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Locanda la Pieve- Home in the heart of Tuscany

Anjali Venugopal October 9, 2018 3 COMMENTS

Travel for us, I realize, is not all about discovering the untainted slices of nature or about the secluded spots in the old towns; not just finding tiny coffee shops in quaint alleyways with the scent of finely brewed coffee and freshly baked cookies wafting out of the door; not just about exploring the woods where the birds sing and the leaves rustle in the cool afternoon breeze; and not just about the long drives through the countryside, by the fields of barley or the golden sunflowers, by the turquoise ocean or through the plains under the starry midnight sky. As much as we love each of these little joys associated with the kind of travel plans we make, I realize there is one other major factor that has made each of our little trips to various corners of the world happier, warmer and more memorable. The people.

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When we planned our trip to the south of Tuscany a few months ago, we knew exactly what we wanted. A little boutique hotel in a tiny village somewhere far away from the Chiantis and the Sienas and the Florences and the herds of tourists associated with those names. Somewhere we could celebrate my 29th birthday in peace. Somewhere simple, fuss free and unpretentious. Somewhere happy. After going through a heap of suggestions (you know there is never a dearth of hotels and wineries in the region), we found this one suggestion that somehow felt like it was beckoning to us. Locanda la Pieve.

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Nuzzled in one of the narrow lanes of the quiet and pretty village of Semproniano in the Grossetta province of Tuscany, Locanda la Pieve is a quaint boutique hotel run by the sweetest couple, Enrico and Angela. Enrico manages the kitchen and is the head chef while Angela wears the many other hats. Just as we arrived, Angela was there to welcome us and we could sense the love and the warmth that goes into the running of this hotel. Somehow, we knew straightaway that this place spelt out H-O-M-E like no other.

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Location: Semproniano is the perfect spot if you want a quiet nook to spend a few days while you roam around the region tasting wine, relaxing under the trees, exploring the villages nearby or driving around the countryside. It is about an hour and a half away from Rome and is equidistant from the Tuscan mountain towns and the seashore. The proximity to the thermal spa at Saturnia adds to the advantages picking this spot for your glorious Tuscan holiday.

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Décor: Locanda la Pieve is all about an experience reminiscent of your own home. The décor is simple, warm and comfortable. Be it the cozy furnishings at the entrance or the pretty dining area with the morning light streaming in through the thin white curtains, or even the cozy living corner where you can read a book or chat while sipping on a glass of Prosecco which Angela lovingly offers to bring for you, when you loiter around the kitchen, while you wait for the yummy dinner to be served. The rooms, again, are unpretentious, comfortable and leaves nothing to be desired, with the windows opening into the quiet lanes of beautiful Semproniano.

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Food: Good Lord the food! Enrico weaves magic with his food, I kid you not. Locanda la Pieve uses only fresh, organic and seasonal produce (this is a philosophy that they swear by) and this becomes evident with every bite you take of the food that is served with love that is not experienced very often outside our homes. Both breakfast (complimentary) and dinner (upon request) is provided to the residents. There is no menu to choose from and I felt this was the best part about our meals there. Dinner comprises anything Enrico whips up using the freshest produce purchased from the local farmer; surprise antipasti, first course, second course and dessert, every day, each vying for the top spot in every meal. It has been two days since I last had a meal from their kitchen and believe me, my mouth is flooded at the mere thought of their handmade Pici in garlic and tomato sauce or my birthday dinner there. Yummm. Oh and ask Angela for wine recommendations!

People: If there is absolutely anything that the food at Locanda la Pieve would take second place to, it’s the kind of people that run this little place. It is their home that they open up to the public and they make you feel so welcome that it’s difficult to say goodbye and return to normalcy. I still remember what Angela said when she came with a steel tray laden with two glasses of Prosecco, some beautiful olives and some munchies. She set the tray down and said with a warm smile “Welcome! But this is the last time we say welcome and you say thank you. Familia, okay?” and she meant every word.

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We have stayed at a number of hotels, home stays and the like in many different corners of the world. But somehow, Angela and Enrico will forever have a special place in our hearts. Something about the way she looks at you when you struggle to finish the plate of food (only because I have a tiny stomach and the portions are super generous haha), something about the way they greet you first thing early in the morning, the stories, something about the care they took to make sure my birthday was perfect, the little bag of cookies she baked specially for me, the “no munchies with your Prosecco today, or you will not eat dinner”, everything.

Something tells me that we have left a piece of our souls in Semproniano, and that we have found for ourselves a home in Italy that we will need to keep going back to and friends to keep for a lifetime. Thank you Angela and Enrico for the absolutely lovely experience! Cannot wait to come right back 🙂

PS: This is not a paid post or an advertisement. I mean every word and I feel the world deserves to experience the warmth and hospitality Locanda la Pieve has in store.

 

 

 

La Almunia Del Valle- Living the Andalusian Dream

Anjali Venugopal June 13, 2018 NO COMMENTS

Picture this.

