An Amazing Meal and Delightful Stroll in Baschi

Life In Umbria, Italy

During my time in Umbria I had the opportunity to enjoy a number of absolutely fantastic meals.  The local tourism board wined me and dined me until I was bursting and could barely move.   Needless to say it was a great chance to engage with Italian food in a way  I had not previously experienced.  As a lactose intolerant traveler with a light gluten allergy, Italy had always been a culinary destination I eyed with suspicion.  Granted, most of the food I enjoyed on this trip wasn’t the usual low-cost eats and street food that aligns with my budget, but it still managed to completely change my relationship with Italian food.  Of the places which treated us to a meal, the absolute best of the lot was Sala della Comitissa in the small picturesque town of Baschi.

Sala Della Comitissa Menu

The restaurant sits near the far point on a hill that looks out over the nearby valley. Access is gained through a long stairway off a small street that is just wide enough for a car to carefully navigate. The entrance is simple, clean, and cozy. With less than 15 tables, Sala della Comitissa makes no pretense about the experience they offer. Their aim is a cozy, elegant meal prepared and served with care and love. Some of the sparsely decorated stone walls are laden with old swords, candles and other distinctly medieval decorations. Others are painted in a natural beige plaster which helps highlight the beautifully set tables that fill the room.

Eating in Umbria

While relatively new, the restaurant was opened in 2010, the approach to tradition and culture is not.  Each table has three types of chairs at it.   Of these, one is gilded and ornate.  This chair is reserved for the guest of honor.  To further allow for guests to honor members of their group, two other chairs offer a second level of distinction in the form of arms, while the remainder of the chairs are comfortable and elegant but lack both the arms, ornate gilding, and rich upholstery of the seat of honor.

Eating in Umbria

Our meal started with a delightful toasted bread with a rich liver pate alla grappa and crushed hazel nuts. The pate was creamy, pungent and awash in flavor.

Eating in Umbria

Next up was a fresh and wonderfully healthy/velvety carrot and ginger puree with rosemary and olive oil-flavored croutons.  This dish was a universal hit around the table and it was fun to watch each of us eye our empty cups strategically, carefully analyzing if  (and hoping that) we’d missed a small spoonful that might be reclaimed.

Eating in Umbria

This was followed by a light and flavorful zucchini flan served with gently salted, perfectly ripened tomatoes, olive oil and crushed fennel. The small flan (though I’m likely misnaming it) was surprising in both its creaminess and lightness. Where I expected it to be dense its texture had more in common with whipped cream. Unfortunately, due to the high dairy content, all I was able to do was sample the dish. Luckily, in anticipation of my cursed lactose intolerant limitations they had a special surprise in store for me.

Eating in Umbria

In place of the dairy-heavy third dish, the chef prepared this special salad for me. What I initially thought was a purely vegetarian (and blissfully dairy free) plate ended up actually being a succulent mixture of shaved wild boar (what looks like cabbage), fresh oranges, olive oil and what I believe was fresh orange all topped with fennel. While I enjoyed all of the plates I had over the course of the meal this one was definitely the most surprising. The flavor was fresh, slightly zesty and simultaneously sweet and salty due to the wild boar. It lit my palate on fire and prepared it perfectly for the next course.

Life In Umbria, Italy

Before we dove into the next course, however, our host graciously invited us into the kitchen for a quick peak. The kitchen is small, cozy, and has just enough room for the three people who were hard at work on the meal. It was clean, orderly, and the focus on quality and freshness was obvious. Greeted with gracious smiles, the kitchen staff was in the midst of preparing a special type of traditional spelt pasta.

Life In Umbria, Italy

The spelt pasta dates back to ancient Roman times and was served with fave beans, little tomatoes, salted ricotta cheese, bacon and a fresh sprig of parsley.  The relatively neutral/subtle taste of the spelt highlighted the flavor of the fave beans, tomatoes and bacon creating a well balanced meal that was both delicious and felt slightly earthy and organic.

