Cherry Blossoms – Weekly Travel Photo

Smithsonian Gardens - Washington DC

Spring in Washington D.C. is a magical time.  The weather is starting to change. The city is slowly coming out of its winter hibernation and both tourists and residents alike start to wander the sweeping boulevards and monument filled parks.  One of spring’s highlights is the annual cherry blossom festival when the city’s small forest of cherry trees cover the city in a layer of rich pink and white blossoms.   This photo was snapped outside of the Smithsonian museum, but a walk through the FDR monument is a definite must.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon G11, however I typically shoot on a Canon T3i (600D).

Oasi di Alviano – Umbria’s Rich Nature Preserve

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

Situated a few miles outside of Orvieto and Terni the Oasi di Alviano, or the Oasis of Alviano, is a wonderful natural habitat and WWF Nature Reserve.  Our visit started early in the morning after a somewhat groggy departure from the nearby town of Citta della Pieve.   Despite an overcast sky and light rain we decided to press forward and to proceed with our birding and nature walk around the lake.

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

As is usually the case when presented with these types of situations, I was glad we decided to brave the rain and press forward.  While gray and a bit wet the colors were vibrant, and the vegetation incredibly rich.   The vibrant red of the poppy blossoms had just begun which served as a delightful contrast against the rolling green of the fields that surround the oasis.

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

In addition to two local cats which served as slightly sleepy but utterly adorable volunteer hosts, a wonderful local guide and researcher met up with us and began to explain the history of the lake and region.

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

As it turns out the lake is actually artificial and was created in the early 60s when the Tiber River was dammed. By 1978 the Oasis of Alviano was officially established with an area of 800 hectares of land set aside.

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

The shallow waters of the reservoir quickly attracted a wealth of migratory birds and before long had become one of the best places in the area for bird watching. In 1990 the WWF took over the wildlife reserve, and since that time they have made a number of improvements and additions.

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

These include the creation of a number of birding blinds, camouflaged pathways and a resource center with information about the local flora and fauna.

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

While most of the birds we saw were non-migratory and fairly representative of your typical lake birds it was wonderful to see them in the rich, natural environment of the Oasis. There were large, gorgeous swans, heron, ducks, and a wide assortment of water birds.

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

While we were technically there to watch the birds, I found myself more drawn in by the local flowers and vegetation. The rich greens, diverse mixture of flowers and plants, and marshy nature along the path allowed me to re-connect with nature in a way I don’t get to enjoy often. Living in a major city, like Copenhagen, it’s always fascinating to me how quickly you end up feeling disconnected from true nature.

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

Add to that the rich colors that the rain brings out of plants, and the added texture of raindrops dotting the plants and flowers and the final equation is one that left me eager to take deep breaths of fresh, clean air while soaking up the small details that made the walk something special.

Life In Umbria, Italy

At one point I discovered this oddity. As far as I can tell the quick growing marsh grass grew up, and through an old dead leaf. The end result was this otherwise impossible combination of new/vibrant and old/dead growth. It looks a bit like the main plant wanted a a scarf, doesn’t it?

Life In Umbria, Italy

While far from idea for walking and photographing, the rain ended up being light enough that it didn’t drench us, and still heavy enough to allow for moments like this with water laden leaves greedily struggling to soak up as much water as they can before giving up their prized catch to gravity and the ground below.

Life In Umbria, Italy

I know it is a bit silly to say, given that it was a nature preserve but it was delightful how alive everything in the park was. While there were the usual greens, browns and grays the wealth of different types of flowering plant and Lilly presented the eyes with a feast of color and contrast.

Life In Umbria, Italy

At one point our guide paused at a small pond surrounded by flowers. She pulled out a big net, and began to scoop moss and floating debris from the nearby pool. Then with a skilled hand she carefully upended the nets into a water filled tub. This allowed us to look at and learn about all of the micro-organisms that call the local waters home.

Life In Umbria, Italy

If you’re a fan of birds and nature I highly recommended the Oasi di Alviano…yes, even or perhaps especially if its raining.  The opportunity to spend time immersed in the local nature while still being in such convenient proximity to Umbria’s nearby towns was a welcome treat and one I’d gladly repeat given the chance.

