Amazing Local Thai Food Just Off Khao San Road in Bangkok

One of my absolute must-dos for Bangkok was to sync up with fellow Arizonan expat, and travel foodie master blogger and YouTube sensation Mark Wiens of Migrationology. His food updates from Asia over the last few years have inspired me, and left my mouth hankering for a visit to Southeast Asia. Of the various folks who inspired me to make the trip to Asia and got me VERY excited about eating my way across the region, the two at the forefront were Mark (Migrationology) and Jodi (Legal Nomads).

So, when it turned out Mark was going to be in town and free to grab a quick meal, I was thrilled. After a meetup down in the Khao San Road area, we set out to find and introduce me to some fantastic local Thai eats.

The place Mark and his lovely wife/co-camera woman took me to was situated about 5 minutes walk from the tourist district, fully authentic and situated at roughly at 243 Phra Sumen Rd.

We settled in and I left the ordering to them. What followed was a mouth-watering, aromatic, eye watering, flame breathing culinary adventure and intro to a number of new dishes I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore yet.

It was good, it was fresh, at times it was spicy and just like a good dish always inspires, I was left struggling not to pick up and lick every plate along the way.

I also learned some great advice and wisdom: Know all those veggies in many Thai soups? They’re there mostly for flavoring, not consumption. Turns out, all these years, I’ve essentially been eating the equivalent of the garnish and wondering why it was so intense and pallet annihilating.

So, without further adieu, here’s Mark introducing the dishes we tried. For more bite-by-bite introductions to amazing foods from the region hit up Mark’s blog. Even if you’re not a food person, you’re going to find yourself watching more than a few videos.

 

Follow Mark at Migrationology or jump straight to his YouTube Channel.

You can also see Mark and Andrew Zimmern take on Bangkok’s food scene here in his video here.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

It’s delicious, it’s distinctly Nordic, it’s relatively healthy, and it’s surprisingly more complicated than one would think.  What is it?  It’s Danish Smørrebrød or “Smorrebrod”.  In the past I’ve written about local Danish cuisine and more specifically the every-day variety of Danish smørrebrød while suggesting several local hole-in-the-wall venues around Copenhagen where cheap and delicious smørrebrød could be found. Today I want to talk about the other end of the spectrum – fancy Danish Smørrebrød.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

In recent years Nordic cuisine has exploded onto the international stage led by restaurants such as Copenhagen’s world famous Noma restaurant.  These foods are known for using fresh, local ingredients in innovative ways to create flavorful plates that are both a delight to taste and a feast for the eyes.  One incarnation of this push towards fancy Nordic food has been a re-visit of one of the staples of the Danish diet.  In so doing, modern high end restaurants have re-worked smørrebrød while capitalizing on the food’s inherent inclination towards color, attractive appearance, and diverse use of ingredients.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

I recently had the opportunity while in Aalborg to sample a mixture of re-imagined modern smørrebrød at Utzon Restauraunt.  The venue is situated in a gorgeous center that overlooks the city’s fjord while providing a great modern-Danish backdrop.  The food served consisted of beautifully colored and portioned pieces of smørrebrød which used ingredients such as steak tartare, herring, various fish fillets, giant capers, beats, giant asparagus, shrimp, fish eggs, pickles, dill, fresh onions, Danish remoulade, and of course the cornerstone of it all – Danish rugbrød.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

While all of the smørrebrød we sampled was fantastic, I think the most unusual was the steak tartare which had raw ground beef and used fluffy white bread in place of the traditional dark rugbrød. Accompanied by sauce, onions, pickles, giant capers, potato chips and greens it had a light, fresh, flavor which nicely accompanied the meat without being overpowering.  During previous meals I had encountered more basic versions of the other variations of smørrebrød we tried, but in the case of the steak tartare it was the first time I’ve seen raw meat used. While not for the feint of heart, I can say I eagerly await my next opportunity to dive into a similar variation on traditional smørrebrød.

You can find my previous post on budget smørrebrød in Copenhagen here.  Have you had any experiences with smørrebrød?  I’d love to hear what you thought of it!

Glorious Sunsets Combined With Delightful Fish, Fowl and Truffles

Life In Umbria, Italy

Following a wonderful walking tour of Orvieto we found ourselves checking into la Penisola country resort and restaurant. The resort is situated on a small peninsula along the shore of Lake Corbara in the heart of Umbria. It is located about halfway between Todi and Orvieto. A wonderful place to rest after a long and exhausting day.