Eating in Umbria

This plate was followed by a more easily recognizable ragu.  The traditional ragu was based on the chef’s grandmother’s recipe and featured tagliatelle pasta accompanied by meat raised and butchered nearby.  It is worth noting that all of the ingredients used over the course of the meal were local and seasonal.  The plates we were served were designed to represent both Umbria and the area’s seasonally native foods. It showed in the freshness of the ingredients, their complex flavor, and the well rounded design of the meal as a whole.

Pork Neck in Baschi

Starting to feel more than a little stuffed, the final main course was served.  As a major fan of meat in general I was excited for the opportunity to try what the menu informed us would be pork neck-bones cooked and served in a light sauce with fresh pepper. The pork was so tender it virtually melted on my fork and as you might expect was jam-packed with flavor.  I traded my usual large fork-fulls for small delicate cuts to make each piece last as long as I could.  The neck meat was served with a mixture of local greens.  While they tasted a bit like well-buttered spinach, I believe it was a mixture of wild greens harvested and then steamed for the meal

Desert in Baschi

While the others were served what was by all accounts a wonderful local interpretation of the traditional zuppa inglese I dove into the house’s interpretation of traditional specialty pastries.  These were super sweet, light, and the perfect way to round out what had been a positively delightful meal.

Eating in Umbria

Now one thing I haven’t given nearly enough attention to – but which savvy observers may have noted on the menu – was the wine.  Each course was accompanied by a different local wine! Each of the wines was everything you would expect from a well-selected local Italian wine and went wonderfully with the meal.  The final wine, however, was the one that really caught my attention.  The Calcaia Dolce 2006 from Orvieto was, we were told, a mold wine. Yep, that’s right, mold.  An incredibly potent and sweet wine with an almost brandy or mead-like flavor and feel. The candy wine comes from grapes which are left to ripen on the vine to the point where a special type of grape mold called ‘noble rot’ sets in.  This helps with the fermentation process and results in a sweet desert wine that is the perfect way to round out a meal.

Life In Umbria, Italy

As we carefully stood to thank our hosts for their wonderful hospitality I think more than a few of us secretly loosened our belts a notch. The meal had lasted for three hours and we had delighted in every second.

Life In Umbria, Italy

As we made our way back to the bus we slowly meandered the streets of Baschi. The town embodies the picturesque nature that marks the region and despite a light rain was alive with people going about their daily business.

Life In Umbria, Italy

Situated on a hill, the views out over the nearby fields, forests and countryside quickly left me feeling like I was walking through a dream. Everywhere I looked I was greeted by fairy-tale images which seemed more like the fanciful oil paintings of blissful life in small-town Italy than reality.

Life In Umbria, Italy

With lungs full of fresh humid Italian air I found myself humming happily to myself as I snapped photos and walked the length of the town which took all of five minutes. Once back at the main road we climbed back on the bus and headed off to our next destination for the day: Orvieto…but that’s a story for tomorrow!

What is the best Italian meal you’ve had? Where was it?

A Traveler’s Dream and Natural Wonder of the World – Iguazu Falls in Northern Argentina

After a relaxing day spent at the Marco Polo Backpacker’s Hostel in the town of Puerto Iguazu (located immediately across from the bus station) I set out to explore Iguazu Falls. As I bought my bus fare (transportation/price info here) and hopped on the shuttle to the falls, I did so with slight trepidation.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

I say trepidation because, while hailed as a natural wonder of the world, I feared disappointment. In the past my experience with famous destinations with grand reputations has been mixed. Which is not to say that places like Knossos and Chichen Itza aren’t incredible – they are – but often they’re so sterile, over stabilized, full of tacky tourist crap and – I don’t know – dare I say bland? That I often leave slightly disappointed. For example: Was Chichen Itza impressive? Yes. Does it have the incredible pyramids, wild and untamed essence, and majesty of nearby Tikal? No.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