Young Wines and Ancient Fields

Umbria - Italian Countryside

A trip to Umbria is incomplete without at least a few hours spent wandering the region’s maze of wonderful country roads. While the Romans may be well remembered for giving us the sterile albeit easy to navigate Roman grid, incredible aqueducts and grand highways it is no doubt that it was Italy’s winding network of country roads that spawned the oft repeated phrase, “all roads lead to Rome”.  Though the mixed clouds that had plagued my visit to Umbria continued to threaten light rain, they gave way fairly quickly to a (mostly) sunny day. Eager to soak up the sun and to see more of the Italian countryside several fellow travel bloggers and I hopped on board a coach and eagerly prepared for a two and a half day tour put on by the region and a number of local businesses.  They had extended an invitation to wine us, dine us, enlighten us, and to showcase and share a brief taste of their region.  A region they were incredibly proud of. A region so jam packed with rich experiences to see and and live that even with the two and a half jam-packed days we had, I feel as though we only just left a smudge on the surface of what’s out there to see.

Umbria - Italian Countryside

Our first stop was the Monte Vibiano Winery located in Mercatello, Italy. Our tour started with a brief introduction just outside the vineyard’s main building and tasting center, before we hopped into several hulking electronic golf carts and set out towards the vineyards.  Though only an 8 minute “drive” away, our path took us up through the small town’s winding streets and along an old country lane where we paused briefly to chat with several local townspeople who were out taking advantage of the sunny weather.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

With knee high boots and snake sticks in hand they were slowly working their way along the hill’s steep incline searching for the fresh asparagus which grows in the grasses around the roots of the ancient olive trees.  The sight brought back memories of my early childhood. Though we moved to Arizona when I was six, I have vague memories of walking the ditches with my Dad near our home in Cortez, Colorado.  The house sat at the end of a long dirt driveway near the end of an old gravel county road. We were off the grid and had to haul our own water.  It was worth it though as the trade-off was 10 acres sandwiched in the midst of another several hundred of wild southwestern land mixed in with a patch-work of fields.  In spring, when things were growing and the snow melt fed the local vegetation, it was often possible to find wild asparagus. We’d pick it and while some made it home for dinner – I remember happily nibbling away on most of it there, on the spot. Though I didn’t get to try any of the Italian asparagus that moment, it wouldn’t be long before I had the opportunity to sample  it as part of some of the local cuisine.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

One thing that caught me by surprise was their caution, and mention of vipers. Though they’ve played a somewhat prominent role in Italian history I have to admit that their concern and mention of the small snakes took me by surprise.  That surprise didn’t last long, however, and quickly gave way to fanciful thoughts of Cleopatra, grand stories of love, adventure, empire, and history.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

I was pulled out of my musings by a call to re-board the carts.  We hopped in, strapped in, and then resumed our climb up the hill before turning down a shrub lined gravel path which cut across the olive orchard towards an old vineyard.  Our host explained that some of the olive trees were hundreds of years old and a quick glance at their gnarled roots quickly confirmed it. It’s amazing to think what those trees have survived. Harsh winters, changing climates, world wars, recessions, the invention of the automobile, the airplane, the space race…and all the while they’ve sat there slowly churning the soil, soaking up the Italian sun, and gorging themselves on the region’s clean water.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

As we rolled to a gentle stop I hopped out of the back of the cart and quickly did a 360, nearly tripping over my own feet in the process.  As we paused, circled around our host in the shade of a large tree, we found ourselves on top of an old retaining wall.  On one side there was the olive orchard.  On the other a relatively young vineyard awash in color and surrounded by old, crumbling stone walls that bespoke great age, but also constant care and repair.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

As it turned out we were standing on an ancient road which dated back nearly 2,000 years and had been used to transport goods overland to the sea. The orchard we were looking at, and quickly set to exploring, had recently been replanted, some 4 years previous, but had been in operation off and on by different groups for several thousand years as well. The rock walls, though often repaired, were of a similar heritage.  We spent a good 20 minutes relaxing and enjoying.  It was gorgeous.  The view out over the vines offered a great panorama of rolling hills and blooming flowers.  The paths between the vines were covered in the vibrant yellow of blooming flowers periodically broken by the white blooms of wildflowers.  Back near the stone walls red poppies and other vibrantly colored wild flowers were also in bloom.  Everything felt fresh.  Alive.  Delightful!

