Polar Bears and Lunar Sunsets – Friday Travel Photo

Polar Bears in Churchill

There are moments while traveling that stay with you. When the magic of the experience infuses itself into the very essence of you who are. As I sat bundled beneath five layers of clothing, staring out the window of a Tundra Buggy on the rural Canadian tundra in northern Manitoba just outside Churchill I was able to experience one such moment.  The evening had been mostly cloud-free, the brilliant light of a full moon reflecting off of the frozen lakes and snow covered tundra that surrounded our mobile lodge.  As the sun began to work its way over the far horizon, the moon slowly began to slip away over the ocean.

It was a magical moment that lasted mere minutes.  Even if it had only been a matter of watching the two orbs reflecting each other’s light it would have been a special sight to see.  But, in a stroke of brilliant luck, we found a large, beautiful polar bear relaxing near the lodge.   With numb noses, and half-frozen fingers we found ourselves watching the moon set behind her bathed in the soft hues and gorgeous tones of a brilliant dawn.

I’ll never forget the sight of the polar bear as she relaxed, looking at us as she debated rising to start her day. The trip was organized by Frontiers North and through the Canadian Tourism Commission as part of the spectacular trip I won at the Travel Bloggers Unite Conference. If you have the opportunity to do a Polar Bear safari I highly suggest it.  They are amazing creatures and the opportunity to see them in their native/wild habitat is an incredibly special experience.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera using a Canon IS 55-250mm lens.

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?

Oasi di Alviano – Umbria’s Rich Nature Preserve

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

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

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

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

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

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

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

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

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

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

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

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

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

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

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

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

Oasi di Alviano - Umbria, Italy

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

Life In Umbria, Italy

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

10 Steps for Mastering the Art of Olive Oil Tasting

Eating in Umbria

Wine tasting has become an integral part of travel and recreational culture.  It is something most of us hunger to enjoy and which offers a complex set of fixed and casual rules and norms which can be more than a little intimidating.  The ability to decipher, identify, and properly sample various types of wine has even become a cultural indicator of alleged sophistication and class.  With its famed wines Italy serves as home to a plethora of vineyards and opportunities to taste wine.  However, you may be surprised to learn that there is a second, equally enjoyable type of tasting available.  On par in fame and reputation, as well as heritage, with Italy’s rich wines is the nation’s olive oil.  While each town, city, and even family may have their own line of wine, the same is often true of olive oil.

If you’re like many Americans, Canadians (and others), myself included, you’ve probably just assumed that the “virgin” and “extra virgin” labels on olive oil at the super market were marketing speak tied to quality similar to how other foods might be marked as organic.  However, you may be surprised to learn, as I was, that this isn’t the case.  Each of these terms has meaning, and if the advertising is accurate (often it may not be), can have a significant impact on the taste, color, and feel of the olive oil.  These classifications will impact how strong the flavor of the oil is, its rich color, and its scent.  All of which can have a surprising impact when the oil is paired with or used in the preparation of other foods.

You can see my first attempt at sampling olive oil in the video below.  I’ve included the individual steps in written form immediately after for quick and easy reference. You’ll note at the end of the video that the taste of the mid-strength oil I was sampling was quite strong.  Strong enough, in fact, that the taste actually had a completely unexpected (though pleasant) burn to it – enough to make me cough, and to make my eyes water. A hearty thank you to fellow travel blogger Mike Sowden of Fevered Mutterings for playing camera man.

How to Taste Olive Oil

  1. Select an assortment of olive oils based on different strength and potency.
  2. Pour a small amount of olive oil into a tasting cup (pictured above).
  3. Cup it completely in your hands and warm it, allowing the warmth to activate the oil.
  4. Make sure that when you cup the glass in your hands you cover the top trapping the aromatic scent of the oil in.
  5. Lift your hand slightly allowing just enough space for you to dip your nose to your palms and inhale the aroma of the oil.  Take a moment to enjoy the scents you’ll discover.
  6. Take a sip of the oil, not too large, but also not too small.  You want enough to get a proper taste.
  7. Take the oil into your mouth and swish it around slightly coating the inside of your mouth.
  8. Now, the next part feels a bit odd but is important. Part your lips slightly with the oil in the front of your mouth and draw the air through and over the oil.  Allow it to bubble.  You should make a loud sipping/sucking noise.  This stage is where you’ll start to taste the complex flavors of the olive oil and where you’ll start to feel a burn from the stronger oils.
  9. Pass the oil from the back of your tongue to the front of your lips once again and note the flavor.
  10. Swallow some or all of the oil.

