Sunday, December 31, 2017

Part I: Polignano a Mare ... a Peek at Perfection

Polignano a Mare ... a Peek at Perfection

It was that time once more, time for another excursion to Italian parts still unfamiliar to us.  By then, weeks had passed since our return from Sardinia.  On the day of our departure, we were greeted by a bright sunny day as we made our way out to the piazza from our home in the Calitri Borgo to our awaiting car, little Bianca.  If all went well, in a little over two hours, her mighty-mite 1.2-liter engine would try her hardest to whisk us away into an eastly sun along the autostrada to the Adriatic coast to that secret, untouched boot of Italy called Puglia.  There was no hurry, after all we were retired, in pensione as they say.

After all these years, there remained so much more of Italy yet to see and we’d continue to be slow about it.  It wasn’t as though we were on some sort of tour with a hurry-up, “have your bags in the hall by 6am”, “keep up with the flag”, and a “don’t be late” approach.  Unlike most bus tours where you might visit eight-ten places in a week, we had the luxury to take our time to get to know a place in greater depth.  An overnight stay was especially conducive to that end and that’s just what we were doing thanks to
First off, we’d head for Polignano a Mare about 30 miles south of Bari.  Its origins date back to the 4th century BC about the time Greek settlers founded the city of Neapolis (Naples) on the opposite coast of Italy as part of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece).  And if we made time, we’d venture a little farther south to another delicious coastal town, this one Monopoli, from the Greek for “single town” located at the end of ancient Rome’s Via Traiana, and not to be confused as the origin of the board game of the same name with its cluttered border of real estate. 
We got going by mid-morning.  Maria Elena likes to take her time whenever we prepare to leave.  It’s more a matter of our return that concerns her, more so than a concern with what to pack along.  She insists that everything be in order for the moment we open our door on our return - dishes all washed, everything ship-shape and orderly.  She sees it as a sort of pre-arranged therapy for when she returns.  Knowing she’ll be tired after a trip, it’s her way of banishing any thought of housework as she relaxes, or better said, recovers.
GPS Margaret cooperated, making our trip all the way to the curb by the front door of our B&B, Dimora delle Rondini, uneventful.  Thankfully, there were no parking problems that time of the season.  Our B&B was conveniently located
in a residential area a few blocks outside the old centro storico.  Its location on the third floor, without an elevator of course, was not as convenient.  As I’m sure I mentioned before, these days, at my age, I’m an anti-gravity kind of guy.  Thankfully, we knew this in advance and had taken precautions by packing light - only a tote bag each in anticipation.  Marilla, our hostess for our three-night stay greeted us at the door and showed us to our room, one of three available.  It was very nicely appointed by Italian standards and had a slider to a balcony that stingily permitted a slight view of the sea at the end of the street.  The queen size bed featured a plush upholstered headboard the likes of something on loan from Versailles.  It was a lamp on a nearby sofa table that caught my eye.  It was of stone.  A large base stone was topped by additional stones, though smaller, that rose to form
the post of the lamp.  I’d seen similar stone arrangements, assembled by crafty individuals, beginning with stacks of stones artfully positioned in rivers.  What was different here was the semi-circular shade that capped this creation.  Shards of polished glass (or they may have been crystal) protruded to stud the surface of the shade.  Later in our wonderings about town, we happened upon the “laboratory” where these lamps, some much larger, along with other fabulous handiworks were made and sold for an asking way beyond what I’d be willing to pay, at least for a lamp.  It was like window shopping at Tiffaney’s.  Only days later, while at breakfast, did Marilla divulge that the artist was a friend and the resulting discount so attractive, she’d purchased three!
