Sunday, 12 November 2017

Around the world in 15 meals

1) Instanbul, Turkey

What is there better than a plate of meze on a hot day in Istanbul? This is supposed to be just an appetizer, but it worked fine for me as a light lunch. It included various dips like hummus, eggplant salad and haydari, then dolma (stuffed vine leaves) and some cheese. Everything with vegetable sticks for the dips. By the way, that puffy bread is called lavas and I love it. 

Meze lunch in Istanbul

2) Mostar, Bosnia

One of my favourite meals in Bosnia and of the whole Balkan trip was the Hadzijski cevap (marinated beef with peppers and rice) that I had in the old town of Mostar. It was simple but delicious, and also really cheap! 


3) Amsterdam, Netherlands

What to do when you are visiting a country that is not really famous for its cuisine, you've already tried the obvious and looking around you can only see burgers and fries? In big cities in central or northern Europe, like Munich or London, I usually find that Asian food is top notch. So while in Amsterdam, I repeatedly stopped by Indonesian and Thai restaurants. My favourite was Bird Thai restaurant in Chinatown (close to the red light district). 

Red Thai curry in Amsterdam

4) Lisbon, Portugal

If I could recommnend only one Portuguese dish it would be  bacalhau com natas. The Portuguese have many ways to cook cod, but creamy bacalhau com natas is my favourite. I was lucky enough to participate in a dinner organized by my hostel in Lisbon and this is how I got to taste this delicious typical dish. I am already making plans to go back to Portugal and have it one more time. This is how much I liked it!

Bacalhau com natas
5) Schwangau, Germany

It might not be haute cuisine but I just had to try currywurst in Germany, if only for curiosity. The history of this spiced sausage is quite interesting, because it was invented in Berlin just after WWII borrowing curry powder and ketchup (or possibly Worcestershire sauce) from British soldiers. It became a popular snack with the workers who were rebuilding the devastated city, and it is still today a popular take-away food, not only in Berlin but all over Germany.

Currywurst in Germany
6) Marrakesh, Morocco

Vegetarian tagine in an informal restaurant in the medina of Marrakesh - my favourite kind of place where you don't feel weird if you're eating alone (in this case I wasn't). Tagine is the name of the earthenware pot where food is cooked, so you could have many different of tagine: chicken with vegetables, but also with sardines by the sea or with meat and dried fruit. I had this with a glass of orange juice, which seems to be ubiquitous in Marrakesh.

A vegetarian tajine in Marrakesh

7) Paris, France

This dish had a name so long that it did not fit in a single line on the menu. Then it turned out to be a steak with potatoes. Overall, my experiences with food in Paris went better when I blatantly tried not to order French food: for example at felafel joints or at a Korean restaurant. I think I owe Paris - and France - a second chance. Next time I'll document myself and try to order some French food with a better understanding of French cuisine.

A meal in Paris
8) Mdina, Malta

From a culinary point of view, Malta is a mix of influences. And how could it not be so? In spite of having been an English colony in the past, Malta is decidedly more Italian than British when you sit down for lunch or dinner. These spaghetti all'amatriciana - which means in a tomato sauce with pancetta (or even better guanciale) and chilli peppers - were really good. I discovered later that many Italian restaurants in Malta are owned by Italian people, hailing from all over the country and enjoying Malta's relaxed lifestyle and mild weather. 

Pasta all'amatriciana in Malta

9) Stratford-upon-Avon, United Kingdom

I'll always remember this bento box meal I had in Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. The Japanese chef was entertaining us, pretending to throw bottles at the clients and things like that. The food didn't look that Japanese, apart from the yakitori, but it was the first time that I had lunch in a box, and I loved the idea.

10) Valencia, Spain

You cannot get bored with all the food in Spain: pintxos from the Basque Country, tapas that may include fish or cured meats like chorizo or jamon iberico, and regional specialities such as the Andalusian gazpacho. After more than three years in Spain I am still busy discovering all its variety. Nothing beats, however, a good seafood paella in a fishing town. 

A paella in Valencia

11) Split, Croatia

For the most part I found Croatian food uninspiring.  They once served me cod telling me it was a more prestigious seabass, while risotto and pasta were only an imitation of what you would have in Italy (which is so close after all). This tuna salad, nevertheless, on the city beach in Split, was really good, and just what I needed after a morning of sunbathing and dipping my toes in the turquoise waters of the Adriatic.

