Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Cheap weed and diving stocks: 5 pot predictions:

Today, Canada legalized cannabis. That's right, marijuana, weed, grass or (if you're a narc from 1958) reefer. 
By now, every Canadian has tried weed or knows someone who does it. Weed is already mainstream. If you don't believe me, then you're lying or lying in a coma.
But what a lot of hype, from greed in the stock market to fear from the police, and noise from virtually everyone else. Essentially, the federal government has allowed what a lot of people have been doing all along, like eating. So, what's the big deal?
My predictions on the impact of legal cannabis in Canada:
1) Legal weed sales will spike for the next few weeks, perhaps months, as the curious try it for the first time--then drop off. Only some of the newbies will stick with weed, but not all. Dunno how many.
2) The price of weed on the street will drop. Yes, drop by a buck or two per gram. Why? There'll be too much weed, legal or not, on the market. Supply and demand will drive the price down. That's what happened in the legal U.S. states. (Good news, stoners!)
3) Legal weed sales will bottleneck because of government distribution. In Ontario, for example, you can buy legal weed only online through the mail. Really? How many of you buy booze online? Or tomatoes? And Canada Post could go on strike. Easier to call your dude and have him come over just as the pizza arrives.
4) Toking on the streets will see only a modest uptick in the 'burbs, then it'll be winter and only idiots will freeze their fingers toking outside. And who smokes anymore? Vaping is the way to go. (Downtown, there will be zero change in street-toking, because every downtowner is already stoned.)
5) Weed is here to stay. The mainstream will continue to accept it, not just recreationally, but medicinally. If you don't believe that THC and CBD treat people with cancer, chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia, then you're smoking crack.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Prague is a foodie's delight...and bargain

Prague. A city of spires and castles, but surprisingly it's also a foodie's dream. You can dine well here at a fraction of the cost back home. We're talking C$15, including a drink and tip.

Are you kidding? Prague? Isn't it all meat, cabbage and dumplings?

That's certainly the traditional dish (top), along with goulash, fried cheese and schnitzel, often served with boiled or mashed potatoes. But it's been updated with modern flourishes. Czech restaurateurs have invested in their establishments' kitchens, decors and staff, who are friendly and fast. Fading is the stereotype of rude waiters (i.e. U Fleku, c.1992) (check Tripadvisor to avoid the ones today).

What follows is a list of mid-range restaurants, a beer garden and one secret within tourist Prague. They deliver fine Czech food and friendly service within comfy interiors at reasonable prices (200 Czech crowns or C$13 for an entree, and 45 crowns or C$2 for a pint of renown Czech beer). Most places offer veggie options. Unless noted, all restaurants accept major credit cards, and some have free wifi. I didn't reserve at any of them, but reserving is not a bad idea.

Jo's Bar & Restaurant lies steps from the Charles Bridge on the Malostrana side of the Vltava River, amid a cluster of tourist traps. Jo's is not one of them. Rather, its elegant and spacious interior promise something better. That said, find a table outside beneath the arched walkway so you can people-watch (and protect you from sudden rain). Like most Prague restaurants, Jo's offers North American fast food (why bother?) as well as Czech cuisine, including pork cheeks, rabbit leg and lamb. Most entrees are served with a tasty sauce and vegetables. The pork cheeks feature Carlsbad dumplings which are more complex than the typical white-flour-and-onion ones, and reminded me of turkey stuffing--in a good way. The rabbit was tender and seasoned. To the left are two large pieces of pan-seared trout lying on a bed of couscous, mixed vegetables and cream sauce. The trout was a superb alternative to the pork- and beef-heavy menus of Prague, and went well with the house beer (světlé/light). Mains average 209 Kč. and 400 mL of beer is 45. Bonus points to the young waiter who was attentive, super-friendly and spoke fine English. I ate here twice. The first time, we were served within five minutes; the second over 15, but I'll forgive that. The wait was worth it. Tip: dine on the sidewalk, Parisian-style.

