Once the world and our lives revert to normalcy and semblance, the following are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites that we can’t wait to revisit. All these destinations are within 7-hours of flight distance from the UAE, with or without a stopover. Did we also mention the dishes that we can’t re-taste?
Note: Due to COVID-19, we advocate that you follow the guidance from the respective authorities of your country of residence regarding health, safety and travel. Learn more from WHO: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public
Taj Mahal in Agra, India
We planned our visit to the Taj Mahal to coincide with full moon. Only a selected group of tourists are permitted inside the premise and entrance tickets are issued by the Archaeological Survey of India, an Indian government agency attached to the Ministry of Culture and responsible for archaeological research and the conservation and preservation of cultural monuments in India. This can be arranged through email or by the hotel and can be bought only the night before the viewing. The first glimpse of the Taj Mahal is surreal, no matter what the status of the moon or the sun is. The sheer presence of the ivory-white marble mausoleum on the banks of river Yamuna river against an uninterrupted horizon stands as a timeless ode to Emperor Shahjahan’s love for his favourite wife Mamtaj Mahal. A good guide is always helpful not only to learn about the history of the monument and appreciate the beauty and but also to get Instagram-worth pictures where you can be holding the entire mausoleum in your palm or (cherry) pick it from the top!
We stayed in a 100-year-old heritage property, the Grand Imperial Hotel. As we watched the traditional Kathputli or puppet theatre in the evenings in the hotel premises, and rode around the town in Heritage Tuktuks, it dawned upon us that the Taj isn’t the only thing that constitutes Agra. We visited the Chaat Galli, an alley dedicated to Indian street food. Sweet and sour savoury chaats topped with yoghurt sweetened with tangy tamarind and mint chutneys, gol gappas dipped in a variety of flavoured spiced waters, creamy kulfis with toppings of thick falooda, the Chaat Galli offered a wide variety. We also tasted a pasta dish from a specialised kiosk that was completely Indianised with Indian spices and tempering. You may call it blasphemous, but we can only say that it was delicious! Apart from street food, one must also taste Mughlai food while in Agra. Being the capital of Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1648, Mughlai cuisine evolved greatly in the city, and later lost its dominance to other cities like Lucknow. There are many restaurants which specialise in Mughlai food like the Peshawari in ITC Mughal, Esphahan in The Oberoi Amarvilas and others, but we picked Mughal Darbar on the recommendation of our local guide – our brilliant TukTuk driver. Located in the busy Taj Ganj area, here we had our delicious Mughlai fare of Gosht Biryani, Mutton Shahi Korma, Murgh Kadhai Wala and fluffy naans. On this trip, we missed out on the legendary Mughlai dish Murgh Musallam, where a whole chicken stuffed with minced meat, boiled eggs and spices is slow cooked in an elaborate manner. Another reason to return to Agra, if not for the Taj Mahal!
Fatehpur Sikri, around 35 kms away from Agra, is also a must-visit. The Mughal Emperor Akbar (Shahjahan’s grandfather) moved his capital there in 1571. Later abandoned and hence often referred to as a ghost town, the site is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The well-preserved red sandstone buildings of Fatehpur Sikri hasn’t been able to put the town on the global tourist radar as the pristine white marble of the Taj Mahal has done to Agra. Nevertheless, the glory of an erstwhile Mughal capital is still reflected and echoed proudly through the corridors of the buildings and the magnificence of the planning of the city.
Wadi Rum, Jordan
Led by our Bedouin guide to a steep cliff after an hour-long off road drive, we watched the sun setting in the vast expanse of Wadi Rum. After the sunset, we settled into our desert camp. While we were sipping into our Bedouin tea, a slow brew with a blend of black tea leaves, raw sugar, cardamoms, dried wild sage and other herbs over the campfire, our dinner of Zarb was being prepared. Zarb is a traditional bedouin preparation where marinated meat along with vegetables like potatoes, carrots, eggplants, tomatoes, onions and others were slow cooked in an underground pit. The preparation is not only elaborate, but the way a Zarb is brought out from the ground once its prepared, is quiet a spectacle to watch. Only a few desert camps prepare Zarb because it has to be slow-cooked and cannot be cooked in small quantities. While there are plenty of desert camps in Wadi Rum that offers overnight camping, we suggest the ‘Full of Stars’ tents in Wadi Rum Night Luxury Camp. Sleeping in a transparent bubble tent with shooting stars overhead and waking up to a breathtaking sunrise in the desert – can this be anything short of magic?