I’m a huge waterfall guy and my expectations for Iguazu were every bit as expansive as the famed falls. Luckily, despite my initial concerns and hesitation I can honestly say that Iguazu was one of the most spectacular, incredible, and breath taking things I’ve ever visited. It was worth the 36 hour round trip bus ride from Buenos Aires and in truth, would have been worth the entire trip in and of itself, even if I hadn’t managed to see other parts of Argentina. It really is that magnificent. If you’re like me and are a bit skeptical about visiting, bury your skepticism and book a ticket immediately. It’s worth it.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The 15 minute bus ride out to the falls was on a small bus packed with a mixture of sweaty locals and tourists alike. As we bounced along the uneven paved streets I overheard the two girls next to me speaking in Aussie English. Before long we’d struck up a conversation, and exchanged all of the usual questions and answers. As we pulled into the roundabout in front of the visitor’s center and disembarked we decided to team up and explore the park together.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

I had read online that the small island of San Martin was incredible, only accessible by a boat/shuttle, and was subject to water levels and flow. The information I’d read suggested starting with it, as the water levels tended to rise later in the afternoon. It didn’t take much to convince the girls to head for the island, and with maps in hand we made our way along small paths, which cut through the thick jungle vegetation before giving way to raised metal boardwalks.

Standing Above the Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The metal boardwalks were well done. Unobtrusive natural metal colors and made of open wire and mesh, they blended into the scenery without leaving ugly scars across the jungle floor. They also allowed us to effortlessly pass over, beside, and around large waterfalls and uneven jungle terrain.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

While the main falls are the primary draw for any visitor, it’s important to note that the whole region is full of small falls tracing their way down towards the river. Some of these more intimate falls, while smaller, offer their own natural beauty and a more delicate sense of power.

The Beach and Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As we slowly traced our way down towards the river we wound along metal walkways, stone stairways, and small cliff-side paths. We found ourselves pausing regularly to take in a particularly elegant vantage point, wild life, or to pause for a quick photo op. At one point one of the numerous butterflies in the area landed on one of the girls mid step, in the midst of one of the stairways. Each new step seemed to reveal more and more of Iguazu’s magic.

Swimming at the Foot - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Before long we reached the “dock” area. Which consisted mostly of two small metal docks and some old tires. From the area, there were two lines. One for the small ferry which would take us out to the island in the middle of the river and a second which served as the boarding and prep station for the waterfall excursion boats. These high power speedboats offered a similar service to the Maid of the Mist at Niagara falls and would take eager passengers up into the falls outer mists before, drenching their passengers, before allowing the water to push them back down, and out towards saftey.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

To our delight, once we reached the Isla San Martin we discovered a small sandy beach had been cordoned off and made available as a beach. Eager for the opportunity to fully experience the falls and escape from the steamy-hot summer day the girls and I quickly agreed on quick stopover, before we climbed the massive staircase to the main part of the island. As the girls did their best to change into their swimsuits in as subtle a fashion as possible, I kicked myself for not wearing my swimsuit, stripped down to my boxer-briefs and made a B-line for the water. It was warm, with a strong-but manageable current and made the entire visit and experience that much more real. As the water bombarded my senses with a different set of stimuli it shaped and re-crafted my relationship with the falls. As odd as that may sound – I think my experience would have been every bit as wonderful, but fundamentally different without the chance to actually swim in the river and to connect with the falls in a more tactile way.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

After a relaxing break in the falls/river the girls realized more time had passed then they had expected and after a quick exchange of information they re-boarded the ferry and made their way back towards their scheduled boat tour. Sad to see them go, but glad to have had the company for the first part of my time in the falls I turned my sights to the long, steep stairway which would take me up the side of the Island’s cliff face and eventually lead me to one of the islands two incredible viewing areas.

There’s a lot more to share, including my visit to the Devil’s Throat, wild insects, dragon-esque lizards and more. Jump to Part II: Iguazu Falls, the Devils Throat and Wild Beasts: Adventure in Northern Argentina.

Have questions about the falls? Comments or your own experiences? Please post a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Like the photos and video in this post? They were shot on a Canon G11 (latest version: Canon G12) and a Vixia HF200.

