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June 09, 2008

$400 For That Liter of Absinthe?

The Green Fairy eases the pain
of the pitiful dollar

Our series on the sorry dollar in Europe continues. But first, may we direct your attention to Daily Traveler commenter hhyamamo who had an admirable money-saving vacation strategy: avoid Europe altogether...for Japan!   

by Guy Martin

The Cold War was good for the American traveler.  Three (West) German marks to the dollar, the Hotel Hassler at $165 a night, John Lobb shoes at $200 the pair.  The deal was, America was the political and economic bulwark against the Commies--remember?  When the Soviet imperium broke into a billion strange and angry little pieces, Europe benefited greatly, and, politically, so did we. But it wasn't so great for the dollar.

Right this minute a pair of John Lobb shoes, the best benchmade footwear London has to offer, will run you $1535, according to the website.  A single room at the dear old Hassler, that lovely place atop the Spanish Steps that's just a stone's throw from the little house that George Gordon, Lord Byron, lived in, is $635.50.  The room's a steal compared to the pair of shoes, but never mind. A modest lunch for four--"le" club sandwich--at Le Deux Magots, where Picasso and Hemingway and everybody got drunk because it was so cheap?   Eighty bucks, dude.  And, should you like a glass of Chablis with your sandwich, add another $80.

Post-Cold-War Americans are the new former communists, gray and shy and shabby around the edges, trudging gamely through the grand capitals of Europe, pants stuffed with a currency whose buying strength approaches that of the pre-1989 Polish zloty.

Welcome, comrades, we have a tour to Spain!  Line up here for your blankets, please!  We will not be staying in the Spanish hotel!  The bus has a chemical toilet in perfect condition!            

You get the idea.  The mission here is to define the actual costs--hidden and not--for Americans in Europe.

Today, a most important category of expenditure--drinking! Surely we all agree that drinking is a wonderful idea.  Many people drink many different things in many different European countries. Most of these things taste very good.

And most of them are very expensive.

For the beleaguered American, the practice of imbibing alcohol serves a double function. First, it anesthetizes him to the prices of food, hotels, taxis, trains, newspapers, public transport, museums, concerts, and life in general. Second, the practice of stopping in a bar or a café is often a nice way to pause and savor the remains of the day.

So, once more into the breach, dear friends, until we plug up the wall with our mountain of debt:  A 0.2 (liter) glass of ordinary pinot grigio at Café Gagarin, on the Water Tower Square, in Berlin's trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood is a modest $4.50. By contrast, a signature Cipriani Bellini--peach juice and prosecco--at Harry's Bar in Venice, is $20. Have three! But there are economies of scale: Harry's also charges $26 for a bowl of minestrone and an average dinner there with wine runs $150 per person.

May we add quickly here that the ridiculous "cocktail" rage has swept Europe.  About fifteen years ago-- significantly, after the fall of the Berlin Wall--some tropic-loving northern Europeans (Germans) fell in love with South Florida, Mexico, Brazil, and South America generally.   They then decided to import the mojito to the Continent. Like cockroaches in the kitchen, mojitos are now on every damn bar menu from Norway to Sardegna.  Two bits of advice: 1) don't order them anywhere.  2) Ever.

In London, as a result of the exchange rate and the very Protestant "sin" taxes on alcohol and tobacco, you'll be splurging at drinks time.   At $1.98 U.S. dollars per pound sterling as of today, an espresso ($5) is daunting enough.  But let's say you opt for an artisianal ale.   At an average $12 per pint, you won't be slamming them or treating very many other people.

But why buy retail?

In Prague, as in Vienna, the best value is that of the picnic bottle, which is to say, the cold clear Moravian white wines are quite reasonable and quite good ($15/750 ml of Mikulov district Green Veltiner), as are their more famous brethren grapes from just across the Austrian border.   As with the cafes, Vienna's pubs are not such a hot deal  $10-to-$14 0.1 liter glasses of excellent whites.  Prague's currency, the crown, is stronger than the Euro, alcohol is not as heavily taxed in the Czech Republic as in Austria or Germany to either side.  Ergo: better, cheaper drinking in Prague.    A pint of the splendid Budweiser, for which the watered down American swill is named: $4.

Dublin has become fabulous over the last decade and a half--in lockstep with the general upward moving economies of the Continent since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  A pint of Guinness stout in a Oliver St. John Gogarty's infamous gastro/music in Temple Bar: $8.

In Warsaw, there is no good white wine that isn't Czech or German or Austrian, but that doesn't matter.  An ice cold double shot of Belvedere vodka is $20 at Szparka, on the beautiful Three Churches Square, just south of Nowy Swiat (New World) Street.

There is this one thing in France that I've heard about but never tried:  Eau de Vipre.  Like many things in France, it may not actually exist.   But what they are said to do is take a snake and put it in a bottle.  Then they pour the eau de vie in it and watch the snake drown and thrash about and die.  Then they drink its death-throe juice.  I've heard it tastes like snake shit--although the only people who would know would be those who have already eaten it, and I'm not sure they should be trusted. Of course, it's massively expensive.

I'm saving a couple of hundred bucks for it now.

Further reading:
* No Money, Not Funny: The Sorry Dollar in Europe
* Dollar Power: Places Where the Dollar Still Means Something


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