By then it was early afternoon and we were eager to both get a glimpse of the old town and have lunch.  Maps in hand like any full-fledged tourist (and I still sometimes ask Maria Elena how they can tell we’re tourists!), we quickly headed off in the direction Marilla pointed us.  We generally kept to the course and eventually knew the
route there and back very well, even at night.  On this initial sortie, however, the sea beckoned, and we obliged her by deviating somewhat.  We emerged onto a large panoramic terrace, the virtual seaside piazza Largo Grotta Ardito, high atop stone walls overlooking the sea.  The shimmer of the sun off the water was like the flashing glint from a diadem on this, a tiara kind of day.  Some people sat in their cars enjoying the view, others like us walked along the limestone rampart to the sight of foam curling below on the rocks to the rumble of the waves, as fishermen tended their long poles and baited their hooks.  The full-length panorama of Polignano stretched before us atop spectacular limestone cliffs riddled with sea washed caves and home to darting sea birds clinging to the slightest outcropping.  No wonder it was called a mare.  The cliffs attract more than birds and tourists, however.  In the past, these crags were put to good use when the Red Bull Diving Competition was hosted in Polignano.  With every vista affording a feast for the eyes, it made it difficult to get beyond the scenery on into town.
Now and then we had to detour away from the water when a deck or patio would jut from the cliff in a cantilevered arrangement, preventing further progress.  Continuing along the walkway that
edged this timeless coastline, we missed the main entry to town reached through the Arco Marchesale gate, where the relatively tiny old town merged with far more modern Polignano.  We wondered the historic old town, a tangle of narrow streets and alleys twisting and turning in a maze of houses, shops, bars, and restaurants.  This was our idea of exploring where new places appeared at every turn.
It was on a corner, where no less than five cobblestone streets intersected, that we came upon Café La Cueva.  It became our favorite place to plop in a cozy corner in the shelter of surrounding shrubs to people-watch while enjoying drinks, a stuzzichini appetizer or two, and bowls of wonderful olives.  With so many streets converging, there was no shortage of entertainment.  Tour groups would pass, its members trying their best to
“keep up with the flag”; evening diners headed for the celebrated Grotta Palazzese restaurant a street or two away might stroll by; parents with children in tow; travel book tourists trying to decide whether to stop themselves, if only they could find some favorable kudo in their tomes; the occasional “ape” delivery lorry making daily rounds; nuns arm-in-arm; and once a grinning old man maneuvering a walking staff mumbling to himself as he headed who knows where.  All these sights and more converged in such an enchanting peaceful corner it proved hard to leave, but on that first sortie we sought something more substantial than a refreshing drink.  Moving on, we chanced getting lost in a winding thread of streets clotted with life.  There was an obvious sense of pride in the place, enough that you might imagine yourself transported to Germany from the orderliness of the place, an absence of graffiti, or of any rubbish littering the streets.  It being the main draw of the town and a valuable contributor to its economy, no doubt the town fathers gave it special attention.  We passed boutique restaurants, like the Cactus, closed this hour of the day; attractive shops we’d be sure to check-out later; hotels; beautifully maintained old stone homes; small squares busy with bikes and skateboards; and gated churches, to eventually emerge in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele (every Italian town seems to have one).
Along with a few shops, cafes, and a clocktower, this rectangular shaped piazza featured two outdoor restaurants, their cantilevered umbrellas crowding opposite sides of the square.  After a quick scan of their menus, we settled on Trattoria Neuro, the larger of the two, thankfully still with a few empty tables.  Its story began in 1990 when then L'Antico Caffè della Piazza opened its doors in the revived historic center.  As a church celebrates in the spirit, we’d found one of those temples that celebrate food and the pleasures of the table.  The Italian table need not simply be a setting for starches.  Here by the sea, we anticipated that seafood of every variation would reign supreme.  Oh,
there would of course also be pasta, for there is an inventiveness to pasta that with each twist can take on a variation in shape entirely new to toy with and cup a multitude of marvelous sauces.  It may in fact be the sauces that I enjoy best.  A plateful of Linguine ai Frutti di Mare did it for me, combining fruits of the sea with a favorite pasta noodle of mine.  While Maria Elena enjoyed an antipasto surf and turf combination - a serving of calamari and another, a spread of salamis and cheeses - we chatted with neighboring patrons.  They were not only from the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg, but also from the world of academia.  He was a communications professor.  His wife also taught.  We learned that the population of their nation was all of five hundred thousand.  This was surprising when compared to the fact that New York City alone has a populace approaching nine million.  We’d once met an anarchist in Paris, communists up north in Montichari, and here in Polignano we found ourselves conversing with, as they explained, a pacifist couple.  They were of the belief that milaritism, indeed conflict of any form, is unjustifiable.  At that point, minding my linguine, I kept to myself the fact that I’d been a bomber pilot!  Maybe pacifism works and is popular in a country like theirs, the size of the State of Rhode Island or the English county of Northamptonshire.  With the world’s highest GDP per capita, maybe everyone gets along nicely.  He being a communications expert, or at least expert on the theory of communications, he possibly had the skills to talk his way out of any difficulty and thus avoid conflict – all matters resolved peacefully.  With all due respect, I wondered if they’ed reached a state of nirvana where they never experienced anger, or if the need arose, would be willing to engage in self defense, or instead, choose to rely on a “turn the other cheek” philosophy?  Luckily none of their politics was catchy.
