Tag Archives: Market

Food tour of Rome, Italy

Similar to our experience in Istanbul, organised food tours in Rome are expensive but their itineraries are well documented so we pieced together a few of the highly recommended ones and made our own. We knew we’d be missing out on the introductions, stories and explanations, but the food isn’t too unfamiliar to our British palates as, say, Vietnamese..

Breakfast – Cappuccino and Cornetto

After heading to the Testaccio area of Rome (Metro: Piramide), where most of the foody tours seems to operate, we joined the locals in Cafe Barberini to start our day with a working Italian breakfast of a cappuccino and a cornetto.

Cornetto, Cafe Barberini, Rome, Italy

A typical Italian working breakfast of cornetto, a croissant filled with Nutella or custard, washed down with either a cappuccino if you have time, or a caffe (espresso shot) if you’re running late

Cafe Barberini is also known for its hand-made chocolates, so of course we had to try one. Or two..

Handmade chocolates, Cafe Barberini, Rome, Italy

Cafe Barberini is also a chocolateria. It was difficult to choose just one, but as this isn’t the first time we’ve eaten our way through a city we knew we had to pace ourselves..
Julie chose a tiramisu in a chocolate cup (left), and I picked a cream and fondant-filled white chocolate number topped with flakes of coconut

Tasting – Volpetti’s Delicatessen

Just a few doors down from Cafe Barberini is the family owned Volpetti delicatessen.

Volpetti's delicatessen, Testaccio, Rome, Italy

Volpetti’s delicatessen, we could spend hours in here, and hundreds of Euros too.. and we wouldn’t regret a cent!

Inside, it’s a mouthwatering Aladdin’s cave of tastiness, as much a feast for the eyes as for the palate. Every conceivable surface is overflowing with delicacies. It’s absolutely wonderful.

Volpetti's delicatessen, Testaccio, Rome, Italy

A close up of the cured meats and charcuterie section. Yum!

We could have bought two of everything. The owner’s son – a large man in typical whites and every bit the stereotype of a jolly butcher – offered us a taste of the sweetest, most mouthwateringly flavourful prosciutto we’ve ever tasted. The kind of ham that would convert vegetarians on the spot. Then another slightly smoked variety that I preferred. Who am I kidding, I’d have bought both!

When we eventually tore ourselves from temptation, we reflected that it was fortunate we weren’t staying nearby, otherwise we’d completely blow our budget as we wouldn’t be able to resist popping in every day.

Interlude – Testaccio Market

You may have realised by now that we love markets – we have 15 posts about them!

Fruit and Veg stall, Testaccio Market, Rome, Italy

A typical fruit and veg stall in Testaccio market. We love the fresh produce in Italy – it tastes as good as it looks!

Originally located in Testaccio Piazza, this local market recently moved to a redeveloped block a few streets away. Most of the stall owners moved, some didn’t, and some new ones opened, though we understand it was quite the controversy at the time. It looked like almost all of the units were occupied though not all were open, but we enjoyed the variety. As usual for all markets in Italy, we found plenty of vegetable stalls, but also butchers, fishmongers, bakers, general dealers, two street-food and sandwich shops and a couple of household goods and clothing shops too.

Brunch – Pizza

Now we’re talking!

Pizza by the slice, Pizza Volpetti, Rome, Italy

Pizza in Rome is quite different to Naples. It’s pre-baked in long strips like a Roman circus (the shape of a chariot racecourse) and then cut width-wise into slices, usually with scissors

I keep trying it, but the pizza in Rome just isn’t as nice at the pizza in Naples. Oh well, the search continues :o)

Pizza by the slice, Pizza Volpetti, Rome, Italy

Our pizzas being prepared. Julie chose a Rome specialty of sliced potato, and I went with the classic cheese and cherry tomato. They also had a Pizza Bianca (front) which just looked like plain pizza bread

Interlude – Through the keyhole

One of the top-rated attractions in Rome isn’t closed on Mondays, doesn’t have entry fees, and has but a few minutes queueing time if any..

Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta, Rome, Italy

The grand but otherwise innocuous looking door of the Villa del Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta. Still the reserve of the more off-the-beaten-path tours of Rome as it’s a little out of the way..

What’s all the fuss about? Why do private cars and taxis pull up, handfuls of people empty out and then peer through the keyhole of the Knights of Malta’s door?

Peering through the keyhole, Rome, Italy

Even though we knew what to expect, it was worth the little uphill climb for the view..

View through the keyhole, Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta, Rome, Italy

It’s the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica! Perfectly framed by a tree-lined path. Nice, huh?!

Snack – Trapizzino®

Sometimes there are inventions that as soon as you see it or it’s explained to you, you just think “that’s genius”. Trapizzino is one such culinary bathtub eureka moment – a fusion of freshly baked pizza dough corners filled with classic Roman stews put to use like sandwich fillings.

Trapizzino®, Rome, Italy

The Trapizzino® – anything that starts with pizza is alright in my book, but then filling it with stew and topping it with cheese – genius!

There were about 8 or 9 fillings available, including many Roman staples that involve offal or sweetbreads of some kind. Hmmm, where have I heard ‘sweetbreads’ before? We opted for the safe-sounding aubergine and parmigiana and it was very tasty indeed.

Lunch – Pasta

Testaccio sits on the Tiber river that runs through Rome, and has a long history of river trade. For reasons historians don’t yet understand, clay amphorae or vessels that were once full of olive oil were disposed of as part of this trade and formed an artificial hill near the riverbank. They weren’t just thrown down or randomly discarded – although most lay broken, they were neatly stacked and today the hill is encircled by bars, clubs and pasta restaurants.

Flavio al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy

Another destination of the organised food tours is Flavio al Velavevodetto, famous as much for its excellent traditional Roman pasta dishes as for the backdrop of Testaccio Hill

Suppli', Flavio al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy

We were happy to see suppli’ on the starters as we’d been looking out for it all day. It’s the Roman version of the Sicilian arancini – a filled rice-ball coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Fortunately it wasn’t as big as the Sicilian ones as we were starting to feel the pinch of our waistlines..

Tonarelli cacio e pepe, Flavio al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy

Julie ordered tonarelli “cacio e pepe” – pecorino cheese and black pepper

Rigatone alla matriciana, Flavio al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy

And I ordered the rigatoni alla matriciana, a classic Lazio pasta sauce made from guanciale (cured pork cheek), pecorino cheese, and tomato

While we found somewhere to put it all, we wished we’d ordered half-portions or got one to share as we were stuffed!

Interlude – Protestant Cemetery

Time for another break, and just inside the old city walls is the Protestant Cemetery, also known as the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome. From their website..

Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery contains possibly the highest density of famous and important graves anywhere in the world. It is the final resting-place of the poets Shelley and Keats, of many painters, sculptors and authors, a number of scholars, several diplomats, Goethe‘s only son, and Antonio Gramsci, a founding father of European Communism, to name only a few.

John Keats' grave, Rome, Italy

The grave of John Keats (left) which doesn’t actually bear his name, just the inscription “Young English Poet … Here Lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”

It’s a narrow, walled, claustrophobic cemetery pushed up against the old city walls. We were surprised how many different nationalities we spotted – it seemed like anyone who happened to die in Rome (and wasn’t Catholic) ended up here. We spotted the graves of an Indian ambassador to Italy, a Japanese man who passed away recently, and the grand-daughter of the King of Afghanistan among many others.

Besides the historically famous, there were quite a few graves with elaborate headstones or statues, such as the one for Emelyn Story, whose husband was a sculptor..

Angel of Grief, Rome, Italy

Angel of Grief by W.W. Story (1819-95) for his wife, Emelyn and himself

When the perimeter of the city walls were extended, they incorporated this marble-clad pyramid as one-half of a city gate, which, fittingly is also a grave – that of Gaius Cestius. Constructed in 18-12 B.C., far outside the centre of Rome it was lost to undergrowth, shrubs and trees.