You wake up right before the sun; while the skies still sport the last stages of blue before the dawn breaks. You get yourself out of that warm, cozy bed to step out of your room. And the first thing to greet you in the morning is the majestic and absolutely breathtaking Sierra Nevada with the rising sun gently lending to the sky every shade of pink and orange imaginable. You feel the cool breeze on your face and there’s not a sound but for the smooth ruffle of the trees all around or maybe the birds in the distance singing to celebrate the arrival of yet another glorious day in beautiful Andalusia. This is just the beginning of what La Almunia del Valle has to offer.

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It is not the best kept secret that both the husband and I are real suckers for luxury. Couple the luxury with reasonable prices, minimum tourists, serenity, nature and wine, you’d have found two very content souls. It is with this objective that we realized that boutique hotels in quaint, unheard of locations are where our hearts are the happiest and it is with this reason that we try to stay the farthest away from the cities, the noise, the glitz and the glamour every time we can. The experiences at the Marriotts, the Hyatts and the like have always felt like the run of the mill when placed in comparison with the experiences we have taken back from quaint, family run boutique hotels in many parts of the world; experiences that we relive and rewind in our heads over and over again and which make for great conversation while we lay in bed every night, right before we drift off to sleep. La Almunia del Valle is no exception and let me tell you why.

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La Almunia Del Valle is nuzzled somewhere on the hillside in the dreamy village of Monachil. The village is straight out of a picture book. Green, sprawling mountains all around; low branches of trees hanging lovingly over the little stream gushing impatiently by; narrow, winding roads lined by primroses and yellow wildflowers aplenty; olive trees exuding their beautiful scent; cute cottages right out of a fairy tale with sloping roofs, traditional chimneys with silvery wisps of smoke wafting out and well-kept gardens where chickens pecked around; the crisp and cool summer breeze; the glorious Sierra Nevada all around for as far as the eye can reach.

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Location and property:

The hotel is the definition of charming with a side of homey and picturesque. Situated in a breathtakingly beautiful spot on the hillside, overlooking the Sierra Nevada mountain range, La Almunia Del Valle is everything your mind, body and soul needs.

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The hotel has a pretty spacious property, every corner of which speaks volumes about how well it is cared for. The trees, the lawns, the gardens with all the flowers, everything. The pool overlooking the mountains with pool chairs lined all around deserves a special mention. Especially for all those days you want to take a dip and relax by the pool, reading a book and sipping on cold beer after. And each time you look up from your book, you have the mountains steadily gazing back at you. Heaven.

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Their terrace overlooking the mountains was indeed my favourite spot and with good reason. You can sit for hours at a stretch there, sipping on a glass of incredible Spanish wine and watch as the sun bids goodbye to the day. You can sit in absolute silence punctuated occasionally by the sound of church bells that comes drifting by with the evening breeze, or the murmur of a pick-up truck engine somewhere on the other side of the mountains that will reach you long after it’s gone on its way.

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Interiors and decor:

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The rooms are extremely comfortable and minimally and tastefully decked up. Be it the large, comfy bed or the soft pillows, the books (both English and Spanish!) stacked by the bed side, the warm lamps, candles, it was evident how much thought had gone into each of the aspects.

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Something else about this hotel that caught my fancy was that there is no dedicated restaurant. It is just a large common space/room with wooden floors and furnished with comfortable arm chairs, sofas, a beautiful fireplace, book shelves stacked with books of all kinds, and few tables and chairs for when it’s meal time; adding even more to the “feel at home” vibe.

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Food and drink

The breakfast in the hotel is complimentary with the room. Get yourselves some warm bread, homemade cakes, chorizos, eggs, bacon or sausages and grab a glass of that divine orange juice and settle into the comfy nook on the terrace. The breakfast is simple, homemade and tasty; not with a million options but everything made with love and care.

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Dinner is available only on request. The menu is preset and they prepare the meal only for the exact number of people who place a booking. The dinner is available only for house guests and is prepared with ingredients freshly and locally sourced from the village market. We had the in house dinner one evening and it was as tasty as what you would expect out of a home kitchen.

Now for the drinks. The in-house bar keeps a list of carefully handpicked Spanish wines and Cava among other liqueurs. Needless to say we went to town with some glorious Spanish white wine while chatting away about old times and new, while comfortably seated facing the mighty mountains, and even a bottle of Cava which was on the house.

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It has been more than a month since we visited this absolutely stunning hotel and I still feel like I am living in the hangover from the mesmerizing experience it was. I still feels like I have left a part of my soul somewhere in the countryside there- with the wildflowers and the olive trees; in the wilderness; in the mountains. This is the place to unwind, to get a grip of your own being, to calm your soul, to be one with nature and to make memories.

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PS: They have the cutest dog, Fermin and the priciest cat, Clyde in the history of time. Those two were the highlights of our visit and we miss those snuggles even today.

Mexico City: for the love of colour, culture, history and gastronomy!