Life In Umbria, Italy

The drive to the hotel had been short but pleasurable. Slightly footsore from a day spent wandering the city and my mind overflowing with history and rich cultural imagery, we wound our way through the countryside passing old manor houses and rolling vineyards.

Life In Umbria, Italy

The hotel was located just across a narrow bridge opposite an old olive orchard. The lake served as a beautiful, reflective backdrop abruptly, but not unattractively, cut across by the low lip of the nearby dam.

Life In Umbria, Italy

After casually dumping my backpacks in my room and hastily checking e-mail I felt a glimmer of life still to be had in head and feet. Eager to enjoy the misty haze rising off the lake as the sun set I snagged my camera, hopped a fence and made my way back down by the road. I can’t remember the songs that were playing, only that they were vintage and from another era. The road was quiet, and the sunset combined with the empty road and blooming flowers left me at the mercy of the music which dragged me out of time and place.

Umbria in Bloom - Italy

While most roads are often a blight on nature and little more than ugly paved charcoal lines smeared unattractively across the face of the countryside, I’ve always felt that there are moments, special moments, where they can be something more. Roads are like the lines on a map or a door left slightly ajar. They are portals, conveyors that transport us towards new adventures and far off places while simultaneously bringing the exotic to our doorstep.

Umbria in Bloom - Italy

As I waded into a sea of yellow blossoms and carefully lowered myself until my face and shoulders were floating on a sea of yellow turned gold by the last rays of sunset I found myself grateful the road was there. With each photo I snapped it added to the charm, to the moment, and to the full bouquet of sensation.

Umbria in Bloom - Italy

Each piece of the whole added to the ambiance and captured my mood, but it was in the combined stimulation of each of my senses that I found myself swept away. The gentle tingle of a soft breeze teasing my hair, the potent aroma of the flowers and grass as I knelt, the charming notes of a long dead performer crooning in my ears, and then the chorus of color, lines, and shapes that filled my eyes and burned themselves into my synapses. This was Italy. This was life.

Eating in Umbria

As the sun slipped below the rim of the dam and the light gently faded I found myself slowly return and re-sync to the world around me. My throat was dry which reminded me that dinner would no doubt start soon. After washing up I made my way to the dinner reception that the resort a mixture of local business folks, and political functionaries had assembled for us. As I entered the dining room I was pleasantly surprised to find a gentleman playing a mixture of traditional and modern pieces on a narrow-bodied fiberglass violin.

Eating in Umbria

A beautiful table had been set and I found myself taking stock of my appetite. It had been a full day, an active day, but also a day that was already full of food. After the amazing three hour lunch I had enjoyed earlier in the day I knew that the meal they had planned would likely be a bit of a challenge to tackle. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the stark contrast. When traveling as a budget backpacker the never-ending series of monotonous kebabs, gyros and pasta that make up one’s diet is crushing. When traveling as a blogger and guest of the region the opposite holds true. Overwhelmed not by monotony and small portions, but course after course of delicious, rich Italian food.

Eating in Umbria

Never one to neglect the opportunity to embrace local food or turn away heartfelt hospitality I set to the delightful task at hand. As we gathered, there was a delightful mixture of Italian meats and cheeses set out, including a crispy suckling pig! The wild boar sausage, salami, and suckling pig were fantastic and could have easily been a meal in and of themselves. The gentlemen serving us were warmhearted characters and set to their task with attention and passion. The display and presentation was wonderful, with a mixture of local ingredients and objects from the surrounding countryside displayed in simple but elegant form.

Eating in Umbria

As the last stragglers made their way into the room we filled our glasses with wine and gathered around so our hosts could introduce the region, the food, the wine, and the olive oil. Make sure not to miss my post about the olive oil tasting lesson we enjoyed.  Through it all the local wine flowed freely and I’ll admit that most of us were likely a bit tipsy by the time we assumed our seats.

Eating in Umbria

The meal started on a rather intense note with a fried pike and chub embellished with crispy zucchini flowers.  Which is to say, an interesting mixture of chunks of fish, zucchini, and whole fried minnows.  While somewhat common around the Mediterranean and in other parts of the world, the presence of whole minnows as part of a meal is quite unusual by American standards. In the past I had tried them sparingly, mostly in Spain, as a curiosity.  Those attempts had been met with mixed success as I found that most of the fish I had tried had tended to be far too strongly flavored for my taste.  The overpowering fish taste combined with the exotic visual nature of the dishes had left me somewhat hesitant to dive into the small mound of friend fish I was presented with.