Tuna salad in Split

12) Kotor, Montenegro

All over the Balkans you will find these spiced sausages: ćevapčići. Sometimes - especially in Serbia and Bosnia - they serve them with a piece of flat bread, with chopped onions and sour cream, but in Montenegro I had it with French fries. I really enjoyed the meal, plus I had a perfect view of the main square of Kotor.

Cevapcici in Kotor

13) Brno, Czech Repulic

Czech Republic might not be famous as a culinary destination, but I had a few good meals there. It was long ago, but I still remember having Smažený sýr, different kinds of fried cheese served with potatoes and salad. This was in Brno and not in Prague (I must be the only person in the world who has been in the Czech Republic but hasn't been to Prague).

Smažený sýr in Brno

14) Bangkok, Thailand

I arrived in Bangkok after travelling for many hours (and after two sleepless nights) and I went directly to take a much deserved nap. A couple of hours after I woke with a grumbling stomach and went for a Pad Thai in the neighboorhood. It was not long after that I became addicted. It is a simple dish after all: noodles with  bean sprouts, some prawns or seafood, and cashew nuts sprinkled on top. Oh, and don't forget a sprinkle of lime and some chilli peppers to have that caracteristic taste. 

15) Pisa, Italy

And last but not least Italy, my country. Even though I am Italian, each time I visit a new region I discover new things to taste. Italy is not only pasta and pizza, as I keep saying to those who think that Italian cuisine is boring! We have plenty of that, for sure, but also other dishes: risotto in the north, delicious grilled fish and seafood served with plenty of vegetables, soups with pulses in Tuscany and meat with mushrooms or polenta in the mountains. My favourite, though, is always pizza!

A pizza in Italy

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Everybody loves Chiang Mai

When someone is planning to go to Thailand I always tell them not to overlook the north, and Chiang Mai in particular. Of course if they have only two weeks in the country it's difficult to see both the north and the beaches in the south, but I still insist because I think Chiang Mai is really worth it. What people usually ask next is: "What is there to see in the north of Thailand"? 

One of the temples in Chiang Mai


Chiang Mai is the second biggest city in Thailand, but it doesn't feel like that. The streets are quiet, the old town is dotted with marvelous temples and it's not as intimidating and difficult to navigate as Bangkok. In Chiang Mai you can walk almost anywhere, which is a relief after Bangkok (if you haven't been, that is definitely not a city for walking tours). It is practically impossible to get lost in Chiang Mai,  because a moat surrounds it, giving you an idea of where you are at any given time. 

A night market in Chiang Mai

What I immediately noticed about Chiang Mai is that the atmosphere is chilled out. It is the right place to slow down. The mixture between tradition and innovation is really exciting: thanks to its student population it has many trendy cafés with wi-fi, but also friendly monks dressed in orange tunics waving and smiling at you. This is why many expats choose it as their base in South East Asia. It is also super cheap, both in terms of accommodation and for shopping.

Children monks in Chiang Mai

On the plus side, people in Chiang Mai are down to earth, and generally they don't insist too much with tourists, so I could just walk around and observe things without feeling pressed to buy anything or get on a tuk-tuk.


In Chiang Mai there is a temple for everybody. There is even one - Wat Bupharam - with statues of animals like giraffes and elephants, and even Disney characters, like Donald Duck eating noodles. Some temples are really old and have ruins, while some others are more modern. Most of them don't have an entrance fee and you are completely free to roam around.

An original temple in Chiang Mai

What I like about them is that there are so many things to observe, like offerings in many forms (candy bars, flowers and even money!) and statues from different traditions and religions, with the most unexpected facial expressions - they can be crying or laughing, fierce or serene. Temples in the north of Thailand tend to have a three-tiered roofline and carved gables. All around the main structures there are the so called stupas, shaped like bells.

A stupa in Chiang Mai

I even started asking around or doing a little bit of research whenever I had wi-fi so that I could understand what some details meant. The colourful ribbons tied around some pillars, for instance, mark the place of a spirit house. The ribbons supposedly keep the spirits in a good mood. It's the same reason why they are tied around the keel of longtail boats in the islands of the south. 

Ribbons tied around a sacred pole in Chiang Mai 

Overall in Chiang Mai you really perceive how rich Thai culture is. It is easy to see the beauty of the Buddhist religion, and the importance of traditions in people's daily life. Besides, I was lucky enough to be there during the Loi Krathong festival in November, which I highly suggest to take into consideration.

A temple in Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong


Another reason why I am particularly fond of Chiang Mai is food. There are many options, from fancy restaurants to street food stalls, or casual eateries, but the most exciting things - food-wise - were happening right on the street. 

