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.

Bergen, A Scenic Seafood Picnic and Local Fjords

The Old Warehouse District - Bergen, Norway

Still a bit giddy (silly but true) after the previous day’s spectacular adventure on the Flam Railway and through the Nærøyfjord I opted to spend my final day in Bergen and the nearby fjords. After a relatively late start Anna and I once again set out together to aimlessly wander the city.  As usual the first stop was back down along the harbor and the warehouse district, but that didn’t last long. We were eager to get into parts of the city we’d yet to explore.

Comedy and Tragedy - Bergen, Norway

The first stop was just off of the central square. Up a green boulevard and around a few statues we found the city’s opera house/theater. A fun building with a series of beautifully cast and carved figures. Some, like the flowing bronze in the image above, captured the classic imagery of theater. While others had a more unique/Scandinavian feel.

National Theater - Bergen, Norway

The building was decorated with a series of masks which took on the shape and appearance of animals, but done in an art-deco sort of powerful, but rudimentary form. The lamp posts each had extra metalwork which wrapped around them showcasing viking ships and marauders.  The whole venue had an air of character to it, which made me wish that I had time to catch a show.

A Cathedral - Bergen, Norway

From the theater we wound our way through back streets and quiet alleyways before eventually marching up a large flight of stairs. The stairs dumped us out in front of one of Bergen’s main cathedrals. A large, beautiful building that showcased a beautiful wooden roof, set with subtle but elegant wooden highlights and fine artwork.

Cathedral - Bergen, Norway

As we wound our way through the city we could not help but enjoy the skyline. Norwegian cities offer an interesting mixture of styles and a beautiful combination of greenery and ancient architecture.

An Old Lamp Post - Bergen, Norway

From the Cathedral we wound our way down the other side of the hill and over towards what we later found out was the local University.  There we paused briefly for a quick snack before winding back down towards the main lake – a large man-made rectangle which rests right in the heart of Bergen just off the central square.

Odd Art - Bergen, Norway

The  square featured a series of interesting sculptures. However, the one that I found most interesting was a large aluminum (or stainless steel) cube which looked as though its surface was cast out of water caught in the midst of a rainstorm.  It was odd, stood out, and ordinarily would have clashed with its setting.  For whatever reason though, perhaps the nature of the northern weather, it seemed to fit and in an odd way reflected and captured the region’s moody weather.

Child With Balloon - Bergen, Norway

The day was a gorgeous one.  Flowers in bloom, a few clouds in the sky, a slight northern crispness to the air, and the warmth of the sun all set to the backdrop of rich blue skies. As we wandered through the city’s streets and parks, I paused briefly and chuckled. I can’t fathom where the balloon came from, but the little girl pictured above was at play in the park with her younger brother, both with floating balloons in tow.  For some reason, set against the gazebo and blooming flowers they seemed to embody the spirit of late spring and early summer.  In truth, they embodied life, youthful energy and the essence of positive spirit.

Sunken Pink Boat - Bergen, Norway

From the park it was back to the harbor where Anna and I had decided we’d pick up some local seafood for lunch, then hop on the local fjord cruise which left twice a day, lasted 3 or so hours, and was fairly affordable. To our surprise there was a fair amount of commotion in the harbor.  Somehow, the cute pink fishing ship I’d observed and commented on the previous day had sprung a leak.  As the ship sat, partially submerged and resting on the harbor floor a large barge was brought in with a sizable winch.  The plan appeared to involve divers in dry-suits, the barge, and a large cargo winch.  From the general approach the locals were taking it must have been a somewhat common occurrence.

Seafood Lunch - Bergen, Norway

Hungry, Anna and I decided to splurge a bit and both went on a small buying spree, planning to pool what we picked up in a two-person potluck once we got on the boat.  The region is famous for its seafood, especially for its smoked salmon, fresh arctic shrimp and dare I say it – whale.  Anna went for the healthy route and picked up a carton of fresh strawberries and raspberries. It’s worth noting that I was surprised how many small fruit stands were selling strawberries and cherries in Stavanger and Bergen. They were everywhere, dirt cheap, and absolutely fantastic.  They were fresh, sweet, and a deep rich color with a strong strawberry scent.  The type of strawberries you only find in the US at local farmers markets.

Seafood Lunch - Bergen, Norway

In addition to the strawberries and raspberries, Anna picked up a lightly seasoned piece of smoked salmon and freshly cooked combo plate which had a few skewers of shrimp and a piece of whale meat.  I opted for a pound of fresh crawfish, cup of fresh cherries and a more heavily spiced/slightly dryer piece of Salmon.

Local Foods - Bergen, Norway

The meal was absolutely spectacular.  The salmon was delicious – well spiced, perfectly smoked and a great mixture of flavors. Mine was more like traditional smoked salmon while Anna’s rode the middle and was far closer to lox. The crawfish and shrimp were both extremely flavorful while the strawberries and raspberries were perfectly ripened and some of the most flavorful I’ve had in a long, long time.  I have no doubt I’ll take some flack for it, but I also opted to try whale.  While opposed to their hunting, curiosity and hunger for new culinary experiences won out.   It sounds silly, but i was quite surprised by the taste.  I was expecting something fishy, which given that whale is a mammal is a bit daft.  Instead the flavor was extremely gamy and almost had a liverish taste to it.  The liver taste was more pronounced in the smoked version I tried, while the thinly cut BBQ’d piece was fairly good, but nothing special.  Truth be told it was like a gamy carne asada.