Eating in Umbria

But…when near Rome, do as the Umbrians do…right?  So, I tentatively took one of the minnows by its battered tail and mouthed it. To my delight, the overwhelming wave of fishiness I had encountered in the past was nowhere to be found. Instead I was greeted by a wonderful mild fish taste with just enough salt to set off the flavor. In short, they were delicious! In short order I’d quickly leveled what had previously looked like a small mountain and likely relaxed visibly as the part of the meal I had been somewhat concerned about had turned out to be quite positive.  I’m not sure if it was the minnows used, that the oil was obviously quite fresh and pure, or the wonderful preparation, but I was quite impressed.  The pike fillets were also quite good, and again they were mild, fresh, and not over cooked.

Eating in Umbria

Located as we were beside a freshwater lake, the theme for the evening was local and fresh with a fish theme. The next course was, “A nest of water and flour Umbrichelli with perch pomodorino tomato and basil ragu”. After the slightly salty flavor of the previous dish, the salsa and ragu provided a wonderful sweet and slightly spicy contrast. The perch was fresh, had a wonderful taste and was perfectly cooked. It had subtle hints of garlic, a slight taste of olive oil, and the aroma of fresh tomatoes, a pinch of chili pepper and basil.

Eating in Umbria

By the start of our third course we were also well into our third local wine for the evening. With a slight rose hue taking to most of the group’s cheeks, voices grew louder, gestures began to become slightly more exaggerated and the group transitioned from talking exclusively about the fish, to discussing the region, life, travel adventures and similar stories. For the third course the chef left behind fish, temporarily, and instead offered another local delight – a fantastic black truffle tagliatelle. The tagliatelle used local black truffles harvested in the nearby town of Norcia for a delicious plate that did a wonderful job emphasizing the earthy flavor of the truffles. Of the different plates served over the course of the meal, I think that this was likely my favorite while the first course was the most fun. The tagliatelle’s slightly nutty flavor and the buttery rich, olive oil and salt undertones of the pasta combined beautifully.

Eating in Umbria

The tagliatelle and wine that had been paired with it soon gave way to the next course…. and the next wine. This was “Coregone in a a potato and rosemary shell on a piano bean sauce”. The Coregone is a type of (I believe) whitefish found in Europe and one of the local fish that is common in Lake Corbara.  The fish had a mild taste that was wonderfully accented by the rosemary bean cream.  The circular shapes you can see in the photo above are actually thin potato slices where were laid out and cooked on top of the Coregone fillet.  These did a lot to keep the fish moist and to help lock in the flavor.

Eating in Umbria

I hate to say it, but by the final course I was so full I could barely move and likely was incapable of properly appreciating the course. Despite this the rich scent of the “Roast Guinea-Fowl with traditional Umbrian stew and rustic crostone bread” left me little choice. Served with a side of parboiled asparagus salad the guinea-fowl was delicious. Cooked skin-on with a rich crust of salt, spices and bacon, each bite of the bird was an explosion of flavor. The wild asparagus was properly salted and had a slight hint of mint to set the flavor off. Both went well together and despite my better judgement I found myself clearing my 5th and final plate. The meal was prepared by the chef in charge of the resort’s Life School: Live Italian Food Experience and I have to admit, if I had the time, I definitely would have enjoyed a lesson or two.

Eating in Umbria

The remainder of the evening was a delightful mixture of wine, music and conversation rounding out the 2.5-hour-long meal and what had been a fantastic and absolutely jam-packed taste of what Umbria has to offer. However, with an early morning ahead of us we all found our way to bed with full stomachs and heavily-laden eyelids. I suppose the glow of the wine in our cheeks helped as well.