In my experience it was easy to understand which places are popular because they were crowded with both tourists and locals, and there was a good smell of fresh vegetables and spices. The cuisine of northern Thailand is known as Lanna, from the name of an ancient kingdom, and it has influences from many countries, such as Burma and India. Typical dishes from the north of Thailand are sticky rice or som tam (papaya salad), but of course, I also ate dishes from other parts of Thailand, such as Massaman curry. What is amazing about this is that I don't remember spending more than 2-3€ for a meal. 

Thai fried rice with vegetables and tofu

The food is not only delicious, but also colourul and well-presented almost everywhere. On the down side, the names are sometimes difficult to remember. I also started to develop an addiction to Pad  thai, which is dangerous because there are so many other delicious things to try. 
Doi Suthep

Even if you feel tired of visiting temples, you should give Doi Suthep a chance. It is secluded and scenic, because to reach it you have to venture outside of the city (15 km), crossing countryside and forest, then go uphill until the top of Doi Suthep, a local mountain. If I remember well I went by songthaew, which is a pickup truck used as a shared taxi or bus. This means of transport is super easy to use, because it usually has fixed prices and stops.

When you arrive you will have to climb a staircase that appears to be in the middle of the tropical jungle. It is shaped like a naga, the mythical snake of Hinduism and Buddhism. It's 309 steps, but don't worry: if I made it, you can make it too without problems. Nothing like the Tiger Cave temple staircase in Krabi! If you're really lazy there is a cable car that for just 20 baht (0,50€) takes you to the top. 

Doi Suthep


The temple has an entrance fee of another 20 bhat (0,50€). It is quite big and, as most temples in Thailand, it includes several pagodas and areas of worship. It's a good chance to see how local people pray and pay their respects to Buddha. As any other shrines, Doi Suthep has some relics - in this case that of a white elephant bearing a magical Gautama Buddha's shoulder bone relic on the back. You also have a pretty nice view of the city and of its surroundings from a terrace.

Girl praying at Doi Suthep


There is so much more to do in Chiang Mai than just visit temples and eat delicious meals. If you love animals you can visit the Elephant Nature reserve, for instance. If you are into shopping, the Night Market and the Sunday Night Market are excellent places to goggle at the endless variety of nice purses, scarves, bags and necklaces for sale. Ethnic accessories are often manifactured around Chiang Mai, which is definitely a plus.

The night market

Trekking, rock-climbing, white-water rafting are more activities, but bear in mind that it is very hot all year round in Thailand. Another popular option is to take a cooking class, which is something that I had planned to do in Chiang Mai. They are relatively cheap, but in busy periods they need to be booked well in advance. When I visited the city was busy because of the Loi Krathong festival, and all the cooking class were already booked!

Have you been to Chiang Mai? What did you like best about it?

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Appreciating a glimpse of Dutch countryside in Zaanse Schans

I love cities, but when I travel I also like to see something different. Big cities are not usually very representative of a country, so it's a good idea to venture outside and see how the rest of the country looks like. That's what I did when I was in Amsterdam last March.

The village of Zaanse Schans is located only a few minutes away from central Amsterdam. I took a local train leaving from the Central Station that in just 17 minutes and 7,20€ (return ticket) took me to another world. In Zaanse Schans there are working windmills, the air is fresh and you get to see a glimpse of Dutch countryside. Compared to Amsterdam Zaanse Schans is relaxed and quiet.

Zaanse Schans village

I think it was the turning point in my trip to Amsterdam. Somehow I couldn't connect to the city and the country, so I spent three days sightseeing without getting particularly excited at anything. While the city was certainly interesting and full of inspiration, certainly different from most European cities I had visited before, Zaanse Schans offered a different point of view and an interesting insight on the country. It made me get away from the hype about coffeeshops and red-light districts and see that there is a lot more to the Dutch identity than that.

Lanscape around Zaanse Schans

There used to be a chocolate factory in the area, so as soon as you get off the train you will smell roasted cocoa beans. A few panels explain the importance of this area for both the industrial and cultural heritage of the Netherlands.

The first windmill that you see, even before getting to the village on the banks of the river Zaan, is maybe the most picturesque. It is called De Bleeke Dood (which means "the Pale Death"!) and it was built in 1656. It was restored a couple of times and is still used to make flour.
"De Bleeke Dood" windmill on the way to Zaanse Schans

Wooden clogs, windmills and tulips are all part of the world you enter in Zaanse Schans. Several mills were moved to this area in the 1960s to preserve them for future generations. They are surrounded by extensive meadows, and just to see the sails slowly turning from a distance make you feel like you went back a few centuries, when life was simpler and things like oil or flour or were produced locally.

