Saturday, November 28, 2009

A “Capital” Visit

Our first mission in Cagliari—the regional capital—was breakfast (Trofie Wife insists that we never miss breakfast when it’s included in the price of our hotel stay, sleep be damned), not knowing that we would be encountering quite possibly the best hotel breakfast in the history of hotel breakfasts. The buffet table was lined with, amongst a plethora of treats, the freshest, yummiest pecorino sardo, really good jam, surprisingly yummy café americano (Trofie Wife usually avoids it in Italy, opting for the more reliable espresso), and juice from every tree in the orchard. We now understood why there was fairly heavy security at the front door and checking of room numbers.

Cagliari city walls

Our last day in Sardegna was spent touring craft stores, the San Benedetto indoor market (we so wished we had access to a refrigerator for all the produce, fish, and cheese, but we at least came away with some great honey), and sipping drinks in the famed Café Antico, which turned out to be somewhat disappointing along with the gelateria that was supposed to have 280 flavors, but only boasted a paltry two dozen and most of them were canned, not fresh. Far more interesting was the hilly walk through the city walls (though Trofie Wife was a bit tired/complainy—it was super hot), searching for the old Jewish ghetto (evidence remains of the ghetto entrance and old synagogue site, though a church sits atop it now), and seeing the duomo all decked out for the upcoming holiday (Ferragosto—a holiday honoring Mary’s rise to heaven).

Old Jewish quarter

"The Ghetto" is an arts and cultural center that has nothing to do with Jewish culture. It was closed while we were wandering.

Narrow, winding alleys 

Although our time in Sardegna was coming to an end, our vacation was not (yes, we are ridiculously spoiled). That evening, we flew from Cagliari to Trieste (pretty much as far north and east as you can go in Italy) on our first Ryan Air flight. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s a budget Irish airline that lets you easily hop from one European city to another. The catch is that while the ticket prices are low, they charge you up the wazoo for all the extras (including reserved seats; it's quite a scramble to grab two together during regular boarding). If your luggage is above weight (as was ours), you pay. Annoying, but still probably less costly than a flight on a major airline.

Trofie Wife believes that the urge to visit Trieste was first implanted in her brain during her much beloved Joyce course in college (which inspired a trip to Dublin several years ago). More on this soon, but Joyce spent nearly two decades here and his experiences in the city likely both inspired much of what appears in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. As we started reading more about Italy, Trofie Wife learned that there was and still is quite a large Jewish presence in the city along with a great deal of other culinary and cultural delights. Martello obliged and found a beautiful little hotel (with a mezuzah, interestingly enough) right in the center of it all—we loved it so much that we booked two additional nights after breakfast that first morning.

Our first view of La Piazza d’Unita d’Italia, the central square in Trieste, was breathtaking, lit up in blue and bustling with activity. We just knew that we had arrived in a special place and couldn’t wait to explore the next morning.

Baci e gelato,
Martello e Trofie

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Home Away from Home Away from Home

Alghero, once a Catalonian stronghold, was the next stop on our whirlwind Sardinian tour, which took us north briefly before we continued on southward (Martello had to help me recall the geography; I just kind of followed along without much awareness as to where we were exactly...). After a nauseating (only for Trofie Wife; Martello was snapping away as usual as supposedly it was a “spectacular” unfolding panorama) and windy bus ride, we landed in a walled town with a lovely sea view.

Stunning view of the coast from the bus; Trofie Wife was mostly looking at the backs of her eyelids, trying to avoid soiling the bus with her breakfast. I got glimpses of the mountains and water every so often and am grateful to Martello for documenting the beauty so I could appreciate it after disembarking from the constantly gear shifting autobus. 

Needing to catch a train south to Oristano not that long thereafter (and stuck with our luggage until we found the train station and its store room), we quickly toured the perimeter, seeking the vestiges of Catalonian culture (there was paella to be eaten, but we didn't have time for a lengthy meal) as well as signs of the former Jewish community, which had been expelled in 1492 alongside its brethren in mainland Spain. Although one of the towers embedded into the city walls was supposedly known as the "Jewish tower," we couldn’t quite find it (Martello recently remarked that he didn't know that we were looking...). However, we had no problem finding the expansive duomo (in a lovely Moorish style until Baroque elements were introduced and turned it all ungapacthka). We didn’t have much time to explore the sea (or take a ferry out to some nearby islands and grottos), but we did have an opportunity to indulge in some highly recommended gelato and see a pair of deaf parents yelling at their children in what we could only guess was Italian sign language (actual sign language, not just Italian hand gestures).

