There have been three destinations in my life that I have come across and decided - in a split second - no matter what, I have to go there!
1. Easter Island - I owe a 7th-grade English lesson for planting the seed of that dream.
2. Ta Prohm in Siem Reap - A National Geographic report on the demise of the Angkor Kingdom due to water shortage was the catalyst for visiting Cambodia.
3. Mexico City - I blame James Bond.
In fact, if anyone I know and count as a friend can watch the opening sequence of Spectre and not immediately want to transport themselves to Mexico City, I have to admit I will be more than a little disappointed in them.
How can one not want to visit the Zocalo - the city's imposing central square - on Dia Des Muertos? (Ok, I guess there was some amount of creative license in staging that Bond scene but who cares - Mexico City jumped straight onto my have-to-visit list. Thank you Sam Mendes!)
Mexico has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently. But I wanted to list out some of the right ones that have catapulted its vibrant capital city straight onto my list of Top 5 places I've ever visited. Of course, culinary reasons dominate but for lovers of great architecture, a rich and fascinating culture, inspiring art and just plain undiluted all-round brilliance, you'd have to search hard to find a place like Mexico City.
Breakfast at Panaderia Rosetta, Juarez
This sunken pasteleria with a little secret garden, upper gallery seating and lines of customers popping in and out for a sweet concha or two was my breakfast highlight in Mexico City. There are hearty egg dishes for those looking for a full breakfast but I will be dreaming for a very long time about their sweet little rosemary breakfast rolls - I'd go back to Mexico City just to eat one again!
Lunch at Mercado de Coyoacan
Forget the horrendously cheesy, refried beans and sour cream-drowned food that passes off as Mexican in the last Tex-Mex restaurant you ate at - real Mexican food is fresh, zesty, lively with spice - and if you pick a tostada from Mercado de Coyoacan - incredibly light. Crisp bases piled with fresh prawn, fish and octopus ceviche, accompanied by salad and bowls of fresh salsas of varying intensity - pure heaven!
With communal tables and incredibly cheap and delicious local favourites on offer, Mexico City's food markets are one of the best places to get a real taste of the city's people in addition to its food. Just make sure you pick a salsa that matches your spice tolerance!
Tequila at Cantina Tio Pepe, Dolores
We stumbled upon this quaint cantina purely by chance one evening only to find out later that it was the oldest traditional cantina in the city - I thank good platetrotting karma :) But we didn't need the prior knowledge of its storied credentials to add a patina of charm to our visit, Its swinging Wild West doors, cozy booths and old timer clientele added enough atmosphere to make our shots of tequila and sangrita (clamato juice drunk as a tequila chaser) very memorable.
Dinner at Azul Historico, DF
Dinner at this buzzing restaurant tucked into the lower floor of the hip and happening Downtown Mexico Hotel is definitely the place to see and be seen, judging by the beautiful people dining here every evening. Atmosphere aside, the food was one of the best modern interpretations of traditional Mexican ingredients we came across... without having visited any of the more hallowed restaurants in the city. Last minute trip = no bookings. The restaurant is one of several owned by popular Mexican chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita and you won't struggle to find several exotic options on the menu... and a very good mescal collection for those who like this native Mexican spirit. I personally have yet to acquire a taste for it... maybe a few more trips to Mexico will remedy that :)
When in Mexico City
Buy: If the galleries and museums that dot this city are any indication, the Mexicans are definitely a creative bunch! Take home your own piece of authentic Mexican art from the many weekly art fairs that take place all across the city - the most popular being the Sunday Market at Jardin Del Arte. There's quality stuff on show if you look through what's on offer, and plenty of quirky artists who are happy to chat to you about their work and distinct style.
Do: If you are in Mexico City between October and March, head out for a day trip to the Piedra Herrada or any one of the other special butterfly reserves that are home to the ethereal spectacle of Mexico's winter Monarch Butterfly migration. This rare phenomenon brings thousands of the winged Monarchs all the way from Canada every year. Might not be the first thing you think of when visiting Mexico but truly magical!
Visit: The inspiring home of Frida Kahlo. If you want to experience why artists are truly a breed apart and get a lesson in the strength of the human spirit, this beautifully curated museum is a must-visit. Just book in advance as lines are long!
Stay: With a canopy of laurel trees shading its inner courtyard, stunning mural by Manuel Rodriguez Lozano towering over the breakfast patio and unbeatable rooftop views, this Grupo Habita property is definitely one of the coolest design-led hotels in Mexico City's Distrito Federal.