Fjords Near Bergen, Norway

The cruise left Bergen Harbor and wound its way out towards the main bay/fjord. There we passed near a series of beautiful suspension bridges and motored past a number of sailboats out enjoying the nice weather.

Fjords Near Bergen, Norway

About an hour or so into the trip we started to leave the more densely populated coastline behind.  It was replaced by small lighthouses, boathouses, and the occasional home and small village.

Fjord Tour Near Bergen, Norway

The whole area is incredibly picturesque.  From the architecture, to the rich mixture of colors used on their buildings the small towns each have their own unique character. All set against a rich green backdrop.

Fjord Tour Near Bergen, Norway

The coast/fjord is also home to a series of small waterfalls and impressive cliffs.  However, in comparison to my previous day’s adventure, most seemed fairly small and plain.  Which is not to say that they were not gorgeous and incredibly beautiful.  Rather, the cruise from Bergen gave me the opportunity to enjoy architecture and human’s footprint set against a majestic backdrop.

Fjord Tour Near Bergen, Norway

Eventually the day wound to a close as we slowly completed our long loop and headed back towards Bergen.  Just in time, I might add, as the weather had slowly begun to change.  The clouds had thickened and spread and the temperature slowly dropped.  As a fresh sprinkle cleared the dust from the air, I took one final, deep breath, enjoyed the beauty of the fjords and prepared for my last night in Bergen.  The following day promised grand adventures and my first taste of Denmark.

A Burgeoning Love for Bergen and Norway’s West Coast

Overlooking the City - Bergen, Norway

The ancient seaside city of Bergen is one of Norway’s best known destinations.  Situated in the heart of Norway’s spectacular fjord country the city offers a rich history, pristine location, spectacular seafood, and perfect starting point for those interested in a breathtaking voyage down one of the region’s nearby fjords.  The city which dates back to approximately 1050 AD is Norway’s 2nd largest city with about 260,000 citizens and a total regional population of around 380,000. The city is readily reachable by air from most or Northern Europe, train through a rail line that connects it to Oslo, and bus/ferry which connects it to Trondheim in the north and Stavanger in the South.

Summer in Norway - Flowers in Bloom - Bergen, Norway

My experience with the city started as nearly all introductions do.  Curiosity, enthusiasm, and a bit of anxiousness over the unknown.  As I disembarked from the Tide.no ferry from Stavanger into a gentle mist of light rain I immediately noted a general approximation of my location in the small map in my Lonely Planet guide book before setting off through the city’s densely crowded harbor area.

The Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

I’d booked several nights in the Dorm.no hostel after an extensive search for budget accommodation in the area.  Unfortunately, despite its popularity as a destination Norway has a fairly poor hostel network which is heavily dominated by Hosteling International (HI) hostels. Regular readers of the site may recall that while I’ve had positive experiences with HI Hostels in the US, I have a very low opinion of them in Europe and tend to view them as out of date, dirty, and poorly serviced.  As a result I’d opted for the privately run Dorm.no despite a limited number of reviews on the Hostelworld.com profile and extremely mixed reviews. Luckily, what I found was completely different than what the reviews had portrayed.  The hostel was clean, fantastically located, comparatively affordable and modern with ample bathrooms/showers, clean rooms, a kitchen and decent common area.  My only real complaint was that they enforced a lockout which is a huge pet peeve.

Pink Boat in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

Relieved that my accommodation not only met but beat my expectations I set out to explore.  The city of Bergen is every bit as active as it is picturesque – at least during the summer months.  Nestled between two large hills the city has a number of large open squares, a park with a large fountain and statuary and a beautiful old harbor lined by old warehouses and a fish market.

Fish Market - Bergen, Norway

My obsession with the ocean goes back to well before I could walk.  A cornerstone of my childhood was the month+ every year my family and I spent on the Sea of Cortez outside of Puerto Penasco in Mexico.  As a result I’ve always harbored a love for the ocean and seafood.  As one might imagine outdoor fish markets are one of my favorite destinations.

Fish Market - Bergen, Norway

Overflowing with fresh fish, live crabs, lobster and shrimp all accompanied by a wealth of pre-cooked and smoked seafood the Bergen fish market is a mecca for tourists and locals alike. While the prices may be somewhat higher than seafood prices in the super markets, the experience is quite an adventure.  The seafood is fresh and a great mixture between northern fish, deep water species like Monkfish and of course all of the usuals from arctic shrimp to dungeness crab.

Fish Market - Bergen, Norway

A lazy stroll through the tightly packed tents is an absolute delight.  The area is all open air which cuts down on the smell, and the combination of fresh seafood and ready-to-eat dishes encourages the vendors to maintain clean cooking conditions.