Following lunch, we continued roving until we literally ran out of old town.  It is, after all, a relatively small area.  Finding the Arco Marchesale gate, we exited the centro storico into Piazza Garibaldi and turned right onto Via San Vito.  We followed it north across the Ponte Lama
Monachile causeway crossing a riverbed that afforded an unexpected panoramic view of the sea through a breach in the limestone cliffs.  Undoubtedly, here was a vista that could serve as the town’s signature image.  The cliffs had been cut from the timeless erosion of the rocky stream, which then looked incapable of such a feat.  Stony Cala Porto beach flanked by cliff-walls filled the gap to the water’s edge while hotels, restaurants, and a portion of the old town skirted the edge of the bluffs.  Bathers and snorkelers enjoyed the gentle surf, while those on shore maneuvered in a crab-walk style to negotiate the beach’s rocky surface.  The

ability to make sandcastles impossible, rock piling was the vogue.  
We turned back toward the sea when we reached Via Conversano and soon arrived at Hotel Covo dei Saracen.  This four-star hotel was situated in a prime position opposite the centro storico, on top of the cliff bordering the sea and the Cala Porto beach cove.  Inside, a wall plaque with the words “Volare, oh,oh… Cantare, oh,oh,oh,oh… Nel blu dipinto di blu… felice di stare lassù…” greeted us.  It took a moment, but this helped explain the larger than life-sized statue of Domenico Modugno displayed in the square outside.  Inspired by these words, he’d immortalized them in the international musical hit, Volare.  As a result, Domenico is possibly the most famous export of Polignano a Mare, rightly their favorite son.  Learning this, it was difficult from then on to keep these “Nel blu dipinto di blu” words (the original title of the hit) out of our heads. 
To Be Continued

From That Rogue Tourist


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Sardinia - Part III Alghero

Sardinia - Part III
This is a continuation of last month’s story: “Sardinia - Part II, La Maddalena”
By the day of our departure, we’d become well acquainted with La Maddalena.  We were familiar with its streets, its restaurants, and of course with the climb to our hotel, Hotel Garibaldi.  There was, however, so much more of Sardinia to see.  With no chance to see it all, our plan was to concentrate on the northern part of the island.  Even then, our focus was limited to the highlights and not all of them at that. 
The ferry took us once again to Palau on the mainland of Sardinia and it was there that we rented a car for the remainder of our stay.  Fortunately, Jack didn’t want to drive.  That was OK by me, so I did the honors.  I doubt I’d have managed well in the back seat, even the front passenger seat - something approaching vehicular anarchy or not being in control according to Maria Elena.  For me, it’s just that I’m too used to being the driver, although essentially Mare was right, for that implies being in control.  No need to argue.  I’ve learned over the years that arguing with Maria Elena is like reading a software license agreement.  In the end, you ignore everything and simply click "I agree".