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

Then, as is the way with these types of things it was time to return. We wound back down the gravel lane, past the asparagus pickers, past lazy cats lounging in the doorways of the small town, and then parked next to the vineyard’s main building. Before long we were standing surrounded by walls of large stainless steel vats full of wine in a temperature controlled room and learning about the region’s specialty – the Sangiovese grape, as well as Monte Vibianos wine making process.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

From there it was on to the good stuff….down a winding hallway, set of stairs, and through a magical set of doors to the wine cellar where the wine was eventually taken to age.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

For me, it was a first. While I’ve spent time around old bottles and like to think that I’ve waged a fairly successful lifetime war against full bottles of wine, it was my first time down in the cellar with the casks, which was a fun experience. The air was slightly cooler than I expected and even though it was spotless, the room carried the light scent of young casks accented by the soft twang of young wine.  We paused again briefly as our guide explained the process, some of the grapes used, how long the wine ages, how many times they re-use a cask, and other interesting insights into the wine making process, before heading up to the tasting room to sample each the vineyard’s wine selection.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

The tasting room was beautiful with a wonderful bar back made out of stained wood with inlaid recesses showcasing the vineyard’s wine.  After a quick walk through to visually soak in our surroundings we settled in to comfortable chairs and relaxed.  Before long our hosts served us fresh bred accompanied by their own line of delicious olive oil.  The oil was great, the bread was good, and it was the perfect mid-morning snack to ease us into wine sampling.  A few moments later we were introduced to the first wine, which was also their youngest.  As we slowly worked through samples of each of their other offerings, working our way up to their premier/flagship wine I enjoyed each sample thoroughly.  I found of the five I had a slight personal preference towards their rich reds, which aligns with my general preferences. The chance to taste the wine where it had been made, to walk the vines, and to connect with the history of the area made for a rich experience and one which was extremely enjoyable.

Eventually it was time to tear ourselves away from the olive oil, bread and our emptied glasses of wine. We said our goodbyes and prepared to resume our trip across Umbria’s rich countryside.  It was only a bit past 11:30AM…the day had just begun.

Tierra del Fuego National Park

The End of the World - Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Having limited myself to two full days in Tierra del Fuego I quickly decided that the National Park was a must-visit during my second day. Admittedly, it was a difficult decision given it was the park or traveling via a day trip out to the lighthouse which would have presented the opportunity to witness elephant seals and more time spent boating the Beagle Channel. In retrospect I’m glad I made the choice I did as the weather was beautiful, the flowers in bloom, butterflies out and about, and the hike was absolutely gorgeous.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

The morning of I stumbled down to the front desk, checked my watch, and was able to walk on the shuttle out to the national park.  While technically a tour, it was basically an organized bus to/from the park and cost (if memory serves) around 50 Pesos.  The park is about 11KM outside of Ushuaia which makes for a fairly short trip.  En route we paused at the entrance gate to pay the park’s admittance fee of around 50 Pesos (for international travelers) before identifying which of the four walking paths we were interested in hiking.   The bus driver strongly recommended the seaside path and eventually convinced the majority of us to opt for it.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As the bus pulled away I took in my surroundings. I was along a coastal channel, had beautiful partly cloudy skies, and quickly noticed a small dock/hut offering the ever popular and terribly gimmicky tourist passport stamp.  Seldom one to indulge, I made an exception and paid the $2 for a massive  “Fin del Mundo” or end of the world stamp complete with several stamps, dates and a large sticker.  As I went through the process, I continued to strike up a conversation with several American guys my age and a gal who they had already befriended.  Before long we’d joined up for the hike and merged into one cohesive group. In retrospect it worked out beautifully, as it might have been a somewhat lonely/long hike otherwise despite the incredible beauty.  the path was, after all, some 8km long.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As we made our way along the coast I was once again struck by the natural richness of the region.  It’s easy to forget that you’re near the southern most tip of the worlds major continents and in a region and climate which is brutally cold, barren and harsh the majority of the year.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

The path was awash in life.  From a plethora of flowers in bloom, small butterflies and rich green moss the air hung with the fresh scent of perfect, clean air lightly salted and flavored by the ocean’s gentle kiss.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As the path wound along the channel it was constantly framed by a beautiful winding maze of tree branches. Fighting for sunlight and similarly growing to stand against the region’s violent storms they snake upwards, outwards and at times sideways in their pursuit of the perfect position.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As our group wound along the gently used earthen path we found ourselves pausing regularly in our stories to take in our surroundings.  The distractions varied, but usually consisted of flowers in bloom, odd branches, or old gnarled trees.  All the while we worked to combine our collective knowledge to identify what little we could manage.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