Knife Balancing in the Fish Market - Bergen, Norway

As if the wide assortment of browns, oranges and reds wasn’t sufficient to keep the curious passerby entertained the workers are also eager to put on a bit of a show. While most were not overly dangerous, I stumbled on one individual who had a pension for balancing a razor sharp fillet knife on the bridge of his nose.  Not half bad right?

The Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

Located a quick hop and a skip from the fish market is the old warehouse row. A must for anyone visiting the region, the old shops have been restored and painted beautiful to create a picturesque waterfront.  Add to that, they’re one of Norway’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

The buildings which have served a wide variety of uses over the years predominantly date back to the 1700s when most of the water front was re-built after a large portion of the city burned to the ground.  Given the close construction, wooden materials, and forms of heating available throughout the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it’s no surprise that Bergen has a long history of catastrophic fires.  In many ways I found it absolutely amazing that the city still exists after reading excerpts from its history.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

Though snugly interconnected in front most of the warehouses have small alleyways that cut between them.  These alleys are lined by leaning ancient wooden walls that show the cuts, scars, and old nails from hundreds of years of constant use and near constant re-purposing.  Many also show the signs of ancient wooden doorways or windows that have since been boarded over.  The roof-line is also a cluster of enclosed windows, doorways, and loft entry points which hang over the street and would have helped workers lift large bundles up and into the buildings.  Many are also connected by 2nd and 3rd story walkways as well which give the whole thing a disorganized, charming appearance, even if it is slightly claustrophobic.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

As I explored the buildings immediately behind the warehouses I paused briefly to snap the above image.  It’s hands down one of my favorite shots from the trip.  The young lad pictured was exploring the area and decided to march off determinedly, leaving his parents behind as he explored the area.  I couldn’t have asked for a better contrast between young and old.

That’s it for now.  Stay tuned for more from my time in Bergen including live music, squares, cathedrals, and even a trip into the bowls of an ancient coastal fortress.

Sailing the Belize Barrier Reef – Day 2 and 3

Giant Fresh Caught Spiny Lobster

The following morning we struck camp; laughing at the slow, stiff movements and pained, hungover looks that plagued our group.  The tents proved every bit as difficult to break down as they had been to put up leading to small frustrated mutterings and no small shortage of lighthearted teasing.

Hermit Crab in Belize

We paused briefly for breakfast, then began transferring bags, sheets, tents and bodies back onto the cramped confines of the Ragga Queen before saying goodbye to the Island and its surprising wealth of local wild life.

A small caye in Belize

As the boat gently drifted away from the Island I was once again taken by its small size, pristine beauty and the unique flavor of the adventure.  As you might imagine, a plethora of movie references and great cinematic moments filtered through my mind – always an entertaining narrative and realization: that epiphany that you’re living the adventure often delivered as fairytale across the world’s silver screens.

Hand and Scarf on Sailboat roof

The day was beautiful with hardly a cloud in the sky.  The sun kept us warm and left us relishing each opportunity that arise to pause and dive into the water to fish, snorkel, hunt for conch, or just generally relax and cool off.

Raggamuffin Tour - Everyone relaxing on the Sailboat

As we neared our first snorkeling stop I was relieved. The weather was fantastic, the group with the exception of one bratty girl, was an absolute delight and the adventure was unfolding nicely.  I’m always wary of any sort of extended duration tour.  While something like the Raggamuffin tour tends to only attracting the more laid back, younger and heartier traveler – all it takes is one or two people to really turn what should be a 3-9 day adventure with new found friends into an absolute nightmare.   As you can tell from the photo above things were rather tight and personal space was at a premium.  That said, everyone took it in stride and worked to chip in.

Belize's stunning waters

Our first stop was along a steep wall along the reef.  As I first jumped in and looked down, I felt my stomach surge towards my throat. The water below me was some 20-30 feet deep on a steep incline, drifting quickly into a dark blue abyss.  The seafloor was covered in coral, fans and schools of fish and I couldn’t help but think I stood a good chance of seeing an open water shark.

Allowing my nerves to settle, I began to explore the area. The sea wall offered a great opportunity to see a different type of reef life.  Some of the fish were different, the corals were slightly different and the general feel of the place had its own unique flavor.  As we snorkeled around the area I made my way along the wall watching rays and schools of fish go about their daily business.  Eventually, I made a wide loop that took me into the shallow water – that which was 4-10 feet deep – and towards the areas where the reef broke free from the sea.  There, in the shallower water I was greeted by large spiny sea urchins, vibrantly colored, albeit smaller, coral dwelling species of fish and even a lazy sea turtle enjoying the open sea grass.  The video I’ve included above is shown in near chronological order, and while you may recognize it from my previous post – it covers all 3 days.

Tired and hungry I made my way back to the boat for lunch.  After a quick meal, it was time to set off again.  Sail up, bodies sprawled across the decks, the subtle sight of soft white lines decorating our bodies where we’d missed a spot of sunscreen.

Alex Berger while Sailing in Belize

Our next stop was similar.  This time, however, it was a series of small sea mounts that rose from the ocean floor (about 30-40 feet) to a depth of some 10 feet below the surface.  The mounts were small but packed with coral and sea life.

