Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bosa Bustle

When people go to Sardegna, they usually laze on the beach for a week or more, enjoying the relaxing sand, sun, and hydrating (or not) beverages. Not so Martello e Trofie Wife. Martello wanted to see as much as possible during this trip, since we were not yet sure if we’d ever have the opportunity to return. So we planned (or at least outlined) a most unusual near circumnavigation. From the northeastern corner of the island, we next headed west and south to Bosa, a medieval town on which the guidebook had sold Martello. It being a Sunday in August, our journey there was anything but smooth, involving a bus, two trains, and a chartered taxi since the bus that was supposed to take us from where the train let us off was MIA (though a German–Italian nonna who spotted us at the train station was kind enough to invite us over for a beer; our (or at least Trofie Wife’s) American skepticism/mistrust still hasn’t quite warn off).

During these long bouts of travel, Martello enjoys taking nearly endless pictures of the scenery as the train whizzes by (Trofie Wife prefers to read). Given that Sardegna had just suffered a bout of forest fires (along with nearby Corsica and parts of Spain) in recent weeks, we saw quite a bit of charred fields and huddles of sheep that we weren’t quite sure were alive or dead (Sardenga’s sheep census seems to rival that of New Zealand; Sardinian sheep are responsible for the delectable pecorino sarda cheese. Thank ewe!).

View of Bosa

When our taxi finally pulled up to the hotel in Bosa, it was evident that Martello had hit upon yet another charming spot. The building was of an old world style, similar to our hotel in Pisa. But one of the main attractions (and the reason we put in for two nights here) was the town’s beach, which the guidebook said was quite wide and excellent for lazing about. Unfortunately, as we learned after a very long walk that involved crossing a major highway, while the hotel was in Bosa, the beach was in a town called Bosa Marina; the guidebook did not state this fact. Bus service to and from the beach as we learned on Day 2 was spotty (and the bus stop difficult to locate). Also annoying: Bosa Marina, while boasting many a place in which money can be spent, does not have a single ATM machine (though it does have a tourist office). Given that it was vacation season, there had been a run on the two ATMs in Bosa proper and one machine was not dispensing cash (at that point we probably had five or so euros between us). When we finally were able to get some, the line was ridiculously long (and Trofie Wife feared there'd be no money left by the time it was our turn--they don't accept credit cards at most gelateria--Martello found this anxiety to be ridiculous). Note to anyone doing any sort of city or town planning: if you’re designing a future tourist hotspot, please make the place’s name and location clear and do us all a favor by not naming your town the same thing as a neighboring town!

Beach on Bosa Marina

Bosa Marina beach

The whole distance from the hotel thing aside, the beach was quite spacious and lovely, lest the sulfuric smell emanating from the sea, which we were told was due to the algae (right…). While eating lunch at a beach bar, our waitress mistook us for Spaniards, then when we tried to correct her, she guessed we were every type of European before barely believing that we were American. At this point Martello and I realized we could be secret agents. We’ll let you know how that turns out…. .

We also ate fairly well (not a shocker), enjoying pizza on the first night after our epic nighttime return from Bosa Marina alongside the highway. At that pizza joint we began noticing (but did not order) something called pizza americano. What ingredients is our home country honored with? French fries. On pizza. Strangely enough, people actually order it (upon returning home we started noticing it on Ligurian menus). We, however, like our arteries too much. Our hotel also boasted a well-known restaurant and we had a delightful meal there, albeit it took forever to be served (not so much hustle from the wait staff, though to be fair, they seemed understaffed and overtaxed). We also enjoyed strolling through the lovely cobblestoned streets and seeing Sardinian handcrafts, which include pottery and sheep-based textiles. And then it was on to the next town… .

Bosa proper centro

Where there is zucchero filato, there is Trofie Wife

Baci e gelato,
Martello e Trofie

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Real Italian Holiday

As readers can probably guess from the general theme of our marriage, this blog, and knowing us, we often like to leave things to the exact last minute. I mean, once you plan a full-on wedding in a month, what’s a two-week vacation crisscrossing the country? Child’s play. Of course booking a last-minute vacation in August when nearly the entire country is out and about is not advisable. If it were solely up to Martello, we’d have found hotels at each stop along the way, but since this is a shared venture, Trofie Wife insisted that we have sleeping spots booked for at least the first portion of the trip (in a highly-vacationed zone); an idea that Martello finally warmed up to when he starting noticing the price differential between online rates and the significantly higher rates posted on the room’s door.