In any case, we were soon off to Alghero situated on the western coast of Sardinia.  Instead of taking a direct route, we drove along secluded north island roads bordering the sea.  We hadn’t gotten far, however, before we stopped.  As we had anticipated, the views were too spectacular not to stop, 
especially at Capo Testa (Cape Head)
that juts into the sea.  At a convenient parking area, where the road basically ended, we walked along trails amidst Mediterranean scrub growth that crisscrossed the Cape Head peninsula.  
In, out, and around the rocks, it took a little shimmying and rock hopping to get to the sea but it was worth the effort.  From cliffside vantage points and sandy coves, the seascape panoramas were incredible.  The ever-present rush of rock, always the rocks, and Mistral wind-carved stone precipices, half-moon bays and lesser coves, even a picturesque lighthouse flanked by a sea a thousand shades of blue, all plunked in a wilderness of Mediterranean vegetation, all of it, cast a mesmerizing spell.
Following this break, we were soon back on the road skimming past Castelsardo before heading inland and skirting Sassari.  From this driver’s perspective, their roads were great.  Sardinia is the only Italian region without an autostrada.  Their road network is a system of dual thoroughfares, called superstrade (freeways).  How they differ from the mainland’s autostradas, other than being toll-free, I’m not sure.  I wondered if they were well along with the adaptation of those pesky camera speed-traps so deeply rooted on the mainland.  I wasn’t that curious to know, then again, I had no desire to find out via the arrival of a speeding ticket or some other sort of fine in about a year’s time by way of the Internet.  Déjà vu, it had happened before.  Cameras and automation seem to have replaced the police in Italy, though hopefully not yet in Sardinia.  
It was about then that our GPS Margaret became non-cooperative.  Suddenly, in some sort of GPS chicanery, she refused to turn on just when we needed her most to navigate our approach to Alghero.  She may have been up to date with the latest maps and software, but for some techy reason, Margaret had developed the habit of sometimes baulking when given the start-up command.  Finicky and highbrow with her new-fangled artificial intelligence, the old dame eventually cooperated by deciding to join us in the nick of time.  She did her part and got us into Alghero just fine.  With the navigation part behind us, the challenge then became where in this ancient Spanish burg to park.  
It’s always a challenge to try to park a car, especially when you are in an old historic city like Alghero.  Here was a place with complementing narrow streets laid out before cars were imagined, so narrow you’d be wise to play it safe and pull in 
both side mirrors.  That’s just where I found myself on arrival at Hotel San Francesco.  Located in the old-town, I knew I was asking for trouble attempting to drive in along the narrow, cobbled streets.  Maria Elena, however, insisted I try, in order to facilitate dropping off our luggage.  With four of us aboard, there was a trunk-full.  There was nothing facile (easy) at all about it.  It wasn’t enough that the streets were sardine can narrow, but to make matters worse, they were strewn with tourists.  Just negotiating a turn required that I back-up and try again as people moved around us, their heads swiveling to see who exactly this fool was in the middle of the centro storico.  Well, I got them there, or at least very close, before I dumped the entire contents of the Fiat 500L (recently known as the Pope’s automobile), passengers included, and hightailed-it, hoping no policeman had noticed my presence.  That was just the half of it. 
I can’t speak for all of Europe, but in Italy, you must pay close attention to the color of the lines in a parking space, wherever you attempt to park.  It being empty is just the opening gambit.  You want white lines, not blue ones, for blue signifies needing a parking ticket from some elusive machine playing hide-and-seek with you while hiding in some vegetation, if not at the other end of the street.  I know, I’ve been there.  My first thought was to drive around and try to find a free space bordered with white lines.  Easier said than done!  Oh, they exist, but are so valuable a find that once discovered, car owners rarely move from them.  They’re like rent controlled apartments you never want to give up.  I eventually found one, and as luck would have it, there was even a city meter-maid standing next to it.  If we were going to park there for a few days, I wanted to be sure this space was legit, so who better to ask than the ticket lady.  It looked perfect to me, the only one free on the entire boulevard.  When I enquired, I was frustrated to learn that it was a loading/unloading spot.  How could you tell I wondered?  I’d already seen reserved loading spaces.  They’d been clearly marked with the sprayed silhouette of a man pulling a cart.  While this one had no such marking, it was nevertheless apparently off-limits.  As I drove away disappointed, the thought occurred to me that just maybe she was standing in that spot to hold it for her mom or dad on their way into town.  At my age, naivety long worn away, it pays to be cynical.
