September 7, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe, Video

Just admit it – you barely knew the country of Georgia existed before I started flooding your inbox and RSS feeds with blog posts that make you so hungry you think you’re going to burst. But now, you’re extra curious about this peculiar Eurasian nation. So, since I’ve reeled ya in, here’s a little video giving you yet another taste of the country. (Be sure to watch it until the end – I think it’s hilarious, but I’m also easily amused.)

If you are having trouble viewing the video, please click here.
To see pictures from my trip to Georgia, please visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page or Flickr page.

September 5, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe

My summer overdose of travel continues to its next stop – Istanbul, Turkey. While I spent a good majority of my trip there obsessing over baklava, I did manage to squeeze in a few tourist stops as well. Even though I may not be too keen on sharing my beloved Turkish dessert, I figure I can at least let you in on some of my top travel tips for the city that now ranks as one of my all-time favorites.

Bargain hunting
When we first arrived, we felt compelled to hoard tempting Turkish souvenirs like they were rare treasures. We learned quickly, however, that the same junk quality products were sold throughout the city – from soaps to ceramics, rugs and tea cups – and at a wild range of prices. Take, for example, a shawl I bought for myself next to the Blue Mosque – the item cost me 8 Turkish lira (after I busted out my killer bargaining skills), but in the Grand Bazaar they wanted to charge me 50!!! Haha – that’s exactly what I said to the guy too – hahaha! Knowing the running price of our wish-list items helped us negotiate price throughout the trip, and avoid getting ripped off by some of the smooth-talking salesmen.

Ignore salesmen flattery
Speaking of smooth-talking salesmen, don’t be flattered by their ability to impress you with knowledge of your language or country. Originally, we were shocked when Turks here, there and everywhere spoke to us in fluent Spanish, only to realize after a five-minute walk through the Grand Bazaar that they ALL spoke Spanish….and English, and Italian, and French and I don’t know, probably Pig Latin. The brilliant sales tactic in the popular merchant city includes speaking a load of languages to impress clients. And don’t be surprised if they have some incomprehensible connection with your home country – “I’ve got a cousin living in Seattle” , “I’m half Spanish” or “I’m moving to Texas!!” Ignore the conversation starters – you know better than that.

See spots early
Topkapi Palace, The Blue Mosque, The Hagia Sofia – each day we rose early to make to our way to these popular destinations a half an hour before opening. Not necessarily to avoid the lines, though, but for the real bonus – having the usually tourist-filled sights all to ourselves. Sure, other visitors rolled in behind us, but for a brief moment a few of the world’s most famous spots felt like our own personal playgrounds.

Skip boat tours
Following a friend’s recommendation to check out the Kadiköy neighborhood, we hitched a ride on a ferry that transports Turks and tourists alike from one side of the river to the other. For around one, count it – ONE – euro, we enjoyed a relaxing boat ride across the water with priceless views of the city. I honestly don’t know how much the proper boat excursions cost, but if they cost more than a euro, then you’re being taken for a ride – an expensive unnecessary ride that better include champagne and caviar. Kill two birds with one stone by just grabbing one of the transportation boats across the water to see another neighborhood.

Other recommendations:

Ayasultan Hotel – Oh man, we lucked out on this one. Looking for a new hotel to replace our old hotel (which shall remain nameless), we came across the brand spankin’ new Ayasultan Boutique Hotel smack dab in the heart of Istanbul. Just off the main drag on a narrow near-traffic-free street, sat our oasis in the city of nine-million. The price was right, the rooms were not only new but well-decorated, and the rooftop-terrace breakfast was the yogurt on my kebap.

Hamdi Restaurant – With views of the Bosphorus River and the city, the sights alone makes the dinner here worth it. The bonus? The food, of course. The service may not be stellar, but the cuisine and views are so impressive that you just won’t care.

Rüstem Pasha Mosque – While others flock to the more popular mosques, you can smartly head to this lesser-frequented complex. Just a pistachio’s throw away from the Spice Bazaar, a stop at the near-vacant mosque is a relaxing escape from Istanbul’s hustle and bustle.

*To see photos from my trip to Turkey, please visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page or Flickr page.
**A big muchas gracias to TheViatrix for suggesting Hamdi, the Rüstem Pasha Mosque and Kadiköy! Check out more of her Turkey tips here.