So, with the first few days of our lodging booked and all of the most necessary plans made, we left Arenzano and headed to the Genova port, where we boarded the ferry to Sardinia (Sardegna in italiano), a lovely island lying off Italy’s west coast and fully part of the country (although it does have an autonomous regional government, a dialect closely resembling Catalan, and unique cuisine). Its most luxurious stretches are famed for hosting the internationally rich and famous, including Berlusconi’s infamous party villa. For the plebians, there are more budget accommodations, but the entire island is covered in gorgeous coastline, so even if you can’t afford to spring for a resort, you can do quite well at the public beaches.

Because one can reach the eastern portions of the island via a relatively quick nine-hour ferry ride, the eastern coast of Sardinia functions as a sort of Genovese Hamptons (yes, people who live along the sea need to summer along a different seaside). People buy season passes for the car ferries and load on and off every weekend; there’s even a special kennel for the dogs. Since we were heading into the two prime weeks of August vacation, the ferry was quite packed (we chose the budget line to Olbia; there are several companies that service the many possible routes between Genova and several Sardinian ports of call; Trofie Wife was tempted to book the boat bearing Looney Toons characters, but, unfortunately, passage was in the realm of Scrooge Duck's budget). 

All of the ferries have a pricing system that seems weird if it’s unfamiliar. You pay for the right to be on the boat and then you pay for the seats (or cabin, if you want a bed). Seeing that we booked the budget line, we opted to pay a couple euro more for the first-class poltrone (the seats).

However, upon finding our seats we were quite surprised to notice that many—not only in first but also second class—were empty. We soon realized why:

Apparently people take this whole paying for passage thing quite literally. They pay for passage and then camp out in all sections of the boat. They bring sleeping bags, air mattresses, beach chairs; some board as early as possible to commandeer the bar and cafeteria areas or the staircase landings (some even sleep outside, canines beside them, as Martello learned during a middle of the night walk, which nearly ended in catastrophe with his foot brushing, yet thankfully not smushing, a sleeping dog). All violations of the fire code and all blissfully unenforced in carefree Italia. It’s quite insane and reminded me somewhat of a NFTY shul-in. (Trofie Wife was embarrassed as Martello snapped the above photos, yet I’m using them here, so I guess I should be grateful for the few moments of shame).

We docked not too long after sunrise and then took some time to find the pedestrian exit (apparently cars take priority). And as we began our search for a bus to take us to Palau, where we, thankfully, had a room booked, we had our first encounter with what would become a recurring motif: immense hurdles to accessing public transit. It’s pretty easy to get around major cities via train and bus. But to attempt to do so on an island like Sardinia requires immense amounts of willpower and patience (immediately apparent as Martello went through security to enter the building where said bus tickets were supposedly for sale only to learn that he had to buy them from the conductor standing in front of the bus, who had earlier said to go inside…). By the trip’s end we would certainly earn the title of Italian public transit warriors.
As we hurtled toward Palau, it became abundantly clear why Sardinia is the vacation choice of discerning Italians—it is absolutely stunning. And hot. We took a lovely nap in the woods overlooking the sea and then a boat over to La Maddelena. 

Looking out on the water in Palau

Palau Pineta (woods; excellent napping conditions)

Trofie Wife had recalled once reading something about beautiful pink beaches on La Maddelena (though there was nothing in the guidebook accompanying us that day), so we set out looking for them, merely following vague signs (Trofie Wife’s chosen, and usually correct, mode of navigation in Italy) to the beach. As the local road gave way to a highway and we inched along the shoulder, we (well, Martello) grew increasingly skeptical that such a beach existed. Yet finally, we reached a beach. It wasn’t pink (we’d later learn that those pink beaches were ecologically protected zones that could only be viewed during special boat tours), but it was a pretty, almost otherworldly place on which to view a sunset.

Otherwordly (though, sadly, not pink) beach on La Maddelena

We thankfully caught the day's last bus back to the center of town and had our first taste of Sardinian cuisine—spaghetti e bottarga (dried fish eggs; they would grow on us over the course of the week) and then took our third boat in 48 hours (and Trofie Wife really doesn’t like boats) back to Palau where sweet sleep awaited us (vacation was already tiring us out!).

