August 13, 2017

Trek the terre - Cinque Terre




We explored the architectural extravaganza that is Rome and Vatican and then had headed to the beautiful countryside of Tuscany and Umbria. Our last destination would be La Spezia to explore the coastal villages of Cinque Terre. We briefly stopped by Pisa to catch a glimpse of one among the many wonders of the world ( just because I think that there are more than 7 wonders) - The Leaning Tower of Pisa. We took the train to Pisa and had our luggage checked into the baggage area before an approximately 2.5 km walk to the Leaning Tower. We loved the fact that the trains in Italy were well maintained, be it regional, intercity, or the high speed Freccia trains. It was lunch time and we stopped by a restaurant where we fed ourselves on ravioli (yum!!), pasta and finished it off with a panacotta.


























If you have visited the Leaning tower, you sure should have a souvenir to substantiate it - you have endless souvenir shopping choices along the road. Magnets, showpieces, caps, key chains, mugs - it is all there. Walking along the winding ways we made it to the tower and it really is LEANING!

Lanes leading to the leaning tower



During the construction of the tower, it is believed to have tilted because of the instability of the soil and flaws in laying out the foundation. The construction took place over 200 years accommodating the tilt into the architecture. You will be lucky if you can get one decent click of the tower because all around you have people posing for cameras trying to either support the tilt or pushing it to tilt further. (google up for images of the tower with people and you will know what I mean). It was fun watching the people in different poses with various expressions, imagining what the final pic would look like!



We spent a good two and half hours here before taking the train to La Spezia. Our host was kind enough to receive us at the station and drove us all the way to our stay which was on top of a hill. The accommodation and the view from the balcony was simply WOW! It was around 7 pm by the time we stepped out to explore the town of La Spezia - almost all shops were closed by then with the exception of few restaurants. After having a walk around the town, we made it to one of the heavily crowded restaurants - coz where there is a crowd, the food ought to be good! And boy, it was! Gnocchi, Pasta and the cutlets were simply good and the portions huge.



Exploring the town of La Spezia

We were done by 10 pm, and it was all the more colder. We alternated between running and walking back to the hill top house to keep ourselves warm. Looking forward to an exhilarating day at Cinque Terre the next day we made it to the hill top and to the cosy apartment.

As the sunset - view from the balcony

Night view from the Balcony
We began our next morning over a cup of tea enjoying the view from the balcony. Then we set out to the station to get the Cinque Terre pass. This pass covers the access to Cinque Terre national park, hiking trails, trains, bus shuttle. The hiking trails are in the national park, so it is mandatory to have the pass. There are check points on the trails where you’ll have to show the passes. I think you can buy the passes from the check points too. ( all the way more safer to but it at the station itself!)


Cinque means five and Terre means Land. Cinque Terre simply is the land of five ancient fishing villages – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. These coastlines and the surrounding village now form the Cinque Terre National Park and is also an UNESCO heritage site. We took a train along with hundreds of other tourists to Monterosso hoping to catch a good view of the coast line as the train sped by. We had to be disappointed on that since the tracks have been laid through the tunnels and we were mostly engulfed in darkness with occasional view of the sea.

Cinque Terre is a place you need to spend a whole day - start early to cover all the five villages and trekking is the ideal way to do it or you also have buses and trains connecting the villages. Monterosso is a village with a long beautiful coastline and a very colourful market area. This is the place you will get to taste the best focaccia of your life (never mind the copious amount of olive oil that goes into the baking).

Lots of bread to choose from!