Pyramid tomb of Gaius Cestius, Rome, Italy

The tomb of Gaius Cestius. Sadly it’s not open to the public, but it’s amazing that the marble cladding is still intact given the materials pilfering that befell much of ancient Rome

Dessert – Gelato

The final course – there’s always room for ice-cream! Giolitti’s is a particularly noteworthy gelateria, as all of the ice-cream is properly made (i.e. not whisked up from powders) and we’d read that they’ll refuse your combination of flavours if they’re deemed to be un-complementary!

Giolitti's ice cream, Rome, Italy

Wearing 3 layers of clothing, we felt it was appropriate ice-cream weather. I chose coffee and pistachio, and Julie chose chocolate and cherry. We were also offered a healthy dollop of fresh whipped cream too

We agreed that the cherry and pistachio were the best flavours, and our combinations passed the test! Phew!

Supper – Prosciutto and Gorgonzola

When we got back to our apartment we needed a few hours to recover, kind of like that feeling you get after a really good family Christmas lunch. Similarly, later that evening we just wanted a little, light something to eat for dinner – then we remembered the prosciutto!

Parma Ham and Gorgonzola

The amazing prosciutto and gorgonzola we bought from Mr Volpetti earlier – a delightful note to end on

I’m still wondering what I can ditch from my pack to make room for a whole leg of Parma ham..

Sicilian Markets

The markets in every town we’ve stayed in Sicily have been fantastic. They’re full of interesting sights, lots of bustle and fresh local produce. We’ve stayed predominantly in apartments which it turns out is usually a cheaper accommodation option than guesthouses or even hostels and also allows us to save money on food by cooking for ourselves most of the time. In turn this means that we can more fully immerse ourselves in the markets by shopping there too.

Mercato il Capo, PalermoMarkets tend not to be in a large building or an open square but arranged through streets. They consist of a mixture of stalls, shops, and stalls spilling into the street as extensions of shops.

Vegetable stall, Mercato il Capo, PalermoVegetable stall in Mercato il Capo, Palermo

Artichokes and cauliflowersIn the winter months, both globe artichokes and cauliflowers are abundant. Confusingly the Italian name for these green cauliflowers is ‘broccoli’!

TomatoesThere are many different kinds of tomatoes available in the Sicilian markets – ‘normal’ round ones, plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes (both round and plum shaped), and these ribbed beef tomatoes

Citrus fruitsOne of the main crops in Sicily is citrus fruits and winter is the main season. The markets were full of different varieties (clockwise from top left): knobbly citrons are used for making candied peel; we like that the oranges are sold with leaves attached (you can also see prickly pear fruits in this photo); lemons; blood oranges

Fish Market in CataniaThe Fish Market in Catania – bustling in the morning, just a few drifting carrier bags and gulls picking up scraps in the afternoon

Fish display

SwordfishSwordfish was one of the most common (and easily recognised) fish that we saw in Sicily. We were surprised by how big the individual fish are

Salt codSalt cod (baccala in Italian) is a Sicilian specialty. These fillets are drying in the sun but we saw it for sale completely dry, with a salty crust and stiff as a board, or pre-soaked for shoppers who hadn’t planned so far ahead

Butcher, CataniaWe enjoyed watching the butchers preparing the meat. They also make delicious sausages and parcels of meat or chicken stuffed with, for example, pistachios or ham and cheese before being neatly tied with string or assembled onto skewers

Lamb butcher

PorchettaWe spotted this roast suckling pig on top of a butcher’s counter in Palermo

Scooter in Palermo marketWhile shopping we learnt that we needed to listen for scooters zipping through the market (just like in Vietnam)

Delicatessen truckDelicatessens sell a range of cheese as well as cured and cooked meats. We found a good trick was to ask for our parmesan cheese to be ‘macchinato’ – the shopkeeper would then weigh the block before putting it through a pulverising machine behind the counter. Much fresher than the dry parmesan dust from the supermarket and better than we could manage at home as none of our rental apartments was stocked with a grater

Siracusa delicatessenI love this stall as it’s packed with so many Sicilian specialties – sundried tomatoes, dried herbs and chilli flakes, olives and salted capers, preserved fish (salt cod, smoked herrings and anchovies both salted and jarred in olive oil)

