"What if we took the train to Istanbul?"
My boyfriend and I were planning an extended stay in the Turkish metropolis, and over a flurry of flight searches and apartment hunting, the idea came to him. His eyes widened.
"...like the Orient Express!" he said, his excitement growing by the minute.
I don't know why I was surprised. He, as a rule, loves "slow travel," and has been known to do things like sail from San Francisco to New Zealand. But, despite some initial hesitation ("We are NOT sleeping on the floor of the train," I insisted), it started to sound like a pretty interesting way to travel. What if we took the train, all the way from London to Istanbul?
Like any good study abroad alum, I've done my share of train travel around Europe. It always struck me as a great way to actually see the country through which I was journeying. This trip had the promise of revealing a pretty fascinating transformation—from Western Europe, to East, to further East... all the way to Turkey, the bridge between Europe and Asia.
It turns out that the Orient Express, as it once existed in luxurious, direct-route glory no longer operates. (Have you seen or read Murder On the Orient Express? You should. In addition to being an awesome Hercule Poirot mystery, it's a kind of wonderful insight into a time when dining on a train could mean Champagne, caviar, freshly-shucked oysters, and meat carved tableside.) Instead, we'd take the Eurostar from London to Paris, and from there, the TGV from Paris to Zurich. Then we'd catch an overnight train that would take us through Austria to Slovenia, Slovenia to Croatia, Croatia to Serbia. In Serbia, we'd transfer again to get to Bulgaria, where we'd catch one more overnighter to Istanbul. We could, in theory, get to Istanbul in three to four days. But with friends in Slovenia and Serbia, we decided to break up the trip a little, and stop to visit (and eat a whole lot.)
Our itinerary went like this: London, England - Paris, France - Zurich, Switzerland - Ljubljana, Slovenia - Zagreb, Croatia - Belgrade, Serbia - Niš, Serbia - Sofia, Bulgaria - Istanbul, Turkey.
The train journey, while not the most efficient form of transport, was incredible. The evolution of the landscape, language, and food showed the commonalities between some of the regions we traveled through, and highlighted what made each unique. We saw a through-line of meat that began in Slovenia and carried all the way to Turkey; in Ljubljana there was the introduction of a chopped vegetable salad that would become ubiquitous to every meze selection in Istanbul; in Niš, we sipped our first rakia, a distant, fruit-based cousin to Turkish raki.
Some of our best meals along the route were of the homemade variety (our hosts in Slovenia took, "I'm so, so, SO full!" to mean, "Yes, I would like another platter of that delicious schnitzel!") and others were at restaurants, often designed to give eaters a traditional taste of Balkan culture. Below I've shared the highlights: the most delicious and interesting bites along on our journey.
Paris to London: Ottlolenghi
I had one mission for my two days in London: go to Ottlolenghi. I am obsessed with Yotam Ottolenghi's three cookbooks (and devoured this interview with him on his favorites), and was dying to try his own takes on gorgeous, in-season vegetables.
Spoiler alert: I went. And it was awesome. From the mashed peas and fresh fava beans with goat cheese to the meltingly rich eggplant doused in tahini, Ottolenghi was everything I wanted it to be (except around the corner from my apartment in San Francisco). As I floated towards the door on the high of a great meal, I spotted piles upon piles of oversized pastries. I was stuffed. But we had a train to catch tomorrow, and clearly would not be waking up early enough to eat a proper English brekkie beforehand.
The brioche pretzel—rich, buttery, and dusted with fine-grain sugar and rich cinnamon—was an excellent accompaniment to a train station latte. But the almond croissant—barge-shaped and bursting with frangipane, was the star. The flaky pastry tasted delicate enough to collapse under the weight of sweet almond richness, but it held its own. Is there a better Eurostar breakfast to be had? I doubt it.
