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The Dom Raja, also known as the Lord of the Dead, rowed me across the sacred Ganges River one morning while I was in town for a week and a half to do a feature for AFAR (see the June 2014 issue or the link below). He, along with his brothers, control the divine fire with which all bodies are cremated in Varanasi, thus helping the soul escape the cycle of re-birth, sending them straight to moksha or nirvana. According to local historian, Professor Rana P.B. Singh, director of the Benares Hindu University’s geography department, and with whom I visited one day at his office in Varanasi, the title of Dom Raja emerged around 1805. Since that time the Choudhary family (the name which all doms share) has had the rights to the title “Dom Raja.” And like royalty, it went to the eldest son when the patriarch died. But when the Dom Raja, Kailash Choudhary, passed away in 1985, something interesting happened: there was a power struggle in the family and, eventually, the five sons decided to split up the duties. Now there are Dom Rajas, all from the same family, who have exclusive control over Manikarnika ghat and Harischandra ghat, the two cremation centers along the river, about a half mile apart. And because of their inherent control over the cremation ghats and the sacred fire, the Dom Rajas are—despite also being of the untouchable caste—among the richest people in town.
The scene behind Manikarnika ghat, the main cremation ground in Varanasi, looks like a medieval workshop. In the dank shadowy lanes, it feels like you’re watching workers backstage laboring for the performance happening out front, as if they’re roadies of death. A crouched man hammered spikes into banyan logs to split into smaller pieces; a fifty-year-old man with deep, wrinkled etches in his face hovered over a pot of boiling chai, fueled by a coal flame; another man was selling the cotton shrouds that are wrapped around the soon-to-be-burned bodies. The honking cacophony of Varanasi felt hundreds of years away. And if you stop here to take it all in—as I was doing at this moment—you’ll find few reminders of what century you’re in, as if that plane you flew here on had inadvertently flown right into an open doorway in the sky, traveling through the space-time continuum, landing somewhere in the 11th century.
For one night each year, the main branch of the New York Public Library -- the iconic neoclassical building on Fifth Ave. and 42nd St. -- becomes one massive bar. Welcome to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, a bibulous four-day event that is kicked off by a gala at the library. This year over 3,000 thirsty attendees turned up to sip every kind of cocktail imaginable.
The name says it all: Big Buddha Phuket, sitting 150 feet tall on a high mountain, is one of the major landmarks and most visited sites that doesn't involve waves and sand, on the Thai island of Phuket.
St. Dymphna, a seventh-century peasant who was eventually canonized, is said to have founded the church that this atmospheric cemetery is centered around. Dymphna is the patron saint of mental and nervous disorders and if you're uptight or have anxiety, Achill will definitely put you at ease. After all, this aesthetically pleasing cemetery isn't the only reason to come to Achill Island, Ireland's largest island, located in County Mayo on the country's western shores. There's a ghostly deserted village, a 26-mile bike trail that leads you to the island (the Great Western Greenway, starting in the town of Westport) and people so friendly you'll wonder what is in the water (or the Guinness). But the main reason to come to Achill are for the spectacular views. Drive around the periphery of the island—as I recently did—and prepare to be shocked and awed by some of the most stunning scenery your eyes will encounter while in Ireland. You'll pray to St. Dymphna that luck and fortune will bring you back here some day.
"Want to go to the coziest pub in Ireland?" the waiter of the hotel restaurant I was eating at said when I asked where there was a good place to get a drink on Achill Island, located in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. He'd said three of my favorite words in one sentence: "cozy," "pub," and "Ireland." I was sold. Soon enough my traveling companion and I were hoisting pints of black, foamy Guinness by the fireplace in Lynott's an ancient stone pub with four tables. The night I turned up, there was a traditional music session happening and there were most musicians than patrons. Cozy indeed.
Achill Island, the largest island off of the coast of Ireland, is home to some seriously spectacular scenery. As the signs on this island of 2,700 people indicate, if you fall off a cliff, make sure you're holding a pair of humongous shoes.