OlivesThe owner of this olive stall in Siracusa thrust a spoon containing two olives towards us and said in his incredibly gravelly voice “Eat this. It’s good.” He was right

WalnutsWalnuts are also locally grown. This stall was in Catania

Coffee beansPerhaps unsurprisingly for a country which has influenced the whole world’s coffee culture, freshly roasted and ground coffee is easy to come by

Knife sharpenerThere were a few non-food shops here and there in the markets such as this knife sharpener hard at work in the Vucciria Market in Palermo

Catania, Sicily

Catania is nestled at the foot of Mt Etna on Sicily’s north eastern coast. It was our first stop on our circuit of Sicily, the ball to Italy’s boot, and is the island’s second largest city. Although it’s a decent size, with a population of around 300,000, we found the centre to be compact with all of the sights within easy walking distance of each other.

Accordion playerThe first person we met as we walked from the bus to our rented apartment was this cheeky accordion player who deliberately walked in front of Andrew’s camera and posed while playing us Christmassy tunes

In the centre of the city is the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) where we started our visit with a spot of people watching and a humongous (and very alcoholic) rum baba at one of the square’s pavement cafes.

Rum baba and espressoRum babas with espresso at a cafe in Piazza del Duomo

The focal point of the Piazza is a monument consisting of the rather unlikely combination of an Egyptian obelisk and a happy-looking elephant carved from lava stone. It was assembled in 1736 by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini although its origins are unclear and both the elephant and the obelisk predate the assembly by many centuries. It now serves as the emblem of the city.

Elephant obeliskThe elephant obelisk is a popular place from which to watch the world go by

Along the eastern edge of the Piazza is the city’s cathedral, or Duomo, dedicated to St Agatha who was born in Catania in 231AD. The inside is quite plain but nevertheless grand and imposing. In the middle of our visit, music started playing and a soloist began singing beautifully, it turned out to be a service in one of the side chapels, adding a lovely atmosphere.

Catania DuomoCatania’s cathedral is dedicated to St Agatha


One of the things we were looking forward to in Italy was the world famous food and I was hoping that the markets would be a vibrant place to explore. Catania has two daily markets in the central area and both were great places to look and photograph as well as to shop for provisions. It was easy to tell what was in season with piles of fennel, purple cauliflowers and citrus fruits dominating the scene. We found all of the vendors to be friendly and keen to show off their wares, some of which were unusual for us, such as dried salted cod, huge buckets of globe artichokes and lambs in the butchers shop sliced right down their middle, head included.

Catania markets collageCatania’s markets (clockwise from top left): Fruit and veg stalls in the streets around the fish market; Lambs are sold whole or neatly halved; Crates of fennel were everywhere; Salt cod drying in the sun

The Fish Market was the closest of the daily markets to where we were staying. Fresh fish always makes an interesting display and the most eyecatching of the fish here were huge swordfish. The fishmongers display the head with attached ‘sword’ at the side of the stall, and slice juicy steaks from the body to order. Wandering between the stalls were roving merchants of lemons and big bunches of parsley to complete the ingredients list for a simple fish supper. As well as the fish stalls, the surrounding streets had fruit and vegetable stalls, butchers, bakers and cheesemongers.

Fish marketThe Fish Market

Teatro Romano

Catania has a long history as a city and there are many historic sights. One of the oldest is the Teatro Romano, a semi-circular Roman theatre dating to the 2nd century AD which was built on the site of a Greek theatre from around 500-600 years earlier. Roman theatres followed a similar design to Greek ones for good acoustics to host plays and musical recitals. The structure is impressive and must have looked striking when in its original form with white marble seating divided by eight stairways of black lava rock.

Teatro RomanoCatania’s Teatro Romano

As we paid for our tickets, the heavens opened complete with thunder and lightning so we sought refuge in the small onsite museum. There we learnt that until the mid 20th century houses were built on top of and all around the old theatre, incorporating its stonework into their structures. Since the 1950s, the Antiquities Office has undertaken several projects of excavation, removing the houses and restoring the theatre, and work is ongoing.