Types of Olive Oil

  • Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: The good stuff. This type of olive oil has 1% acidity or less and comes from the first pressing of the olives. Though extra virgin oil can be found in most marketplaces there are growing concerns about the lack of standardization in the industry.
  • Virgin Olive Oil: Similar to Extra-Virgin, Virgin Olive Oil typically has an acidity of 1.5% and is made from olives which are slightly more ripe.
  • Olive Oil: Standard olive oil comes from the 2nd pressing or in some cases chemically refined olive oil. This type of olive oil is of a milder taste than virgin olive oil. This can be called pure or commercial oil.
  • Refined Olive Oil: Typically made from virgin olive oil this oil has little taste, an acidity of 3% or more and a less than ideal flavor and smell.
  • Mixed Olive Oil: Best avoided, these are made by mixing olive and pomace (recycled solid remains after previous pressing). They also often use a chemical extraction process which is counter-productive and undermines the benefits of naturally pressed olive oil.
  • Light & Extra Light Olive Oil: Deceptively these are not more diet friendly versions of olive oil. Rather, they just include some of the lowest quality combinations of chemically processed olive oils.

There’s much more depth to olive oil than I ever would have imagined. Of the oils provided for us to sample, I was absolutely shocked at how different the taste was from oil to oil. As with wine there is a wealth of terminology and steps for classifying the different flavors and sensations, but I’ll leave that for a future post. As someone who has always loved olive oil and uses it regularly this experience offered me an insight into an important, and previously overlooked element in many of my favorite meals.

This video was recorded while a number of fellow travel bloggers and I were guests at La Penisola, a beautiful country resort and restaurant along the shores of Lago di Corbara in Baschi, Umbria. While there they provided a most gracious introduction to the art of olive oil tasting as an introduction to their newly launched cooking classes which they’re calling Life School.

Young Wines and Ancient Fields

Umbria - Italian Countryside

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

Umbria - Italian Countryside

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

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

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

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

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

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

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

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

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

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

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

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

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

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

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

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

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

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

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

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

Dinner and a Sunset in Assisi

Storm Clouds Over Assisi

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

Assisi - Cathedral and Fields

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

Assisi - Fortifications

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

Assisi - Pigeons on a Rooftop

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

Assisi - Lone Tree

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

Assisi - City Streets

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

Assisi - Rooftops

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

Assisi - Cathedral Square

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

Assisi - Stairway to Heaven

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

View from Assisi - Green Fields

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

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

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

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

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

Assisi - Winding Streets

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

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

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

Eating in Umbria

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

Assisi - Winding Streets

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

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

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

An Opportunity to Play With Polar Bears in Canada

Copenhagen Zoo

I’m a massive polar bear fan.  It’s hard to give just one reason why.  Perhaps it is their massive size or the exotic nature of their native regions.  It may be their pension for making ridiculous looking faces. Or perhaps it’s because they serve as a powerful reminder of the cost and danger of climate change. Likely it’s all of the above.  Regardless of the specific reason, seeing polar bears in their natural habitat has been on my list for a long, long time.  When I made the decision to accept the University of Copenhagen’s invitation for my masters, I harbored the not-so-secret hope that I’d be able to partner with one of the Svalbard/Greenland tour groups based out of Denmark and leaving from Scandinavia to see the bears.  Somehow that seemed like a more realistic way of seeing the bears than making the voyage from Arizona up to north/central Canada and into the heart of polar bear country. Which is odd, because the heart of Canada has been near the top of my travel list for a long time and makes far more sense for US-based travelers. Of course, with most cold and exotic climates the key challenge has been how to explore it on my limited budget and as a solo-traveler.