Windmills along the river

Zaanse Schans is certainly touristic: there were plenty of tourists, especially Asians, with big cameras and selfie sticks, and the windmills now work almost exclusively for them. In spite of that, it is interesting to learn about their several uses: to mill and saw wood for sure, but also to make the pigments used by Dutch painters. For a few euros you can enter them and get to see how they work, then climb the stairs and have a look at the landscape from the top.

One of the mills along the river
There is an abundance of museums in Zaanse Schans, so if you feel like exploring traditional crafts, you could spend there the whole day. There is even a small museum that relates the history and the craftsmanship behind wooden clogs. Moreover, there are demonstrations of traditional crafts, hot chocolate for cold rainy days and a few restaurants.

The best thing about a visit to Zaanse Schans, however, was simply taking the leisurely walk from the train station to the village and then stroll on the water's edge, admiring these huge wooden creatures dating from another time. I spent there a couple of pleasant hours, thanks to the perfect weather. I had to plan really well when to go, looking at the weather forecast a lot, because not all the days I had there were as sunny with clear blue skies. 

Wooden clogs

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Walking through enchanting Ohrid

Ohrid is quickly becoming one of the highlights of a trip to the Balkans, and for a good reason. Leaving quirky Skopje for quiet and pleasant Lake Ohrid made me feel as I had crossed yet another border of former Yugoslavia. Yet Ohrid, with its elegant ancient architecture, is in Macedonia, the same country as bombastic Skopje with its huge statues and its kitsch neoclassical architecture.

Sveti Jovan Kaneo
Let me begin from the best Ohrid has to offer. The church of Sveti Jovan Kaneo is like a perfect postcard. It's just a small 13th-century church on a cliff overlooking the lake, but what makes it so special is the quiet atmosphere. No wonder that in the past it was used as a place for meditation.  The beautiful roof shaped like an half-folded umbrella is one of my favourite features of this church and it indicates an Armenian influence. Just think of the mix of cultures in this small corner of the world. For example, the part of the town on the hill used to be Christian, while the part on the flat land was Ottoman. 

Another picture of Sveti Jovan Kaneo

I reached the church after a short and pleasant hike from the old town. After a gentle bend I saw the church appear in the distance. There weren't too many people (it really depends on the moment of the day) and I spent some time on the hill above the church looking at the perfect view and reading. A woman was painting and every now and then a small group of tourists would come, admire the church and leave after a short time. 

Sveti Jovan from the bend in the road
Nearby there is also a small beach with a couple of restaurants: just the perfect place to chill out. As Ohrid is dotted with monasteries and ancient churches, I kept exploring: I discovered that the church of Saint Penteleimon hosted the first students of the Glagolitic alphabet, which in time became the Cyrill script of Macedonian and other Slavic languages. 

I also ran into the ruins of a fortress, Car Samuil, with an  impressive view, and later into an ancient amphitheater. There is so much to explore that you if you like history like me you'll not get bored. The weather was exceptional and every two minutes there was something to stop for: a nice view, a historical site or a scene of everyday Macdonian life.

Landscape in the old town
The town itself is crumbling in places, but incredibly fascinating. Here old Ottoman traditions meet the Christian Orthodox world. Its cobbled streets all lead to the main square, with a huge tree that is said to be 900 years old. The menus in the restaurants around the square and the bazaar included stuffed peppers, shopska salata, sarma dumplings and other Macedonian specialities.

Charming Ohrid

Ohrid is a small town, so on the second day, having explored every nook and cranny, I decided to take a day trip to Sveti Naum monastery. There is a ferry that leaves at 10 in the morning from the pier and for 10€ takes you there, then comes back after lunch. I discovered that Lake Ohrid was one of Tito's favourite parts of Yugoslavia (he had a villa here) and in the meantime I observed the less developed Albanian side of the lake. 

When I was around Sveti Naum there was an important wedding and even the president of Macedonia was present. The entry to the monastery was 100 dinars (1,60€). It is tiny and dark, as it is inside Sveti Jovan Kaneo church, but the frescoes were somehow fascinating.

Sveti Naum monastery
There were peacocks in the courtyard and some girls were rehearsing a traditional folk dance for the wedding.  There is also another newer church that I liked, some hiking trails, a spring and a couple of restaurants and souvenir shops. It's a nice trip but maybe it would have been better to couple it with something else to fill up the rest of the day.

