Return to Italy!

(Orvieto, Italy)

After the success of last year’s trip to Cinque Terre (for hiking) and Sestriere (for skiing), it just made sense to return to Italy again in 2017.  The skiing will take place in Madonna di Campiglio next week, but our travel adventures this year are beginning in the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto.

Orvieto’s main street at night – at the bottom left is a sign pointing down a side street to the Trattoria Antica Bucchero

Like all of the hill towns in Umbria and Tuscany, Orvieto’s location was chosen because it was relatively easy to defend against invaders.  The historic centre is situated about a thousand feet above the valley floor and, as we arrived by train, we had to take a funicular to get there.

The Piazza Repubblica, as seen from the Torre del Moro

Our first Umbrian meal was at the Trattoria Antico Bucchero. We were jetlagged and extremely hungry, so I do not have any pictures of the food.  While we enjoyed our pastas, bruschetta and salad, dessert was probably the highlight.  My wife had vin santo (a local fortified wine) and biscotti (to be dipped in the wine), while I had vin santo and pecorino e miele.   It translates simply as “sheep’s cheese and honey” and it was just a few pieces of cheese, some hazelnuts and a small container of honey.  However, the cheese was sharp and splendid…and it was even better with honey on top!  The honey was clear and almost colourless, but it was the best I have ever tasted.  It is no surprise that Italy is a stronghold of locally sourced food.

Trattoria Antica Bucchero, after our meal

We’re going to be in Orvieto for three nights and there is an awful lot to see.  We’ve bought Carta Unica combo-tickets that give us free admission to most of the top sights in town as well as transportation to and from the train station.  With its narrow and winding ancient streets, it’s also fun just to wander here and completely forget that it is the 21st century.

The Palazzo del Popolo, with rural Umbria in the background

Future posts will include details on some of these sights and our further culinary adventures.  For now, I’ve included some introductory photos taken on the streets and from the top of the Torre del Moro, a medieval clock and bell tower rising 47 meters in the middle of the old town.   We climbed all the way to the top and, as it is definitely not the high season for tourism here, were able to enjoy the view all by ourselves.

Books and Travel Guides

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

As I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, I decided to make today’s post about travel guides and “books about other places”.

Some very popular travel guides perpetuate the myth that travel is only for the very wealthy.  When listing accommodations, these guides generally give only 5-star hotels and throw in the occasional 4-star hotel as a “budget” option.  They are often the same luxury brands we have at home (and generally avoid because of their exorbitant prices) and offer exactly the same experience that you would get in your home country.    This naturally leads to the question:  why bother traveling, if you could have the same experience at home?

A small Nova Scotian fishing village, just east of Peggy’s Cove

For such travel guides, I generally find that the cost of one night’s accommodation corresponds to what I will actually spend on a week (or more) of accommodation…with no increased risk or discomfort.   One travel writer (more about him later) says that the more you spend, the more of a wall you build between yourself and what you traveled so far to see.

Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

So…which travel guide do I recommend?  I prefer guides that have few (or no) recommendations for hotels and restaurants.  Such businesses can change very quickly and the information is often very outdated by the time you read it.  Instead, I like guides that focus on objectively describing what a place is like and form some kind of opinion on local experiences.

The famous lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove…sadly, being renovated during our visit

When I first encountered the Rick Steves series of European travel guides, I was quite skeptical.  His books and travels shows (broadcast on PBS) assume that the reader is American.  His appearance does not fit the stereotype of an advocate for smart budget travel.  And yet, when you read his guides closely, he actually makes a lot of sense.  He is the writer mentioned above who pointed out the inverse relationship between spending and experiencing.

Lobster Traps at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

I think Steves is strongest in describing travel in Italy, as he clearly has a passion for that country.  However, if you are traveling to any European country for the first time, you could do worse than read a Rick Steves guide.  I do disagree with him about the pace of travel.  As he assumes an American audience, he also assumes (unfortunately) that the audience has very little in the way of vacation time.  If you follow his sample itineraries, you could find yourself suffering travel burnout very quickly.

Swissair Memorial at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

However, you shouldn’t restrict yourself to travel guides.  I recently read John Hooper’s “The Italians” to gain a little more insight into Italy and Italians, as we will soon be in Italy again.  I also read Helen Russell’s “The Year of Living Danishly” just before visiting Denmark:  it was written by a U.K. resident who moved to rural Denmark after her husband got a job with Lego!  That, in turn, led me to “The Nordic Theory of Everything” by Anu Partanen (originally from Finland but moved to New York after marrying an American).  While it is definitely not a travel book, it is an interesting read because it challenges some long-held assumptions about the Nordic countries.  All of these reflective books provide insight that you rarely find in travel guides.

Another view of the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse (still being renovated, 30 minutes later)

The pictures in today’s post are all from our 2009 visit to Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia.   Coming up next:  arrival in Italy!

Not a Travel Flashback on Skiing in Val Gardena, Italy (2013)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

In my last post, I said that I would dig up some photos from a 2013 ski trip to the village of Selva (in the famous Val Gardena of northern Italy) and write a “Travel Flashback” post on it.  I found the photos, but have decided against a traditional “Travel Flashback” post.

Chapel in the snow, on the Sella Ronda route

I have to admit that I did write a flashback post about Val Gardena.  Alas, I wasn’t very happy with the post.  It has now been 4 years since visiting Val Gardena and there have been other ski trips to northern Italy in the interim.  Ski trips are the ultimate in “experiential travel”:  you’re not just observing, you’re interacting with the dramatic mountains.  However, it’s hard to effectively convey that interaction in writing many years later, especially without any significant notes.   It also would have been much different if I had not been skiing in Italy since then, as there would not have been any conflicting memories from 2014 and 2016.

Blue skies high above Val Gardena

Importantly, this was also one of my last trips before deciding to launch this blog.  Over time, I have developed strategies for blog entries that don’t require me to spend precious vacation hours in front of a computer.  I can now create the framework for a blog post in a few minutes, if necessary, and fill in the details later.  Back in 2013, however, I didn’t have those strategies.

Everything is bigger in the Dolomites

The only real travel revelation during that trip?  This was the first time I had stayed for an entire week in a “half-board” (breakfast and dinner included in the cost of the room)  arrangement and I was worried that the food would become tiresome after a couple of days.   Not at all!  The food was great at the Hotel Europa and we enjoyed getting to know the restaurant staff during the course of the week.

Our hotel in Selva (Val Gardena) – right across the street from the gondola station!

And what about the skiing?  While not as challenging as the larger ski areas in Switzerland, I remember this much:  there was an epic dump of snow on the third day that left us with outstanding conditions for the rest of the week.  I don’t have any good photographs from that day but there is a brief video from that morning (you can link to it directly here).  The powder was even deeper in the afternoon and it was difficult to leave the slopes at the end of the day.

Looking up from the lower slopes of Val Gardena

Despite not being able to create a satisfying “travel flashback” post about it, I still look back very fondly on Val Gardena.   There’s something to be said for living in the moment and not spending too much of your trip thinking about blog entries.

Skiing in the dramatic Dolomites never gets old!

If you want to know more about skiing in the Val Gardena region, you can start by checking out the posts from my 2014 trip to nearby Cortina d’Ampezzo (here, here and here).

Returning to the present:  our trip to Madonna di Campiglio is rapidly approaching.  The next blog entry may well be from Italy!