Aerial photo of Teatro Romano from 1930sAerial view of the houses built over Teatro Romano from the 1930s [photo credit: Information board inside Teatro Romano]

The museum is housed in one of the encroaching buildings and has been preserved to show the way that the theatre was used through the ages. From there we explored the huge passageways which run beneath the seating before emerging into the theatre itself.

Teatro Romano walkwayAndrew in one of the high passageways beneath the rows of seating

Monastero dei Benedettini

The former Benedictine monastery of San Nicolo is a fascinating building and we joined one of the hourly guided tours to gain access to some of its more interesting corners. I say we joined a tour, but we were the only ones on it and we had to read the information from a printout as our guide only spoke Italian! The monastery’s buildings were confiscated by the Italian state in 1866 and it is now home to the Humanities Department of the University of Catania.

Students at work in the Monastero dei BenedettiniStudy hall in the former Monastero dei Benedettini

Before the tour we looked around San Nicolo church which is attached to the monastery. Its facade is unfinished and inside it is huge and whitewashed, seemingly not much used. The most interesting feature was the meridian line clock which runs for almost the full width of the church in front of the altar. These types of sundials were used to check the accuracy of calendars.

San Nicolo ChurchSan Nicolo Church (clockwise from top left): the unfinished facade; the meridien clock runs across the width of the church; the empty looking interior

In the second half of the 17th century, two natural disasters befell Catania. First, in 1669, a massive eruption of Mt Etna. We were amazed to learn that it took two months for the lava to travel the 40km to the city and so the monks had time to build a barricade around the monastery leaving it unharmed but with an immovable 12m high ‘shelf’ surrounding it to the north and east. Then in 1693 a massive earthquake flattened the monastery along with much of the city. The only part which survived was the basement which now houses the department’s library.

Basement libraryThe Humanities Department’s library is located in the monastery’s basement – it would make a great location for a murder mystery!

The second floor corridors are very grand with high ceilings and stone doorways, witness to the fact that most of the monks were younger sons from wealthy families and were used to luxurious surroundings. When the monastery was rebuilt after the earthquake, it was extended and, as the lava shelf could not be moved, the architect used it to support the new common areas of the monastery – the kitchens, dining hall, library and even a garden for the novices. Beneath the kitchen our guide led us through the vaults used for food storage.

Lava shelfThe narrow gap between the lava shelf (to the right) and the monastery buildings

Monumental staircaseThe tour ended with us descending the Monumental Staircase. Its grand scale and stucco bas reliefs would look more at home in a palace than a monastery

Bellini Theatre, churches and Castello Ursino

Andrew had found the route for a walking tour online and we enjoyed wandering the streets looking at the various monuments. Many were churches (about as densely sprinkled as the mosques in Istanbul), but we also saw the remains of a Roman amphitheatre (with seats all the way around as opposed to the semi-circular structure of the theatre), and a more modern theatre dedicated to Vincenzo Bellini who was born in Catania and whose tomb we saw in the Duomo. The final sight on the route was Castello Ursino, a medieval castle built between 1239-50 in a strategic position on a cliff next to the sea. Nowadays it’s a kilometre inland as later volcanic eruptions extended the coastline outwards! It is one of the few buildings to have survived the 1693 earthquake though.

Historic structures of CataniaClockwise from top left: Teatro Massimo Bellini; Church of St Francis; Roman amphitheatre remains; Castello Ursino

Istanbul’s Markets

Istanbul is full of interesting places to shop. Even if, like us, you’re not interested in buying lots of souvenirs there’s a lot to see. The walking tour that we took started at the Sahaflar Bazaar or book market, a small walled courtyard tucked behind Beyazit Square.

Shopfront in Sahaflar BazaarShopfront in Sahaflar Bazaar, the market of second-hand booksellers

Grand Bazaar

We exited Sahaflar Bazaar through a gate which is just over the street from the most famous market in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar. This is a vast covered complex which, even though it’s laid out in a grid, is incredibly disorientating once you’re inside. How big is it? Well, it contains more than 4000 shops so you really could lose yourself in here looking at everything that’s for sale!