Once again we struggled into our fins, held our breaths and jumped over the side before fanning out in all directions to explore.  Some were armed with spear guns, others with cameras. As we slowly explored, we found ourselves pointing off into the blue, motioning, and trying to speak through snorkel filled mouths.  All the while sharing little discoveries – a large school of 5 or 6 barracuda, a lazy sea turtle taking a nap on the ocean floor or a particularly beautiful fish.

It was during a foray in towards one of the larger mounts – one with significantly shallower water – that I came across the largest barracuda I’ve ever seen.  You’ll notice him in the video I posted above, though the size doesn’t really come across.  Easily four feet in length the monster oozed predatory confidence as it slowly, ever so slowly drifted through the shallow water.

Eager to get video and see it up close, I followed.  All the while wondering….was it truly a good idea?  After all, the plastic housing for my camera reflected the glint of sunlight and was lined in bright dive orange rubber, looking more like a giant fishing lure than anything else.   Luckily, neither I nor the Barracuda listened to the nagging voice in the back of my head – leaving us both to watch each other warily, enjoying the moment.

Marching Lobster and Feet while Sailing in Belize

From there it was back onto the boat for more fishing, sunbathing and drifting.  Pausing periodically to hunt for Conch, Lobster and to give the captain an opportunity to put his spear-gun to work.  We feasted on fresh lobster, conch and fish ceviche, fresh fruit and cup after cup of fruit punch before eventually arriving at our second destination: Tobacco Caye.

Tobacco Caye

The small (albeit significantly larger than our last) island was home to a series of docks, a small forest of large coconut trees, small restaurant, series of cabanas and small circular beach bar.

Sunset at Tobacco Caye

We quickly set to setting up our tents in a small clear space in the middle of the island, before grabbing a Belkin – Belize’s delicious local beer – and setting off to explore the island.  Some 5 minutes later we found ourselves back at the dock eager to snorkel off the dock.

The area surrounding the island itself was sheltered by the reef behind it and offered a large expanse of smooth shallow water sea grass which stretched out and away from the island on the remaining 3 sides.  The grass itself attracted large schools of fish and a large number of rays and the incredible looking eagle rays which are black with white spots, a long streaming tail and in many ways look like a manta ray.  The eagle rays are an absolute delight to watch – not only are they graceful and beautiful, but they periodically leap free of the water, throwing themselves several feet into the air.

Sailboat at Sunset in Belize on the Barrier Reef

As with the day before, the sunset on Tobacco Caye was every bit as incredible.  This time framed by sailboats, a small panga, and picturesque palm trees.  We ate a delicious meal with fish and shrimp before settling in for another night of stories, drinks and jokes before crawling into bed.  Stiff and exhausted from a long day swimming and relaxing in the sun.

Tobacco Caye in Belize

The following morning greeted us with more blue skies and warm weather. After breaking down our tents and re-packing the boat we set off once more.  This time on the final leg of our trip to Placencia.

Lobster Sunbathing in Belize

The trip itself was fairly lazy. We paused several more times for seafood and caught a few fish by line.  With each stop the number of us that jumped overboard to explore diminished until there were only 3 or 4 of us left that dove in at every opportunity. We swam, laughed and relaxed for the remainder of the day before arriving in Placencia about 3 or 4PM.  We disembarked and set to the task of finding accommodation.

It was Christmas eve and the town was quiet, although not completely shuttered.  Before long I found a small budget hotel with a room for $40 BZD ($20USD) a night.  To my delight the room had 3 beds, and a private bathroom.  The shower didn’t offer warm water (not unusual in Belize), and consisted of a PVC pipe with a small turn nozzle. It was more than I needed.

I settled in, read my book, grabbed an evening meal and then dozed contentedly.  Life was good.

Sailing the Belize Barrier Reef

Sail Boat

The morning was damp.  The occasional sprinkle fell to challenge our merry mood. Despite the weather’s best efforts we could sense that the storm had blown itself out and was able to but threaten more rain, clouds and wind.  The cold front had claimed its three windswept days and now the cycle began anew with sun breaking through the clouds on the horizon with rays of golden light.

The trip I’d booked was the three-day two night Raggamuffin Sailing trip from Caye Caulker, down through the Cayes and along the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world to the small peninsula town of Placencia.  We left on Tuesday and would arrive on the 24th – Christmas eve.   The all-inclusive trip cost $350 – which included a $50 premium for travel over the holidays/Christmas.

Sailboat Prow in Belize

We loaded our bags then slowly piled onto the small motorboat that would shuttle us out to the still small, albeit slightly larger sailboat which would be our home for the next 3 days – the Ragga Queen.

Pirate Flag

With an old battered pirate flag flying, we set sail and with our backs to Caye Caulker began a new adventure.  As we sailed south the sun slowly began to break through the clouds.  Bringing with it a warmth that left us all pinching ourselves – trying to remember that it was currently late December. With a grin and a shrug we stripped down to swimsuits and lathered on sunscreen.