Hiking Preikestolen The “Preacher’s Pulpit” in Norway

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

For years I’d seen photos of a stunning rock cliff face that leaned out over a massive fjord.  The sheer majesty of the formation and the presence it conveyed – even in photos – captivated me.  I knew at some point I’d have to track down where the images and videos were shot and find my way there.  The spot has been featured in base jumping videos, wingsuit videos and more than a few rugged adventure photo sets. Despite it’s relative popularity, the actual name and location of the spot was anything but easy to track down. In many ways it’s one of Norway’s worst kept secrets.  Once you know what to look for it’s easy to find – but until then it’s not something you’ll just accidentally stumble upon.

As my Norway trip started to take shape, I knew that if at all possible a stop at what I later came to learn was commonly referred to as Preikestolen or the Preacher’s Pulpit  was an absolute must.  To my surprise I learned that Preikestolen was best accessed via a mid-sized Norwegian town I’d never heard of: Stavanger.  The city is the 3rd largest in Norway and regularly hailed as the Nation’s Culture Capital due to its thriving music scene.

Eager to see Preikestolen, I based my Norway visit around a stop in Stavanger even though it meant I had to cut out my planned exploration of the Northern half of Norway and a return to the Arctic Circle.

The Fjord - Stavanger, Norway

My morning began with a hint of uncertainty.  Taking advantage of the private room and a quiet night in, I’d done my laundry in the sink/shower the night before.  As experienced travelers no doubt are well aware that means clothing hanging from every possible surface and a room that looks like it has been struck by a tornado.  According to the website, I’d be doing a Tide.no tour.  For 200 NOK the self guided tour included round trip ferry transport from Stavanger to Tau, then Bus transport from Tau to the Hotel/basecamp which is located about 3.8KM and 1,000 feet in altitude from Preikestolen. The catch?  I wasn’t entirely sure which side of the old port in Stavanger the ferry left from.  Even after doing a bit of research online I was still somewhat uncertain.  Though, luckily, I remembered wandering past what looked like a Tide ferry terminal the day before.  Using that as a base, I caught the bus and struck out for what I hoped was the 9:30 ferry.

The Fjord - Stavanger, Norway

Sometimes its better to be lucky than smart.  As it turned out, a combination of the two worked to my favor.  I arrived shortly after 8AM, slightly out of breath, found a ticket window and got directions.  The attendant informed me that tickets for “Tour 4” could be purchased on the boat and that it would be departing at 9.   After a moments hesitation and confusion over the 9AM departure time (all of their paperwork said 9:30) I forded across a nearby street, wading through the heavy flow of traffic and found a small SPAR supermarket selling a relatively cheap hotdog.

Eventually I found myself on a large car ferry. The ferry itself was nice and offered a great view from the top deck as well as fairly comfortable seating inside for those eager to escape the sun or light ocean breeze.  As it turns out, there are actually two ferries that make the Stavanger – Tau trip.  One at 8:45 and the other at 9:30.  The 9:30 aligns directly with the Tau -> Basecamp Bus, but both are equally convenient.

The Fjord - Tau, Norway

The trip to Tau was gorgeous.  The weather was perfect.  Slightly cool, crystal clear blue skies, with a slight breeze to keep you feeling refreshed and invigorated, I couldn’t help but relish every moment as our ferry (turned budget cruise ship) wound its way through several small channels cut between beautiful rock islands.  Many of which had small lighthouses or picturesque villages sandwiched into tiny coves.  From time to time I’d spot a small sailboat making its way across the fjord’s flat waters – each looking as though it was an old oil painting come to life, all set to the backdrop of large mountains turned a light blue by distance and the ocean’s haze.