Fans of dim and moody decor will not find much to complain about while staying at Downtown Mexico Hotel, while those impressed by detail will find lots to admire in this stylish property - housed inside the 17th-century palace of the Countess Miravelle.
The room was spacious and airy - with minimalist furniture and terracotta and tan tones dominating the decor, while the bathroom - at least in the suite we were in - was theatrical with columns and full-length curtains.
The inner courtyard was one of my favourite features - distinctly Mexican in design with delicate balconies looking into the core, the neatly trimmed tree canopy covering the space defied my understanding of the mechanics of hedge trimming - whoever designed this hotel definitely had an eye for drama.
Service was warm and familiar but always polished - we were particularly impressed that our instructions about the fragility of the contents of one of our stored bags had been conveyed intact through a chain of at least three members of staff all the way to the cab driver who took us to the airport - a mark of a good hotel if ever there is one.
I can't put down all the reasons I think Mexico City has been the highlight of my platetrotting adventures so far this year. All I can say is just watch Spectre. And go!
Have you ever experienced a beautiful city standing still for a moment just for you?
I think I've been lucky to have encountered that feeling more than once - I remember New Year's Day a couple of years ago in Kyoto when that gorgeous city was made even more enchanting by a thick and unexpected cover of snow. Walking down Shijo Avenue with the lanterns sparkling through the snowflakes and the sound of music drifting over the wind... no one else in sight... was a moment I will never forget.
More recently, standing on London's Millennium Bridge on a cold winter's night just before Christmas, it seemed like the entire city had cuddled indoors for the festive season and left its otherwise busy streets and bridges deserted - a near silent London, except for the sound of the bells at St Paul's striking the hour.
But I digress... the reason why I remembered this magical feeling is because of everything I had heard recently about visiting Venice. "Crowded, a tourist trap, Disneyland, queues, package tour groups" - all words I try and avoid like the plague when I am on holiday. Had I thought I would ever experience the feeling of having Venice to myself? Having been to the city before, I can tell you in all honesty that I did not expect or dream I would.
I am happy to say I was wrong.
You see, I thankfully ignored the people who said Venice in winter is bitterly cold, miserable, windy... that I may have to wade through acqua alta - that strange winter tidal phenomenon that sometimes submerges this floating city and renders St Mark's square a swimming pool. I'd been to St Mark's square before, I would pass if it came to it.
I sided instead with the ones who said Venice in winter is unbelievably beautiful, with few tour groups, no cruise liners, no queues, gorgeous milky winter light, soft rolling fog and everything in my mind that generally conjures up a perfect holiday.
Thankfully these people were right.
The feeling of having Venice to myself began from the moment I stepped off the ferry onto the main island. Hardly any people, empty streets, near silence save for the clatter of my suitcase on the cobbles. Heaven!
My home for the night was the 140-year-old Londra Palace, poised on the Riva degli Schiavoni with a heart-stopping view of St Mark's Basin and the Venice Lagoon. The Grand Canal may have its romance and charm, but to appreciate Venice's immensely rich and prosperous trading history, there is no better perch than a hotel offering views of the Lagoon - you can almost imagine the rush and tumble of the local and foreign traders, beggars and princes, grimy tricksters and freshly laundered and perfumed merchants who would have paraded up and down the waterfront promenade hundreds of years ago.
This gracious Relais & Chateaux hotel has a reputation for attracting those with a sensitive literary and artistic bent of mind. It was thrilling to think that I was going to sleep under the same roof as the famous Russian composer Petr Il’lc Tchaikovsky who stayed at the hotel in the winter of 1877. (You can stay in his actual room, 106, which bears his name on the door and still has some of its original furniture).
He composed the first three movements of Symphony No. 4, originally entitled ‘Do Leoni’ - the name that is now attached to the hotel's elegant restaurant and is celebrated by a few proud pairs of lions stationed across the property.
The restaurant was definitely a cosy place to curl up at for dinner, with a few glasses of a Venetian Red bursting with the berry flavours this region is famous for, The hotel's chef Loris Indri is known for conjuring up delicious creations from the best ingredients the lagoon and its surrounding land offers, and we had a taste of some of the regional specialties - a delicate serving of razor clams with turmeric flavored vegetables (a subtle hark back to Venice's exotic trading past with the Orient), the local pasta bigola which was flavored with pumpkin, coriander and pistachio, and some hearty calf's liver, served Venetian style with a side of the typical polenta di Marano, made from Marano corn characteristic of the Vicenza region of which Venice is a part.