Fishing Hut

The sailing was easy and the three-man crew took care of most of the work.  We’d help periodically as they raised sail or made small adjustments, but beyond that we were mostly left to our own devices.  We mixed, mingled and got acquainted with each other.  Told stories, played card games, napped, read and fished from the stern of the ship.  Before long we noticed an odd structure – seemingly rising out of the water.  The fishing shack which during low tide sat on an exposed sandbar rested on pillars: sandbar completely submerged.  The small structure was fascinating.  Not because of its complexity, but rather the fact someone had not only managed, but also decided, to build a structure literally in the middle of the ocean.  In many ways it reminded me of the structures built for the movie Waterworld, only far less complex and obviously still anchored in sand.  The building itself though was an odd reminder that we were sailing in shallow water – a poignant reality I had learned several nights previous when the ferry I was riding on ran aground multiple times.

Fishing in Belize

The fishing was decent, though slow going.  The first day we caught two – a decent sized barracuda and what I believe was a Spanish Mackerel – both served as the foundation for a delicious dinner later that evening.  Unfortunately, despite no small amount of time spent manning one of the two lines – I ended up skunked. Still the fishing itself was plenty rewarding, as I watched the barrier reef and various islands slowly slip by.

Open Water in Belize

We paused several times during the first day – dropping anchor seemingly at random just off the reef.  The water was typically between 8-25 feet deep and crystal clear. Eager to explore we pulled on our fins and snorkels, paused briefly at the side of the boat and then jumped.  The water’s embrace was warm – a delightful contrast from what you’d expect which made the transition far easier than I’ve grown accustomed to in the Pacific, Atlantic and even northern Sea of Cortez.

It never ceases to amaze me how big a difference fins make when snorkeling. Truly, they’re more a necessity than anything.  Recalling my childhood dreams of being a Marine Biographer I double checked my Flip Ultra Video camera and marveled once again at how well the $35 underwater case was working out.  Then without thinking, snorkel in mouth, I turned my sights to the seafloor, only to quickly get a mouth full of water and a quick reminder: snorkels and ear to ear grins seldom make good bedfellows.

Water

The reef was rich with life – while not as tame and prolifically populated as the Hol Chan marine reserve, the reef was still awash in life and color.  With vibrant coral, giant sea fans and sprawling beds of light green sea grass the reef was an absolute delight. Make sure to take a few minutes and watch the video at the start of this post. I’m afraid that all I have is underwater video, no photos.

As I made my way carefully into the shallower water, I paid special attention to the currents and my fins.  Careful, ever so careful, not to make any contact with the reef or plant life. It sounds easy enough, but given the ebb and pull of waves, long sweep of fins and 5-7 feet of water it quickly became a challenge.  We took great care to stay horizontal in the shallower water – keeping our feet, and fins well away from the seafloor where they might potentially do damage that would take years – if not decades to heal.

We snorkeled for half an hour – or was it an hour? – before making our way back to the boat and relaxing as we quenched our hunger with ham sandwiches and fresh conch ceviche.  Then, settled in for another brief sail before a series of quick pauses, this time in much deeper water, where those willing set out in search of conch for dinner. Unfortunately, most of us found the water too deep and the conch too hard to spot – still we searched, swam, and enjoyed as the captain and crew who had more free diving experience made to 20+ foot journey to the sea floor and back easily.  Later, the captain an ex-fisherman mentioned that during his fishing days he would regularly make 90+ foot free dives.

Island along the Belize Barrier Reef

As the sun began to race towards the horizon we reached our destination for the evening.  A delightful, tiny speck of sand with a deep water dock for the sailboat, 7 palm trees, and a small one room hut for the island’s steward.  With 15 passengers and 3 crew, our little boat was overloaded. There was ample sitting room during the day, if you didn’t mind getting a bit cozy, but not even the faintest chance of fitting us all at night.

Tents on our small Island

Luckily the island had room (if just barely) for 7 tents.  We paired up, unloaded the tents, gear and sleeping pads, then set to assembling our tents.  Some teams did better than others, leaving a few to grumble, huff, and curse gently under their breath as we all struggled to figure out just how the slightly off-center, somewhat worn tents had been designed.

Belize Barrier Islands at Sunset

Hartmut – a gentleman from Germany, my tent-mate and a friend I’d bump into during later travels – and I quickly got our tent assembled and began to wander the island.  Despite its small stature the island was absolutely gorgeous.

Sailboat during Sunset

The island’s white sands were soft, warm in the afternoon’s fading sunlight, and a beautiful white that picked up the hues of the sunset and seemed to blend seamlessly with the lapping waves.

Pelican flying around island

The locals themselves – mostly seagulls and pelicans – were also quite hospitable.  Lazily sharing the island with us, and periodically taking flight to feed or just circle the island in an incredible show of grace.

Pelican in Flight

The pelicans themselves, while wary, seemed comfortable with visitors. More than that though, they seemed almost eager to show off their natural agility and skills.

Sunset over  Conch and Coral

Antsy, I wandered a bit more – pausing at an old tree stump that now held a dried coral fan and several conch.  As the sun set behind it – I held my breath in anticipation.

As we paused, enjoying our dinner of fresh seafood and garlic bread the sun continued to set. As each minute passed it revealed new beauty, new colors and my smile grew.