We savoured a basil pesto focaccia.
The coastal line of Monterosso

The market area of Monterosso


Thirty minutes along the beach and after exploring the market, it was time to head to our next destination on foot under taking a relatively easy trek (that is what the internet said) to the next village, Vernazza. The trek took us nearly two hours and drained us off our energy! We began our trek by climbing up the mountain often faced by narrow trails which allowed only one person to navigate at a time and if there was anyone coming in the opposite direction we had to wait for them to cross or vice versa. Sometimes it was steep climb or sometimes steps cut out on rocks or even areas where part of the trails were washed off. Lemon trees bordered the trails at some points and at some points we had a beautiful view of the sea. Each turn and bend had breath-taking views. Please make sure you do at least one hike in Cinque Terre, else you miss out on these beautiful views. Our ascent took us about an hour and the next one hour of descent seemed a cakewalk. ( Whoever said the trail was easy must be a pro at this). There are actually different trails that you can take depending on the level of hardship. There are even trails for the extreme hiking enthusiasts.  Vernazza is probably the most beautiful place I have ever seen - I could hardly keep my eyes off the place. As you descent the mountain, there lies ahead of you a rocky cove with the gurgling tides hitting the rocks and then slowly making its way back into the sea. We could not ask for a better place to relax and enjoy our lunch. Friggitoria is a must try if you love seafood. Gather your food packets and head over to the dork, sit by the seaside and enjoy your food. I could sit there all day but we had an agenda to complete.

The churning sea waters!

That is me making my way across the narrow trekking path

View of the beautiful Vernazza from the trekking trail
The lemon trees that grow along the trail
A closer shot of Vernazza

More closer to Vernazza


The colorful village that is Vernazza


This time we took the train to Corniglia.

Corniglia unlike the other villages is not situated by the sea rather on top of a mountain by the sea. You have a sea view but not access to a beach. If you want to avoid the very long climb to the village from the station, there are buses shuttling at regular intervals. This place has more of gelato, slushy and granita available. Choose your flavor before you head out to the next place.

We chose lemon and had it not been for this refreshing cold granita, I would have never reached the next village. 
We debated a lot on whether to take the next trek or not! After all, we were here for a good trekking experience and this was the easiest trek as per google and hence we decided to go ahead. We were expecting an hour's trek that eventually ran into 3 hours .The trail runs through Volastra enroute Manrola. We climbed up, was out of breath, sat down, climbed again. Into an hour we met a couple coming in the opposite direction and asked them how much more longer and they said one hour. We walked along through dense tree areas, by vineyards, by the seaside. We trekked one mountain after other distraught that the next village was not yet in sight. It took 3 long hours and we finally made it. The last bit had about a thousand steps to descend. Our legs were wobbly by the time we reached Manarola. We did have a strong feeling that we missed our way but we do not remember seeing any signboards to direct us. Thank God for the refreshing granita that kept our spirits alive. The first trail we undertook in the morning was buzzing with tourists whereas this one had only few people we came across once a while making it difficult to ask for directions and GPS is not an option in these areas. We walked across the village - Manarola, rested our weary legs, snacking on Farinata (pancakes made of chickpea flour).

The sea never fails to impress

The long trek to Manarola - we were not even half way through!


The view of sunset taken from Manarola station


Munching on a slice of Farinata

Stroll through Manarola
It was getting darker and we decided, we had no time for the last village, Rio Maggiore. We had to make it back to La Spezia which was just 5 minutes by train but the harder task of making our way to the hilltop apartment also had to be accomplished. We were tired, yet we had with us an entirely exhilarating experience to take back with us.  A word of caution to everyone who wants to visit Cinque Terre - not all the trekking paths are open to public. Sometimes the trails are washed out due to rains and hence always inquire before you set out on your trek.

We were up very early the next day to catch the 6 am train to Milan. This was one morning where I would have loved to stay in bed and sleep more into the cold morning. Milan was from where we had our return flight. Our legs were stiff and the knees refused to budge but we made it to the station on time. We mostly slept through the train journey.  Reaching Milan, we checked our luggage into the luggage deposit area and decided to take a stroll through Milan. Being a Sunday, almost everything was closed. On contrary to Rome, Milan seemed a more planned city with wider roads and better traffic rules. There are no words to explain the churches in Italy, the architecture keeps getting prettier and fashion capital Milan was no less. We reached Piazza del Duomo nearby hoping to eat from the famous – Luini’s. Alas! being a sunday it was closed. That was so disappointing! and then we had to settle in for a Pizza Fritta - which is basically deep fried pizza or calzone. We almost burned our tongues when we bit into the hot Fritta, fresh from the deep fryer, but it was so good with all the meat and the gooey cheese inside. We sat by the piazza, although it was mid afternoon the weather was beautiful and enjoyed a parade of people decked in various costumes pass by, accompanied by a band.  The Milan Cathedral is a must visit. Unfortunately we were running short of time and the queue was way too long for us. We had to be satisfied with an external glimpse.

