I'd never quite understood the appeal of "winter sun". Obviously, having spent half my life in Goa and the other in Dubai (two places where you really have no opportunity to ever miss the sun!) the idea of picking a warm holiday destination in winter seemed a bit counterintuitive. Aren't winter breaks all about ski resorts?
Well, a few grey weeks in London have quickly made me see the appeal :) So a flight to Sicily just after the Christmas festivities wound up was very welcome.
Having spent a few days in Venice during a previous December, I am also a firm favourite of Italy in winter. No crowded roads, no cruise trippers and no queues to get in anywhere... just my kind of holiday! Yes, you may have to contend with a few closed restaurants and shops, but who needs those when the vistas are so stunningly beautiful and the food and wine in the local trattoria are plentiful and delicious!
And there's plenty to be said for the friendliness of the locals too... the sunniness definitely extends to the people :)
Add to this an easy charm and style and Sicily has shot up my list of winter breaks. After all, there are only a few places in Europe where you would be able to do any of this in the dead of winter! Like...
Enjoy a coffee and canolli in an orange-scented courtyard for brekkie
With their sweet cottony filling offset by a biscuity crunch, the canolli you find in Sicily are nothing like their gigantic cousins that appear on many an Italian-American menu. Just petite enough to delight without making you feel like you need to run a marathon to burn them off, there's nothing quite like starting your day with a little canolli and an aromatic cappuchino enjoyed in a sun dappled courtyard bursting with citrus fruit - heaven! I enjoyed mine in the courtyard of Gagliardi Boutique Hotel in the drop-dead gorgeous Baroque jewel, Noto.
Follow a fresh seafood lunch with a walk on the beach in the middle of winter
With the glittering Mediterranean Sea forming a breathtaking backdrop, Scala dei Turchi or "Ladder of the Turks" is the perfect spot to grab lunch after exploring the world-class Greek temples at nearby Agrigento. With fresh oysters, king prawns and flaky grilled fish accompanied by fine local wines, the seafront Lido Scala dei Turchi restaurant is definitely the place to see and be seen on a weekend trip to Realmonte. Even the waiter wore a Louis Vuitton scarf! And the best bit? A walk along the glowing shore as the sun dips over the horizon.
Order a carafe of wine and sip it on the sidewalk as you wait for your table
Bisso Bistrot in Palermo knows how to keep their customers happy. They may not take any bookings but you can order a carafe of local wine to help you wile away the time until you get seated for dinner - and you can carry it out onto the street and savour it along with views of Palermo's best known intersection Quattro Canti - a pedestrianised cross road that links the city's four localities and is adorned with beautiful buildings featuring four Sicilian kings, the city's four patron saints and statues of the four seasons.
The cosy bistrot offers a generous menu of local specialties. I tried their version of the classic Sicilian dish Involtini di pesce spada - or stuffed swordfish rolls - followed by another island favourite, the cassata cake. Suffice to say, I didn't go to bed hungry!
Where's your favourite winter sun destination?
What would you eat if you have 24 hours in Sweden's laidback capital city?
10am: Coffee and kardemummabullar
Forget about Cinnabon... cardamom buns are the ones to try in Sweden! These moist rolls of cardamom-filled and crystallised sugar-dusted goodness are the only way to start your day in Stockholm. Perfect for breakfast or when it's time to indulge in that most-Swedish of institutions - fika. Try them at Fabrique, Bakery & Spice or baked fresh in an authentic old-fashioned Swedish bakery on the open-air museum island of Skansen.
2pm: Island picnic lunch
Catch one of the many ferries that head off from the city to explore the islands in the archipelago stretching out from the capital city. Just an hour and a half's ride will take you to the pretty little island of Grinda, where you can spend the afternoon walking through trails under fragrant pine trees, swimming in the tiny coves that ring the island, and munching on farm fresh bread, cheese and strawberry juice right by the water's edge.
7pm: Bar hopping in Sodermalm
Once back in the centre, head to Sodermalm, the once seedy underbelly of Stockholm, but today one of the city's most hip and happening districts. With numerous restaurants and bars lining street after street, you shouldn't find it hard to pick one that you are in the mood for.
