2014 – A Year of Travel In 65 Black and White Photographs

As 2014 comes to a close it is time to look back over the year and to highlight some of my favorite photography. In 2014 I traveled less far-afield than during previous years but simultaneously spent more time familiarizing myself with the intimacies and breadth of texture present within Denmark. The image above is of the abandoned lighthouse at Rubjerg Knude in North Western Jutland. Upon the sand berm the individual posing is my younger brother. One of my goals this year was to work on my portrait photography and to add people into some of my shots. Hopefully you enjoy the result!

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.

Dinner and a Sunset in Assisi

Storm Clouds Over Assisi

For the three days of the conference, I found myself periodically staring out the window of my room over a perfectly manicured vineyard at the unusual city and ancient structures that dominated the nearby hillside. I felt longing – while located a mere 15 minutes outside of Assisi, our schedule was busy and largely confined to day-trips to near by cities or events at the resort.  This meant that it wasn’t until the final day of the conference that I had an opportunity to join a small group of other travel bloggers for a free-form trip into Assisi.  Our goal was simple – to enjoy a few hours around sunset walking the city before ferreting out a place for dinner and local Italian wine.

Assisi - Cathedral and Fields

We reached the town late in the afternoon just in time to enjoy an hour or so of solid light before the day began to give way to dusk lit by stunning clouds.  The view out from the city was full of rich fields, beautiful trees, and at least 20 hues of green.  The spotted clouds cast shadows across the landscape and broke the light, softening the view.  The soft rain which had fallen earlier in the day wet the soil, slicked the roads, and deepened the verdant hues that stretched out from the hilltop upon which Assisi rests.

Assisi - Fortifications

The city of Assisi is an old one. While it is unclear just how old – historical indicators suggest that the city’s roots date back around 2,500 years. Possibly earlier. Located in Italy’s breadbasket, it held a powerful strategic position for nearly 2,000 years and was incorporated into the Roman Empire during Rome’s infancy.

Assisi - Pigeons on a Rooftop

Our exploration of Assisi started at the main bus park.  A humble beginning, but none-the less a convenient drop-off point for our taxi.  From there we surveyed our surroundings before opting to head towards the city’s primary landmark and defining characteristic:  The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi.

Assisi - Lone Tree

The street curved and flared out, teasing us with a sweeping vista over the countryside as we looked out from beneath the Basilica compound’s castle-like arched supports.  As I glanced out over the country side I was greeted by a view I never quite get tired of. ..a solitary tree standing alone amidst a well-kept field.  I find there’s just a certain poetic charm to the sight. One that nags at me to pause, reflect, and to slow down.  No small challenge given the fairly hectic pace I tend to set for myself in my day-to-day life.

Assisi - City Streets

Soon though, the overlook/street dove through a fortified gateway and we found ourselves pulled in toward the city’s heart.  After ascending a brief but steep street we wound around, navigating more by landmarks than by any actual plan or idea where we were going.

Assisi - Rooftops

As I mentioned in my Perugia post, one of my favorite things about Umbria’s historic hilltop towns are the irregular roof-lines.  Assisi is no different with a veritable maze of unique structures, all at different levels and facing in a variety of directions.  At times it reminds me of the drawings of M. C. Escher.

Assisi - Cathedral Square

Quite suddenly we found ourselves passing through a gateway into the lower plaza of St. Francis. We had traded the narrow, steep, winding cobblestone streets for the large open area that serves as the Basilica’s welcome mat.  The Basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which dates back to 1,228 AD. The complex consists of two churches – creatively named the Upper Church and the Lower Church.

Assisi - Stairway to Heaven

The structure serves as the mother church for the Franciscan Order, also known as the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor.It was erected in part to honor St. Francis who began and ended his life in Assisi.  In an interesting twist, many reports note that the hill where the Basilica was erected was initially used to execute criminals and went by the name of the hill of hell.  After it was gifted and re-purposed by the Franciscans, the hill has since found redemption and is now hailed as the hill of paradise.

View from Assisi - Green Fields

A fitting name given the hill’s location on the spur of the large slope where the town of Assisi resides. I imagine that the fresh air circulating around the Basilica was a wonderful boon to its inhabitants in medieval times and the location on the hill overlooking the warm plain below kept it cool and bathed in gentle breezes even during the most humid and muggy parts of the year.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

By the time we reached the entrance to the Upper Basilica the light had begun to change and fade.  As if on command, the sky let loose fantastic rays of light in every direction which framed the Basilica in a near-halo.  I’m not a religious person, but it was the type of view that renews my love and wonder for the natural world around us. I can definitely imagine that it would have been a moving moment for the faithful.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

When I’m in a hilltop town I always feel inclined to go up…And up….And up. It makes navigation simple and usually takes you toward some sort of central square, fortification, or view port.  In this case we wound around the large green yard in front of the Upper Basilica, past a rather forlorn looking statue of a knight on horse,walking along the city’s exterior wall toward a small gate.