Wild Jellyfish - Tau Harbor, Norway

Tau Harbor was simple.  A long cement quay for the ferry to land at, an old industrial looking structure along one side of the harbor, and a secondary sailing harbor backed by several picturesque homes hidden across the harbor behind a second, smaller breakwater.  It was anything but exciting but a great place to relax for 30 minutes.  I took the opportunity to explore the water’s edge.  The water was a rich green but also crystal clear and full of fish, seaweed and a number of Jellyfish.  In truth, just about every harbor in Norway I visited was full of Jellyfish.  Some were small, most were pancake sized and others the size of a soccer ball.  Though no doubt a pain for locals, the Jellyfish added an exciting curiosity and other-worldly beauty to the overall experience.   Note the incredible clarity of the water in the image above.  I snapped it from the small dock pictured in the previous image, right before being driven off by two full sized Swans and a mid-sized gray Swanling.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

From Tau the Bus drops you off at the basecamp (not sure of its actual name).  It sits overlooking a beautiful lake and is home to a large parking lot, hotel, cafe, bathrooms, a small treat and tourist knickknack store and of course the start of the Preikestolen Trail.  From start to Preikestolen the hike covers 3,800 Meters (just under 12,500 feet) and is about 3.8 KM each way.  From the parking lot to the top of Preikestolen there’s a 1,090 foot altitude difference which the map above showcases fairly accurately.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

The path is well maintained but challenging.  In addition to steep inclines it consists of a mixture of lightly graveled paths, wooden boardwalks, natural terrain and large piled rock fields.  While the majority of the path is doable without the use of your hands there are more than a few spots where you’ll find yourself using hands to stabilize yourself as you scramble from small boulder to small boulder. Despite the path’s difficult nature there was a wide cross section of people hiking the trail.  Some old, some young.  Some thin and fit, others not so much.  The biggest deciding factor seemed to be pace and water.  When hiking the trail, make sure you take more than enough water with you and move at a pace you’re comfortable with. Don’t rush.  I had a liter as well as a 20 oz soda and was thoroughly parched by the time I finished the hike.  Having enough water, and taking your time on the treacherous footing should allow just about anyone to make the hike assuming – of course – that they’re up for a7 (almost 8) KM hike over rough terrain.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

The path is what I’d call a sprinter’s path.  It sprints up large inclines quickly before leaving hikers to meander along relatively flat spaces across beautiful boggy meadows or polished granite hilltops with incredible views of lakes or fjords stretching out towards the horizon.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

As you break through the halfway point you’re forced to make one final great push.  The hill pictured above is slightly steeper (if only slightly) than some of the other areas.  You can see the moss covered, fern decorated rocks which make up the path and perhaps get a feel for what to expect during the “sprint” phases of the hike.  Mind the ankles – it can be a bit dangerous.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

The reward, however, is well worth the effort.  After completing the last difficult scramble, you find yourself upon the spine of one of the hills.  You’ll also get to enjoy your first view of the Lysefjoren.  It’s spectacular. There’s really no other way to describe it.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

Well, when I said final push…I didn’t truly mean final, final.  Once on the spine of the mountain, you wind your way up a far more gradual incline.  With only one or two relatively small rock scrambles, you wind through a mixture of scenery like that in the photo above and lush green forest before getting dumped out next to three small lakes in an area largely devoid of trees. The lakes double as swimming holes for those brave enough to risk the frigid Norwegian water and were home to massive schools of tadpoles.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

With the lakes to my back, I began to make my way towards what I hoped was getting close to Preikestolen.  Shortly after the lakes I was greeted by a wooden sign with two options.  One was the cliff top path, the other was the hill top path.  I opted for the cliff top path, which looked like it would wrap around the remaining crest of the mountain, instead of cutting up and over it.  A decision I’d suggest anyone making the hike consider.   The hill top path makes for a far better return trip as part of a giant loop.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

Though most of the remaining path was fairly easy, there were a few challenging spots.  There’s nothing that gets the heart pumping quite like a chain link hand rail, uneven rocks and a several hundred foot drop to the left.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

The weather was incredible.  Hardly a cloud in the sky, relatively survivable humidity and a gentle breeze – which while absolutely perfect was more than a little toasty.  By the time I reached the 2/3 point I’d surrendered my shirt and was relishing every step.  There’s something spectacular about a good hike in an amazing setting surrounded by crystal clean air with blue skies in every direction.  Throw in a few spectacular cliffs and a massive fjord in the background and you’ve got paradise.  As I continued along the cliff top the path cut inland briefly, turned a few corners…