The newer church near Sveti Naum

I reached Ohrid with a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Skopje. If you're planning to visit this beautiful lake keep in mind that it's tricky to continue on to Greece, and in my experience it was easier to get a bus back to Skopje and then another one to Thessaloniki. If I remember well there is more than one company that servers the route Skopje - Ohrid, so one stand could not be able to tell you the timetable for the other company and try to sell you their ticket only.

A view from behind the fortress

Monday, 20 March 2017

Four enchanted places you should visit right now

1) Chefchaouen

Believe me when I say that I love Morocco, but I must recognize that in big cities like Fez or Marrakesh you can easily feel overwhelmed. The strong smells and the chaos of the medina, the touts, or simply the amount of people walking down the street can make you feel like you've already had enough of this country. In that case a good idea is to spend a few days in Chefchaouen, a small quiet town nestled in the hills of northern Morocco.

A quiet street in the medina
There I just walked around, taking ridiculously gorgeous pictures, and shopping for Moroccan slippers or scarfs without feeling the pressure of the vendors in bigger towns. The walls of the medina are painted a deep blue and even the doors, the stone stairs and the furniture are often blue. 

Men wear the traditional djellaba and look like mysterious wizards, as if they were the last of a disappearing population of magical beings. In Chefchaouen I found people to be extremely welcoming and I appreciated the fact that children could play happily on the quiet streets and small squares. 

Add that to the fact that there are great hiking possibilities all around and you have your perfect Moroccan getaway from the bustling city life of Moroccan cities.

Read more about Chefchaouen in this post from April 2015.

2) Bled

Did you ever wonder what the place where Snow White and Prince Charming come from might look like? I think it must look like Bled.

Lake Bled
If you've never heard of this lake, maybe it's because it is found in a tiny and relatively unknown European country called Slovenia. Other than being the birthplace of Melania Trump, this Alpine country is little known. In a novel by Paulo Coelho a librarian from the capital Ljubljiana decides to commit suicide after reading an article in a magazine about her country, making people believe that she did it because people don't even know where Slovenia is.

Lake Bled seen from the castle
I have a plan to visit Bled in every season: in winter with snow, in autumn with yellow leaves and in spring with flowers in bloom. I have already been in the summer and it is gorgeous: I cannot think of a better country than Slovenia to breathe some fresh air and rest your eyes with a palette of colours unlike that of any other country.

Read more about Bled and Slovenia in this post, which is actually the first one I wrote on this blog.

3) Sintra

In "Journey to Portugal" Saramago described this small town a few kilometers from Lisbon: as an "English folly, paid for by the cloth trade ...  a monument to an age that had every taste imaginable, but never really defined any of them ....  eclectic to the point of eccentricity .... As empires dominated the world economically, they amused themselves with alien cultures". 

Palacio da Pena
Sintra resembles the dream of a king that went slightly mad  at the end of his life.  Several royal palaces dot the hilly landscape, each one slightly crazier than the other. Some elements are Gothic, others call back to traditional Muslim architecture, or to the Portuguese Manueline style. As if this wasn't enough, mysterious gargoyles look at you from weird angles.

Palacio da Pena

The most charming palace according to me is Quinta da Regaleira, especially the Gothic-style gardens. I spent a couple of hours exploring the grottoes, the statues and the ponds, wondering what the upside-down staircase might mean and feeling that every pinnacle and gargoyle has a secret to reveal.

The gardens of Quinta da Regaleira

If palaces are not your thing in the small town the charming yellow-trimmed houses are a pleasure for the eyes, and the streets bear the names of the writers and artists who tread and wrote about this place, including Lord Byron. 

Read more about my trip to Sintra in December 2015 here.

4) Ait-Benhaddou

I know, I'm listing Morocco twice in this list, but it's merely because that country of djinns is literally bewitching. Moreover Ait-Benhaddou is one of the most incredible places I have been to.
Ait Benhaddou
You may have seen it as the location for countless movies and TV shows, including as Yunkai in Game of Thrones. It is usually portrayed as a city made of sand that appears like a mirage in the middle of the desert. And that is actually what it is: a particularly good-looking ksar that is not completely abandoned and that is at the edge of the desert. The Touareg guides in blue turbans lead the way into a magic world, where you may find anything from Ali Baba's lamp to an ancient amulet.
A berber guide in Ait Benhaddou
This was one of the highlights of my trip to Morocco. It is a perfect stop on the way to the Sahara desert and it is a good opportunity to learn about the ancient trade routes that pass through this part of the world.
Souvenirs in Ait Benhaddou
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