Anjali Venugopal February 25, 2018 1 COMMENTS

As you might have noticed, the Husband and I thrive on peace and quiet and strive to stay the farthest away from the noises and the cacophony offered by city life in general, while we can. This means even when we pick our holiday destinations, more often than not, we try to pick places that fit our description of ‘picturesque’ with a side of amazing food and drink. Having said that, Mexico made an entry on my list of ‘beautiful specks on the globe to experience before I die’ long before I remember and had stuck on ever since; ever since the six-year-old me breathed Mexico vicariously through a few characters (a scarecrow and his three bird friends) I have known and loved so dearly, who had paid this beautiful country a visit in one of the books from the series that came as a gift from mum and dad during my childhood. So, naturally when an opportunity came-a-knocking to visit Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, that provides beautiful, fertile ground for history, culture and food, you bet we pounced on it.

Thus began the journey to to the Mexican soil. It does not take much to guess that the journey was rather long and cumbersome, given the fact that we had to fly half way across the planet from Vienna to Mexico City. I’m not venturing into any of the insignificant, yet atrociously tiresome events that took shape during the time spent traversing from Vienna to Madrid to Mexico City. Just does not fit in to the larger, colourful picture of memories painted by the vibrant and effervescent city that is Ciudad de Mexico.

So. Touchdown CDMX.

The moment we landed in Mexico City, I felt the city exuded vibes that reminded me of good old Mumbai. Maybe it was the hustle and bustle at the airport, or maybe even the warmth of the people around, or possibly the crazy after work hours’ traffic on a Friday night. Or was it just the ever familiar stench that welcomed us just as we stepped out of the airport; the same kind that screams out ‘developing nation’ to you; the same smell that overpowers everything else around the Bandra Worli sea link, which leaves you confused without knowing what exactly to attribute it to.

The first impression that CDMX painted for us on the Friday evening as we landed was one that was reminiscent of many large cities in the emerging world; sky scrapers all around, people clothed in office wear scurrying about probably hoping to get a couple of after-work drinks to welcome the arrival of the weekend, brightly lit street food outlets enticing you with whiffs of hot tacos, teens in their flashy outfits and dolled up faces sporting bright pouts, homeless people waiting by the road sides hoping to make a few coins by cleaning windscreens of the cars that stop at the traffic light despite the impatient honks and angry yells meted out to them, children clad in torn, grey rags begging for food from passersby, the flower vendors seated amidst lovely hues of yellows, pinks and reds. Somehow, everything felt strangely familiar at first.

But the rest of the week that I spent in the city taught me that I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong. There’s something so mysteriously beautiful about getting to visit a foreign land; exploring the alleyways, the local markets, lesser known food joints where the locals relish their daily grub. It is invariably behind the rosy facades of glamorous city life that the real soul and essence of the place lives; always beyond that posh restaurant where you are socially obliged to wear your best dress, the red lips and those pointed heels while you sip on that Dirty Martini with indiscrete fervour that the real, unabashed culinary skills of the place hide; and always beyond the Marriots and the Sheratons that you find the eyes that twinkle with sheer joy whilst you enjoy that cup of coffee ever so lovingly served despite the greatest of language barriers. So, this is going to be a virtual tour around everything food that caught my fancy in a city that grows on you with every passing moment; a city that has a little bit of everything to offer.

  1. Mercado de Jamaica or the Jamaica Market (pronounced as Ha-maica ‘cause well, Jalapenos)- One of the biggest, traditional local markets in the city known for its fresh produce such as veggies, meat and above all, for its flowers. Jamaica (meaning Hibiscus in Spanish) Market houses about 1000 flower vendors without counting hundreds of other vendors selling meat, spices and vegetables. This sprawling indoor market was rather fascinating for me considering most market concepts in India are outdoor with the vendors squatting next to their produce in the Sun.

The market also has a full section dedicated to Piñatas (the papier-mâché containers typical to Mexico, which are filled with candy and burst during celebrations. Read about it, the history is beyond fascinating) which come in hundreds of shapes, sizes and colours.

Within the walls of Jamaica Market is another universe altogether- the bustling of hardworking businessmen, the smell of fresh produce, the colours, the noise, the smiles. Never ending rows of peppers in every shade of green, orange and red beautifully arranged, spice vendors and flower vendors selling possibly every single flower you would have heard of in all the years you’ve spent living. But the real deal for me was (hands down!) the local food that is sold in the market.

There are a couple of sweet local women who sit right at the entrance of the market selling hot Champurrado (a drink that is made of corn, chocolate and cinnamon) in large earthen pots with bright blue lids that caught my eye and quesadillas made of Blue Corn (also known as Hopi Maize) which is typical to Mexican Cuisine.

The two options available for quesedillas were both vegetarian surprisingly- pumpkin blossoms or Huitlacoche which is also known as hongo de maiz which is a sort of Mexican corn fungus; a delicacy in this part of the world and yet, considered to be ‘plague’ in others. Fascinating, isn’t it? We had a taste of both and were pleasantly surprised. Nothing like tasting absolutely alien flavours, of course, under the guidance of cheery locals. Don’t be disgusted as yet because the quesadillas are yummy and the warm Champurrado surprisingly light and refreshing especially with the slight nip in the January air.

Another quick halt was at the little stall/shack in the market that is famous for (and rightfully so) for their bright green chorizo. One look at the stall and you know the food has to be top notch thanks to the fast moving crowd that is tirelessly catered to by the owner (a round man with a moustache and a happy face) and his two accomplices. The bright green chorizo gets its vibrant hue because of the ground pumpkin seeds that are added to the meat. I could do the whole journey to CDMX in a heartbeat just for a piece of that lip smacking chorizo wrapped in a soft tortilla and topped with freshly chopped cilantro, onions and that heavenly salsa verde.

