Tour de dessert: Swiss Bliss

Cheesy, I know. But it’s Swiss, so I’m allowed to be cheesy. And I’ll stop before it gets worse.

Lonely Planet recently had this piece on Europe’s most delicious pastries, cakes and tarts – some usual suspects like the Italian Cannoli, some surprises like voting for the Fächertorte over the Sachertorte in Austria. But overall, enough to make you want to never think of the word diet ever again (unless you are, of course, talking about a high sugar diet).

So, been there, done some of that – Cannoli in Rome, Trdelnik (and not Medovnik, since I’m not too fond of creamy fillings, what with being calorie-conscious and all that) and Sachertorte. And oh, I also went through death by dessert in Belgium.

ChampagneMost recently, in Zurich, I had an experience with little bites of heaven. Luxemburgerli in salted caramel and dark chocolate with champagne fillings at the legendary Sprüngli.

Confiserie Sprüngli, which, according to their website, has been leading people off the straight and narrow since 1836. Their window displays wink at you in the most efficiently Swiss manner and you walk in without a clue to what awaits.

Luxemburgerli

Eat nowI love how naive the Swiss are, to send you off with a little sticker like this. Really, do they expect people to sit and stare at these devils instead of enjoying them immediately? Sprüngli also has all the chocolates and pastries you would want but I walked past them all towards the Luxembergerli. And the next day, I found their outlet at the airport and made another human being happy by introducing him to its delights. That’s me, always spreading the joy. And the calories.

Swiss Choco1

Swiss Pastry

Just in case you think Switzerland is just about sinful chocolates and homegrown versions of macaroons, pause and look at the Nusstorte, or the nut pastry from the Graubünden region. I’m glad to say the Nusstorte I had contained no cream but mmmmelted in the mouth.

Nusstorte

And one evening in Chur, Switzerland’s oldest town, this twin ice cream scoop – of almond flavoured Amaretto, and Röteli, the local cherry liqueur with hints of cinnamon, vanilla and clove.

Amaretto and Röteli

Friday photo: A thousand spires

On my mind today, Prague.

I just finished a piece on Prague for an inflight magazine, and everywhere I turn, there seems to be a story on this city of a thousand spires, easily one of my European favourites.

So, this Friday, a view of the old town from the top of the Old Town Bridge Tower, well worth the huffing and puffing up each of the 138 steps.

Prague

Also see: Friday photo series
And read more Prague stories here

Bohemian Rhapsody

Dwau MaryiAs we walk through the small Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov in search of the Laibon, my husband and I discover the Two Marys (U Dwau Maryi) right next to it. Like many restaurants in the west, the menu is posted outside.

A quick glance and we decide to go in for the vegetarian special meal, served on wooden tables right by the Vltava river. This space merges seamlessly into the Laibon next door, from where the waiter walks over and suggests that we try his restaurant for dinner. Everything in this town is just as casual and laidback.

The Vltava

At lunch, we have a chance meeting with a British expat who made Cesky Krumlov home after his first visit there on work. He now spends half the year in Krumlov, in his little house by the river and talks endlessly about the good life there. He knows the best restaurants and pubs and generously shares his secret discoveries with us. That is how we end up thumping tables with locals at a pub, as a boisterous gypsy band plays on, that evening .

Night music

I remember laughing in a superior manner when I read some blogs in which writers declared that they were “In Love with Krumlov.” Now I know what they mean; it is so easy to fall in love with this town. Cesky Krumlov is the kind of place where, ten minutes after you begin exploring, your thoughts wander to that retirement home you have always been dreaming about.

Beer!This UNESCO heritage town is so picturesque that it often takes on fairytale qualities in my mind. Any minute I expect the wicked witch to whiz past on her broom. But there are no witches here; only friendly locals who have taken the sudden interest their town has evoked in their stride. They give us warm smiles and leave us alone, as they chug down their cold beer — remember this country is the original home of Pilsner and Budweiser.

It is ironic that Prague survived World War II almost without any damage. And Cesky Krumlov, once an important trading post and home to the most prominent Czech noble families, fell into decay during the Communist regime. But it has bounced back with seeming ease. Today, as we walk through the narrow cobblestone lanes, there is nothing but beauty all around us — in the gabled houses, in the shops displaying quirky things for sale, in the trdelnik (a tongue-twistingly delicious Czech dessert) stalls on the street and above all, in the views of the Vltava and the distant blue hills.

Quirky town

Trdelnik

Exploring Cesky

The 13th century castle complex is the second largest in the Czech Republic, after the one in Prague, and dominates the town. Unless you take a guided tour, there is nothing much to see inside the main castle itself but for some excellent Renaissance paintings and artefacts from the days of royalty. We huff and puff our way up a flight of narrow and winding steps to the top of the castle tower. And are rewarded with more spectacular views of the Vltava snaking through the town (I cannot get enough of it) and the red tile-roofed buildings scattered as if by a careless hand.

From the castle

After an evening of aimless wandering, we return to Laibon for dinner. It may have an international vegetarian menu but we resolutely refuse to have pakoras and instead order an assorted platter and wait for the castle to be lit up. It is still early evening and David, who owns and manages the restaurant, stops by to chat. It turns out that David has travelled all around the world and has spent several months in India — ah, that explains the pakoras . He even manages a cheeky vanakkam when he discovers I am from Chennai. As we eat, the castle lights come on, casting warm reflections on the river. At that moment, I cannot think of a better way to spend a spring evening.