Five minutes around the corner from Jo's on Karmelitská Street is Ferdinand (aka Ferdinanda). The entrance is actually off the street, so look for the sign. You walk downstairs into a clean, well-lit and -decorated cellar populated with benches. Like Jo's, Ferdinand has added some fine touches to traditional Czech cuisine, such as the pork with honey and spicy apricot chutney (below), which I had with a salad.

The chutney wasn't as spicy as advertised but rang with flavourful sweetness. The portions were quite generous. The dish set me back 193 Kč (C$13) while a pint of the cerny (dark) house beer (below) was 32 Kč ($2) and boasted hearty caramel notes. The waiter was friendly and helpful, and the kitchen cooked our food within five minutes. (Note: There's another Ferdinand across the Vltava.)

Across the street from Ferdinand is U Maleho Glena Jazz & Blues Club. The live music is downstairs (and good), while the bar and restaurant lies upstairs. It's the kind of cozy place you hang with your friends over pints well into the evening. The music is chill, the bartender is chill--hell, the whole place is chill.

The kitchen pumps out everything from salads to Tex Mex to veggie plates. U Glena offers three Czech mains. The chicken schnitzel (below) with a pile of mashed potatoes (185 Kč) is the perfect comfort food, and we slammed it down with local pints. Tip: Great wifi.

Across the Vltava in Nové Mesto (New Town), near Karlovo náměstí, lies a place that a Czech friend recommended. Šumavy is an old-school bar/restaurant, decorated with deep-brown wooden tables and chairs, plus antique bric-a-brac, including a framed share of the first Czech corporation (a brewery, of course).

Walk in and you immediately see beer. Pivo, pivo, pivo. There are nine Czech drafts, including the gold standard Pilsner Urquell (48 Kč) and the pale, local lager, Albrecht (below) (36 Kč).

Unsurprisingly, the food is traditional, meaning meat-cabbage-and-dumplings (189 Kč), and the roasted pork knee with bread, mustard and hot chilies on the side (below, 219 Kč). This vegetarian's nightmare demanded a big-ass knife to carve the meat out of the fat and bone across a huge plate. It was a feast and a workout. Come with an appetite. Service is very friendly and the waiters speak good English (but speak Czech in return). We were served our meals within minutes. And, yes, they take credit cards.

If you think that Czech food is caloric, you're damn right. But you'll burn it off climbing the city's hilly, cobblestoned streets. It's wise to eat before sightseeing. A good example is Vyšehrad, a park lying high above the east side of the Vltava, a little south of the city center.

Get off the tram at Vyton and walk up quiet Vratislavova Street until you find the patio of U Kroka. We arrived at the end of lunch-time, so the only entree left was turkey with mashed potatoes and onions, bathed in a delicious paprika sauce for only 119 Kč (C$8). Paired with a Pilsner (48 Kč) and it was the perfect lunch before climbing up the hill...

...At the top of winding, rising Vratislavova, enter Vyšehrad. Enjoy dazzling views of Prague, marvel at the vineyard (yup, they make wine in Prague), stroll through the park, then knock back a few pints at Hospůdka Na Hradbách beer garden.

No, this isn't a patio at Thai resort, but the Most Relaxing Bar in Prague, boasting gorgeous views of the south and east. It was glorious to lounge here during a heatwave with a pint (golden Velkopopovický Kozel for 34 Kč, below, and Pilsner at 45 Kč). Grilled meals are available at reasonable prices. There are children's swings and a basketball hoop, but when it's 37C on the humidex, you just want to bask in the shade. The staff are super-friendly.

You'll also find vineyards in Vinorhady. Literally "vineyard" in Czech, the Vinohrady district is renown for its art nouveau architecture and grapes, as found in Havlíčkovy sady (below).