  1. La Guapachosa- We had spent almost the entire first half of the day exploring the market; touching and feeling the freshness of the produce, gaping at the sheer artistry behind the thousands of flower arrangements, making (or rather trying to make) conversation with the vendors. So, come late afternoon we were quite weary and all we wanted to do was to chill with a couple of beers in a local spot and voila! La Guapachosa. Placed bang at the intersection of two perpendicular roads, this little pub/restaurant feels like a page out of a Mexican picture book. Everything about this unassuming joint is everything you’d hope/expect Mexico to be. Absolutely unpretentious and airy interiors with brightly painted walls and furniture, dim lighting, Spanish music that just does what it does to your hips, super friendly staff with big smiles plastered on their faces, great food and oh.. amazing craft beer. Their cocktails that kept floating about to the tables around also looked pretty damn nice I have to say. Certainly worth a visit if you are to find yourselves in Mexico City.
  1. El Pendulo- This café/bar is straight out of my dreams, let me establish that bit before everything else. Finding El Pendulo was serendipity at her finest. A cute café/bar in a breathtakingly beautiful book store. Breathtaking because of the number and selection of books coupled with how tastefully the whole place is done up. Imagine sitting in a bookstore alone, in a soft, comfy couch sipping on a pretty cocktail while you flip through the pages of a book so captivating that you can barely feel your limbs, because you’re just drifting farther and farther away into the world the writer weaves with every word. That is El Pendulo for you. The absolute best place for lone dates, unwinding, great beer, cocktails and super tasty Chilaquiles (crispy tortillas and shredded meat in a yummy cheese and chili sauce).
  1. Casa de Tono- This little joint is one the locals swear by and I knew exactly why, after a meal there. Walked into this very basic restaurant on a sunny afternoon while exploring that side of town on my own. There is absolutely nothing fancy about the interiors. Just a bunch of smiling faces ever ready to serve you with some authentic and downright local Mexican cuisine. They spoke zero English but still managed to have a conversation with me despite my Spanish that begins at Hola and ends abruptly at gracias; muchas gracias if I’m feeling fancy. That is how sweet the people are. Now for the food. My meal there comprised a plate of enchilada de pollo, a cold Corona and a lovely flan. Let me take a deep breath while I prepare myself to recollect that plate of divine enchiladas in that green salsa. Holy Moly that was hands down the best plate of enchiladas I have tasted to date. Top it with some of their incredible Habanero salsa, this is probably what heaven tastes like. However, beware! Their portions are enormous (forced me to stealthily unbutton my jeans AND waste half my beer. Oh the sacrilege!) Nevertheless, when in CDMX, Casa de Tono is a must MUST visit for authentic Mexican flavours.
  1. Mercado del Carmen- A wonderful concept which got me wishing that it was more popular all the world over. Mercado del Carmen is something like a food court but nothing close to the drab mall/multiplex food court pictures that pop up in your head almost instantly. A large hall of sorts, beautifully lit with warm, pretty lights, with food and alcohol outlets all around. There are big, wooden tables and benches arranged in the center. You have a great deal of options for food – steaks, Spanish food, Greek food, burgers, Mexican etc. And even a cocktail bar and a craft beer counter. It’s a place where people can chill for hours on end, maybe grab a snack or a cold beer while you chat away and still be spoilt for choices as far as main course is concerned. We had a super yummy Paella with a Mexican twang to it; your regular Paella, just with generous amounts of pork and chorizo in there. What’s there not to like, right?
  1. El Cardenal- For the days you’re feeling fancy. A gorgeous old house that has been converted into a classy restaurant, El Cardenal certainly lived up to the reviews on Trip Advisor. We had some traditional moles (the curry counterparts in Mexico. And made with a great variety of ingredients, some even as eyebrow raising as chocolate!) served with rice, which were outstanding but the real deal was the Flan that came in the end. Flan is somewhat like the Caramel Custard we are used to in India. A steamed dessert made of condensed milk, eggs and caramel. No words, best Flan yet. Period. Go to El Cardenal for the beautiful décor, the brilliant food and the God of Flan things. (sorry!)
  1. La Llorena Cantina- If I ever do own a café/bar, I am pretty sure it’s gonna look like La Llorena Cantina. The tastefully done cyan interiors, the indoor plants creeping across the ceiling, the comfortable wooden furniture, the fairy lights and the cute looking bar makes you want to spend hours at a stretch there and no prizes for guessing that’s exactly what I did there. Chanced upon this beauty of a place one late afternoon after a museum visit, as I was looking for a quiet nook to spend some time reading a book and hopefully sit by a window and sip on a cold beer (yes, I love beer and apart from white wine, that’s all I drink. Hope your doubts have been cleared haha.) And La Llorena Cantina was just perfect and delightful. Given the timing, I was the only one around apart from the cheery young boy and the owner of the joint, an attractive young lady sporting a very chic hairdo. Both of them were very warm and friendly and the boy even made it a point to check on me every now and then to make sure I wasn’t lonely I reckon. They have some amazing craft beer which I thoroughly enjoyed. I wasn’t exactly planning to eat there but the sweethearts they were, served a plate of yummy tostadas topped with guacamole, beans and deliciously spiced shredded chicken. And that too on the house! They also insisted that I try out some of their authentic Mexican Mezcal and gave me a shot, again on the house. They are supposedly known for their amazing Mezcal cocktails. Too bad I didn’t give them cocktails a try. I must stop but I absolutely loved La Llorena Cantina.