Assisi - Winding Streets

With the gate and the ruined tower that sat vigil over it behind us, we paused at a steep hook in the road and watched as the sun slowly began to sink toward the horizon. The town was largely silent outside the the occasional squeak as a passing car’s wheels desperately clung to the slick cobblestones accompanied by the rhythmic noise of feet shuffling along the cobblestones as an elderly couple or two two made their way down into one of the lower parts of the city. Enticed by the rich scents billowing out into the streets from the numerous restaurants around us, we couldn’t ignore the sound of our rumbling stomachs as our bodies roared in protest.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

Eager to get one final view of the Basilica and the sunset we paused along a small walkway near the city’s exterior wall and then set to the task of finding an affordable  restaurant. Quite often no small challenge in a city like Assisi which is known as a significant tourist destination. Still, with our stomachs growling, we overcame the challenges of making a group decision, and quickly settled on a small place just around the corner.  We entered and piled into one of the side rooms.

Eating in Umbria

Contrary to what I expected (expensive food and small portions), the waiter suggested one of the evening’s specials – pork shank with potato wedges for 10 Euro.  Still skeptical, I expected a small shank served on an equally small bed of potatoes.  What showed up was a massive, fist sized, shank and a hearty serving of potatoes that was full of flavor and cooked to perfection.  Everyone’s food looked fantastic and came in hearty portions.  The place was Trattoria Al Camino Vecchio on Via S. Giacomo, 7 and I’d return there in a heartbeat the next time I find my way back to Assisi.

Assisi - Winding Streets

We finished our meal and met up with another large group from the conference in the basement of a nearby restaurant. It was offering 2 Euro 50 cent pitchers of house wine.

The wait to see Assisi had been well worth the it. Even though I only got a brief taste of the city’s winding streets and delicious food selections, I was thoroughly enticed and rewarded by the offerings of the city.  I look forward to returning to Assisi and exploring it in greater depth.  I would love to tour the fortifications, re-visit the inside of the Franciscan friary, and Basilicas which I remember vaguely from my visit as a child of 11 in 1994.

If you’re considering a trip to central Italy, I hope Assisi makes the list of places you intend to visit. It’s a charming city with a rich past and one can only hope a bright future. Have you been?  I’d love to hear your personal stories of times spent exploring Assisi in a comment below.

Assisi From Above – Viewing Umbria From A Helicopter

Helicopter Ride Over Umbria - Near Assisi

Thwomp. Thwomp. Thwomp.  The roar of the wind echoed in my ears as the sound of carbon fiber slicing through the air at high speed nearly drowned out the low scream of the helicopter’s engine.  The pilot touched down briefly in a grassy field at the Valle di Assisi resort. Just long enough for myself and two other travel bloggers to trade places with the three passengers who had just finished their aerial tour of Assisi.  They were all smiles – grins from ear to ear – as they gave us the thumbs up and promised we were in for a real treat.

Helicopter Ride Over Umbria - Near Assisi

In moments I was strapped into the back seat of a pitch black Robinson R44 helicopter. Then with a smooth ease and grace which surprised me we drifted free of the grass and quickly began to climb skyward.  The day was partly cloudy which added a picture-perfect mottled lighting to the vivid green patchwork of fields, vineyards and small greenbelts which surround the historic hilltop city of Assisi.

I invite you to re-live part of the flight with me in the video above.  It helps convey the experience in a way which photos alone can’t quite express.  The main city you’re seeing in the distance on the hilltop is Assisi.  The town with Cathedral on the open plain at the foot of the hill is also considered Assisi.

Helicopter Ride Over Umbria - Near Assisi

The first building we flew over was the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli or Saint Mary of the Angels.  The basilica was constructed between 1569 and 1679 (whew!) and was created to enclose the Porziuncola, a 9th century holy place of significant importance to the Franciscan monks.

Helicopter Ride Over Umbria - Near Assisi

Before long we passed over Santa Maria degli Angeli and were presented with a close up view of Assisi’s most famous cathedral and defining landmark: the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. The basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the mother church for the Franciscan Order. The basilica was begun in the year 1228 – making it an incredibly old structure.  The opportunity to see it from above was a rare one and something I really enjoyed.  It’s one thing to look up at the Basilica from the plain that surrounds Assisi, or to walk its courtyards and gardens.  It’s a completely different experience to hover in the air and look down at the sprawling building from a vantage point that truly helps convey the complex’s size and unique architecture.

Helicopter Ride Over Umbria - Near Assisi

The flight was brief – about 10 minutes – but offered a rare and wonderful opportunity to see the Umbrian countryside from above. The region is gorgeous. Especially in late April when everything is blooming, the fields are all shades of rich green, and the air is crystal clear. When you’re on the ground and are immersed in it, you get to appreciate the finer details – a corner of a field, a small stone house, a carefully manicured vineyard, etc. – but you rarely get the chance to look out over it all and see the sum of the different parts.

A special thank you to the Valle de Assisi resort for the opportunity to take to the skies!   It was a rare and fantastic experience, one which I’ll remember for a long time.