There are many other places in Jordan which we visited that are also part of UNESCO World Heritage – for example, the Baptism Site “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” and Petra. Do read more on our Jordan trip here and try the recipes that we have shared (all of them tried and tested at home) of the following traditional Jordanian dishes:
Mansaf – lamb seasoned with aromatic herbs, sometimes lightly spiced, cooked in yoghurt, and served with huge quantities of rice. Mansaf is considered the national dish of Jordan.
Maqlooba – a traditional one-pot Palestinian dish, also popular in Jordan where meat, rice and fried vegetables are cooked in a stock in a pot and then flipped upside down while serving. It is served with plain yogurt or a simple Arabic salad.
Freekeh – traditional Jordanian cereal food made from green durum wheat cooked with in stock with roasted or fried meat – chicken or lamb served on top
Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland
Located 15 kms away from Krakow in Wieliczka town, the 700-year-old Wieliczka Salt Mine is a salt labyrinth spread over more than 245 kms under the ground, going down as deep as 327m. Declared a National Monument of Poland in 1994, this was one of the world’s oldest operating salt mines, excavated from the 13th century and producing table salt until. As first timers, we were booked into the tourist route, a 3.5 km trek out of the vast salt mine, that’s been made accessible to the public. Returning tourists could, however, opt for an immersive miner’s route too. We climbed down 380 stairs of a 17th century wooden shaft to a depth of 64 metres until we reached the starting point of our journey into the salt mine. The underground salt landscape in our tourist route changed throughout – from endless corridors to unusual chamber halls, beautiful chapels to dimly lit saline lakes, all hollowed out in salt rock. There are around 22 chambers and chapels, some of them exhibiting impressive timber structures that reaching up to the salt-rock carved ceilings. In some of these chambers, chandeliers made from crystalline salt, hung from the ceilings. There were severable memorable stops on our route. The life-sized salt statues in Janowice Chamber or the Michalowice chamber with its 36-metre-tall timber structure forming the backdrop to a 6-metre-tall and 3-metre wide salt chandelier. We paused for a mini light and sound show listening to Frédéric Chopin’s étude inside the Weimar chamber as dim lights cascaded across an indoor brine lake. The interior of the Chapel of Kinga, the patron saint of miners, is truly one of the most beautiful and forms the climax of our tour. The chamber which housed the chapel was vast and stretched over 465 square metres with a height of 11 metres. The bas relief carvings on the salt walls and salt statues crafted by miners took over 25 years, depicted scenes from the New Testament as well as a recreation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper. From intricate chandeliers to ornamented alter pieces and beautiful designed floors, everything was carved out of salt. Apart from marvelling at the finesse of the chandeliers and bas reliefs on the walls or the unparalleled panorama created by tunnels, corridors, chambers and chapels in this underground city carved in salt, there were many instances to learn about the workings of this salt mine and witness some of the mechanisms of the mining machineries still in operation, like a Hungarian-type horse treadmill.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Siwy Dym in Rabka (an hour from Krakow), an hour drive from Wieliczka. Siwy Dym served traditional Polish food characterised by strong Highlanders’ accents. The interiors were rustic, made out of old wood obtained as a result of demolition of highlanders’ cottages. We started with the refreshing Chłodnik, a beautiful beetroot soup made with soured milk, cucumbers and chopped fresh dill – a summer staple in Poland. Mizeria, another very traditional salad made from cucumbers in sour cream and dill, followed soon. Our main purpose, however, was to taste Pierogi, the national dish of Poland. Pierogis are half-moon dumplings and came either with sweet or savoury fillings. We tasted the savoury pierogis filled with meat and cabbage, sprinkled with sauce made from oscypek, a smoked cheese of regional heritage made out of salted sheep milk.