These were the places that caught my the most on our week long Mexican sojourn. But be informed, food is not all we did. Although it’s always the food on our trips that tickles the writer bone in me. There’s something indeed fulfilling for me when I put my culinary adventures to paper and I reckon you should know that by now. But having said that, here is a little sneak peek into some of the best moments spent in a place, the memories of which will forever be etched in my memory.

The Teotihuacan Pyramis

The National Museum of Anthropologie

Sightseeing around the city

Mercado de Ciudadadela (Market dedicated solely to ware sold by local artisans)

 

So, that’s about it about CDMX. Please as always write to me with all your thought. Until next time, ciao! 🙂

Montelparo: A slice of Italy’s best kept secret

Anjali Venugopal August 21, 2017 2 COMMENTS

Being two souls who have never taken to the glitter and the glamour of city life (honestly quite repulsed by it) or the crowd and noise that comes along with it, the Husband and I are eternally in pursuit of places where we can be in sync with nature, far, far away from the madding crowd; where we can sip on some wine, under the blue skies or just as much as while away time under the trees while the sun shines, listening to the sparrows chirping away. If not for these spots that let us be one with nature, it has to be the timeworn, quiet townships with majestic buildings, their grey walls that have stories to tell from the innumerable winters they have witnessed and withstood; with the narrow, cobbled streets that make for countless alleyways. We have invariably turned to the peace, the quiet and the warmth of the countryside whenever we have felt the need to unwind or to get the calm in our systems restored.

It was during one of those erratic work weeks that the Husband and I chanced upon, on the internet, this tiny village somewhere on the hills in the lush Italian countryside; Montelparo. Nestled between the sprawling Apennine Mountains and the calm Adriatic Sea that reminds you of a sheet of cornflowers in full bloom, in the eastern Italian region of Le Marche, Montelparo deserves a lot more literature dedicated to her beauty and serenity than what exists currently. Here we got our share of the countryside with a side of the old, rustic, old town feel. It is not without reason that the insiders refer to Le Marche as “Italy’s best kept secret.”

A quick survey on the internet told us that the fastest way to get to this quaint village on the hills is by car, and voila! We flew to Rome and then rented a Fiat Panda, all set to discover parts of lo stivale which seemed to be unheard of even by the locals. So, with our small suitcases stowed away in the boot, a full petrol tank, route downloaded on Google maps, sunglasses and a bottle of water, we set out on our own mini adventure as early as 7 in the morn. The drive was not supposed to take us any more than three hours as per Google maps. And lo and behold, the drive was one right out of the movies; where the lead characters drive their supercars through the highways lined with the lush green grass, with the towering mountains in the background set against the azure skies with clouds that remind us of cotton candy from the carnivals. The sole difference in our case was that, we did not look anything like the said lead characters; sporting our just-out-of-bed looks, in oversized tees, sneakers and worn out pairs of shorts. So glamourous.. NOT!

The drive was easily the best we have done to date. It was my first time in Italy but no book or research on the internet had me prepared for the beauty that she is. There was this point during the drive that we realized that we were not even talking and instead we were both just gazing endlessly out of the windows as though out of the sheer desperation to hold on to every moment that was flashing by, right in front of our eyes. Talk about living in the moment. There was a stretch of the highway that ran adjacent to the coastline to the Adriatic Sea; the water so blue that it almost made us feel like we were cast in an animated Disney flick. We stopped at one of the quiet coves at Pedaso, for a short break in the sun before we started to ascend the hills to get to Montelparo. We sat by the cove with our feet in the blue water, while the warm sun shone on our bare backs. With our batteries charged, we were ready to get back on the winding road to the village we had been reading about.

We drove by vast fields of golden sunflowers (remember Sting and his gruff voice, although he was referring to fields of barley, what a pity) smiling away at us as we whizzed past, through the narrow hill roads, by the white wooden board with ‘Montelparo’ painted on it in black. We had arrived.

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A tiny village on the hills, with houses, the lone church and bungalows, all built in an identical stone that was a light brown in colour; dark cobbled streets running past all these dainty structures; a piazza to serve as a parking area for the entire village (just to shed more light on how tiny the village is); and the utterly breathtaking view. The whole village is so high up that you can see the vast expanse of the countryside laying in front of you for as far as your eye can reach; the green of the surrounding hills, the sunlight bouncing off the valleys, the stone chapel in the distance, the trees; all set against the canvas lent by the blue skies.