American Beauty The Bearmix

So imagine my excitement when I arrived at the Travel Bloggers Unite conference in Umbria, Italy and discovered that one of the sponsors – the Canadian Tourism Commission – was running a contest for two iPad 3s with the winner receiving an expense paid trip to Churchill, Manitoba along Hudson Bay to see the polar bears out on the ice and in their natural habitat. While rarely one to win a competition or prize I was, as you might imagine, pretty excited about the opportunity. It offered me the opportunity to knock out two birds with one incredible stone – a chance to see what I suspect to be some of the most beautiful natural beauty on earth while coming nose to nose with the great white bears of the north.

Bear Taking A Breather

The rules were simple.  We were all given a small bear and encouraged to tweet compelling photos of our bear with the hashtag #bearwatch.  At the end of the second day a representative from the Canada team would review the bear shots and choose two favorites.  The grand prize winner would then be invited to Canada to watch the bears.

Super Sexy Jacuzzi Bear

My approach was to take a variety of shots as I went about my regular conference business. The shots covered a wide range of activities and moods – from fun and slightly inappropriate to classy and elegant. Ultimately, I’m not sure which bear shot sealed the deal (though it sounded like it was the sum effect of the series of shots) but I’m thrilled to say I won the grand prize. Which is to say that later this year (October or November depending on scheduling) I’ll be partnering with the Canadian Tourism Commission for a trip deep into the heart of Canada to explore some of the world’s most amazing territory while watching one of nature’s greatest predators amble across the frozen waters of Hudson Bay.  An experience that I cannot wait to share with you all, and which I’ll be documenting (in part) via the brand new iPad 3 that came as a secondary prize.

Lazy Bear

There were a ton of great entries, and I encourage you all to head over to the Pinterest board that showcases them all.  Canada has a lot to offer and has really made a strong effort over the last year or two to get the word out. Fellow TBU attendee and travel blogger Cherina of Quiet Wanderings recently did the same trip and took amazing shots. You can head over and check out her post here. I can’t wait to see more of the country and am counting the days until this fall when I’ll have the chance to explore a region I’ve previously only read and dreamed about.

Anyone have any exciting or odd facts about polar bears to share?

Travel Bloggers Unite Umbria

Perugia - Rooftop Textures

I’m delighted to say that I’ve just returned from an absolutely fantastic trip to the Umbria region of Italy.  As long term readers may recall, the last time I was in Italy was in 2007 as part of my three month European adventure that started in Scotland and ended in Greece. To be frank, since that trip I felt like I had covered most of the major parts of Italy during that trip and that my travel funds, time and energy were better spent exploring new destinations elsewhere in Europe.  Historically, I’ve also had a fairly sub-par opinion of Italian food – particularly as someone who is lactose intolerant and not a huge pasta fan.  After this trip to Umbria with a stop in Bologna and the associated press trips I’m happy to throw both conclusions out the window.  The food I sampled was absolutely amazing and the taste of Umbria  I got while attending TBU (Travel Bloggers Unite)/during the post-conference press trips has left me with a strong desire to rent a motorcycle next spring and to spend several weeks wandering from Italian hilltop village to Italian hilltop village.  I’ll be back and sooner rather than later.

Helicopter Ride Over Umbria - Near Assisi

The Conference

TBU Umbria was held at the Valle di Assisi resort located just outside of the city of Assisi.  The resort was a beautiful sprawling facility situated in the midst of a number of fields, olive groves, and a local vineyard.  It offered a mixture of options: the main resort building and small stand alone apartments.  My room fell in one of the outlying stand alone apartments situated near a picturesque vine covered well and with a view over the vineyard back towards Assisi.  While the location was several miles outside of Assisi which made trips into the town a bit more challenging, it worked out perfectly for the conference.  Located as it was with meals on site it made it much easier to socialize and network with all of the other attendees in a very inclusive fashion which is often fairly challenging at conferences where people splinter off into small sub-groups to socialize or eat as soon as the day’s sessions wind down.

I personally got a lot out of the talks which to be quite frank surprised me. Not because I didn’t have high expectations for the speakers – they were all high caliber experts in their fields – but rather because I usually find conference material to be fairly redundant if you are active in industry/community groups related to the content being covered and have made a decent effort to self educate.  Which isn’t to say that I don’t get a lot out of conferences – I just find it to be more about the people in attendance and the small group/one-on-one conversations than narrated powerpoint talks.