Inside view of a beautiful cathedral in Milan





The Milan Cathedral

We headed back to Milan Centrale station and took our final train to the Milan Malpense airport. There we had reached the end of our vacation! If all the good times could be a wee bit longer!

When you travel somewhere your vacation begins right at the time when you board the flight but after the vacation when you head back there is always an ache that you carry. With a sad heart and memories of days well spent we headed back to Dubai and here in this blog we relived our vacation again!!

Check out the complete Italy Travelogue on our site -

Italy-cised
Roaming Rome and Walking the Vatican
A countryside Escapade - Tuscany and Umbria 

August 2, 2017

Chicken dry fry with grated coconut

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I have lived in Karnataka most of my life exempting the last 3 years in Dubai. Back in the days most of Kerala delicacies never crossed the Kerala borders. I lived close to Mangalore and Mangalore is only an arms distance away from Kerala (not literally:P) Despite this, it was a rarity to find any of the Kerala treats in Mangalore region or any neighboring areas. May be if you hunted down, you would find it in some corner of Mangalore unlike today when Kerala food is as popular in these regions. My parents say that after every vacation, when we come back from Kerala we had to lug across cartons filled with fish pickle, mango pickle, ari unda, achappam, ethekka upperi, chakka upperi, aluva, jelebi, puttu podi anything and everything. Now almost all of these are available in Mangalore sparing them the trouble of carrying cartons. My mother even ranted on once about how we managed to put everything into the bus at Mangalore station including me and my dad but before she and my sis who was in her arms would get in, the bus took off from the bus station. She ran behind the bus with a wailing sis in her arms only to find that the bus was simply moving ahead to park in a different area giving space to other buses. The conductor tried shouting out to her in Kannada but yeah we were just learning Kannada back then!

Years on,  you find almost everything in Mangalore. You have caterers serving appam, moru curry at functions, Kerala parotta is a hot favorite at hotels and banana chips is made at every nook and cranny!
I remember a time when Kerala parotta and chilly chicken/ beef topped the menu of must eats in Kerala! That brings me to the dish of the day - Chicken dry fry. The idea was basically conceived from BDF - Beef Dry Fry. I tried out something similar with chicken that goes with parotta and instead of adding coconut pieces, I added grated coconut. I loved the results and there it went off to the photography table right after a few pieces went down my food pipe:)

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Ingredients

To marinate -
  1. Chicken - 500 gms
  2. Pepper powder - 1/2 tsp
  3. Chilli powder - 2 tsp
  4. Turmeric powder - 1/4 tsp
  5. Ginger-garlic paste - 2 tsp
  6. Salt to taste
The masala - 
  1. Onions - 2 finely chopped
  2. Coconut - 1/2 cup grated
  3. Curry leaves
  4. Garam masala
  5. Salt to taste
  6. Vegetable Oil as needed


Method
  • Clean and cut the chicken into small pieces. Use the breast part to get boneless pieces. ( Having pieces with bones is also totally fine.)
  • Marinate the chicken for 30 minutes in pepper powder,chilli powder,turmeric powder and ginger- garlic paste.
  • Add salt to the marinated chicken. Heat oil in a wide pan. Space out the chicken pieces in the pan and sprinkle some curry leaves.
  • Rotate the pieces to ensure that it gets cooked well and a good char.
  • Scoop out the chicken pieces and let excess oil drain off on a kitchen towel.
  • Into the same oil, add onions and saute until tender. Add garam masala , salt and curry leaves and let the masala get cooked. It takes about a a minute to two.
  • Finally add the coconut and stir fry till the coconut begins to brown and crisp.
  • Add the fried chicken pieces and let it coat well in the dry masala. Cook for further two minutes to let the masala coat and run dry.
  • Although the dish goes well with any sort of roti or even as a standalone, the best pairing would be Kerala Parotta!
You may also note -
  • You could add either corriander powder or green chilly to the dish. I chose to keep the ingredients minimal.
  • This dish is on lines of Kerala cuisine and hence I have not used corriander leaves which is a rarity in our cuisine. However, if you like corriander leaves in your dish , you may take it up a notch by adding corriander leaves.
You could also check out other chicken recipes on the blog here!