We had already made reservations in a cozy looking hotel going by the pictures and the reviews on the internet; Boutique Hotel Leone. Run by the sweetest British couple Madeline and Tim, our experience at Leone was not a step behind perfect, right from the moment we set foot in that cool, airy, stone structure that houses the hotel that fits the picturesque background like a well-fitting glove. The holiday hangover that I am currently experiencing, even after a good one week after the Italian sojourn does not let me keep for later the fact that the whole show behind this luxury hotel is put up by none other than these two adorable individuals. A luxury hotel, with just 8 rooms, the amount of research that must have gone into each of the factors that makes this charming little place an experience in itself, seems unfathomable.

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Madeline who was once an accountant is the one who seemingly runs most of the front desk and administrative work, while Tim is the head chef. Just as we entered we were welcomed by the two of them personally, with the warmth one would expect only from family or long lost friends. After a brief chit chat, Madeline showed us to our room and holy moly! Considering the perfection with which Hotel Leone operates, I cannot help but talk about each of the factors that made the experience arguably the best we have had in a long, long time. So here goes.

  • Décor: Boutique Hotel Leone spelt out two words for me right at the first instance; warm and tasteful. Normally, these are not two adjectives I would expect to go side by side in a hotel environment. But Leone had it all. The furniture, the rooms, the setting the cute little bar, the terrace overlooking the spectacular view, the restaurant, the indoor part of which gives you vibes from no less than an old Scottish castle with the white washed, stone walls and the beautiful dim lighting, spelt out ‘class’. Another aspect that quite caught my fancy was the common living area for the residents, painted in a beautiful hue of fresh green, furnished with a few comfortable armchairs and sofas and adorned with those classic lampshades; the bookshelves loaded with all sorts of books (cookbooks in particular) reminded me of a scene from a long forgotten storybook.

 

  • Rooms: Even if we choose to ignore the view out of the windows (as difficult as that might be), the rooms in this hotel are worth every penny you spend. It was almost like every single aspect in the rooms were taken with utmost seriousness right at the toddler stages of the hotel; be it the huge comfy beds, the classy furnishings, the spacious bathrooms or even the mini bar for that matter. I must mention the cute complimentary basket that greeted us in the room filled with fresh fruit and some homemade cookies.

 

  • Services: Out of the umpteen hotels we have stayed at, individually and together, Leone is the first place where the rooms were cleaned and the beds made, twice a day; once in the morning and once when you are out for dinner. I mean, how amazing is that! By the time you get back from dinner, your beds will be made, with a little chocolate left for you on the pillow, all ready for you to just snuggle in between the sheets for a good night’s rest.
  • Food & Drink: As I had mentioned, Tim is the head chef in this hotel and he’s a star (for want of a more apt term.) By now, if you have been following my blog for a bit, you must know as to how seriously I take my food. So, take it from me, the food Tim whips up is phenomenal. The Truffle Ravioli that made for our first meal there was just something surreal. The fresh mussles in a white wine, garlic and parsley broth, the Pumpkin Ravioli and the seafood risotto need to be given honourable mentions. As regards drinks, Madeline is a genuine case of wine connoisseur-ness (again might need to apply for an artistic license) and the most helpful of them all. The husband and I love our wine, but do not consider ourselves connoisseurs and for this reason, we kept describing to the lovely Madeline what we were looking for in terms of taste or flavour and the bottles she picked were always absolutely on point.
  • Amenities: Keeping aside the fact that Hotel Leone is situated on a gem of a property, the amenities provided leave no box unchecked. Be it the lavish outdoor pool by the trees, the terrace where you can spend hours gawking at the hills and the valleys in front of you while Madeline treats you to the finest local wine, the restaurant with a stunning outdoor area for the days when the sun is out as well as the cozy indoor area or the bar, Hotel Leone has it all.

 

I realise I can go on forever about this stellar experience that we got to experience out of sheer luck. We were unable to put our finger on even one minute flaw in the whole experience, and that I feel is the result of all the hard work these two lovely individuals have devoted into this project. They had just three staff members whilst we were there. Two lovely interns, who were so on top of their game, making sure every guest is comfortable, warm and friendly at the same time never overstepping the mark even the slightest bit and an efficient and (again) warm, housekeeper. I could not help but notice how even the music played in the restaurant was so on point. That is the attention to detail you can see for yourselves in this little gem.

In case I have left you wondering if all there is to experience in Montelparo is the silence and the beauty of nature, please keep in mind that there are a gazillion old towns in the area accessible by car which are absolutely worth a visit. Also, the beaches are not far at all. Trust Madeline to help you out with all that you will need including maps, directions, recommendations and what not to make your day trips as perfect as your stay.

If ever you do plan to make a visit to the lower part of Italy, and you are looking to spend a bit of time with your loved ones away from the city madness, under the blue skies, sipping on some good wine, head straight to Leone and let Madeline and Tim do what they do best. I promise, you will not be disappointed. 🙂

 

A New York state of mind: food, travel and life as we know it

Anjali Venugopal April 12, 2017 NO COMMENTS

“Some folks like to get away

Take a holiday from the neighbourhood

Hop a flight to Miami Beach or Hollywood

But I’m takin’ a Greyhound on the Hudson River line

I’m in a New York state of mind”

I lived these lines penned by Billy Joel as we set out on our much awaited get away to the ‘city that never sleeps’. Even today, as I sit by these massive glass windows, as the sun comes streaming in, while the corner of my eye catches a glimpse of the pristine white Viennese structures, with windows so artfully carved that one can’t help but silently bless the hands that added one block at a time, to the beauty that surrounds me today, I will shamelessly admit that I am still hungover from the jolt that was New York.