When I say that nearly everything was in bloom, I’m barely exaggerating.  Of the multitude of plant species we ran across, I’d guess that at least 10-20 species were either in bloom or bearing berries of some sort.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Throughout the first half of the walk we had an excellent view of a beautiful, snow capped mountain range across the channel.  The mountains and far half of the channel are actually in Chile and for those interested, near the end of the hike one can make their way up to/along the border.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As the path continued on and along the vegetation thinned slightly as it wound down onto and among the narrow stone and rock beaches that lined the channel.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

From there it was back in along a small stream which then wound up a steep embankment and eventually spilled us out on top of a small cliff which offered a beautiful overlook back along the way we’d hiked. The view also made it easy to see just how clear, rich and clean the water was. Crystal clear with blue hues to it, it had the look of cold near arctic water but still felt alive and awash in sealife.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

The colors weren’t just limited to the flowers in bloom. Many of the trees offered their own fanciful display, mixing together different species and various parasitic vines for brightly colored combination’s.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

The tidal zone served as home to a mixture of different creatures. Most prolific, however, were huge colonies of miniature horseshoe mussels and limpets. Covered in small barnacles they decorated the region’s blue green rocks in massive blanket-like clusters.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Though mostly disguised by moss and lush foliage we’d periodically stumble on evidence winter’s harsh hand. The left over skeletal remains of shattered trees, cracked trunks, and splintered branches created beautiful portals full of contrast and depth.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Where there was sunlight there was life. The above image highlights how even among a bed of dead leaves flowers flourished and small sprouts had begun to take hold.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Others harbored a more alien appearance with long finger-like blooms that looked extraterrestrial in nature. Some stood alone, others combined with large bushes to create whole walls of vibrantly colored, red spear-esque flowers.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

And then there were the odd circular parasitic/fungal growths which decorated many of the trees. Grown out of gnarled knots in the trees, these silver dollar sized orange balls had a spore-like nature to them, were squishy, and seemed more like some sort of delicious candy than wild growth. Most decorated the trees, but some had fallen to the ground. Note the deep black color of the soil in the image above.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

In some areas the balls were so common and brightly colored that they gave the illusion of some sort of odd Fae colony hiding a bustling ferry civilization from prying human eyes.

Shortly after taking the above photo we all paused at a large tree which had naked branches running out parallel to the ground.  Once there we climbed into it, and spent a good 30 minutes monkeying around.  Literally.  From hanging and posing on tree branches, to using them as swings we had a good go of it before pausing for a final “hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil” photo op.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As the path prepared to head inland for the final 1/3 of the hike we paused briefly for a snack and to rest our legs. The wind had begun to pick up and the temperature was dropping, but still generally pleasant. As we sat and played with our cameras a large hawk landed near by. Fairly tame and familiar with tourists he allowed us within 3 feet of him, all the while turning a wary eye to us. With a stout body and beautiful coloring he was a an impressive creature.

ATierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Even as we sat and relaxed I turned to the left, only to notice a small plant in bloom. Sandwiched into little more than a tiny crack in the rocks, it embodied the balance between rugged climate and the beauty of life.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

From there it was up a steep embankment and then through several thick stands of trees which were decorated by thick moss and delicate white blossoms.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

The forest would break periodically for small bog-like areas. These were mossy and looked like tundra with small streams flowing through them. Most were broken periodically by the sun bleached, skeletal fingers of long dead trees.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

As we made our way across one such marsh, I was surprised to see the beige and brown grasses give way to a beautiful set of lily-esque leaves set just beneath a gorgeous old wooden walkway.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina

Tired, footsore, hungry and cold we eventually reached the end of what had been a spectacular hike. While Tierra del Fuegno National Park may not be as impressive as what you’ll find in Patagonia and Southern Chile it is a fantastic introduction to the region and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. Just make sure you’ve got the time and weather to enjoy it properly!

Animals in Spring

We often think of visiting the Zoo in the summer months.  Times when it’s hot outside and the escape to a small oasis with wild animals, great  palms and more sounds particularly alluring.  Yet the animals themselves feel that same urge to avoid the heat and crowds, particularly here in Phoenix.

On previous trips to the Zoo I’ve mostly encountered Giraffes huddled in the shade, Monkeys sequestered in small shady corners, and the occasional lazy Lions paw dangling haphazardly out of a cubby.   Taking advantage of a warm week in early spring, I opted for an off season visit. To my delight the animals were out in fine form enjoying the weather and providing me with an opportunity to record a bit of video. Enjoy!