Sunset in Belize

Words cannot describe the incredible beauty of the sunset as it set the sky afire. The leftover clouds – those straggling behind the cold front – picked up the sun’s evening song and magnified it ten fold.  The waves of the ocean gently moaned as they slowly tickled the white sandy beaches – turned golden by the sunset.

Sailboat at Sunset in Belize on the Barrier Reef

It had been a good day.  An incredible one, that I’ll remember for the rest of my life – but as the sun set and we settled in around a campfire I quickly realized that the day held one last surprise. As complete darkness settled over our small island, with the fire slowly burning down – I sprawled lazily across the sand and looked up.

The stars were incredible – so vivid, so densely packed and so bright that I could hardly contain a soft sigh.  Living in the city, the stars are always dim and far away.  On the rare occasions I escape into the countryside camping or return back to my parent’s home in Prescott I can always count on vivid stars but even those barely compared to the sight that greeted me.

It was as though the galaxy itself sat just out of reach. The depth and richness of the stars something beyond the norm, something special, something incredible. Then breathing slowly, eyes roaming the sky I saw the first shooting star. Then another.  Then a third, a fourth, a fifth…they blazed across the sky in incredible arks.  As luck would have it – I was witnessing what I believe was the Ursid meteor shower.  The view that night alone made the trip well worth it.

Stay tuned for part II of this post covering days 2 and 3.  Can’t wait?  Check out my Belize photo stream on flickr. Q9VRSZ4BCZXJ

Caye Caulker – Pictures, Video and Local Cuisine!

Caye Caulker Beach

Having already mentioned my delightful case of food poisoning in my previous post, I’ll refrain from re-telling the story and instead focus on a few snapshots I took around Caye Caulker during my remaining two days on the island.  You’ll note that the photos are often a bit dark and gray.   This is due to the large cold front which was rolling through the region.

Caye Caulker Waterfront

Despite the gray clouds, slightly cooler weather and rain it was still enjoyable – though it was cool enough to merit a light jacket from time to time.

Bird on Dock in Caye Caulker Belize

With a water bottle in hand and slightly pale tint to my complexion I meandered through the city pausing to take in the town’s small quirks and subtle beauty.

Cat on Lounge Chair in Belize

The good news was, though, that despite the weather – at least a few of the locals decided to hit the beach for a bit of sunbathing.

Boat with Signs

From there it was on towards the gap in the island where one of the most flavorful boats I’ve seen in a long time was tied up.  After all, what boat is complete without “No War” painted on the side, a reclined, palm frond sun shade, and live baby palm trees growing along the deck?

Seagulls and Pelicans relaxing

From there it was down a small dock – where the local birds seemed to be relaxing watching their own version of island TV.

Caye Caulker, Belize

As the day wound to a close (and my appetite finally returned) I found the “World Famous Jolly Roger’s Grill” – only open in the evenings, Jolly Roger’s was set up in a roadside stand along the main drag.  It consisted of a few beat up pick-nick tables, a small table for preparing food and the long grill pictured above.

Jolly Roger

My host – Roger – promised the best fresh grilled lobster in town at a great price.  A bear of a man, he had a a friendly smile and boisterous voice as he called to passing travelers and locals alike – wishing them well and inviting them to pause for a meal.

Grilled Lobster in Caye Caulker Belize

As I sat, watching Roger and his wife prepare the meal, I enjoyed the soft sound of rain drops hitting the hut’s tin roof.  The fresh smell of cooking food, fresh sea air and rain heavy in my nostrils I felt both refreshed and invigorated.

 

Curious about the meal?  I’ll yield the floor to Jolly Roger himself and let him introduce dinner!  Just click play and enjoy the video.

Jolly Rogers in Caye Caulker

As I chatted and slowly worked my way through my dinner, rum punch and desert I was quickly joined by a gaggle of travelers as Roger’s quickly filled up.  Several of which I knew – some of the girls from the night before, who were also booked on the Raggamuffin Sailing trip we’d be leaving on in the morning – while others were new friends, like a family who had met up with their daughter and were exploring Belize.  We mixed, mingled and socialized for a a stretch before I found my way back to the hostel, pulled out one of C. Descry’s books and turned in for the evening.

Tomorrow promised to be a big day.

Sevilla Part III and Cadiz Part I

After my little adventure in the local dive, I set out once again through the warren of twisting, winding streets.   My destination was south, past the Cathedral and into new territory marked on my map by large stretches of green park spaces.  As I wound through the streets I found it nearly impossible to keep my bearings.  Beyond a vague sense of direction the twisting, dead end nature of the streets left me more than a little confused and disoriented…no small feat. Eventually I found myself dumped out in the Cathedral plaza.  Re-oriented I made my way southeast into the heavily touristy downtown area.  Full of parks, tourists, trams and trinket shops the area was bustling with life.  After a brief break to pick up several mandarin oranges I continued south across a large, beautiful boulevard and into a major park.