An Amazing Meal and Delightful Stroll in Baschi

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

Sala Della Comitissa Menu

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

Eating in Umbria

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

Eating in Umbria

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

Eating in Umbria

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

Eating in Umbria

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

Eating in Umbria

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

Eating in Umbria

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

Pork Neck in Baschi

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

Desert in Baschi

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

Eating in Umbria

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

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

Art, Architecture, Mummies, Food and Nuns in Citta della Pieve

Historic Palatial Artwork - Umbria

The city of Citta della Pieve sits a few miles south of lake Trasimeno and to the west of the regional capital of Perugia. Perched on a hill 500 meters above sea level and overlooking the nearby valley, the city evolved as one of the region’s important network of hilltop towns responsible for monitoring and policing nearby trade routes.  Our visit began with a guided walking tour of the city which provided an excellent opportunity to see its famous brick buildings, narrow alleyways, and a series of paintings by city native Pietro Vannucci more commonly called “the Perugino”.

Historic Palatial Artwork - Umbria

Palazzo della Corgna

Our walking tour began with a visit to the Palazzo della Corgna – an old palatial residence that showcased a series of beautifully decorated rooms. Each featured extremely fine detail work, that majority of which consisted of fanciful creatures being ridden, and cherubic figures hard at work or play.

An Old Door

The attention to detail and care that went into crafting the building was obvious in the fine detail work.  Though much of it showed signs of aging and wear – understandable for authentic decorations and accouterment dating back hundreds of years – it did little to detract from the feel of the place and seemed to add to the attractiveness and character of the work. In addition to the native artwork and decorations, a local photo exhibit had been set up along the naked walls and in the center of the empty rooms.  These photos, framed and displayed as they were, served as small portals into the Umbria countryside and a pleasant contrast to the historic shapes and lines that gave each room life.

Italian Rooftops

The building also provided a large balcony that overlooked the street below and provided a wonderful view of the nearby rooftops and countryside beyond.  Known for its brick and fabric work, Citta della Pieve embodies the appearance of a traditional Italian town.  A sentiment that I found was magnified significantly by the constant presence of pigeons.  While the pigeons may walk the line between vermin and welcome resident, I can’t help but feel that they do a lot to foster and warm the ambiance of the city’s rooftops.  After all, their curios antics, bobbing, hopping, and periodic cooing often serves to liven up what might otherwise be a landscape devoid of life.

Italian Rooftops

As we enjoyed the view of the valley below our guide recounted some of the city’s history.  Outlining the city’s allegiance to Perugia and the historical conflicts with Assisi that came with it.  She also shared with us brief background about the region’s Etruscan roots, and a bit of history about the small Etruscan Obelisk located in the stairway to the Palazzo della Corgna.  You can find a more in-depth of the city’s history on the Citta della Pieve official website.  Unfortunately, it’s mostly in Italian.

A Historic Cathedral

St. Gervasio e Protasio

From there it was off to a nearby cathedral. The cathedral was well maintained, and embodied what you would expect; It included artwork from a number of local/famous painters, the chief of which was Pietro Perugino. The decorations in the Cathedral also showcased an amazing attention to detail.  Particularly interesting for me, however, was the fact that the marble walls you see in the photo seemed to be mostly painted. While I’ve run into similar work in the past, the extent and quality of the paintings really caught my attention.  The cathedral also harbors one of the other oddities I’ve always found weird/fascinating about European cathedrals: preserved/mummified human remains.  I believe the remains on display in St. Gervasio e Protasio are of the 17th century poet Francesco Melosio.  The body is laid out at rest on its side, fully dressed and with a wax death mask in a sealed glass compartment built into the tomb.  Frankly, this type of thing gives me the chills. I just don’t get the appeal for any of the parties involved.

Nuns Walking - Umbria, Italy

A Light Rain

Despite a very light rain we continued our walking tour of the city which led us down a zig-zag of historic streets lined by rich red bricks and small doorways.  As we passed one such side street I caught these two nuns leisurely making their rounds.  The view triggered momentary confusion as I asked myself, “Am I in a movie, or really living this?” before snapping back to reality and enjoying the moment completely.

Random Door - Umbria, Italy

I find that one of the secrets to truly enjoying an Italian street is an attention to detail.  The grand beauty is one thing.  The overall ambiance another.  But, it’s the rich details that really flesh out the experience.  One of my favorites are doors and doorways.  I think far more attention and care go into doors in Europe than most Americans realize. Many are small works of art and more than a few showcase beautifully carved or cast shapes ranging from general patterns to wild animals. The doorways in Citta della Pieve were no exception.