The hotel's 53 rooms and suites are each individually decorated in a rich Biedermeier style, favored by European bourgeoisie in the 19th century. A deep palate of reds, golds and blues made the sumptuous suites seem even more decadent, while thoughtful modern touches (like Londra Palace ziplock bags left on your sink on your last night to store your toiletries for the plane ride home) showcased that this old school beauty was well aware of the needs of its 21st century clientele.
The hotel's famous 100 windows look out either onto the waters of the lagoon - bobbing with gondolas and crisscrossed by the wake of water taxis - or alternatively on the orange-tiled bell towers and rooftops of Venice. The breathtaking 360-view can be enjoyed from the hotel's altana - the traditional Venetian wooden terrace that you can see crowning many old buildings in the city - and is a beautiful spot to enjoy a slice of Venice all by yourself.
But it wasn't this spot, nor the many quiet walks enjoyed across the Cannareggio or Dorsoduro districts where one has the many picturesque calles and osteria all to yourself, or even the rare joy of wandering around a completely deserted St Mark's square that gave me that magical moment of understanding why Venice has been known as La Serenissima (the serene one) for hundreds of decades.
It was waking up to a view of the sunrise over the Lagoon through one of those 100 windows of the Londra Palace, and knowing for just that moment - at the crack of dawn - I had Venice all to myself!
When in Venice:
Eat: Venice's many osteria and baccari are legendary for the quality and simple deliciousness of the cicchetti they serve. These little bite-sized pieces of clam, cuttle fish, polpette (meatballs) fried squid or baccalo mantecato (creamed cod) served on fried polenta are best enjoyed with some of the region's dry white wine, of which the Soave was my favorite. Some places to try are the charming Osteria Bea Vita, Osteria Dal Riccio Peoco and Osteria Al Mariner in Cannareggio.
Visit: No visit to Venice is complete without a trip out to one of its sister islands, of which, Murano - the island famous for flamboyant coloured glass creations - is the most famous. Walking around Murano at twilight as the lights flicker out from the houses onto the canals is a magical experience.
Buy: Ignore the tourist tat and invest in some high quality, unique pieces of Murano glass or Venetian leather. I managed to score a bargain on some elbow-length kidskin gloves that I've been dreaming of for a long time! Pick specialist stores and you are likely to end up with a few great finds.
Wander: Walk, take a ferry, get lost, meander... basically check out every square inch of the city you can. There are few places in the world where almost every vista can be turned into a painting, and that is not overstating the reality!
Disclaimer: Platetrotter stayed as a guest of Londra Palace and Relais & Chateux but all opinions remain true to the wonderful hospitality I received at this spectacularly located hotel. A stay here is worth it for the beautiful dawn views from your window alone! And of course, a glass of prosecco with breakfast does tend to enhance that morning glow... when in Venice! ;)
Cicchetti...There could hardly be a nicer word for a little snack. So much more charming than tapas, more refined than its Portuguese cousin pesticos, less pretentious than pintxos... pronounced in the strange reverse sounding Italian way [Chi-ke-ti]... it's hard not to succumb to this grazing tradition of the Venetians.
It's harder still to not succumb to the delicious versions of them served up in the richly frescoed and chandelier-dripping interiors of the Aman Venice - housed in the beautifully renovated 16th-century Palazzo Papadopoli on the Grand Canal.
Venice's traditional baccari and osteria serve up a pretty delicious selection of cicchetti so there is no shortage of traditional pickings. But if you fear that picking one of the city's more lavish settings for a special meal might come at the expense of the authenticity of the food, you need not worry when dining at the Aman Venice.
"My menu focuses on just two things - local produce and seasonality," says Chef Andrea Torre, the new Executive Chef at this intimate 24-room property. Chef Torre has returned to his homeland via culinary-stimulating stints in Bali, Marrakech, Dubai, Istanbul and London - where he worked as Head Chef of 1 Michelin starred Zafferano, Senior Sous Chef at Shoreditch House, and the iconic Italian restaurant Cecconi, where he led a team of 40 as Head Chef before heading back to Italy and to the Aman Venice.