Inside the Grand BazaarThe walkways through the Grand Bazaar are beautifully decorated

Lamps in the Grand BazaarMy favourite shops were the ones selling the jewel like lamps

Tea waiterMost of the shops are pretty small and so filled with merchandise that there’s no room for a kettle. Tiny tea shops send out runners with trays full of the typical tea glasses to keep everyone in the market going.

In the centre of the market is an area called the Old Bedesten. It is one of the original structures of the market dating back to the early 15th century. Historically it has housed the most precious of the market’s wares as it can be securely locked at night. Nowadays it is still home to some swanky looking jewellery and antique shops.

Old BedestenOld Bedesten (clockwise from top left): the heavy doors can be locked at night; there were lots of antique pipes of interesting designs; tiled fountain; display of beads

Gold shop window displayGold shops feature heavily in and around the Old Bedestan

Carpet sellerIt wouldn’t be Turkey without someone trying to sell you a carpet. This seller had set up shop outside one of the Grand Bazaar’s gates but there were plenty inside too

Gold dummiesThe most surprising sight of the day was seeing gold dummies in a gold shop’s window display!

Shopping streets

The area running from the Grand Bazaar down the hill to the Galata Bridge is a warren of narrow streets filled with shops. As in the Grand Bazaar (and many other market areas we’ve visited in Asia – Hanoi and Hong Kong to name just two) shops are grouped roughly according to the product they’re selling so we found streets full of underwear and pyjamas followed by streets of cookware and so on.

Shopping streetsI liked looking up and noticing the ancient architecture of the buildings housing the modern shops

PorterMany of the alleys are too narrow for trucks to access so porters run to and fro with massive loads, usually on trolleys but occassionally on their backs

The walking tour directed us into the courtyards of several hans. These are old commercial buildings which were used to store a merchant’s goods and for merchants from distant places to stay in safety, they’re also known as caravanserais. Each han had buildings arranged around one or more courtyards with strong gateways to keep the goods safe. Several of the ones we saw were in a pretty poor state of repair but were often still used for commerce containing either shops or storage.

Han courtyardCourtyard of Kürçü Hanı where we found dozens of shops filled with knitting wools, buttons and haberdashery

Copper coffee potsTurkish coffee is thick and strong and served in tiny cups. It’s made by boiling the coffee grounds with sugar and water in copper pots like these which we saw on a street full of metalwares

Rüstem Paşa Mosque

At the edge of the shopping streets is the Rüstem Paşa Mosque. We found the mosque easily enough, but finding a way in was not so straightforward. The mosque is built above the shops below and is accessed via two unobtrusive staircases between the merchandise.

Rüstem Paşa MosqueCourtyard of Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Tiled interior of Rüstem Paşa MosqueThe most notable feature of the mosque are the beautiful tiles which cover large portions of the walls as well as the columns, mihrab and mimber

Spice Market

The final stop on our market exploration was the Spice Bazaar. Originally a part of the Yeni Cami mosque complex this market is an L-shaped block of shops selling not only spices, but Turkish Delight (lokum), nuts and dried fruit, along with other fancy foodstuffs as well as a generous sprinkling of souvenirs.

Spice stallSpices for sale at the Spice Bazaar

Turkish DelightThere are far more versions of Turkish Delight available in Istanbul than the pink one that we’re used to, lots of them contain nuts or pieces of dried fruit

Inebolu Market

As a complete contrast to the bustling streets and souvenir stalls around the Grand Bazaar, the next day we headed to the Sunday Inebolu farmers market at Kasımpaşa. Here we didn’t see any other tourists, just lots of locals stocking up on seasonal fresh vegetables, bread and cheese.

Inebolu Market

Mushroom stall at Inebolu MarketAs it’s autumn mushrooms were everywhere with whole stalls dedicated to them

Fresh produce at Inebolu MarketFresh produce (clockwise from top left): green peppers; chestnuts ready for roasting; a cascade of green; pretty baskets of eggs

Olive stallIt’s customary to just approach the olive stall and help yourself to a sample from each tub until you find the one that you would like to buy!