Ruins of early Catalan walls and towers.

Alghero's walls and the beautiful sea below.

The Duomo--much nicer looking outside than inside. 

The real attraction of this portion of the trip, however, was our two-night stay just outside Oristano in Solanas, at the agriturismo bed and breakfast run by the future mother-in-law of one of Martello’s co-workers. The co-worker and her fiancé arranged for our stay and escorted us around the area. The grounds of the B&B and surrounding fields were filled with delicious vegetables and fruits (including plenty of grapes handily turned into wine). Martello’s co-worker was kind enough to brief the innkeeper on Martello’s dietary restrictions (also helping Trofie Wife steer clear of eating any beloved piggies). Like a good Sardinian mamma, she kept insisting that we eat more, hurtling apperitivi, antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci, vini, caffe, e digestivi our way. It was on that first night that we finally bit into seadas, the classic Sardinian dessert. It’s a sort of sweet calzone filled with pecorino sardo and honey. It’s incredibly rich and difficult to eat after a large meal, yet amazingly, people manage to finish their portions (sadly, not Trofie Wife, though I plan to attempt making it on my own at some point). Somehow after dinner, we rolled into Torre Grande, another nearby town with an invigorating nightlife, which we were all too full and tired to partake in. When we arrived home, the family dog—some sort of pitbull mix—was waiting to greet us, but he wasn’t too interested in being pet by Trofie Wife… .

The following morning prior to leaving on a daytrip, our friends were kind enough to locate the bus to Is Arutas, a beach laden with rose quartz instead of sand, and put us on it. The beach was breathtaking and the rocks soft, making for an excellent napping ground and foot massage conveyance.

Quartz! On a beach! (That would be Martello's extreme excitement about this turn of events.) 

Martello gives himself a foot massage. 

The area seemed to be particularly attractive to German and Belgian tourists--several bars rose their respective flags (and one particularly blond one asked me to guard a bathroom door for her). We stayed long enough to enjoy naps, reading, wading, and photographing. 

Is Arutas sunset

With our friends up north, we were on our own for dinner, stuck attempting to make conversation with the other guests in a mix of English and Italian (Trofie Wife failing miserably in the latter and speaking too quickly in the former). Our fellow guests even started planning the remainder of our trip for us, suggesting different spots in Sardinia and further north back on the mainland. Perhaps our best memory of Sardenga comes from that evening: The momma innkeeper explained that while pork was on the menu for the rest of the guests, her husband had grilled us some manzo (beef)--she then placed her fingers on her head (to make little ears or horns) and gave us a moo or two; we so wished we could have captured it on film.

Our last day in Solanas was quite eventful, with a daytrip to Isla Mal au Ventre—yes French speakers, that would be Tummy-ache Island. Maybe not the best locale for Trofie Wife? Along with our now-returned friends we shared a rubber dinghy rental with another family staying at the inn. Now as Trofie Wife has noted here before, I am not so into boats. But at least a regular boat is made from wood or steel or some other heavyweight material, and one is unlikely to be at risk of falling out merely from climbing aboard. Riding a top a rubber dinghy is a whole separate experience. Thankfully no one fell out nor did I create any food for the fish.

Isla Mal au Ventre

We enjoyed an afternoon of swimming and relaxing. I did opt out of the boat tour around the island (back on the dinghy), choosing to save my courage reserves for the ride back to the mainland. Instead Martello and I toured the island by foot. Unfortunately, the camera was with our bags in the boat, but we saw bunnies and a bird skeleton. We eventually met up with the "boat," (I don't even know if it truly merits that description; "oversized inner tube" might be more appropriate) and I endured an extremely choppy journey back to shore, holding on for dear life the whole way (and disappointing the 10ish year old boy who really wanted the vessel to go as fast as possible), and emphatically reminding Martello that he had used up pretty much all of his points in the bank and owed me big time for putting up with this bumpy adventure.

Our friends relax in between boat rides.

Dried off and happy to be back on the mainland, our friends escorted us to the train station, where we hopped aboard a coach to Cagliari, the capital of Sardegna, which sits on the southern coast. En route, Trofie Wife took the unusual liberty of putting her feet on the seat. Most of the trains on the island are in pretty sorry states, but this one was kind of new, and the conductor was being protective and decided to snip at me. Guess I have to get in trouble sometime… .

We were happy to arrive at the über-hip T Hotel (which the locals deride as an oversized "pencil") and enjoy a delicious dinner. The following day we would take in the sounds and sights of Cagliari.

Baci e gelato,
Martello e Trofie