I recall my first time in the city 4 winters ago rather vividly. The fact that I was travelling alone gave me an extra adrenaline rush. I remember being utterly smitten by the sights and the sounds; the blinding lights at Times Square; the residents, diverse in terms of looks but unified by their impeccable sartorial choices, strutting down the streets on a weekday; the way you have to crinkle your eyes in an attempt to scale the towering skyscrapers. The subway spelt out the word ‘busy’ for me. Every average person on the train, leaving aside the occasional gospel preacher (whose victim, yours truly ended up being, for a good half an hour) seemed to sport the same expression on their faces; pensive with a hint of disdain and a teaspoon of misery.

Since I was still in college then and my trip was on a shoestring budget which was sanctioned by my dad after a day’s worth of negotiations, I clearly remember making the choice to eat at food trucks (no regrets) through most of my trip, excluding the occasional beer chugged at the shady looking pub, so that I would still have enough cash to splurge on my own sartorialism. I recollect the way my face froze on the ferry to Staten Island, to witness the Statue of Liberty for the very first time, that it almost felt like ceramic by the time I got my feet back on the land; the sense of utter (un)belonging, if there were such a word, as I walked up and down Wall Street for I always knew that my calling lay at least a thousand yards away from the term ‘finance’. I also remember walking down Times Square, wide eyed, enamored by the lights and the sights and thinking to myself that I would come back sooner if not later.

And so, I did.

This time, a lot seemed to have changed. I was of course older and not much wiser, but married and travelling with my most favourite travel companion. There is indeed something about visiting a new place on your own and then coming back after a few years to pay the place a visit again with your partner. I cannot put my finger on what exactly it is that feels different; maybe it’s the companionship, maybe it’s that scowl on your face when you know you both need to hit mid ground in terms of your ‘live in the moment’ or ‘be spontaneous’ plans versus his complete order in life, maybe it’s just the change in perspective, but the one thing I can tell you is that, it is nothing short of beautiful.

It was also a planned reunion with my soul sisters. Two beautiful women who stand by me through all the battles I fight; two women who laugh with me while we crack the poorest of jokes seventy five times at a stretch; two women who have seen me at my cringe worthy worst, never judging, their steps never faltering.

For some strange reason, I happened to witness NYC in a new light this time. I wasn’t quite blinded by the lights nor was I as wide-eyed as I was when I first set foot in the city. I had always felt that New York had something about it that makes you feel like a sheep in the big city; something that makes you feel meek; insignificant. Something that tends to suck out every bit of life in you, in your eternal attempt to fit in to a social bracket that is merely a figment of your imagination. I feel so, because time is an exceedingly precious commodity there and no one has enough of it to be wasted on something as inconsequential as you. It is almost as though you have to struggle so much to keep up with the pace at which the city glides that you are left with severe palpitations. If you pay close attention to the people around, you can just about see the slight grey tinge tarnishing their façades that look like they are effortlessly holding their heads above the water. I could sense the pressure that was built up in society to look a particular way, even feel a particular way. I tend to feel a slight constriction in my windpipe when feelings and emotions are dictated by societal norms, and I felt that there.

I shall now take a detour and talk about happier things, in fact, the one thing that I find fascinating no matter where I go; the food. This visit did not see me loitering around food trucks or other street eateries. Apart from spending quality time with my girlies, the sole purpose of my visit was to find a couple of places that would leave a lasting imprint on my palate and you bet I did. Considering the amazing diversity in the population gifted to this massive city, the vast number of incredible eateries offering exquisite varieties of cuisines should come as no surprise. I take this opportunity to confess that I did not chase after great burger joints during my stint there (yes I know, NYC, burger, beer, yada yada yada) and that is mainly for two reasons. One, I am not the biggest burger fan coupled with the fact that I have already found my go-to burger joint here in Vienna, that satiates my burger craving, without leaving any room for error, as and when it knocks. Two, if you are the die-hard burgerholic (just had to resort to a cliche, for want of a better word), you don’t need me to write about it since enough, if not too much has already been said and written on the best burger joints in NYC by other seasoned burgerholics.

So, I shall proceed to take you on a virtual gastronomical tour to a few of the places that left indelible marks on my palate.

1. Laut Malaysian/Singapore Kitchen: One of the first Malaysian restaurants in NYC to be awarded a Michelin Star, Laut was the definition of the usage “blew me away” and I could not possibly emphasize it enough. Although this list is in no particular order, I cannot help but place this restaurant, that gives off a mini Malaysian food street vibe, right at the top. Quite contrary to the popular notion on what Michelin Star restaurants should look and feel like, Laut is a welcome change. The place has a lovely, jovial ambience with people chattering away to their hearts content while digging into yummy looking plates of food, which works best for someone like me who prefers a relaxed, comfortable environment to a place that makes you feel like even the cutlery is judging you.