The castle at night

Krumlov is an all-weather destination. Springtime means pleasant weather, lesser crowds, better hotel rates and bright flowers everywhere. In winter, I am told, the entire town is blanketed by powdery snow, raising the fairytale aura several notches. Come summer and the streets buzz constantly with music performances, street theatre and even costumed processions. The best time to be in Cesky Krumlov is during one of the major cultural festivals “Magical Krumlov” heralding the arrival of Spring, (this year) on April 30 and May 1 or the “Five-petalled Rose Festival” in June, which celebrates its Renaissance past.

Most people treat this town as a day trip out of Prague but I recommend at least a couple of days there. Cesky Krumlov is actually Prague in miniature; it has all the charm and the attractions of the larger city, without the crowd and tricksters. At least not yet. So I suggest you head there before the tour groups and Bollywood location scouts do.

Another vista

***
Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on August 25…

A vegetarian’s guide to Prague

Prague

When you’re a staunch vegetarian (not even eggs, thank you) and you want to feast on the world’s very many attractions, immersing yourself in cultures that don’t understand the concept of vegetarianism can be daunting. In many East Asian countries fish sauce and shrimp paste are equated to vegetables. Even if you ask for vegetarian food in the local language, you might end up with some of it in your dish added “for flavor.” Several parts of South America treat beef in the same way. And in Prague, if you are not eating at a specialist vegetarian restaurant, watch out for ham pieces that may find their way into your dish.

Fortunately, through years of travel and practice I’ve realised that wherever you go, people eat the things you do – vegetables, grains and cereal and if you are not vegan, dairy products. Also, a little planning goes a long way to make your holiday more relaxed and fun, without having to constantly forage for vegetarian food and sniff suspiciously at what’s put in front of you.

alfrescoWebsites like Veg Dining list restaurants in Prague that serve vegetarian food. Others like Happy Cow curate not just vegetarian and vegan restaurants but also health food stores you can source a meal from. Also look at local tour companies, like Prague Walker whose guides will show you not just the sights of the city, but also vegetarian restaurants you can keep returning to for a good meal.

If you find yourself in a restaurant that doesn’t offer many vegetarian options order a familiar dish without the meat – for instance, a burger with soya bean or mushroom patty. Sometimes talking directly to the chef helps, too.

That may not always be feasible and you’re not confident your vegetable soup will arrive without chicken stock in it, order a meal of salad and starters. I have often had success with this when there have been no vegetarian dishes for the main course or they have been too bland for our fiery Indian palate (really, how much bulgur or polenta can one eat?). And if you go pub hopping in Prague – remember, popular beers Pilsner and Budweiser come from this country – most of them have some vegetarian short eats to keep you going.

It good to learn phrases like: Je to vegetariánské? (Is it vegetarian?) or Jsem vegetarian (I am a vegetarian). And when ordering at a restaurant a simple and forceful ‘no meat or fish’ instruction delivered in English, accompanied by a vehement shake of the head, always helps.

At the other extreme, it is important to emphasize what your vegetarian meal can include – for instance, can you eat egg or milk? There are times when vegetarian inadvertently translates into boiled vegetables, which youDinner end up poking at like a wretched human rabbit.

And finally, vegetarian or not, always try to eat away from the obviously touristy places, for food is an intrinsic part of the travel experience and only when you have eaten where locals so, have you truly left home.

BOX 1

WHAT TO EAT:

Goulash
It’s an Eastern European thick stew of meat and vegetables, especially potatoes. Some specialist vegetarian restaurants in Prague offer meatless versions.

Smazeny syr
It’s fried cheese and one of Prague’s famous dishes.

Rohlik
Make your own sandwich with this commonly available mini-baguette that can be had with slices of cheese and vegetables.

Kolache
It’s a fruit-filled pastry that you can grab and eat on the go.

Trdelnik
This melt-in-your-mouth Slovakian baked dessert is a hollow cylinder of dough coated with sugar, cinnamon, nuts and sometimes, chocolate.

trdelnik

BOX 2

WHERE TO EAT:

Country Life: These organic vegetarian health food stores also serve pre-packaged sandwiches, burgers and salads. They also have a few seats for those who want eat in-store. The Melantrichova branch, close to the Old Town Square, offers a vegetarian goulash.

Lehka Hlava: The name translates to Clear Head in English and is one of Prague’s most popular vegetarian restaurants, right by the picturesque Charles Bridge. It is known for its special brunch (check their website for what’s on their ever-changing menu) and lunch packages. The menu has tapas, soups, salads, pasta and daily specials.

Maitrea: A sister concern of the Lehka Hlava, it’s closer to the Old Town Square and serves a mix of Mexican, Italian and even some Czech food.

Govinda’s: The restaurant is the Prague branch of the worldwide chain run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. It serves both Indian and international cuisine, including the occasional pakora and kheer, soul food for when you’re missing home.

Gopal: Strict Jains will love this Indian restaurant, in the Nerudova area. Dishes on their menu are prepared without eggs, garlic or onions and its outdoor seating is perfect for lunch on a summer afternoon.

Loving Hut
This chain of vegan restaurants serves a mix of Vietnamese, Thai, American and other international cuisines. And many of them have English-speaking staff, so you can ensure what you order is what you get.

***
A slightly different version of this was published in the December 2012 – January 2013 issue of Conde Nast Traveller, India.

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