No one is really sure where Carbonara comes from. Some say the pasta dish made with eggs, pancetta (or guanciale) and cheese was created by the carbonai, or coal workers, because it's a simple, cheap dish. Other say it was created after World War II for American soldiers who yearned for their bacon and eggs. Whatever the case, if you're in Rome, you must order it at least once. On a recent visit, I tried to eat carbonara at every restaurant I visited. The best I had was at Da Enzo. Located in Trastevere, Da Enzo is popular with locals and off the radar for tourists. Which is always a good sign.
From the outside, Hotel Lone (pronounced LO-nay) looks like a giant zebra-stripe cruise liner. The 236 rooms and 12 suites feature private balconies that wrap around the property like corridors on a ship. Inside, rooms are decorated with textiles inspired by 15th-century Croatian frescoes. A new nightclub will host jazz and blues concerts through September. From $362, 385/(0) 52-800-250. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: courtesy of Hotel Lone
There’s a budding movement in Istria to serve raw fish parts traditionally eaten in fishermen’s homes. At Batelina (Čimulje 25, Banjole, 385/ (0) 52-573-767), chef David Skoko prepares mostly raw dishes from seafood caught each morning. The menu at Marina (Svati Antona 38, Novigrad, 385/(0) 52-726-691) emphasizes Italian-accented crudo dishes such as scallops and sole served over rice and red cabbage. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: Paola Sucato/Flickr.com
Every July and August, the artsy town of Grožnjan swells with visitors who come for classical music concerts and the annual Jazz Is Back festival, held July 13 through August 3 this year. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: Zolakoma/Flickr.com
Buzet is an ideal town for wandering. Afterward, settle into the Vela Vrata hotel (pictured) near the church of St. George and its stone city gate, both built during the Venetian empire. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: courtesy of Vela Vrata
A 13th-century campanile crowns Motovun. Time your visit with the Motovun Film Festival (July 27−31, 2013), which screens international films outdoors and in historic theaters. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: Nina Đurđević and Nikola Zelmanović
The Subotina Festival in Buzet (held September 7–8 this year) revolves around white and black truffles, but there’s also abundant local olive oil, prosciutto, and herb-infused rakija, homemade brandy popular throughout the Balkans. The weekend’s main attraction will be the making of an omelet with 2,013 eggs (for the year 2013) and, of course, truffles. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: StockFood/Meier - StockFood Munich
It is, at first, a startling sight to walk into the Lateran Palace in Rome and see a staircase crammed with people on their knees. It all began with Saint Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, who went on a sanctified shopping spree in the Holy Land in the fourth century. She brought back to Rome a piece of the true cross, a few thorns from Christ's crown, and even the finger from doubting Thomas. She also brought back this staircase which allegedly came from Pontius Pilate's palace in Jerusalem. Which, for believers, means that these stairs are where Christ took his last few steps before being condemned. Today, the Scala Santa, or Holy Steps, are one of the most popular spots in Rome for pilgrims who ascend the steps on their knees, reciting a prayer for each of the 28 steps.
Aachen might not be what it used to be in the ninth century when the great king Charlemagne made it the base for his half-continent-wide empire. And much of the historic city might have been destroyed in World War II, but this Germany city is still an aesthetically pleasing site for the eyes.
Conques, located in the Midi-Pyrenees in the south of France, is not an easy place to find. Unless, of course, you're hiking the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route. The medieval village, which boasts a gorgeous cathedral and an ample amount of twee lanes, is packed with pilgrims and hikers have are making the long trek through France and Spain.