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

The Oratorio di Santa Maria dei Bianchi

One of Citta della Pieve’s must-sees is the Adoration of the Magi. A wall-sized piece of artwork that was done by Perugino in 1504. Though the piece is over 500 years old it still features vibrant color and is in beautiful shape.  It also does a wonderful job exploring perspective and offers a fun insight into what the region must have looked like in the 1500s.  The work is especially interesting because of two letters which were discovered in the 1830s and outline negotiations over price in the lead up to the commissioning of the wall fresco.

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

The piece is also significant because it offers a glimpse into the fashion and styles which were likely popular among the upper classes in Citta della Pieve in the 1500s.  The painting serves as a great source of inspiration for people fascinated by the period and eager to re-create the clothing and hairstyles of the time.  They had quite the flair for color, don’t you think?

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

Wonderful Winding Streets

With the Adoration of the Magi behind us it was time to wander the streets once again.  Our path cut across the winding roads taking us through small alleyways and across larger streets carefully paved with large flat stones.

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

Our next stop was a small courtyard that held a variety of historical creations.  One of the objects was a massive ballista. The fully functional ballista stood nearly 6 feet tall, and was mounted on wheels so that it could easily be re-positioned.  Our host proudly informed us that it was one of the ballista used during the city’s archery competition, a time when the region’s various areas would all come together for a grand contest.

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy-8600

Located immediately to the left of the ballista was what looked like a massive canon.  It was mounted on what appeared to be a full sized wagon, and was more than a little imposing.  In addition to being at least 8 feet long, the mouth was nearly the size of a basketball.  Upon closer inspection it turned out that the “canon” must have served as an early gunpowder precursor likely designed by Leonardo Da Vinci.  The cylinder was actually made out of wood and open at both ends.  It was designed in such a way that it could be cranked back, and a large bolt could then be inserted, which would in turn fire…much like a canon.  Despite having spent time in numerous military museums, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  Fascinating!

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

Our path from the courtyard took us down a number of beautiful brick streets clothed in a half hazard mixture of multi-colored shutters and blooming flowers. At one point we found ourselves at a wonderful little alleyway called the Baciadonne which is so tight that only one person can fit through it at a time…and even at that it is necessary to turn sideways towards the end.  It has to be one of the narrowest streets in Italy, and is a definite must for visitors to Citta della Pieve. It also has a certain romantic charm, so lovers – be warned!

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

Our last stop on our walking tour was the historic Diocesan Museum. The museum is housed in an old church which dates back to around 1260.  Over the years the church has been renovated and expanded several times.  Many of the renovations changed the structure completely.  The end result is an odd mishmash of styles and artistic forms.  Today, the majority of the interior has been painted white, giving it an incredibly unique feel.  A feel compounded by the presence of several life-sized plaster cast-based statues which are set up in the middle of the hall.  The photo you see above is of a fresco which was discovered during a renovation, and is of some of the church’s early artwork. The art was later covered over during one of the countless renovations where it lived on, hidden, while the rest of the world raced about its daily business. While far from the largest or most impressive physically, the Museo Civico-Diocesiano is highly unusual and a wonderful spot to visit.

Eating in Umbria

Dinner at Terziere Castello

Exhausted from a full day spent exploring the city we retired briefly to our hotel rooms, located on the far end of the city, before responding to a dinner invitation from the city’s mayor and a number of the town’s influential personalities. The meal was hosted in a wonderful old tavern that embodied everything you might think of when hearing the term “medieval meal”. The doorway dumped us into a long hall with a low, vaulted brick ceiling that left me feeling as though I was inside the city walls – perhaps I was? Though the rooms were sparsely decorated the walls were lined with old suits of armor, shackles and a mixture of different weapons and regional banners. We were seated on long benches set with earthen mugs and bottles of local red wine, where we settled in and began to chat about the day’s activities.

Eating in Umbria

The first plate we were served was a wonderful mixture of local cheese and wild boar served in several different ways. It was accompanied by a delicious liver paste smeared on coarse bread and went perfectly with the red Sangiovese wine we were provided. The next portion was a special pasta, normally only prepared on festival days which was bathed in a light olive oil sauce and served with meat. The flavor was fantastic with a wonderful balance between the pasta, meat, olive oil and with just enough salt and garlic to really set it all off.

Eating in Umbria

The pasta was followed up by chunks of beef in a heavy sauce served with what I initially thought was mashed potatoes. You can imagine the surprised look on my face when I mouthed the first spoon full only to discover it was, in fact, polenta. It was a silly mistake given my love for polenta, though admittedly it had been a while since I had found any. The polenta accompanied the somewhat heavily spiced meat well and softened the flavor nicely leaving us all stuffed…but, this was an Italian meal and we should have known it didn’t end there.