Many foreigners live here, so there's a proliferation of burger and pizza joints. Avoid them and hit U Bulínů for a traditional lunch of chicken, beef, pork or trout. The waiters were friendly and patiently answered questions about the menu. Food was ready in five minutes. Including beers, lunch for two cost 332 Kč (C$22). Tip: Add a standard 5-10% tip.

For something different, wander off the main commercial boulevard of Wenceslas Square onto Vodičkova Street and discover Jídelna Světozor in the basement of a charming mall. Světozor is an old-school place where the locals lunch. No waiters or tablecloths.

It's like a high-school cafeteria where you grab a tray and cutlery, line up and order from a menu of traditional plates. No fear, there is an English menu, though it's in the middle of the ordering lane, which leaves you little time to read. This is down-home DIY dining like a local. Traditional meat and bread dumplings will set you back 109 Kč (C$7), goulash 119 Kč (above) and a pint of Kozel 29 Kč (C$2). That's it. Note that the Světozor staff don't speak English, but their friendliness made up for it. My companion ordered a kava (coffee) that they kindly handed her during our meal. And judging by the number of backpacks, quite a few tourists know about this spot. Bring cash. Tip: Check out the cool European movie posters at the neighbouring Kino Cinema when you leave.

To wind up a long day of sightseeing, enjoy a cake and beer in the Old Town Square. Avoid the overpriced tourist traps at street level, and find the Skautský institut (Scouts Institute), a hidden gem. Instead of shelling out 100 Kč for a beer on the street, here you pay only 35. Wine, hummus, soft drinks and tea are also available at similar prices. You can also recharge your phone here or surf using their wifi. Anyone is welcome, not just scouts. The second-storey hangout has a relaxing college cafe vibe to it, with bookcases, folding chairs and communal tables.

Best of all, the Skautský institut offers a view of the Old Town Square literally above the crowds:

Tourist don't know the Skautský institut, but it's the greatest travel bargain in Prague.

This is only a sample of Prague restaurants. There are many others to be found at Tripadvisor. Just beware that a bad ones secretly add enormous "service fees" to your bill, which must be printed according to Czech law. Also, tipping in Prague is like Paris: round up, typically 5%, though pay more if the server is exceptional. Again, speak some Czech, like prosim and dekuji. It's good manners and you want the same in return, right?

Dobrou chuť! 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

14 tips to avoid tourist hell in Paris

Paris is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Elegance graces every Haussmann-designed street corner. Even the graffiti is pretty. And the food and wine?  Mon dieu! 

Problem is, the rest of humanity knows this too. Consider that over 19,000 people visit the Eiffel Tower each day. That's an entire hockey arena.

No, you can't avoid the herds of selfie sticks, but you can avoid baking 90 minutes in the sun to view the Mona Lisa or Louis XIV's gilded mancave in Versailles. You can hop around Paris for 3 euros (US$4) a day. You can eat well without selling your first-born. How? Read on:

1) The Eiffel Tower
Buy ahead online from home, on your smartphone, wherever. Just do it before you land at CDG. Don't bother with Skip the Line tickets which cost twice as much. When I reached the Eiffel on a sweltering late-Friday morning, I passed literally hundreds of people lining up to buy tickets. With ticket in hand (and phone), I darted to the ticket-holders line of five people. Yes, cinq. That's half the Toronto Raptors' starting line-up. Whoosh! Joined the security line for ticket-holders and 25 minutes later (again faster than the the ticket-holders line) I was rising up the iron lady.

Another tip: You can see more detail of Paris from the second level, which costs 16 euros, than at the very top (above) which costs 25. Total waiting time for ticket-holders: 30 minutes. For ticket-buyers: 90 minutes in 39C humidity.

2) The Eiffel Tower again
After sunset on the hour for five minutes, the tower sparkles like an enormous birthday cake candle. Simply dazzling. Make a picnic of it on Champs-de-Mars to the immediate south, or on the grass of Trocadero to the north. Uncork a bottle of wine and enjoy. It's fun for families and romantic for couples. Best of all, it's free (just clean up after yourself).