9pm: Minced moose of reindeer steak?
Stockholmers seem to dine early, so if you head out a bit later in the evening, you can often score a table in one of the city's many top-notch restaurants, or more wallet-friendly but still excellent local haunts.
Feel like trying some of the traditional meats? Knut Bar and Restaurant in the genteel Upplandsgatan area of the city is a cosy spot to taste some Scandinavian treats like minced moose with lingonberries or reindeer steak.
A few streets away, the excellent Rolfs Kok is a great choice for a late-night meal with perfectly executed dishes... we had escargot in butter, a sublime asparagus dish bathed in hollandaise sauce (words I'd never thought I'd utter!) and an utterly moreish calamari with black rice and chorizo.
Nook is a top pick if you wish to stay in Sodermalm all night long. Although classed as a Modern European restuarant, the dishes have quite substantial Asian influences in both flavour and presentation and feature multi-layered ingredients and unusual combinations of flavours (lamb tartar, fermented kohlrabi, Oviken cheese... or lightly smoked mackerel, trout roe, pickled potatoes, apple, green chilli....) The dishes are available a la carte (great for the single diners who Sweden seems to embrace whole-heartedly, as is evident from the many sharing table concepts strewn all across the city) or as a couple of multi-course tasting menus that change every few weeks... it's one of the few restaurants I've been to in which every single dish was a winner.
Stockholm, like much of Scandinavia has a reputation for being ridiculously expensive, and while dining (and particularly drinking) out is pretty pricey, picking inventive local restaurants allow you to savour some exceptional flavours all at a price not much more than what you'd pay for some pretty average bistro fare in Dubai. So no complaints there.
From hearing mixed reviews about Stockholm prior to turning up, I am happy to say the city charmed me with its easy vibe, calm, quiet and green streets and long, summer evenings.
And of course, those cardamom buns! I think I'll be back just for that breakfast fix!
If you were expecting chunks of salted boiled meat and sour milk (ok, I'll admit I was!) you will be happily proved wrong with the variety of dishes on offer in Kyrgyzstan's strangely charming capital Bishkek.
Here are my top picks to keep you well fed in Bishkek:
With its vibrant silk adorned walls, glittering chandeliers and staff decked out in colourful national dress, if you want to dine in a place that truly feels Central Asian, Arzu is a great choice. The menu thankfully does the decor justice, with plenty of local dishes - including beshbarmak, a traditional stew meaning "five fingers" reflecting how it is meant to be eaten made of horse meat strewn on noodles. Other good picks are flaky meat stuffed samsa (similar to samosa) and lagman noodles doused in a rich sauce. There is the obligatory thimble of kymyz (fermented mare's milk) to start off the meal, but thankfully served in a quantity most can manage.
If you want a real taste of the Orient, the sprawling Osh Bazaar located on the edge of Bishkek has an amazing selection of traditional Central Asian treats including mounds of kimchi-like salads, fresh fruit, great big wheels of Kyrgyz bread locally known as naan and - for the more adventurous eater - the local sausage made of fat and offal. Worth a wander even if you aren't hungry
If you are looking for something a little more contemporary, you can head to Vinoteka for an elegant evening of wine and cheese surrounded by Bishkek's chic set and many of the city's expats. The glass-fronted wine bar serves a great selection of European and South African wines by the generous glass, and has an equally interesting cheese selection to accompany your drinks - including the interestingly named Baltic Black Prince cheese.
Cafe Pur Pur
My favourite find in Bishkek, this atmospheric Georgian restaurant with its tassled lampshades, burgundy drapes and rug strewn floor lending it a caravanserai vibe, served up a delicious selection of Georgian dishes, including probably the tastiest version of adjaruli khachapuri (utterly moreish egg topped cheesy bread) I have ever eaten. Definitely the cosiest place to curl up with a glass of Georgian wine on a night in Bishkek.