Though heavily kissed by winters embrace the park was still sporting several blossoming flowers, an assortment of well-trimmed greens and several ponds.  Though fairly boring in and of itself, the park led me to a rather large beautiful building.  Curious I followed it around until eventually found a side entrance.  Exploring it, I quickly was dumped out into a beautiful plaza and one of Sevilla´s gems. I remembered it from my youth, but my memories were dwarfed by the sheer, real, beauty of the plaza.  Built for a worlds fair that never came to pass due to the outbreak of war in 1929, the Plaza de Espana is an expansive, beautiful piece of architecture that stretches around in slightly over a half circle.  In addition to the building´s structural beauty, it is ringed by a set of benches featuring tiled artwork scenes representing all of the major powers in Spain. The benches are built into one of the walls of the outer building´s first story providing an excellent spot to pause and rest, enjoy the sight of the plaza, and to take in the afternoon sun.  Inside the benches there´s a rather large walkway that wraps around the interior of the semi-circle.  The next layer, in what might be called an architectural onion, is a canal about 20 feet across which rings the square. Though drained, it hardly detracted from the ambiance of the location.  The canal is crossed by a number of arched bridges which provide an almost Venetian feel while the inner most ring is a large cobblestone area ringing a large, beautiful fountain.  With horse drawn carriages making their way around the inner circle, the experience as a whole is delightful.

After pausing in the sun for an hour or so and reading a bit of one of Dad´s books, I made my way back through the city streets before relaxing and refueling at the hostel.  As I relaxed, I bumped into two dutch girls I´d met the day before – Natalie and Linda.  They were about to set off to explore several tapas bars and after a brief exchange, invited me to join.  Out we went once more into the crowded Sevilla streets.  Dodging the astounding abundance of baby strollers and smoking Spaniards, we eventually arrived at a great little tapas bar just up the street. We all placed our orders, I ended up going with anchovies on lettuce hearts, and quail eggs on Spanish ham. A beer, some bread, and a few mouthfuls later we cycled through the usual dialog … where are you from, what do you do, where have you traveled, what´s your history, etc. and before long migrated to the second tapas bar.  A tiny corner construction with virtually no room and the size of most people´s bedrooms.  The place had a high ceiling, with walls heavily decorated with pigs legs, wine bottles, old objects, and the like.  The place was so small that when you turned around, somewhat hidden on a shelf next to the door, they had all of their cleaning supplies bottles and tools stashed away. I ordered a delicious spinach and Spanish salsa tapas, while the girls tried what was a local delicacy – some sort of flavorful paste in a bowl with diced ham on top.

After enjoying the atmosphere for a bit (the place was packed) we made our way out into the street, only to be greeted by a large crowd. The crowd filled a small square and overflowed well into the sidestreets.  Curious what the draw was, and hearing a bit of a ruckus, we made our way over using our height to look over the crowd. We realized that it was part of the pre-Christmas festivities.  This particular one had a giant virgin Mary on a silver dais being transported by 20 or so older Spanish polebearers.  In a centipede-like fashion the statue made it´s way down the street, then up through the double doors to the nearby church which had been thrown open.  The crowd burst out into song, then crowded into the small church behind the statue, before singing more songs.  The statue made its way in, paused, then began its gradual crawl back out.  After watching for a while, we split off from the crowd, made our way back to the hostel and picked up several of the others before setting back out to the bar and club district. There the usual night of hostel revelry and friend-making ensued.

CADIZ

Contrary to my best intentions, I failed to book my first night in the Cadiz hostel ahead of time, or for that matter, print out directions. My plan had been to wake up, walk over to the internet cafe down the street, reserve my spot, print directions, and then make one of the hourly regional trains which traveled between Sevilla and Cadiz. Murphys law prevailed, the internet cafe was closed. I decided to wing it and make the walk to the train station anyhow. Somehow the twisting, turning, Sevilla streets turned me around, causing me to drastically over shoot the rail station.  Before long I found myself staring at the Cathedral once again.  I´m willing to guess that the Cathedral serves as a central point – Sevilla´s Roman Colosseum if you will.  Annoyed, but dedicated to persevering I once again setout  into the spiders web of streets, this time continuing to overshoot the train station and ending up in a very rural, very rugged, and very industrial part of Sevilla well out of the tourist center.  A bit apprehensive about where I was and my safety, I continued to press on, adjusting my course, before eventually finding a street sign at a major intersection that pointed the way to the rail station. Knee killing me, back tired, footsore, but rather relieved I eventually found my way to the station.  The whole trek had taken about an hour and a half, backpack on and all.

Once at the station I had a slight adventure booking my ticket, ending up with with a ticket for a train that departed a full two hours later than I´d have liked. Annoyed, but eager to relax my throbbing leg I made my way outside, sat on the steps in the sun and ate sardines and bread rolls while washing it all down with a spot of water.  I read, napped, and listened to music, before boarding my train and making my way south. The ride was very pretty. Southern Spain is amazing in that most of the territory I´ve seen consists of well-tilled, organized, barren fields stretching over gently sloping hills as far as the eye can see.  Because of the season, most of the fields are just tilled dirt which adds to a beautiful uniform feeling.