3) The Louvre
Again, buy ahead of time. So, it costs a euro or two more than buying at the museum door, but the line-ups at the main entrance choke I.M. Pei's giant glass pyramid (left). Is it worth wasting a full hour of your vacation to save a euro? Take your pre-bought ticket, avoid the pyramid and instead find enter through the Porte des Lions or the Carrousel du Louvre. Better yet, take to the metro to Palais Royale station and walk to the Carrousel entrance, all underground. On a Wednesday afternoon, I walked into the Louvre at Porte de Lions without waiting a nano-second. Voila.

4) More Louvre 
Speaking of Wednesday, the Louvre is open later, till 9:30 pm (Friday, too). The daytime crowds dwindle around 6:00. Instead of 200 tourists angling selfie sticks before the Mona Lisa, there'll be only 40. (Free admission on the first Sunday each month, you ask? I wouldn't do it, unless you want to feel like a sardine.)

5) Versailles

Doesn't matter that it takes an hour to travel from central Paris to Louis XIV's ginormous pleasure palace. Every damn tourist in Paris flocks to Versailles. Why? It's a gilded playground, bursting with jewels and priceless art, and fronting the world's biggest manicured backyard. Like the Louvre, you need to spend the entire day here, so arrive around the 9:30 am opening. Of course, there will be a massive line-up of hundreds of souls roasting in the sun without trees to shade them (think the Bataan Death March). Be smart and buy a 10-euro Tour of the King's Apartments online ahead of time (see a theme?) Instead of lining up outside, you meet 25 other tourists in a comfy room lying to the right of the main gates. There, a tour guide leads your group through security (where you can check your bag for free), then delivers a thorough 90-minute tour of the king's lavish digs. The tour is insightful, accesses many rooms that the general admission ticket does not, and allows plenty of time for photos. My tour guide was great. The highlight was her leading us into a private opera house (above) that was only slightly smaller (and a little older) than Fenway Park. After the tour, you're free to roam the other buildings and gardens. You still have to pay the 20-euro general admission to get into Versailles, but for 10 euros more, you get a quality tour with exclusive access to rooms, and save yourself a brutal wait.

6) Navigo Pass

If you're staying in Paris for a week (ideally starting on Monday), then buy this for 22.80 euros. Navigo lets you ride any metro, RER train, bus or even funicular (at Sacre Coeur). It's unlimited--hop on and off anything with wheels that reads says RATP or RER. This includes the ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport into the city, which costs over 11 euros on its own, and from central Paris to Versailles, which is 7. Do the math: a little over 3 euros a day with Navigo vs. a single 1,90-euro ride. Just remember to bring a passport photo from home or pay 7 euros to get one shot at a photo booth there. Bring your photo to the train station connected to CDG and ask a friendly RATP transit employee where to get your pass processed. You can buy a Navigo any day of the week, but it expires at 11:59 pm Sunday. So, if you start sightseeing, say, Thursday, it may be worth picking up a Paris Visite travel pass instead.

7) Food: restaurants
It's a myth that Paris dining is expensive. Sure, you can pay 20 euros for an entree of escargots, but you can also eat an entire meal for that price. Do your homework at, say Tripadvisor, and make a short list of restos that are: i) near tourist attractions you will visit, ii) fall within your budget, and iii) suit your appetite. For example, Bouillon Pigalle (above), just south of Sacre Coeur, will set you back 15 euros for a glass of wine and a beef bourguignon. Another good bet is 4 Pat in Le Marais for 12-euro pasta. No patio, but a groovy interior. Also, some places will charge a corkage fee of one or two euros if you BYOB.

