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!
What do you do before you go on holiday? Some people shop for new clothes (ok, I do that too), pour over guidebooks (yup, also guilty), read endless Booking.com and TripAdvisor reviews (hey! As they say, it's knowing what sorts of bad you personally hate when it comes to choosing a hotel - I can deal with a bad breakfast review for instance as I'd prefer heading to a local cafe anyway, but a room that smells of smoke or weak WiFi drives me up the wall).
But what I really love doing before going on holiday? Browsing through hundreds of restaurants and bars to get a taste of what's in store even before I get to a new city.
But how do you separate the tourist traps from the real local gems? Here's how I pick where to eat when I go on holiday:
Food blogs and Travel blogs
Forget TripAdvisor, we all know it's top 10 list of restaurants in a city is questionable at best, When it comes to picking places to eat in I trawl food blogs and travel blogs. Sometimes it's the description of an actual dish, at other times it's the setting or a photo of a market, if something makes me feel "I'd like to experience that!" it goes on the list.
While I usually ignore Top 10 Lists for restaurants I do pay some attention to Top 10 Lists for bars - let's just say the variables that define a good bar for me are more defined. Good drinks, good views, good atmosphere, music at a decent level to let me hear what my companion has to say, quirky enough to warrant a visit... the list isn't too long or complicated.
Local City Guides
City guides like the local versions of TimeOut etc. are invaluable in finding out what food festivals and events may be going on in a city while you are in town. Online city guides with monthly calendars are a great place to look not just for food festival recommendations but a host of other one-off interesting events.
Friends with similar tastes - what can I say? They know me better than the tracking software prompting me to check out what I "might also like". More importantly, they know what I'd hate. So if a friend who has visited a city before me tells me I really should try a particular dish or visit a particularly restaurant, I will most likely make it a point to visit.
Yes, I am a sucker for checking out restaurants mentioned in famous novels or cafes with literary connections. This is the only time I will happily visit a tourist trap. In fact, I have my next one already lined up...Cafe Iruna in Pamplona, immortalised in numerous references in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. What can I say? It's so much more evocative than checking out a restaurant's Zomato rating :)
How do you pick restaurants and bars while on holiday? Would love to know your top tips.
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