Thankfully, I had a back-up.  I knew of a parking area by the port, some distance outside the old-town, but first I had to find it.  I backtracked as best I could, using whatever streets I could find that were not one-way.  Eventually, back on Via Lido by the waterfront that had brought us to the oldtown, I finally found the lot.  There were plenty of parking spaces available, all within blue lines of course.  I could understand way – the free spaces had been absorbed by ample numbers of savvy residents.  To my surprise, I found the parking ticket machine without difficulty.  This one was not too complicated.  Still, I needed to enter our license plate number and pay one Euro per hour in advance, which for our three day stay, would quickly add up.  To help out, there was a man who basically had a little business going assisting confused tourists, like me, on how to operate the machine.  Of course, it would only take certain coins and I had none.  What to do?  I felt like laughing, I felt like crying.  Our Italian phones, now working, I called Maria Elena and explained my 
plight.  She had already checked into our hotel and while I exited the parking lot, hoping my brief visit would go un-noticed, she borrowed some coins from the hotel desk clerk.  We met on the outskirts of the old town and soon returned to the lot.  I pumped the machine with enough coins to get us to 9am the following morning, put the ticket on the dash, and together walked back to
Hotel San Francesco, thankful for having earlier dropped off our luggage.  Our latest plan was to remove the car early in the morning and hunt for a white bordered parking space.  The only other agita triggering moment occurred when the desk clerk informed us that by driving into the old town, I’d definitely been photographed (those pesky cameras again).  In addition to temporarily confiscating our passports to convey our identity “to the authorities”, which is normal everywhere in Europe, he now needed to inform the police of my license plate number to clear me of any fine.  And thus went our inglorious arrival in Alghero.  
Alghero has about 44,000 inhabitants.  Part of its population descends from Catalan conquerors from the end of the Middle Ages when Sardinia was part of the Crown of Aragon.   The Crown of Aragon sounds like something from a “Lord of the Rings” episode but they proved influential enough that today the Catalan language is co-official with Italian, a unique situation in Italy.  Many locals still understand their ancestral dialect, an Aragonese influenced Catalan.  While a foothold for their language was practically assured, it was not until the 1950s that tourism took hold in Alghero.  
Hotels began to appear, and more adventurous travelers made it a vacation destination.  With its years of Spanish influence, it wasn’t long before word spread and Alghero was christened the “Barcelona of Italy".  Today, the old town retains its Spanish influence.  It is demarcated from “new Alghero” by intact honey-colored ramparts that hem-in a network of tourist beckoning businesses along a web of streets.  Strangely, there were numerous bicycles and bike parts, like wheels, always in pink, decorating or suspended above the streets.  We had no idea why, but knew by their number that they were somehow significant.  Curious, we finally asked and learned that Alghero was where, months earlier, the Sardinian 2017 portion of the prestigious Giro d’Italia bicycle race had kicked-off.

It is estimated that the convent of St. Francis, today’s Hotel San Francesco, was built in the late thirteenth century.  Their use of the word “convent” was confusing to me because I’d always associated a convent with nuns, as opposed to a monastary that I related exclusively with their religious counterparts, men.  That asside, it turns out this was the first convent (or was it monastary?) we’d ever stayed in.  I’d often joked that if we were ever to stay in one, we’d probably have to be back by nine or ten in the evening at the latest, before the doors were closed, and we were locked out.  This proved not to be the case.  While I may have been off the bullseye, I was nevertheless still on the target, for each time we returned, I had to smile when we’d find the entry locked, no matter the time of day.  We could get in OK regardless of the hour with the press of a button that got the attention of the receptionist, who with a semi-cloistered mind-set, would then buzz us in.