August 31, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe

Georgian foodsIt’s true. I’ve been cheating on my dear Spanish food not only with Turkish desserts, but also with Georgian cuisine. What can I say – I’m a tad unfaithful and culinarily promiscuous. But when it comes to food, I’m just not a one-cuisine kind of gal! Let me introduce to you to my latest food love affair.

Bread is king in Georgia. These people eat bread like it’s the last day of their life – multiple kinds of bread at breakfast, lunch and dinner. And I get why – because it’s off-the-charts good. The most famous of the breads is the lavashi. Often made in a signature oblong shape, the soft, squishy bread is perfect for eating by itself, with a Georgian cheese, or just soaking and scooping up whatever you have on your plate. My other bread favorite was mchadi – a cornmeal based patty typically served hot and which Georgians love to slice in half, stuff with cheese and eat like a sandwich (genius!!).

mchadi georgia
Hello, Georgian pizza, can you please come back to Spain with me? This little delight mixes the scrumptiousness of the aforementioned bread, with, you guessed it – cheese! Across the country you’ll find different variations from cheese on top, to cheese inside. Batumi, the beachside town that Eastern Europeans flock to, even boasts its own special version – a boat-shaped bread that cradles a mixture of melted cheese, a semi-fried egg and a slice of butter, all which you must mush up with your fork and then eat until you explode or have a heart attack (whichever comes first).

khachapuri, Georgia
I spent my first several days in Georgia thinking that the only sweets that those folks ate included watermelon (I’m still not amused – sorry, Georgia). But after nagging a little, my Georgian amiga, Sophia, revealed her country’s sweet tooth – a sweet tooth fulfilled by some finger-licking-good pastries. My favorite, kada, is basically just a fat roll of what I would consider to be crumbly pie crust. I know, why didn’t anyone think of this sooner, right?? Then there’s a sumptuous cream-filled pastry, called shu, that I may as well just bag and hook up to an IV drip. Why they don’t eat this stuff with the same reckless abandon as they do bread and watermelon is just plain beyond me.

pastries, georgia, kada
coffee float, georgiaCoffee float
On hot summer days, it’s not uncommon to see locals slurping their Georgian-style coffee floats through colorful straws. And it should be mentioned that Georgians do love their ice cream – a fluffy, almost whipped frozen treat that often comes prepackaged in soggy cones. Kind of sounds unappetizing, but I’m not going to lie – it hit the spot (apparently I have a lot of spots).

Herby, spiced, crack-filled (OK, maybe not crack) sauces
For a good portion of our trip, Sophia hesitated introducing us to the more flavorful (read: spiced and spicy) Georgian cuisine for fear that we wouldn’t like it. Apparently past guests (many of which were Spaniards who are averse to spicy cuisine) didn’t care for the dishes. One taste, though, and we were s.m.i.t.t.e.n. Served with meats or veggies, the chashushuli sauce is typically mixed with fresh herbs like cilantro and dill, and spices such as hot pepper and flavored salt. The result is an irresistible concoction that I would eat everyday of my life on and with just about anything that I can get my hands on. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can’t be friends with someone who for some reason doesn’t love it. If you like Indian or Southeast Asian cuisine, then I promise you will be obsessed with this dish too.

veggie dish

Honorable mention
Georgia serves up several other universally loved dishes that I too enjoyed, but not with the same embarrassing passion as those mentioned above. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention khinkali, which basically looks like giant dim sum (and kind of tastes like it too). To eat it Georgian style, pick it up with your hands and take a bite of the base, slurping up its broth while you eat.

Then there are also the kebaps, which come as crepe-wrapped ground-beef. The meat is blended with the same mixture of fresh herbs and spices as the crack-sauce mentioned above. Dipped in a little Georgian ketchup (not really ketchup, the tkhemali is a sweet-meets-sour sauce made of a fruit similar to plums) and you’ve got yourself a winning combination.

Still curious about Georgia? Don’t forget to read more about my impressions on what makes Georgia unique.

August 25, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe

watermelons in GeorgiaAnd while we’re clarifying – forget about peaches, today it’s all about watermelons. But first, a little background.