8) Food: picnics

Parisians love to picnic. Buy a baguette, cheese, sliced meats, some fruit, maybe a ready-made sandwich and a bottle of wine. There's no shortage of shops specializing in these. Grocery store wine (French wine, remember) starts at 3 euros. Compare that to a glass at a restaurant for 6. Picnic along the Seine (where there are toilets) or parks like Monceau (above), east of Arc de Triomphe, or Place des Vosges in Le Marais, which is surrounded by gorgeous 17th century homes. Yes, you can drink booze in public. Just clean up your garbage and don't piss anywhere. (Tip: carry hand sanitizer and a corkscrew.)

9) Food: street food. If you're sightseeing, you'll need fuel. Grab a pastry, ready-made sandwich or baguette from at a patisserie or boulangerie. A ham-and-cheese goes for 5 euros. Also find them from convenience stores and supermarkets. You'll commonly encounter crepes and kebabs, and many stalls are good.

But my favourite Parisian street food are the fat 6-euro falafels at L'As or its neighbour Chez Hanna (above) in Le Marais. (FYI, you can dine at both places at a higher price). And carry water. The tap water is safe in Paris.

10) Free buildings

Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Opera, Madeleine, Sacre Coeur and Grand Palais are some of the top attractions in Paris and they don't cost a centime. Okay, you pay to get inside Opera and Arc de Triomphe, and to climb to the top of Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, but you can admire all these beautiful structures from the outside. You can even enter Notre Dame, Madeleine cathedral (above) and Grand Palais free (below).
The latter is actually a magnificent art museum housed in an art nouveau building capped with a glass dome. It is gorgeous, and IMO an overlooked attraction, just off Pont Alexandre III. To the north, the steps of Sacre Coeur boast a glorious view of Paris, day and night. After dark on Ile de la Cite, the square outside Notre Dame offers quality dancers and buskers galore, performing for loose change.

11) Sundays: Some shops and cafes close on Sunday. Use that—and your Navigo Pass—to your advantage. There's less traffic, so hop on and off buses.
Go nuts and visit the places in tip #9 as well as Place de la Concorde (above), a sweeping square with an Egyptian obelisk. Stroll along the Seine and catch bands playing, from acoustic to bossa nova.

12) Take a cruise
For only 10-15 euros you can rest your feet yet sightsee on a boat along the Seine (60 minutes) or the Canal St. Martin/partially the Seine (2.5 hours). The latter snakes up the system of locks that line the canal. Key scenes of the grand film Amelie were shot on this canal (above). Another cool part of this cruise is the long tunnel that stretches beneath the south. The cruise will start or end at La Villette, an overlooked park chock full of cafes, theatres and even amusement park rides. (Tip: Pack a sandwich for the Canal St. Martin cruise.)

13) Accommodation: Like London, Paris ain't cheap. For under 100 euros per person a night, try Airbnb. Find a place near a metro in a safe area and preferably near a tourist attraction.

Consider Pigalle, just south of dreamy Montmartre (above) or Le Marais, two hip quarters with plenty to see and eat. As for hotels, I stayed at an Astotel and scored a three-store, air-conditioned hotel room complete with a breakfast buffet for 100 euros. A bonus is that you can pop into any Astotel across Paris and enjoy their coffee, croissants, washrooms and even internet. (No, they're not paying me to write this, but I'll ask for a discount next time.)

14)  Maps/water/shoes: Carry a water bottle, and wear comfortable shoes. Also, speak un peu of French to receive better service. Study your map, so you know where you're going. Sure, you'll get lost anyway, but getting lost in Paris is not a bad idea. Enjoy...

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Street art in Paris

Paris is art.

I can rhapsodize about the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay's vast collections of Degas, Delacroix, Picasso, Rodin and Toulouse-Lautrec...but so can anyone.

Instead, I'm presenting street art that I found in Montmartre (home to some of the above-mentioned artists), Le Marais and along the Canal St. Martin.

This is art hanging on public walls behind tree branches, above garbage cans, or peeling from the harsh summer rain. Sometimes, it blares from a wall on a busy street. Other times, it's peeking from doorways you overlook.

Some of this work fun, some outrageous, but it's all a joy to find.

Le Marais

Canal St. Martin


St. Michel