July 30, 2017

A countryside Escapade - Tuscany and Umbria


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It is not just the architecture of Italy that captivates the hearts, the luscious greens spread across acres of countryside is equally alluring. After our tryst with Rome and the Vatican, we set out to Florence to explore the serenity of the country. 

This was the part we were really looking forward in our Italy trip. We had reservations on Frecciarossa - high speed trains that connects the provinces in Italy.
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We got a free upgrade and hence traveled business class to Florence.  You get free upgrades on the Trenitalia website during non peak hours if you book early.  On reaching Florence (Firenze SMN station) we first took a bus to the airport. Then from the airport we need to take a shuttle to car rental agency,  from where we rented the car. The car rental agency has counters for different car rental companies like Hertz, Europcar, etc etc. Shibin had pictured himself driving a quaint little Fiat in the countryside. After spending quite a bit of time with the paperworks, they handed over the keys for an Infinity Q30, which was our companion for the three days in the countryside. He was equally happy!

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Renting a car is the ideal way to explore the beauty of the region but equally important is knowing the traffic rules. Our fear was always the ZTL areas! Now, ZTL areas are the zones of limited traffic where there are restrictions on vehicle entry. Failure to comply results in huge fines and we did not want to be amongst those fine givers! We had our date with ZTL and narrowly missed paying a hefty fine (in detail later on in the post). Once you get a hang of the ZTL area, then it is easier to recognize one. Most of the tourist spots have designated parking areas that have free parking- keep a watch out for such areas than having to go into the paid parking zones. There are two areas where you can rent a car in Florence. One is in the downtown Florence(Via Borgognissanti) which has a ZTL nearby and another one near the Airport where there are no ZTLs. After reading all the horrors stories of ZTL(google up!), we did not want to be anywhere near one. We stuck to “Better Safe than Sorry” and  chose the car rental near airport, which was also easier to catch the road to Tuscany. 

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We began our journey to the farm house in Sinalunga which was to be our home for next few days exploring the countryside on the way. Having GPS was simply a bliss:) We took the scenic SR222 road and navigated our way to Sinalunga via the beautiful Chianti region. We drove by Strada in Chianti to Greve in Chianti where we stopped for our lunch of Calzone with salami and cheese and also a pizza with spicy salami, pomodore and mozzarella. They had on display in the piazza - a collection of vintage cars.

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After a stroll through the piazza, we resumed our journey briefly stopping by Radda in Chianti and Castellina in Chianti. Chianti is a popular wine producing region in Italy and if wine tasting is on your cards , then this place definitely deserves more of your time.
It was evening by the time we set foot at La Giuda Farm in Sinalunga nestled amidst some olive trees, wine yards and a few farm animals inhabiting the otherwise quiet area. Our hosts welcomed us and gave us time to settle in before joining them for the amazing spread at dinner table. Pecorino cheese with honey, salami, grilled sausages, pasta, liver cooked in some sort of leaf, shashlik and  grilled cabbage to name a few adorned our table. We got to know more about the hosts, their tradition and history while relishing their homemade Tuscan wine. We ate till we could eat no more! All we remember was crashing into bed that night to wake up to a new dawn.

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We kick started our next morning early exploring the farm and the animals - rabbits, hens, horse, donkeys , cats while the dog accompanied us only to settle down fascinated by the rabbits. After a small breakfast, we began our drive to locations that would have us spell bound and a weather that would enchant us. After cramming ourselves with enough information for the day from our dear host, off we went to Montepulciano - a renaissance hill town popular for cheese, pasta, wine among others. This was our first encounter with a ZTL area. We stopped the vehicle half way through a slope since we thought we had missed the way. Only when we turned around did we see the ZTL board. Now, our research before the travel had spoken of huge amount of fine being levied on crossing these zones and our hearts skipped several beats!! Parking a little away and after a cup of bitter coffee (was too strong that I had to gulp it down. Only after returning our mugs did we realise that we could take cream and sugar from the counter top. (We were a bit worried to think of that), we only breathed a sigh of relief when the guy at the nearby tourist centre told us that we did not cross the ZTL area and had stopped few meters away from it!