A cloister is an arched covered walkway running along the walls of a building and forming a closed loop quadrangle.  We might think of the peristyle space 
 of a classic Roman domus as an early precedent.  The cloister was usually attached to an adjacent church, with a torre campanaria (bell tower) surveilling the monastic foundation below, if not the entire town.  It created a sort of enclosed environmental bubble that allowed monks to walk and pray insulated from the distractions of the outside world with the added benefit of keeping their tonsured heads dry.  They were essentially the cloistered moving about the cloister.  It would be easy to construe this practice as an early example of separation of church and state, here intentional on the part of the church, where a closed-in architectural barrier effectively served to separate the structured world of the monks from that of the lay person living just outside its walls.  However, per the rules laid down by St Francis, Franciscan monks were not bound to a life within the confines of a monastery, expected to walk the cloister throughout their lives.  Instead, this particular Franciscan brand of monk was of the “storm trooper” variety, expected to work among the townspeople.  Theirs was a delicate weave of deep spirituality (the cloister) and the provision of pastoral comfort (the free-ranging uncloistered).
Hotel San Francesco, the only hotel in Alghero’s old town, offers twenty-one single and double rooms with some, like ours, overlooking the romanesque cloister.  I admit our accommodations were sobering, but here was more than just a room.  There may have been no TVs in the rooms but then again there’s no need with a concert just outside our windows.  It’s to be expected in a historical place such as this.  Beyond our helpful receptionist and charming breakfasts on the balcony of the cloister in the shadow of the campanile, it also served as an essential part of the city, a center of culture and local history.  In fact, we happened to arrive when they were celebrating La Fine dell'Estate (The End of Summer) with performances by two á cappella groups (á cappella fittingly being Italian for “in the manner of the chapel”). 
That evening a group of six men assembled in a circle, their black vests and trousers in stark contrast to their long sleeved white shirts.  In closed pitch harmony, they presented a haunting chant that was only added to by the medieval stone acoustics (please access the video that Jack recorded here).  The mood quickly changed with the performance of a larger group of men and women that followed.  Surrounding the enclosure, they presented a far more jovial tune that included the sounds of various animals, like the meows of cats, even an occasional coo-coo.  Thinking back on it now, it seems that for better effect, the groups’ performances could have been reversed.  Better to present the more breezy, summery tune before the lamenting requiem that more-so heralds winter, definitely an end to summer. 
A highlight of our visit was a boat trip around Capo Caccia to Grotta di Nettuno (Neptune’s Grotto).  Capo Caccia is a peninsula that hooks around to the west of Alghero and terminates with a cliff-edged promontory shaped much like the Rock of Gibraltar.  I knew the shape well from the Prudential Insurance ads I’d seen growing up on TV which had adopted the Rock of Gibraltar as its company symbol.  After a pleasant thirty-minute ride from the Port of Alghero, we arrived at the entrance, a simple horizontal opening in the stone just above the water line.  As we bobbed there awaiting our turn
to dock and unload, we could see a lengthy circuitous staircase that made its way down the side of the cliff to the entrance.  Visitors, arriving by car somewhere far above, were making their way on foot down to the caverns.  With over six hundred steps to navigate, offset with what must be a fantastic view, I could only imagine the tortuous return trip, step-by-step, up its vertical face. 
A weather-less day made docking simpler for our captain, although I would never think to attempt it. 