Save The Ales
Fancy a craft beer in the Kyrgyz capital? Well you are in luck as this city is home to a teeny local brewery serving up a small but flavourful selection of locally brewed ales, including my favourite find from this region of the world - the red ale. I've tried a few versions in Macedonia, and more recently in Bulgaria, and am definitely a red fan. They also have stout, IPA, Pale, wheat and fruit ales, all served in an extremely minimalist bar with what looked like an attached summer garden for the warmer months.
Bar With Red Blinds
Ok, that's not what it's called but I've tried to find the name, and short of knowing it started with the letter "T", I have been completely unsuccessful. If you do manage to find this little cocktail bar just round the corner from Save The Ales (the ladies who run the brewery helpfully directed us to it) you can get ready to sit back... for a while as service was a bit on the slower side... and enjoy a selection of classic and creatively crafted cocktails.
Have you been to Bishkek and have any favourite haunts of your own? Would love to hear about your culinary adventures in the Kyrgyz capital.
Who am I kidding? I am not a big beer drinker... but I am a sucker for alliteration! :)
Either way, you get the gist of the post... here are my top 5 spots in Bulgaria to grab something cold while soaking in this Balkan country's stunning mountain vistas and charming street scenes.
Apartamenta (The Apartment)
As the name says, this is a bar in an apartment in central Sophia - each room sports a different vibe... slightly 70sesque living area, an airy enclosed balcony with floor cushions, a bar in a dinky little kitchen, pedestal fans and homemade strawberry wine... what's not to love?
Even in the days of Google maps, this isn't the easiest bar to find but is well worth the slight trepidation of walking into a deserted, unlit side street in Sophia. The cave-like wooden bar lit entirely by candlelight is a great spot for a night cap - turn up too early and you risk not being able to find yourself a seat. We turned up late on a rainy summer night and found a perfect cosy corner to settle in for a couple of drinks.
Sophia's answer to Central Park, Borisova Gradina is a joy to wander around on a summer evening to watch the city come out to play. We happened to catch a music festival in one of the park's wooded enclaves which was full with milling crowds of students, kids and pets. Local beer, greasy fries and Bulgarian music made a fine end to a summer night in Sophia.
Like many of its sisters that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria shares a love for hot springs and there aren't many things better than settling down with your favourite drink, avjar and grilled trout after a couple of hours of cooking yourself in a boiling outdoor bath.
Under the Linden Tree
This atmospheric restaurant in the capital, hidden along the slightly amusingly-named Elin Pelin street in a quiet residential corner of the city, is an excellent spot to enjoy a glass of Bulgaria's excellent local wines (or throat-numbing rakias!). The rambling restaurant spills up and down several outdoor and indoor levels and serves up an excellent selection of local specialties beyond those found on most other menus in the city... like caramelised onion pie and meat and fruit stews. You won't regret a dinner here...
When in Bulgaria
Hike up and around the beautiful Rila Mountains to soak in the spectacular beauty of the Seven Lakes or Skakavitsa Waterfall. If you time it right you can have the trails almost all to yourself.
Visit the majestic Rila Monastery - a stunning complex of inn-like structures and a central church, beautifully decorated with richly-coloured frescoes. Don't miss seeing the unbelievably detailed Rafail's Cross - a wooden cross with the most amazing miniature 3d wood carvings you will ever see.
Buy some local colourful pottery, rugs and juicy cherries and plums at the "Ladies Market' in Central Sophia.
Ride in a Trabant - the notorious East German motorcar that was a symbol of the East Bloc nations is the star of a local Sophia city tour... and yes, you do get a ride in the tiny backseat!
What does one do when working in Cyprus for a week? Spend every free hour tasting your way through the Mediterranean island's abundantly delicious cuisine of course! Here are my top Cypriot finds:
I feel utterly ashamed that I only found out halloumi was a Cypriot cheese on visiting Cyprus. I had assumed it was a cheese that originated in the Arab world seeing as it is so regularly found on the menu in any country you visit in the Levant.
The brined cheese made from a mix of sheep and goat's milk and known for its distinct squeaky texture when grilled or fried may soon be deemed a Protected Designation of Origin cheese - which means many more people will soon probably learn that it can ONLY be considered true halloumi cheese if it is made in Cyprus.