Lunch in Paris: Les Embruns
We arrived at Gare du Nord in the late morning, hopped on the RER, and made our way across town to Gare de Lyon, where we would catch our TGV to Switzerland that afternoon. With three hours to spare and some luggage in hand, we wandered a few blocks from the train station, away from the fancy, over-priced restaurant within, and found Les Embruns, a gem of a creperie, packed to the gills and bustling with locals enjoying a leisurely three-course lunch in the middle of the workday (gotta love France).
The set menu included an entree, a galette of choice, dessert, and a drink. What it did not mention was the gargantuan portions, each plate enough to count as a hearty meal on its own. A starter of Quiche Lorraine featured a fall-apart buttery crust and a melty egg-rich filling studded with smoky pieces of bacon. The galettes were impeccable with a nutty-crisp buckwheat dough folded into a neat square parcel. I opted for the ratatouille version, filled with simply sauteed vegetables and topped with a runny-yolked egg. Oh, and that drink, a glass of rose, arrived in a small carafe, and amounted to at least two healthy pours.
I was too full for dessert, but stumbled out insisting that we come back here when we returned to Paris in June.
Lunch in Ljubljana: Restavracija Sole
I had no expectations of Slovenia. We had a friend to meet and that was reason enough to stop. But I was blown away by this tiny, gorgeous country; from the rolling, fragrant hills of the wine region, to the absolutely stunning capital city of Ljubljana. The city showcases the best parts of Austria and Italy, with a spirit all its own—a castle sits perched atop a hill, a river runs through the middle, and people are out in force, sitting by on the riverbanks drinking coffee or sweet white wine and eating ice cream.
Restavracija Sole is an excellent introduction to the country. This traditional Slovenian restaurant, despite being quite near the town's train station, is not often frequented by tourists (see: the Slovenian-only menu). "It's very classic," our friend Bostjan told us, explaining that the restaurant had held court here for years. We handed over all ordering responsibility to him, and soon found our table laden with goodies—a salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, blanketed with a layer of shredded salty cheese; refreshing lager; and ćevapčići: grilled, minced beef sausages. Ćevapčići are ubiquitous to the Balkans; this version featured well-salted meat and rich beef flavor. It was served with onions, hot pepper, and a hearty fresh-baked split pita.
That evening we were treated to some of the most incredible home cooking I've ever had. Highlights include toasted pumpkinseed oil (made by Bostjan's family), cured tongue, slow-braised rabbit, two kinds of strudel, fresh eggs, and more Slovenian wine than anyone should consume in a two day period. Slovenia, we'll be back.
Breakfast in Niš: Gricko
A drive to Zagreb, an eight hour train ride to Belgrade, and a three hour bus later, we were in Niš, a university town in the middle of Serbia. Gone was the stunning architecture of Ljubljana; here, the landscape was dominated by Soviet-era apartment buildings, and the occasional remnant of an Ottoman fortress.
But on a Sunday morning, the city was coming alive with families bringing their kids to the park, to the waterfront, and to the center of town, where outdoor cafes stretched as far as the eye could see, filled with people drinking coffee and eventually, switching to beer. We started our morning in Niš at Gricko with massive slices of burek, a buttery pastry filled with tangy feta-like cheese, encased in thin layers of phyllo dough. One slice turned out to be the size of a small child, but its delicious, buttery goodness made it difficult to stop eating. Washed down with a container of jogurt, a salty yogurt drink, we felt ourselves getting closer to Turkey already, where yogurt-based ayran is a lunchtime fixture, and börek (as spelled in Turkish) a bakery classic.
Lunch in Niš: Nišlijska Mehana
With just a few more hours in Niš, our friend Vladimir wanted to ensure that we tasted as much of Serbian culture as possible. So, after a walk around a lovely park and on top of some Ottoman walls, we found ourselves at Nišlijska Mehana, a traditional-style Serbian restaurant with an enormous backyard seating area, filled with extended families feasting away their Sundays. The restaurant was set up to resemble a country tavern, complete with a wooden cart. I was too distracted by the smell of fresh baked bread to get too absorbed in the decorations, though.