Jimmy’s Corner is long and narrow, as if some great prophet looked at a hallway and said, I see a dimly lit saloon here, complete with an extended bar and walls plastered with photos of boxers. Opened in 1971 by erstwhile pugilist James Lee Glenn, Jimmy’s sits midblock on West 44th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, in Midtown Manhattan. Which is what makes this no-frills bar unique. It’s a classic American dive, and the only one around, a relic from when the Times Square area was more depravity than Disney. Bartenders, who can spot a near-empty glass with the eyes of a hawk, are friendly but gruff. Case in point: As a 50-something woman with spiky bleached blonde hair mixed me another whiskey soda, I nodded to the boxer-bedecked wall behind the bar and said to my friend, “They don’t really like boxing much here, do they?” The bartender looked down the bar, pointed her finger at me, and bellowed with a thick Russian accent, “He make feeble attempt at joke!” She might have been right. If you go to this watering hole, make sure you’re thirsty (drinks are cheap) and your jokes are not so feeble. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: Shanna Ravindra
Toronto's St. Lawrence Market is crammed with butcher counters and bakeries, ethnic eateries and seafood shops. But there's one main reason why most people come here: the peameal bacon sandwich, which is served at the Carousel Bakery. It's not really bacon -- or at least not the kind you usually eat -- but rather tender, thicker strips of pork from the loin and then rolled in cornmeal. It's a porklicious treat!
Many people today travel to Rwanda to gawk at the great mountain gorillas. I was no exception but I did take a couple days to explore the north-western part of this small African nation. While sitting on the banks of Lake Kivu staring across at Goma, the town just over the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, I nibbled on sambaza, fried minnows, a specialty pulled out of the lake.
Smack in the center of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, sits bustling Nakasero Market. The busy market has a live animal section as well as departments for household appliances and clothes and whatever else you might need. There are also plenty of venders selling grasshoppers, a common Ugandan snack. I'm a very adventurous eater but when faced with the prospect of munching on grasshoppers, I suddenly became not very hungry.
It has been a decade since the major museums on the Museumplein—a grassy square connecting Amsterdam’s main art centers—have all been open at the same time. Here’s what to check out at Rijksmuseum. Once you’ve made the pilgrimage to the canvases of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals at the upgraded Rijksmuseum, visit the new Asian art pavilion and a two-story shop filled with gifts and books. Museumstraat 1, 31/(0) 20-674-7000. Photo courtesy of Jannes Linders. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
It has been a decade since the major museums on the Museumplein—a grassy square connecting Amsterdam’s main art centers—have all been open at the same time. Here’s what to check out at Stedelijk Museum. The modern art gallery’s controversial new wing (the exterior looks like a giant bathtub) houses a restaurant, a gift store, and expanded exhibition spaces that will host the works of Dutch artist Aernout Mik this summer. Museumplein 10, 31/(0) 20-573-2911. Photo courtesy of John Lewis Marshall. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
It has been a decade since the major museums on the Museumplein—a grassy square connecting Amsterdam’s main art centers—have all been open at the same time. Here’s what to check out at the Van Gogh Museum. Sunflowers, The Bedroom, and The Potato Eaters are just a few of the masterpieces on display as part of the “Van Gogh at Work” exhibit. Paulus Potterstraat 7, 31/(0) 20-570-5200. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
This year’s Grachtenfestival, an annual 10-day celebration of classical music on Amsterdam’s famous canals, takes place from August 16 through 25. Guides lead architecture tours (in Dutch), and musicians perform on barges and docks. Don’t miss the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which will play from a pontoon near the Hotel Pulitzer. Photo courtesy of Ronald Knapp. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
Headquartered about an hour north of the city, Royal Tichelaar Makkum has been making traditional Dutch pottery and tiles for more than four centuries. In Amsterdam proper, the design store Frozen Fountain sells modern Makkum pieces, including handpainted earthenware bowls crafted by Dutch designer Hella Jongerius. Prinsengracht 645, 31/(0) 20-622-9375. Photo courtesy of thomasseyck.com. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
Located near the lively Museumplein, the Conservatorium Hotel pays tribute to the building’s former life as a music conservatory; a classical sound track changes with the time of day. Italian architect Piero Lissoni played with indoor-outdoor spaces. He created a courtyard lobby encased in glass and a spa with fig and olive trees. From $415. 31/(0) 20-570-0000. Photo courtesy of The Conservatorium Hotel. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
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