Having abandoned the restaurant's previous dalliance with Asian food, the new menu is proudly Italian, and even more proudly Venetian. Chef Torre trained in sustainable fishing in Norway early in his culinary career, giving him a long-term appreciation for sourcing locally as far as possible.
Much of the ingredients he uses in his kitchen in Venice are ordered from suppliers you would find selling their produce in the nearby Rialto Market - one of the world's oldest fresh markets dating back to 1097. Many of the ingredients are transported from within a few square miles of the city.
A highlight of our cicchetti selection included the local favourite 'mantecato' - a paste of cod served on polenta that you will find in almost every bacari in Venice. At the Aman, it turned up light and subtle, served with crunchy polenta chips. My mouth is watering just mentally reliving the perfect little bites.
Another dish that stood out was a delicate pink serving of veal with a 'tonnato" dressing - a tuna dressing with the sharp zing of caper berries. (Yep, you heard right. Tuna and beef?? Don't knock it until you try it!) While originating a little further North and probably a little summery for a cold, wintry evening in Venice, the dish's lively flavour was a highlight of our pre-dinner bites.
As for dinner itself - it could only be described as divine. It is hard not to feel like you've stepped into a sumptuous giant jewel box when dining at Aman Venice - from the ornate gilded ceilings, silk clad walls and wavering lights glinting off the Grand Canal, it is the definition of the word stunning.
More importantly, the food stands up to the splendid setting, although I would highly recommend putting aside the more traditional three-course format - abandon ordering the mains altogether and order abundantly instead from the antipasti and pasta selection.
The antipasti were not overly complicated, allowing the richness and freshness of the ingredents to dominate the plate instead of their presentation. One of my favourite dishes was a rustic Roasted Pumpkin with Cashewnuts and Quinoa, while the Burrata came not in a perfectly presented orb, but split open to enable its contents to be expertly seasoned, and served on a bed of sun-dried tomatoes (as according to Chef Torre "fresh tomoatoes were out of season"). The jammy consistency of the compote was a perfect foil to the creaminess of the burrata, dare I say an even better accompaniment than a juicy bite of fresh tomato itself.
There were a few menu contenders that sounded a bit unusual but ended up being beautifully balanced and nuanced in flavor - the seared tuna served with orange, celery and hazelnuts being a prime example.
There was also a couple of Michelin-flourishes from Creative Culinary Consultant for the Aman Venice - Chef Davide Oldani - such as a beautifully sweet, crunchy caramalized onion served with a subtly nutty-tasting Grana Padano cheese icecream.... mmmm heaven!
You can't really eat local in Italy and skip the pasta, so I was glad we didn't as the tagliolini with black truffle sourced from Norcia (one of the few places in the world where you can find this black culinary diamond) was absolutely delicious, with the truffle's fragrant, earthy flavours complemented perfectly by a rich egg dressing.
The meal was accompanied by wine pairings favoring regional wines, including a beautiful Soave (probably my favorite white wine discovery in Venice) and a berry heavy Valpolicella, again one of the nicest reds I drank in the city.
Dessert was suitably Italian, a bouquet of flavoured chocolates and white tiramisu... although for me the true highlight of the meal was the boldly flavoursome cicchetti, antipasti and pasta selection.
If ever there was a city to indulge in a romantic dinner, there are few who would argue that Venice would be it. So by all means, try the authentic cicchetti lining the atmospheric fondamentas and calles all across the city, take a gondola to them if you have to - I can't think of a better way to spend an evening in Venice!
But if you want to get a true taste of the city's fabulously sumptuous and prosperous past, then a meal at the Aman Venice is a must-do.
Disclaimer: Platetrotter dined as a guest of Aman Hotels, but opinions shared above are free and fairly represented - on a chilly, winter night in Venice there couldn't have been a more beautiful sanctuary to enjoy a delicious dinner and wonderfully warm service than this gorgeous hotel on the Grand Canal.
Menu de ja vu - that's how a chef in Montenegro described what one finds when you visit any of the restaurants in the Balkan region.
What he told me is not entirely untrue - the options are a bit samey across the region. Along coastal Montenegro the cuisine is heavily influenced by Italy with lots of seafood risottos but the further inland you go you get more of a Turkish flavor - like cevapji smothered in kaymak. And then there are the regional specialties like the delicious red pepper and eggplant paste ajvar and the ubiquitous shopska salad made with white Bulgarian cheese and chunks of cucumber and tomato. You can't really visit any Balkan restaurant without at least one of these dishes cropping up on the menu. (Not necessarily a bad thing - I will happily eat all of the last three anytime I see them on the menu.)
