concrete block apartment buildings, no modern grid-like tract homes.

Today, part of the town’s population is made up of artists who fled the big city – that would be Prague – for a quieter refuge. There are a few art galleries sprinkled around town and a hip hotel, Besidka, where every room was designed by a different artist.

I didn’t get to see any of those art galleries. Because 90 minutes and several beers later, I needed a nap. The waitress appeared in front of me again with a freshly poured pint in her hand. “Okay, last one,” I said in slurred Czech. She laughed. So did a few other people sitting around me, knowing that the waitress just put me to bed for the night. I stumbled up to the hotel room and fell into bed.