We visited Poland during the summers and there were seasonal flowers everywhere. Do read more on our Poland trip here and try the recipes that we have shared (all of them tried and tested at home) of the following Polish dishes:
Kopytka – Hoof-shaped potato dumplings
Kiełbasa – sausage, smoked or boiled
Zapiekanka – a baguette with melted cheese, meat, mushrooms, onions and ketchup
Kogel mogel – eggnog, made from egg yolks, sugar, and flavourings such as honey, vanilla or cocoa
Kremówka Papieska or Papal Cake (a favourite of Pope John Paul II) – made of two layers of puff pastry, filled with whipped cream and usually sprinkled with powdered sugar
Historic Areas of Istanbul, Turkey
The distinctive skyline that have been built over centuries featuring slender minarets and vast domes of beautiful mosques, centuries-old buildings, crowded bazaars full of vibrant handmade artefacts, cool breeze of Bosporus – Istanbul transcends all adjectives that define beauty. Istanbul is an ancient city with a history going back 8500 years. The Historical areas of Istanbul that’s listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site include the ancient Hippodrome of Constantine, the 6th-century Hagia Sophia and the 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque. What I loved about Istanbul is that its history can be witnessed by peeling off the multiple layers in its architectural landscape which clearly reflects an amalgamation of cultural, political, art and religious history across two continents – Europe and Asia. Walking into a mosque complex like the Süleymaniye Mosque is pretty mesmerising, so does standing under the massive dome of Hagia Sophia with its low chandeliers hanging down all the way up from the ceiling at 180 ft! As I walked along the historical streets, I was greeted everywhere by smiling Turks. Huddling by a sweet shop and chatting over Turkish delights – the lokums and Çay, or Turkish tea, seemed to be one of the popular pastimes. There were street vendors everywhere – selling either roasted chestnuts or with trays of Turkish tea, served in tulip-shaped transparent glasses. We headed to Sultanahmet Köftecisi, located the touristy Sutanahmet Square. The best Izgara Köfte, or Turkish meatballs in town were promised by this restaurant. Contrary to what the name suggests, here the Köftes were shaped into little cylinders from lamb or mutton mince mixed with breadcrumbs, minced onions and spices.
While walking down the streets of Istanbul, don’t forget to taste the following:
Maraş Dondurma: Turkish ice cream made with whipped cream, salep, mastic, and sugar.
Turkish coffee: It combines a special preparation and brewing technique with a rich communal traditional culture.
Simit: circular bread, typically encrusted with sesame seeds.
Fresh fruit juices in the streets, specially pomegranate juice.
A UNESCO World heritage Site, Valletta is the fortified capital city of the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta. There are cobbled alleys, filigreed balconies jutting out of imposing baroque styled palaces and building, colourful wooden main doors with intricately designed brass doorknobs. Valletta is impressive with its yellow colour sandstone that defines its architecture, a picturesque waterfront with sails, cruise ships and ocean liners along the majestic Grand Harbour. There are many notables in the city, amongst which is a masterpiece from Italian painter Caravaggio inside the St John’s Co-Cathedral – The beheading of Saint John the Baptist. At 370cm x 520cm, it is one of greatest and largest of Caravaggio’s work, and the only one to be signed by the artist. Much of the city is vehicle-free and the alleys and large squares are bustling with alfresco cafes and restaurants. We decided to visit the family run iconic restaurant Caffe Cordina. Founded in 1837, Caffe Cordina is located in a historical premise in Piazza Regina and boasted of beautiful décor and a ceiling with paintings by the renowned Maltese painter Giuseppe Cali. The menu offered traditional Maltese food like braised rabbit, Bragioli etc, and we tasted the very popular Maltese Pastizzi, a traditional savoury pastry with fillings of ricotta cheese and mushy peas. Another special restaurant in Valletta is MUZA. Housed in the historic 16th century building Auberge D’Italie, MUŻA is the new National Museum of Art in Malta. Every dish in the restaurant is inspired by an artwork on display in the galleries. For example, my order was a linguine dish with spicy Maltese sausage, sun-dried tomatoes and homemade sauce. The name of the dish was ‘The Stone Mason’s Sack’ and was inspired by the artwork The Stone Masons by Pietro Paula Caruana!
The Maltese specialities that we also loved:
Ħobż tal-Malti – traditional crusty sourdough bread usually baked in wood ovens
Gbejniet – the local cheese, made from goat’s milk eaten
Bigilla – a thick pate of broad beans with garlic
Ravjul tal-Irkotta or Ravjul Malti – ricotta filled ravioli served in tomato sauce, garlic and parsley
Maltese Rabbit – braised rabbit cooked in a curry of garlic, rosemary and balsamic vinegar
Bragioli – stuffed beef olives cooked in their own juice, root vegetables and tomato sauce
Zalzett Malti – short and thick Maltese sausages with sea salt, black peppercorns, coriander seeds and parsley
Imqaret – diamond shaped deep fried pastry with a filling of dates
Note: The above compilation has been drawn from our own experiences – personal vacations or media trips. All images have been taken by us, unless mentioned otherwise.