When I finally arrived in Cadiz, the weather was much warmer than it had been in Sevilla. The train station was devoid of the tourist info stand I´d hoped for, but I did find a small map in front of the station which was a relief.  The station sits outside the city wall, which is raised and leaves one feeling like you´ve reached a beat up dead end, with an imposing castle wall stretching up before you in either direction.  After following the wall for a few hundred feet, the wall leveled out and I was offered an opportunity to make my way into the city toward the tourist information office marked on the map I´d seen back at the station.  I knew the hostel I wanted was in the heart of the city, but that was about it.  Luckily, I found an internet cafe, paid my 1 euro for a chunk of time, checked the hostel location (which read as booked for that night) and with a lump in my stomach made my way to the spot marked on the map.  When I eventually found the door in a tiny alleyway that was, perhaps, 2 shoulders across I was more than a little stressed to discover a ¨we´ll be back at 18:00″ on the door. With only one real hostel coming up for the town, I decided to wait it out at a wonderful little, bustling tapas bar located just around the corner.

As I settled in and ordered tapas from the display window (they usually stretch the length of the bar, full of pre-cooked tapas waiting to be warmed up and eaten) – I decided to try what looked like a mid-sized stuffed cuddlefish.  As I waited for what ended up being a delicious, tender piece of cuddlefish stuffed with chorizo like meats and sauce, served on french fries and with a side of bread and a beer – I started chatting with two guys who were grabbing a few drinks and watching the Spanish synchronized swimming team on TV.  We joked, commented, and generally sat in awe of the swimmers before one of the guys – who I later learned was the hostel´s owner –  asked if I was waiting to check in.  I told him yes, asked if they had any openings, and to my relief he smiled, shrugged, and said not to worry about it.  They headed back to the hostel, I finished off my cuddlefish and then followed suit.

The hostel – Casa Caracol had a great surf-meets-hostel feeling to it. The common area and first floor is an odd zigzag of space in a rough triangular shape with a table surrounded by benches, kitchen, wood burning fireplace and small open space all sandwiched together. The bedrooms were sandwiched on two oddly shaped floors and topped off by a fun rooftop garden.  The Hostelworld rating for the place had been a 70% with a wide mixture of comments.  Though slightly worried it was going to be a dump when I´d first decided to head to Cadiz, I quickly realized that the place had a fantastic personality to it.  The place was a party hostel.  It was loud, it was super social, the staff were friendly, animated, and a bit ridiculous. The place was clean but in a beach house sort of way.

Before long I´d met the owner Nick, a guy who was in effect the hostel´s social chairman, Rob, Yu-Mi a Japanese girl traveling on her own,  (spelled wrong no doubt), a flavorful Aussie guy – David, an east coaster who was also a professional cook – Aaron and a number of others. In a matter of hours we´d all bonded and after Yu-Mi showed up with the basics for Sushi, she and Aaron decided to expand it to a chip in opportunity.  I shelled in my 4 Euro and before long we were enjoying freshly prepared Sushi.  In addition to the Sushi I stepped next door for another go at what has thus far been my favorite tapas bar in Spain.  This time I ended up with a full sized cuddlefish cooked in a delicious wine sauce and covered in spices and chopped onions.  Stuffed, I returned to the hostel where we settled in for a night of wine, stories, bullshitting and cultural shenanigans.

More to come on Cadiz (which is where I spent Christmas) soon!

Crab, Oysters, Shrimp & Pasta for $14 a Plate

Table with Crab Dinner

Listen to this post:

Crab, Oysters, Shrimp & Pasta for $14 Audio

The Challenge?

To cook a seafood meal for three, for under $20 a piece with fresh seafood purchased at the local Chinese Cultural Center (best seafood in town). Actual per person cost? Less than $14. This post is a follow up on my earlier, “How To Eat Like a Millionaire on a College Budget” post.

The ingredients?

  • 2 Live Dungeness Crabs
  • 1.5 Pounds of headless Shrimp
  • 3 chunks of fresh Garlic
  • 1 set of fresh Green Onions
  • 1 bag of Fettuccine Pasta
  • 1/2 bottle of Pasta Sauce
  • 6 leftover button top mushrooms
  • 1 bag of frozen chopped Spinach
  • Butter
  • Olive Oil
  • Several Limes
  • Several Lemons
  • Garlic Powder
  • Italian Seasoning Mix
  • Parsley Flakes
  • Rosemary

Please note that the cost of the seasonings, olive oil, and butter is not included in the cost because of their multi-use nature.

Without further delay, here’s the video walk through with guest presenters Nathaniel Berger and Charles Trahern.

Post Mortem
The meal was fantastic.  I wasn’t paying attention and accidentally overcooked the Spinach, which was the biggest disappointment, but still very edible.  The shrimp were also slightly overcooked for my taste (I prefer most of my food on the rarer side) but still very flavorful. The crab was absolutely fantastic – packed with flavor and perfectly cooked. The pasta was delicious with a little fuller flavor than standard pasta. The oysters were fantastic.  Fresh, good sized, and full of flavor – remember the salt and lime, it’s a must!

As always, thanks for tuning in!  Please post questions, thoughts and feedback in the comment section – I value your feedback and insights!