Moonlight on the water between Palau and Maddelena

Baci e gelato,
Martello e Trofie

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Zipping to Firenze

Despite having lived here for nearly a year, it’s still quite bizarre to Martello e Trofie Wife to be able to look at each other and say, “Hey, want to go to [insert Italian city that’s reachable within a five-hour train ride] this weekend?” With our mega-long August vacation fast approaching (and precious little of it booked), Trofie Wife felt rather indulgent being able to pull this little trick mid-week, while Martello was wrapping up his big deadline. But seeing as she’s not likely to be able to do this when we return to the States, she might as well take advantage of it while she can.

So, waving aside the guilt, Trofie Wife booked a budget hotel, hopped on three connecting trains, and found her way to Firenze (Florence) to meet up with some friends from her high school youth group (as well as their friends). Trofie Wife hadn’t seen one of the friends nor Firenze in nearly a decade (seeing as Martello was there last summer, it hasn’t been high on the weekend priority list), so the journey was doubly exciting. I sneaked through the sweaty crowd in Piazza della Signoria to find my friends and together we headed back to meet the others by the Mercato Sant'Ambrogio, where dinner was already being planned. After a yummy bruschette e pizza lunch and hotel check-in, I managed to run across town to catch the last few minutes (literally) of the synagogue and its museum's opening hours (highly guarded spaces always love a sweaty, stumbling, and stammering last-minute visitor, but seeing just how empty the tour group I joined was, I'm sure the box office appreciated the extra euros). The Firenze synagogue is quite spectacular, due to the fact that the generous endowment donor stipulated that the future building had to match the splendor of the city’s well-regarded masterpieces and houses of worship. With that mission in mind, the architects were sure to make it as un-Italian as possible, focusing on a sort of Moorish/Babylonian design (so that you can loiter in the lovely courtyard while skipping out on services; there was one such girl demonstrating this feature as she played with her Sidekick while her family took the tour). Trofie Wife can only provide external shots as photography was not permitted inside the building, and Martello was not there to surreptitiously break the rules and shoot regardless of the signage.

 Following the tour, Trofie Wife re-joined her friends and we enjoyed some excellent (and surprisingly well-valued) gelato (I did, however, take them to task for only ordering one flavor and not two) and we returned to the apartment they were renting where the master chef amongst them was whipping up a fantastic meal with the items procured earlier that day (even more impressively, using his own culinary tools, transported transcontinentally). We dined and enjoyed catching up and reminiscing, bidding farewell on the banks of the Arno as I returned to my meager lodging (actually, for a budget place booked about 10 hours before leaving, it was pretty good).

The next morning, I strolled over to Oltrarno (that would be the side of the river opposite the city center), wandered around (including stopping into the Santo Spirito church), and then crossed back over the Ponte Vecchio (the big-deal bridge here that used to host slaughter houses and now focuses on jewelry sales, go figure). I was crestfallen to learn that I could not enter the Biblioteca Nazionale just to take a look around (my residual anger, however, will not prevent me from posting pictures of the exterior of said library). 

Bridge O'Bling: there's nothing to bring foot traffic to a standstill quite like putting shiny jewels on display to mesmerize the masses. 

 Biblioteca Nazionale (otherwise known as the library that wouldn't admit me). Hint: if you're worried about the state of education in your country, maybe you should consider letting the public access the libraries!!!

Santo Spirito (the one Italian church I've entered in the height of summer where they actually made me cover my shoulders; luckily they ignored the shorts)

 Santa Maria Novella (not to be confused with the train station of the same name; I didn't have time for this church as I was headed to the station)

 I have to say that when I first visited Firenze during high school I was completely taken with its beauty. Although it was during Easter week and many of the major art galleries were closed, we got to know the streets and various landmarks, and I recall desperately wanting to return (particularly because there was this pair of shoes there that I should have bought and didn’t, and I still have wistful dreams about the experience; the lingering regret was not helped by my beloved French teacher chaperone and i genitori, who, when I returned, said that I should have splurged; and there I thought they would have appreciated my frugal nature with the newly issued credit card; I was sure to have them make up for that instance of thrift in future years).  But this visit left me with a different impression. Other than my brief sojourn to Oltrarno, Firenze just seemed overrun with and exploited by tourists. While it’s still beautiful, my initial feeling of wonder at seeing it at 17 dissipated (perhaps by returning with Martello, who always manages to find the hidden and surprising pathways around every city or small village, I will find that feeling again). After a long return journey, Trofie Wife was happy to return home to Martello so we could pack and continue planning our vacation (which started the next day!). More on that soon to come... .

Baci e gelato,
Martello e Trofie Wife