The halloumi I ate at Lofou village in the Troodos mountains was honestly the best I had ever tasted - delicately balanced sweet and salty flavours, a texture with great bite and just perfect for breakfast with warm bread and home-made fig and tart pomegranate preserves... mmmmm.... I would go back to Cyprus just to eat that cheesy breakfast again.
Commandaria has the distinction of being the oldest named wine still in production, referenced during the Crusades of the 12th century and believed to have been produced as early as 800BC. This sweet golden coloured wine is made exclusively from local Cypriot grape varieties Xynisteri and Mavro that have been left to over-ripen on the vine before being sun dried to concentrate their sugar content further. The wine is a fortified wine and retains a high sugar and alcohol content as a result. Commandaria is also a Protected Designation product and is exclusively produced in 14 villages located in the foothills of the Troodos mountains.
I had my first taste of this sweet wine at the small but interesting Commandaria Museum located in Silikou - one of the above mentioned 14 villages - which we stumbled across while driving through the mountains over a weekend. The sweet wine best accompanies rich and salty flavours - like a creamy blue cheese or a pork pate.
These plump, juicy little sausages of lamb and pork meat, tossed with onion and parsley and wrapped in a lacy casing of caul fat, are some of the most delicious kebab-like creations I've ever eaten. The caul fat (which is basically fatty stomach lining that is used like a sausage casing) when placed on the grill drips into the fire, causing flares of flames that render and crisp up the exterior of these delicious little meat parcels leaving the outside beautifully brown while the inside stays unbelievably moist.
The best ones I ate were in a charming little taverna just off the main drag in Larnaca called Stou Rousha, with wooden tables with chequered tableclothes set up in a narrow lane sheltered with a simple awning and vines - perfect spot for a delicious late dinner.
If you love seafood you will definitely not go hungry in Cyprus! In fact there is very little chance you would go hungry no matter what in Cyprus, but the island's love for seafood goes beyond what I've seen in most places. From obligatory taramasalata that slides onto your table before you've had a chance to peruse the extensive menu, to grilled calamari and tender octopus served with freshly squeezed lemon, crispy deep-fried soft shell crab, pickled mussels, crunchy fried sardines and red mullet, plump lobster, sweet shrimp... I could go on... let's just say your Cyprus wardrobe had better leave you some room to grow after all the eating you will be doing... because you definitely will grow!
I ate my fair share of seafood in Cyprus but will say Pyxida Fish Tavern in Limassol outdid itself with the freshness and variety of fish mezze on offer the two times I paid it a visit.
Flavorsome local fruits and vegetables
I realised I missed seeing fruit growing on trees when I visited Cyprus... we don't get to see much of that in Dubai. April and May back home in Goa means an abundance of fruit-laden mango, jackfruit and breadfruit trees... in Cyprus it meant street upon street of trees bursting with lemons and oranges, I couldn't get enough of them! It seems it's not just the typical Mediterranean produce that grows easily in Cyprus, I tasted some pretty juicy tropical fruit cultivated in private gardens in Paphos which was a pleasant surprise.
Local vegetables also get treated very inventively in Cypriot cuisine, I ate some very good examples of roasted aubergine and squash in Limassol's tavernas as well as at Apokryfo - a beautiful little B&B tucked into the hills of Lofou village that is known for its lovingly prepared food and stylishly curated interiors - definitely worth a trip for a special meal.
Top tip: The Troodos mountains are home to dozens of charming little villages like Lofou, many of which have small wineries and produce a variety of delicious bites made from local Mediterranean produce like carob seed bread, fruit leather and sugar drenched loukamades to eat with your Cypriot coffee. There's also delicious local lamb and river trout to look forward to as well as plenty of easy-drinking locally produced wine served by the generous carafe. Make time to stay in one of the pretty renovated stone villages that dot the hillsides, where you can rent your own rustic cottage complete with working fireplaces and pretty vine-sheltered courtyards - you won't regret it!
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