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

…and then rounded a ledge and stopped me in my tracks.  The sheer cliff face fell away to my left, some 1,800 feet down to the Fjord and there ahead of me I could just make out the small dots of fellow hikers exploring and enjoying Preikestolen.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

Even though my final destination was finally within eyesight and reach I still paused briefly to rest and take in the cliff I was standing immediately next to.  I knew that Preikestolen itself would be incredible, but couldn’t help but be awed by the sheer drop off I was standing next to.  So, I did what anyone with a reasonable fear of heights would do.  I sat down, swung my legs out into the breeze, tried not to whimper like a little girl, and took a photo…then paused and enjoyed the moment and view of the fjord below.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

Still feeling a bit light headed from my glance over the cliff I collected myself, dusted my pants off and started towards Preikestolen.  I didn’t have to walk far before being greeted by the cliff in its full majesty.   Keep in mind that what you’re looking at in the image seems tall, but loses some of its power and scale.  From clifftop to water is about 1,900 feet.  If you figure 10 feet per story, that’s the equivalent of 190 story building.  Not half bad ehh?

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

The fjord that sits at the base of Preikestolen is the Lysefjorden and is accessible from Stavanger via a variety of fjord cruises though I have to admit, after seeing it from above, I doubt that I’d be satisfied taking a ferry based tour.

As I settled in on top of the 82×82 foot flat top of Preikestolen to enjoy my lunch I couldn’t help but pinch myself. This is why I’d come to Norway.  This is what I’d dreamed of – and the best part?  It was living up to every ounce of my expectations.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

Preikestolen is effectively a giant square which protrudes from the surrounding cliff.  The cool thing about this is that it also has one corner which is perfectly laid out to serve as a seat.  One very lofty, heart pounding, slightly windy seat (pictured above).   So, not to miss out on a once in a lifetime experience I gathered up my courage, overcame my fears and carefully scooted my way out to the point, then dropped a leg over either side and sat straddling the point.  Luckily, I’d befriended a Korean couple on the ferry and run into them again at the Pulpit, which left me feeling comfortable enough to trust the husband with my camera.  No small feat (or request on my part) since it required he backtrack a few hundred feet to another smaller point to take the photo.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

After spending an hour or so at the Pulpit I started my trip home.  For the return trip, I decided to take the hill top path knowing it would take me up onto the remaining portion of the mountain, which overlooks Preikestolen.  The 100 or so foot climb up above the Pulpit was well worth it as there was a series of stone cairns which decorated the top of the 2nd cliff.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

As you can see in the image above, the Pulpit’s surface area is of a decent size, but not overly large.  It was also somewhat busy, but not bad when considering how incredible the weather was and that it’s effectively a world famous landmark.  Still, I can only imagine how stunning it would be to stand out on it alone under a full moon at night.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

The hike back down over the top of the hill offered a spectacular view of the Fjord/bay back towards Tao and Stavanger.  It also brought with it a bit of excitement.  As I crested the final hill and prepared to wind back down towards the lakes I was greeted by the sight pictured above – a rescue helicopter circling the lakes, and preparing to pick someone up.  A small crowd had gathered around what I can only imagine was a hiker who had slipped and broken a bone, or perhaps feinted from the heat.  Either way, the helicopter settled in next to one of the lakes in hover mode, dropped a cable, and picked up the injured individual before winding them up, and then heading back towards town.

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

Beyond a gently rolled ankle and feeling terribly parched the rest of my hike back down to the base camp was every bit as beautiful and delightful as the trip up had been.

The hike as a whole was spectacular and a must do for anyone visiting Norway. It was truly incredible.  If you’re thinking about doing it and have any questions (or comments) or have done it yourself please leave a comment!  I’d love to keep the memory alive with continued discussion!