Not so with TBU.  One of the things I really liked in particular was that the presentations were identified by experience level allowing me to easily target and skip presentations which were not likely to be relevant for me.   This was a huge frustration and time saver for me. Over the last few years I’ve probably sat through 10-15 talks about Search Engine Optimization.  Out of those maybe 2 have been worth while and had new information. I got a lot of new information, and key questions answered in the advanced session provided at TBU – a very pleasant surprise.

As I reflect on the various talks I attended, I was quite happy with each.  The Travel Blogger, Industry, Public Relations and SEO experts that gave talks were all extremely candid, skilled in their field, up-front, approachable, and eager to put together a great presentation. I took a lot away from the nuggets of wisdom they shared, and have already begun implementing a number of key changes here on VirtualWayfarer.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the keynote speeches by Jeff of Career Break Secrets and Jodi of Legal Nomads which offered great information, and compelling arguments for how bloggers and industry experts in the travel niche need to re-frame the way we communicate, interact, exchange social capital and do business.

A fairly common thread throughout the conference was embodied in the “bloggers and business a year on” panel discussion which focused on the maturation of the industry.  I’m a firm believer that we will see drastic changes in the role travel bloggers play in the travel industry over the next year.  As with most new industries there was an initial “wild west” style explosion in popularity where there were few rules, few guarantees, and virtually no industry standards for engagement, interaction or professionalism. Over the last few years savvy businesses have been able to get a lot of amazing deals, content and press from travel bloggers for virtually nothing. At the same time, however, the lack of standards and rules for good practice have also created a caveat emptor situation for those brands. As the industry starts to organize, settle, and differentiate between casual 1-trip bloggers, and long-term semi-professional/professional travel bloggers I think we will finally see viable revenue models emerge.  While this means that advertisers interested in engaging travel bloggers will have to start paying monetary compensation in addition to the current practice of trading freebies, it also means that the quality standards and reliability of the bloggers brands end up working with will increase and professionalize.  It is an interesting time, and I am very curious to see if 2012 finally becomes the year where travel blogging becomes financially viable as something more than a casual hobby.  I’d like to especially thank the panelists; Melvin (Traveldudes), Kash (Budget Traveller), Debbie (Four BGB), Wilde und Partner and Ryan (Housetrip) for a great session. Also of note was Deb and Dave of The Planet D‘s advanced workshop on how to engage with, seek out, and partner with brands.

Perugia - Rooftop Textures

Other Fun Stuff

The conference had a lot of secondary perks that added to the experience. While several had minor scheduling issues (what conference doesn’t?) I found them to be a fun added bonus, and a fantastic boon to my experience at TBU.

1. Conference attendees had the opportunity to sign up for a series of half-day photo and video workshops.  These included an hour long presentation by the likes of Ken KamineskyKristen Alana, Rachelle Lucas and Yvonne Zagermann and then post-talk walking tours of Assisi or Perugia. I owe Ken a huge thank you for finally helping me figure out and get straight in my head how to use ISO, Aperture, AV and TV modes.

2. A Q&A session and short talk by Steve McCurry, the famous photographer who is perhaps best known for his National Geographic photograph of an Afghan Girl.

3. 10 minute helicopter rides around Assisi with stunning views of the Umbrian country side (more in a future post).

4. Six post-conference press trips with varied itineraries setup through the Umbria Tourism Board and Umbria on the Blog to showcase one of Italy’s most beautiful regions (more on this in future posts).

5. A bunch of great prizes including a series of fantastic trips via Intrepid Travel, several iPads and a spectacular competition for a trip to Churchill, Manitoba to see wild Polar Bears in their natural habitats near the arctic circle via the Canadian Tourism Commission.  I’m thrilled to announce that I won the Polar Bear trip w/ iPad 3 and am now very excited to share the experience with you later this fall when I’m able to make the trip (more details to come soon).

I had an absolute blast at TBU, and look forward to keeping in touch with everyone I met. I apologize to anyone I left out of this summary and to those of you who attended and had a favorite part I may not have mentioned, feel free to share it in a comment.