Even the food was so heartily presented and that I feel deserves more credit that it gets, since it helps in building an appetite in me, as opposed to the fancy-schmancy, sometimes bordering on over-the-top plating which makes me rethink my life choices. But hey! That’s strictly a personal opinion. As I keep harping time and again, I feel food is supposed to bring you joy; it is something that should fill your tummy and your soul. The food at Laut ticked all these boxes for me as I could taste the love and the sheer effort that had gone behind the preparation of every bite on our plates.

What we ordered:

Singapore Chili Crab– Crispy fried, soft shelled crabs dunked in a lovely, sweet and sour chili sauce with a dropped egg adding wonders to the velvety texture of the sauce. Served with fried and steamed Manatau. It would be a crime if you were to walk out of Laut without giving this dish a go. Period.

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Nasi Goreng: Nasi Goreng translates to ‘fried rice’ is Indonesian and Malay and is a popular main dish in those areas. The Nasi Goreng served at Laut, with sumptuous amounts of shrimp was by far the best I have had in a long time. The explosion of flavor in my mouth after the first bite will not be forgotten that easily. Huge hit.

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Nasi Lemak: Considered to be the national dish of Malaysia, the Nasi Lemak yet again was nothing short of amazing. This was a plateful of food comprising rice, some pineapple sambal, dried anchovies fried, some pickled prawns and succulent pieces of chicken coated in a thick gravy, somewhat resembling a ‘roast’ as the term would mean in south India.

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Young Coconut Pudding– The soufflé which was filled into an actual green coconut got my thumbs up even before I tasted it for the sheer beauty in presentation. And when I did taste it, boy oh boy, the silky texture of the soufflé with the right amount of sweetness made it so refreshing and light on the tummy that it felt like the perfect way to end such an incredible meal.

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Having said all this, if you have an inkling at the back of your mind that this meal (along with other appetizers) would have cost us a fortune, please rest assured that you are thoroughly mistaken. The Michelin Star is solely in terms of food quality and this is yet another feather on Laut’s cap.

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2. Sigiri: This unassuming nook placed on quite an insignificant location on 1st Ave and specializing in authentic Sri Lankan cuisine deserves its own dot on the world map for the brilliant, spicy food it serves. This is a place that focuses solely on the quality of food. The ambience is plain and minimalistic although clean and well kept.

What we ordered:

The Black Chicken Curry and the Fish Curry, both of which were spicy and so full of flavor. The chicken was cooked in fried coconut and has sumptuous amounts of whole spices infused in to the gravy and this got along beautifully with the plate of hot white rice. The fish was cooked in a tamarind paste with basic masala simmered in a thin coconut milk and this reminded me of South Indian cuisine in parts. We ended the meal with a plate of homemade caramel custard which was on the house (additional delight). Must visit for all spicy food lovers!

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3. BCD Tofu House: Impeccable Korean food. Period. This was one of the last meals we had in the city and for this reason I cannot stop thinking about it. The fact that this spacious restaurant, nestled in Korea Town, was packed on a Friday afternoon speaks volumes about the quality of food.

What we ordered:

Seafood Pancake– A yummy pancake stuffed with all kinds of seafood. Perfect for an appetizer and tasty.

Spicy Pork Bulgogi– This was one of the best pork dishes I have had in a long time and possibly a strong contender for the best Bulgogi I have tasted. This dish comprised succulent shreads of pork in a semi dry, spicy paste served with stick rice and a super spicy seafood (clams, mussels, shrimp, squid), tofu and beef soup. The ‘Tofu’ in the name stands there for a reason I realise and the reason being the silky, melt-in-the-mouth tofu these guys serve. Coming from a person who is not even a fan of tofu, you may want to take me seriously. You can let them know your spice tolerance levels when you order.

WhatsApp Image 2017-04-12 at 18.30.404. Levain Bakery: You haven’t had the best cookie in NYC (or maybe anywhere else on earth for that matter) if you haven’t eaten at Levain Bakery. It can’t get much better than those huge, warm, heavenly cookies oozing chocolate from all sides.

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Special Mentions:

1. Grom– Best hot chocolate ever, I mean seriously. Thick hot chocolate whipped to perfection with a dollop of whipped cream on top. Perfect for those grey, rainy days when all you need is to snuggle under a warm blanket with a book and a cup of this lovely creation.

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2. Sprinkles– The cupcake ATM was super fascinating. Lovely cupcakes with a lot of attention paid to the base cake, which I loved. The butter or cream cheese frosting is a tad too sweet for my liking but certainly worth a solid mention.

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3. BEA– Beautiful looking bar with bare bricked walls and lots of indoor greenery, perfect for a casual date or a night out with friends on the days your wallet does not feel too slim. Haha. Great drinks and average food.

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(image obtained from http://www.beanyc.com/inside/)

Be not fooled into thinking that these are only places we visited in that one week. These are just the places I would want each of you to visit if ever you are to find yourself in New York. I hope you had a good read and don’t forget to let me know your thoughts. 🙂