Eating in Umbria

Our final course was dessert. A somewhat dry and very hearty cake that had a light chocolate flavor and was perfectly accompanied by a wonderful local dessert alcohol. I believe the drink was the local version of candy sweet mold wine, but am not positive.

My time in Citta della Pieve was rich and wonderful, albeit brief. I look forward to an opportunity in the future to return and to explore the city in greater detail…ideally in time for the Renaissance festival. The costumes, competition and food offer a tantalizing promise of wonderful experiences and adventures!

A special thank you to the people of Citta della Pieve for the opportunity to sample the local food/experience and their hospitality. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the city and the opportunity to be their guest.

The City of San Ignacio in Belize

San Ignacio Belize Bridge

Though the ATM Cave tour was the highlight of my trip to Western Belize, I enjoyed my time in San Ignacio.  A small town which gently sprawls along a beautiful, slow moving river a brief 15 minute taxi ride from the Guatemalan border, the city of San Ignacio definitely harbors its own character and charm.

Eva's Bar and Grill in San Ignacio, Belize

The evening before had been enjoyable.  Earlier in the day I’d bumped into a friend i’d made during the Raggamuffin Tour in the local internet cafe.  When I’d last seen him we’d been setting sail and heading south towards Placencia, leaving him marooned on Tobacco Caye for Christmas (upon his request).   After finish up our e-mails home and quick blog posts, we struck out on the town to rustle up some chow. The place we eventually found started out promising but ended up being disappointing.  A small place, upstairs and across from the main tourist hangout in town – Eva’s, pictured above – they offered a menu with several cheap specials.  Upon inquiry as to what  the “pork” plate came with/entailed I got confused shrugs and mixed answers.  Ordering a 2nd Belkin Stout I figured what the hell and ordered it anyway.  The plate ended up coming with a variety of rice, beans, salsa and some sort of pork chop/pork loin that was so over cooked I was tempted to use it as coal. It turns out, the cook was playing computer games behind the bar…which explained a bit about the service, and even more about the over cooked nature of the food.

From there it was down to Eva’s for a drink or two more before turning in.  I ended up crashing at the PACZ Hotel which was very clean, affordable, ideally located, and had a wonderfully warm and friendly owner/manager.  If you find yourself in San Ignacio, definitely stop by and ask for Landy.  He not only was friendly and helpful, but had a wealth of stories and even went so far as to share with me a local DVD of Belize’s marine life and natural wonders.

San Ignacio Outdoor Market

The following morning I set off to find a bit of food, only to discover that the town’s outdoor market was bustling with activity.  As I wandered through the outdoor market, it struck me that the wealth of bananas, colors, and fresh produce made for a beautiful sight. With my mouth watering I paused briefly and picked up a shucked Coconut and fresh Banana before setting off to find lunch.

Belizean Food - Stewed Chicken, Beans and Rice

Just across the street, a few paces down a small side alley I stumbled into an open front restaurant bustling with local activity.   The kitchen was a small open area off in a corner with a small flat space for plate preparation and a blender for fresh horchata and juice drinks.  I sat down at an open table, only to realize that it didn’t offer any leg room.  After a few minutes with my legs sprawled out to either side one of the girls working as part chef/part waitress noticed, chuckled at me and herded me over to a different table, which had just cleared.  In heavily accented English she told me the two plates they were offering and offered a suggestion.  I followed her suggestion and opted for the Belizean specialty; stewed chicken, rice and beans served up with a side of salad and a fried plantain served up with a side of horchata, which i later followed up with a Coca Cola.  It was hands down the best Chicken, Rice and Beans I had in Belize which is saying something.

Chicken Bus in San Ignacio

Stuffed, I continued my exploration of the city.  Wandering down along the river I paused to watch and ponder the strange garb, traditions, and out of place appearance of the local Mennonites in the market place, before poking a hole in the coconut I’d purchased earlier and downing the fresh coconut water.  One of the things I love about traveling in tropical environments is the presence of fresh coconuts.  Coconut water is a great way to re-charge, very healthy, and perfect for re-hydrating.

After exploring the town for a bit, I made my way back past a colorfully painted bus to the hotel where I settled in for a relaxing afternoon.

The following morning a new adventure, and country awaited.

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!