But there was one kind of cuisine that was a bit different that I would like to discover more of - Albanian. When visiting Kosovo this summer, several restaurants in the capital featured Albanian cuisine - rich, yogurt-laced meat stews baked in clay trays, crusty bite-sized meat pies, and my favourite - fli.
Fli (of flija) is popular in Kosovo on account of the sizeable Albanian population in the country. The layered pie-like dish is made of multiple thin crepes interspersed with watered down kaymak. It's unbelievable that something made from such humble ingredients such as flour, water, ghee, salt and yogurt can taste this good. But then I guess, all forms of bread and crepe are little culinary miracles.
I first came across fli at a quaint little restaurant perched on the hills surrounding Pristina called Country House. It isn't the easiest restaurant to get to but is well worth the trip for a leisurely lunch on a sun-dappled verandah overlooking peaceful rolling green hills. This was my first taste of Kosovar Albanian cuisine and the country's excellent local wine, and it left me wanting more.
I looked into how fli was made when I got back from my trip and came across this video. I love the way they use the batter in a bottle to make the alternating layers of crepe :)
I am definitely going to have a go at making fli. I think a Balkan-inspired meal is on the cards - now all I need is a nice bottle of some Kosovan wine!
There are only a few occasions when I would voluntarily choose to drink beer.
My general aversion to the stuff comes less from its flavour than from:
1. A fear of developing the dreaded beer belly
2. A general aversion to carbonated drinks... wine, soft drinks and water included
3. The size of an average pint... although the fact that I can't down a full pint has more to do with point 1 & 2 than anything else
I have noticed that I am generally more likely to drink beer anytime I am in a formerly Communist area - that could be a sheer coincidence but the last few places I actually enjoyed drinking beer include Russia, Vietnam, the streets of former East Berlin and most recently Macedonia (FYROM - officially the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia due to an ongoing dispute with the Greeks over the use of the name "Macedonia").
The last few times I've visited London, I generally couldn't walk more than a few hundred metres before being confronted with a craft beer so I thought hipsterdom had well and truly descended on Skopje as well when I heard about the city's first microbrewery.
But thankfully, craft beer in Skopje has less to do with eccentric marketing than its English counterpart and more to do with quality. Our first taste of Skopje's Old Town Brewery's creations was an unbranded bottle of Red Chachisko Pilsner with a name stuck on its side with Cellotape - the brewery was already starting to grow on me. The Red Pils was definitely the best beer we tasted in all our trips across the Balkans so far.
The Old Town Brewery, so called for it's location within Skopje's charming old Turkish quarter, does a Beer Flight (which we discovered only after we had ordered a couple of full pints.), but it probably worked out for the best as the pint I did order - a dark porter - proved to be one of my favourites from the variety of beers on offer.
We also tried the Smoked Helles - an unfiltered beer made from smoked and caramelised barley - and the Dunkel Weizen - a dark Weiss (white) beer that had a sweet, banana-ey flavour.
The reason for the multiple beer tastings from a general beer non-lover was a visit to Pivoland - Skopje's 5-day beer festival held at the bottom of the city's old Kale Fortress.
The festival was fairly approachable in size - not the mile-long beer stretch we had encountered in Berlin last year - but was well represented by not just the usual European suspects but a number of local Macedonian beers, including more than one Skopje label, which was refreshing for a city the size of the Macedonian capital. After tasting a few, the local Red Pilsner definitely came up tops.
Pivoland was to me even more special for the fact that the beer festival was held in a plot of land directly adjacent to the city's main mosque - a very visible symbol of the city's multi-ethnic tolerance and a quality I used to associate with home (India) although in recent years that's a reality that is sadly fast fading.
Skopje - and Macedonia - on the whole was a pure breath of fresh air, a unique cityscape peppered with thousands of expressive statues; mosques and monasteries - including an exquisitely hand-painted mosque in Tetovo made to resemble colourful tilework; and probably my favourite city in the Balkans - Ohrid, located on the banks of its namesake ancient lake and ringed by stunning deserted beaches.
I almost don't want to tell anyone how much I loved the place so that it remains just as I left it. I am definitely considering another trip, hopefully paired with a visit to neighbouring Albania which I hear is equally gorgeous.
Until then, I will have to make do with these memories of Macedonia. Nazdravye!
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