Garlic mushrooms on toastWe bought a large bag of the mushrooms and a very dense loaf of bread – what better way to use them up than garlic mushrooms on toast?

Fergana, Uzbekistan

The Fergana valley is the easternmost part of Uzbekistan. It is incredibly rich and fertile farmland and has the highest proportion of ethnic Uzbeks in the country. As we travelled around Uzbekistan we met lots of friendly people and it seemed that, disproportionately, when we asked them where they were from they mentioned one of the cities in the Fergana valley. It is perhaps unsurprising then that here we were overwhelmed by meeting some the most friendly, generous and hospitable people in Uzbekistan – a country that overall we’ve found to be incredibly welcoming!

Mountain pass between Tashkent and FerganaThe beautiful view from the mountain pass between Tashkent and Fergana

To get to Fergana from Nukus in the far west of the country where our trip to the Aral Sea ended, we needed to go via Tashkent. It’s possible to fly, but we had time and a hankering for the Russian trains that we had experienced over a year earlier near the beginning of this trip so we bought tickets for the overnight train to the capital and were excited to find out that it originated in Saint Petersburg!

Sleeper train from Nukus to TashkentHappy to be back in a Russian train

The railways were built during Soviet times and much of the rolling stock dates from that period so it was very similar to how we remembered except that this time the carriage seemed to be full of Uzbeks who’d been shopping in Russia. The guy across the way from us was sharing his bunk with two huge TV sets, and one couple had boxes and boxes of stuff, far more than they could carry.

Full bunkSharing a bunk with two brand new TVs – one propped in front of the window and one taped to the bunk above!

After an overnight stay in Tashkent, we then had to navigate the journey to Fergana which turned out to be a bit of a marathon. First we had to get a mashrutka, or minibus, from Chorsu Bazaar, near our guesthouse, to Kuyluk Bazaar, 20km outside the city, where the shared taxis to the eastern cities congregate. Then we had to find the shared taxis to Fergana (harder than we’d expected), negotiate a price for the trip and wait in a swelteringly hot car while the driver rustled up passengers for the other seats (that’s the shared bit; buses are not permitted on the mountain roads so regular cars are used to move people back and forth).

Surrounded by taxi drivers at Kuyluk BazaarAndrew surrounded by taxi drivers at Kuyluk Bazaar, at this point we were trying to work out where the shared taxis left from

Eventually we set off, Andrew quickly made friends with the guy sitting next to him, chatting in a combination of broken Russian, broken English, sign language and diagrams. There were numerous stops; we were given a yoghurt drink to try, bought bread from what appeared to be a bread and melon market beside the highway in the middle of nowhere, and met a group of Spanish construction workers at a truck stop ruing the food they had to put up with while working on a new road in the mountains. At the final stop before we reached Fergana city, the driver took us through his home town of Oltiarik where we met his grape farmer friend who cut three massive bunches of grapes straight from the vines and presented them to us. Wow, what a journey!

Journey from Tashkent to FerganaShared taxi from Tashkent to Fergana (clockwise from top left): Julie trying a local yoghurt drink; view of the mountains we had to cross; we bought delicious bread from this lady; grape farmers with just one of the three bunches they gave to us

We arrived in Fergana quite late in the afternoon and worn out from all the travelling so we decided to take it easy on the following day. We had a lie-in, ate some of our mountain of grapes for breakfast and then set off to the bazaar to have a look around. It was an interesting place, stuffed with tons of fresh produce as you would expect for a farming area in September.

Fergana BazaarFergana Bazaar (clockwise from top left): butcher in the open air; girls selling carrots; huge pumpkins; this cobbler glued the soles of my sandals back together and refused payment

Just as we were trying to work out where to eat lunch, we were approached by a local man. His name was Habib and, during the usual chit-chat, we found out that he learnt his excellent English while working in London for a while before returning home to open a pharmacy and a cafe. He found out that we wanted to try the local plov as we’d been told that Fergana’s version of the national dish was especially good and he set off with us in tow eager that we should only try the best. We were a bit worried that we were messing up his plans for the day but by now we’ve learnt that in these situations we just have to submit. After trying several places and asking advice from a number of locals he settled on a particular restaurant before joining us and paying for our meal! After eating, we assured him that we could manage to make a few purchases in the market without help, and he left us with his phone number and directions to his cafe in case we needed anything.