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Montepulciano like most other towns in the area welcomes you with an arch with shops and eateries on either side of the cobbled roads. It is a car free path and you can walk along musing the architecture, feasting and exploring the town.

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We then drove to Pienza, another beautiful town in the province of Siena. There is always a church to explore in every town. 
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It was quite cold and windy and sometimes I tried to find shelter to shield myself whereas Shibin enjoyed clicking away the fascinating towns and the landscapes. 

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The photographer in him found a yellow scooter which he could simply not resist clicking!

We simply have no words to describe the landscape of Val d'Orcia. Photos do no justice to this place. You need to be in the place to feel it which why UNESCO has classified this area as a World Heritage site signifying its importance the development of landscape thinking today. 

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A vast spread of cultivated green plains, occasionally broken off by a farm house is Val d'Orcia for you.

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Bagno Vignoni, a small village situated atop a hill was our final destination for the day. The uniqueness of this place is a thermal spring right at the center of village. The artistic, apparition like human creations out of net around the rectangular tank enclosing the spring is also equally captivating.

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Shibin had enough of touristy places and decided to try one of those non- touristy villages. We decided to stop by the next town that we pass by.  Soon after we saw the board to Petroio and decided to go for it. The place looked like a loop of forts on top of the hill. It was getting dark by the time we stopped at Petroio. We parked at the designated parking area and walked up the steps. It was very silent and deserted with sounds of men talking from far off. Combined with the cold and dusk, the place had an eerie feel. We took one peek and retraced our steps.

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 It felt haunted and I could not wait to get back into the safety of the car.

After a long drive back to Sinalunga, we had pizzas at a popular joint in Sinalunga. Those were by far the best pizza and the biggest pizzas we ever had. 

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We ordered two regular pizzas and we had tons of it leftover for breakfast the next day!!

Umbria was our target destination for the third day. Perugia and Assisi being our intended stops. The sky was overcast in the morning and sure enough droplets of water began pelting down the windows soon. It got all the more cold and it all added to the excitement to hit the countryside once again. 

Perugia is a medieval city covering a hilltop and few adjacent valleys. The roads here are quite narrow and even more harder was it to find parking spot. 

We managed to find one and up we walked to the hill. 
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To satiate the hunger that surfaced from the walk, we snacked on Arancini ( stuffed rice and cheese balls coated in bread crumbs and deep fried) 

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and a cold cut panini!
The look of Perugia is different from that of Tuscany towns owing to its medieval architecture. The arch that welcomes us leads to a path bordered by eateries and then to steps that lead to the piazza. It is a good walk along and mind you, you have an equally good walk back down the hill to the car!

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As we drove to Assisi, the clouds got thicker and darker. And soon it started to rain heavily, I had small butterflies in my stomach. My apprehensions proved baseless as we made our way easily across slippery roads. 

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The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi looked beautiful with the grey clouds lining the sky giving it an aura that precedes anything we have seen.  
There is lower Basilica that hosts the tomb of St Francis and an upper Basilica. No photos are allowed inside the Basilica. Every church in Italy is beautiful and has so much artistical and architectural value. This Basilica is no less with friars sitting at corners and praying which offers such a sanctified, blessed feeling to the place. 

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After a tour through the Basilica, we walked by the town of Assisi - an ideal place to shop for religious souvenirs.

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It was time to call it a day and return to our farm house to join our host in cooking Italian food. I learnt to roll out pasta from scratch, bake cantucci - recipe already on the blog and make pretty edible baskets out of Parmesan cheese. After all the cooking, we took a walk in the nearby woods to make appetite for the dinner that awaited us. This was our last night in the farm and over dinner we spoke about India and Dubai while they entertained us with their life in Italy.

The next day morning after bidding good bye to our hosts, we set out to Florence to return the car and take the train to Pisa. Enroute, we had plans to stop by Siena, another scenic destination. We reached Siena and I simply refused to set foot out of the car. It was raining and the temperatures had hit 6 degree centigrade. The moment I opened the door, my teeth began chattering and my feet went numb that I closed the door right back. We had to abandon our plans and head back to Florence.

We returned the car and made it to the station to take the train to the next destination pondering over what is awaiting us in the final leg of our journey.

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