Our meal included another salad of tomato, cucumber, and cheese, and a second of saucy, ripe tomatoes laced with garlic and oil—dolloped atop that amazing bread I was smelling (a crisp-crusted, pillowy version of pita, baked in a wood-fired oven), it was the best kind of Serbian bruschetta.
The main course featured, of course, more meat—platters of it, in fact. We sampled another iteration of ćevapčići, this one made with beef and pork; super-sized ćevapčići filled with melting cheese, and nubs of skewer-grilled chicken, wrapped in thick slices of bacon. All of the meats had a deep, smoky flavor from the grill, and gushed juices that were readily soaked up by the fresh bread.
All of this was preceded by pours of rakia, a bracing, fruit-based liquor (there are versions made from grapes, plums, and quince) that Serbians feel very, very strongly about—they are the world's largest producer (and consumer) of the drink. You're meant to sip rakia, but I, unknowingly, threw mine back shot-style, causing our hosts to look at me with a mixture of bemusement, shock, and maybe a little bit of admiration.
Lunch in Sofia: Restaurant Hadjidraganovite Kashti
I left Serbia full. Stuffed. So stuffed that we didn't eat a proper meal in Sofia until lunch the next day. We took a four hour bus ride from Niš through rolling green countryside and small villages on winding mountain roads; Sofia, upon arrival, seemed to lack the beauty of Ljubljana and the vibrancy of Niš's city center. But a walk downtown revealed a lively street packed with cafes and people of all ages out for food and drink.
The next day, we found ourselves at Hadjidraganovite Kashti, a traditional Bulgarian restaurant in a restored wooden house. Here, the decorations include clothing, cooking utensils, furniture, paintings, and beyond—the tables are rough-hewn wood, the menus are made of a similarly heavy wood, and the waitstaff wears traditional garb. Perusing the menu, I felt my heart slowing preemptively. "So much meat," I said in a small voice. "Can we please, please get some vegetables?"
Vegetables took on the form of the salata Bulgare, a plate of "shepherd's salad" (more chopped tomato and cucumber), eggplant purée, feta cheese, fried zucchini, hot pepper, and roasted red pepper.
We also ordered a dish of mushrooms with blue cheese, at our server's insistence—they arrived sizzling in a heavy cast iron skillet, covered with a tangy, rich blanket of melted cheese. "I mean, they are vegetables," I muttered, spearing one with my fork. We couldn't avoid meat entirely, of course—an order of lamb "St. George's Way" resulting in a plate of slow-cooked, tender braised lamb shoulder. The meat was mildly seasoned, but a side of dill rich yogurt sauce made just about everything on the table taste better. Despite my meat overload, when the table next to us was presented with a coffee table-sized wooden board stabbed with a towering skewer of meat, I found myself suffering from an undeniable feeling of order envy.
Istanbul: Meze, Manti, Hamsi... and Yes, More Meat
Arriving in Istanbul felt miraculous—our final overnight train ride included a two-hour stop at the Turkish border, and a two hour bus ride to the center of the city (the train from Sofia no longer quite makes it to Istanbul). We looked around our apartment in Beyoğlu in disbelief... we had made it! We were here!
I won't go into excessive detail of the meals we ate during our two month stay here (Kenji and Carey both have you covered), but the first few days were filled with gorgeous vegetable meze, incomparably good thick yogurt, and fresh fish, both grilled and fried.
But it didn't take long for me to get over my meat-glut and start diving into Instanbul's offerings. One of the best? The lamb on the bone served at Siirt Şeref Büryan Kebap Salonu, a wonderful restaurant in a predominantly Kurdish neighborhood. They specialize in büryan kebap, which involves cooking whole sides of lamb in a coal-filled pit. The resulting meat is tender, with a crackling, fat-rich exterior, and good enough that we made a point to become regulars (and, reserve our meat on the bone in advance). The lamb arrives on a toasted piece of bread, which absorbs the delicious lamb fat and juice, and is particularly good accompanied with a fiery serving of ezme, a meze of chopped tomatoes, hot peppers, and pomegranate molasses. With a metal mug of their housemade ayran, it's a meal I'll be dreaming about for years to come.