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!
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! ;)
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