Fergana plovFergana’s version of plov is made with brown rice

Dust storm in Fergana BazaarAfter lunch we’d intended to explore some more but unfortunately the wind picked up causing a dust storm in the centre of town so we retreated back to our guesthouse

The next morning, we took the bus to the nearby town of Margilon which is the centre of silk production in Uzbekistan, the 3rd largest silk producer in the world. The Lonely Planet informed us that the Kumtepa Bazaar which runs only on Sundays and Thursdays was a good place to get a local vibe and see the silk being sold by the metre. I’m not sure quite what we expected but it certainly wasn’t the massive hive of activity selling everything from leather boots to car tyres to melons that we found.

Melon seller at Margilon BazaarMelon sellers line the approach road to Kumtepa Bazaar

Before we ventured into the market proper we wandered along the roadside. Firstly because as the minivan had passed we’d seen mountains of melons for sale from the boots of cars and we wanted a closer look, and second because we’d spotted some seriously heavily loaded cars and thought we might find a good vantage point to take some photographs. Most of the cars in Uzbekistan are either small Daewoo Matiz or a Chevrolet saloon model called Nexia, but whenever we’ve seen a car with a heavy load it has always been an old Soviet model, usually a Lada. Here was no exception with massive loads of furniture balanced precariously atop and in the boot.

Laden ladasLaden ladas outside Kumtepa Bazaar

Margilon bakerThis baker beckoned us into his shop and we watched enthralled as he shaped and baked the bread – you can just see the loaves stuck to the inside of the oven in the background

Finally we entered the central market area. I don’t think too many tourists get out this way because, like the markets that we visited in Bangladesh, people were extremely curious, chatty and welcoming. Like Bangladesh, Uzbekistan is a Muslim country and, in the traditional Muslim culture, it’s not unusual for men to direct all questions to Andrew, want their photo with him and not even shake my hand; all done with extreme respect and courtesy, and occasionally advantageous as while I’m being ignored I can be taking photos of interesting stuff, but still it’s a bit tiresome after a while. In Margilon there were at least as many women vendors as men and probably more women customers and so I got a lot of interest and interaction too.

Funny hat lady at Margilon BazaarJulie sharing a joke with the ladies at the entrance to the bazaar. They were selling the traditional hats called Tubeteika or Duppi so of course I had to try one too!

Silk vendor at Margilon BazaarThere were just a few aisles dedicated to the silk but it was spectacularly beautiful

Leather bootsStalls are grouped by the type of goods being sold. One of the first sections that we walked through was selling leather boots

Tyres at Margilon BazaarWe though we had reached the edge of the bazaar when we rounded a corner to find a huge area devoted to tyres and other spare parts for cars

Old lady at Margilon BazaarThis lady asked me to take her picture then Andrew made her laugh

Carpets at Margilon BazaarThere was a big area behind the main market selling the furniture that we’d seen loaded onto cars at the front. Inside we found a carpet section to complete the home decoration.

Having reached the farthest end of the bazaar, we spotted a kebab stand and took a seat set back out of the way for a bite of lunch when a man saw us, stepped into the cafe, smiled and said ‘Samarkand’, remarkably he was one of the friendly local tourists we’d met at Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand. Excitedly he pulled up a photo of him and his friend with Andrew on his phone while I found the corresponding shot on my camera! Crazy that we could come halfway across the country and meet again by chance. We took another photo to prove the coincidence and turned down his kind offers to take us to his house for food.

Fergana guyAt Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand above, and below at Kumtepa Bazaar in Margilon

We agreed that Kumtepa Bazaar was one of the friendliest and most interesting markets we’ve ever been to, and well worth the long trip from Tashkent.