One of my dearest friends living in Spain hails from the Republic of Georgia – that small, oblong, post-Soviet country, which nudges up against the Black Sea. The democracy, which regained its independence in 1991, continues to transition from oppression to a nation bursting at the seams to share its pride. So, when my amiga invited me to come get to know her country, I feverishly started planning how to make it happen (maybe a little more like: I begged and convinced Jacobo, and then he booked everything. But let’s not get caught up in the minutiae).

To say that the country blew me away would be an understatement. But rather than bore you with the details of my innermost ponderings (i.e. how do the cows, pigs, sheep and dogs that wander freely on the roads not constantly get hit by cars???), here is a brief run down of the Georgian quirks that surprised me most:

Yep, your basic watermelon is a superstar in the country sandwiched between Europe and Asia. Roadside vendors overflow stands with the seeded fruits like they’re going out of style – which they aren’t. Attend a Georgian dinner, and don’t be surprised to be served a plateful of the watery delicacy for dessert (at which point, I reach into my bag for my emergency stash of chocolate because seriously, fruit isn’t and never will be a dessert in my book). Why so popular? I’m still contemplating this, but the general explanation is that the southeastern province of Georgia grows an abundance of the melons, therefore making them an easy go-to sweet (if that’s what you want to call it).

watermelons in the republic of georgia

The toasts
No Georgian dinner is complete without toasts. Not just A toast, though, but many toasts – many, many toasts, followed by many more. At almost all meals of more than just a couple people, a designated toaster, the tamada, is chosen – typically a man with a talent for eloquence. This tamada is responsible for maintaining a rhythm of toasts throughout the meal, ranging from world peace, to family, and the future. Meanwhile, others at the table should be prepared to add on to the main speech, contributing and building on each individual toast. 

It’s green. Really green.
There’s a legend that Georgians will tell you, and it goes a little something like this: God called a meeting in which he planned to distribute all the lands in the world. Georgia was late (naturally) as result of a party from the night before involving too much drinking (also naturally). When they finally arrived to the meeting, all of the lands had already been handed out. Georgia explained away their tardiness by telling God that it was the result of toasting to him the night before. Impressed, God then gave Georgia the land that he had reserved for himself. Whether the legend is true or not, I can’t argue with the fact that the often-overlooked country claims some of the most hypnotizing landscapes I’ve come across – mountain ranges that cap out at nearly 10,000 feet high, deserts that sprawl into Azerbaijan, and inescapable numbers of rivers and waterfalls.

landscape in the republic of Georgia
grapevines in the republic of georgiaBottled water
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never gone to a restaurant and ordered my water by brand name. Until Georgia, that is. The brand of water you wish to imbibe during your meal will be the question hanging on every waiter’s tongue. This is because with rain, rivers and H2O coming out their ears, they’ve smartly converted their ample water supply into a booming bottled-water business. And not just any bottled water – it’s special bottled water. Have a hangover? There’s a water for you. Tummy problems? Not to worry. Seriously, who knew?

Living in a country like Spain, I thought that a passion for wine could not run any deeper than it does in the blood of Spaniards. WRONG. Grapes are to Georgia like chocolate is to me (and cheese, and maybe bread, and now baklava). So much so that the majority of Georgian homes have their own grapevine (not even close to joking). Don’t be surprised to see grape symbols lingering in the stone carvings of 10th century buildings as a representation of their importance to the culture. And go to a Georgian’s house and you will surely be greeted with a glass of their homemade wine (along with a full spread of food you couldn’t possibly ever consume in one sitting – more on that later).

Have I gotten you all curious about Georgia yet? Stay tuned for my next blog about Georgian cuisine (obviously). No peaches involved.

August 22, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe

baklava in istanbul

Dear my beloved Baklava,

We’ve known each other for years now. We’ve met at Whole Foods and rendezvoused at fusion foodie spots in San Francisco. Our times together have been special, but nothing compares to our recent fling in Istanbul. I’m in love.

I’m not sure how I’m going to break the news to Jacobo – the news that I want to move away to a Turkish island, wear a muumuu and grow old and gordita on baklava…walnut baklava, pistachio baklava and all those other fancy versions that were too complicated to understand given the language barrier, but that I ate nonetheless. Who needs words anyway…be silent and just eat.

Do you think Jacobo will understand? Maybe he can come too?

Love always,
La Tortuga Viajera

baklava in turkey