With a few reversals of the throttle, he nosed our boat to the slit-like opening in the wall’s face while crewmembers positioned stabilizing anchors to hold our position as a narrow gangplank was lowered to fill the breach between ship and shore.  Our troupe gingerly walked the plank, thankful for the calm day.  Inside the mouth of the caverns we joined others already waiting entry and bought our tickets.  As we awaited our turn, we got a taste of what was to follow from the spectacular gaping hall into which we’d emerged.  Here was a subterranean abode worthy of the Roman god of the sea, Neptune.  The cave complex was first discovered by local fishermen in the 18th century, and as testified
by our presence, has since become a popular tourist attraction.  It seemed to stretch on for miles when in reality it extended only a few hundred meters.  As might be expected, being so close to sea level, there was water inside, enough to be called a lake, underground Lago Lamarmora.  We soon moved out in a single file with a guide in the lead.  She led us along a trail marked by poles linked together with ropes.  Out of earshot, far ahead of us, it really didn’t matter that she only spoke Italian.  Gradually, we strolled along a dramatically illuminated labyrinth of underground passages, magnificent lofty halls, and natural formations of stalactite and
stalagmites, some connected, seemingly gluing ceiling to floor.  This was new to me.  If I recall correctly, I’d never been inside a cave complex.  Cavernous, towering auditoriums, one following another, appeared drizzled like a child’s seaside-fashioned sandcastle giving an appearance similar to that of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  Thanks to the Disney movie, Pinocchio, I recall seeing as a child, I related what I saw to the movie’s imagery of the insides of Jonah’s whale.  In this instance, drooping loops and dribbles of calcium, the likes of natural works of art, had replaced the Disney whale’s stark soaring ribcage.  
There were times along the tour where we’d need to bend over for quite a distance if we were to continue to follow the trail.  During these confined moments, bordering on claustrophobic
paranoia, I could sense the tremendous weight of everything above us and felt vulnerable.  About then, the weighty enormity of a Gibraltar overhead, coupled with the thought of a life insurance company, seemed fitting to contemplate in our compromised position, crouched over as we crept along on our trek.  With a mere crushing snap, our world could have instantly vanished.  I could vaguely appreciate what life was like in an ant colony or as a submariner.  Thankfully, the feeling quickly passed when I’d straightened, though it brought to mind the time my mother, on a visit to the Mount Rushmore Caverns, had promised to buy a plaque of the Madonna and Child she’d seen in the gift shop, that is if she ever re-surfaced.  She kept that promise!
After a balmy afternoon on the salty brine and our spelunker adventure, we were thirsty and hungry on our return.  Believe me, this is not a problem when in Alghero where bars and restaurants abound.  Walking the ramparts one afternoon we’d discovered a lively outdoor café, Café Latino,
with perfectly acceptable Aperol Spritzers and Negroni’s.  I describe it as “lively” only because you might catch sight of a bride in her gown walk by arm-in-arm with her groom one moment, only later to see this liveliness continue when a wannabe bride and her naughty posse of pink-wigged girlfriends, out for a Bachelorette Party, appear to scoop up innocent Paolo for a photo opp.  So, following our return, it was a no-brainer.  Up some steps from the port, it was our first stop off the boat. 
The four of us had already enjoyed dinner on our first night in Alghero at the very popular, family run Trattoria lo Romani (da Vittoria e Gigi).  Following a shared group antipasto, Mare went for rustic cuts of crackly-topped roast pork, for which they’re famous, as did Jack, while I, still on the hunt for that elusive lamb, enjoyed a plateful.  I’d given up trying to find that equally elusive rotten cheese (framaggio marcio) mentioned earlier. 
Turns out that in our drive from La Maddalena to Alghero we’d passed through the maggot cheese region, or at least the area we’d been told we might be able to find some.  Distracted by the sights, we’d entirely forgotten about it.  Too late to turn back, my dinner choice instead centered on decreasing the island’s herd of four million sheep that we’d learned were about but seen little evidence of, while Dotty stuck with a primo of fish to go with the white wine she so enjoyed.  I can’t recall what together we shared for dessert.  What I do recall is that with the arrival of four forks, we made short shift of it.

On our final evening, following our usual inspection of menus posted outside doorways eager to attract customers, we embraced Trattoria Cavor.  The Cavor filled an arched stone grotto cluttered just the way I like my Italian restaurants, where wine racks, memorabilia, cabinets piled high with plates and bottles, along with family photos adorn the walls.  The owner took time to point out a picture of his parents, his mother depicted in traditional
attire and his proud mustachioed dad in his military uniform.  Time to eat, Jack and Maria Elena enjoyed Pasta alla Vongole, which they’d come to prefer just about everywhere we ate.  Similarly, Dotty stuck to her pattern and opted for fish.  I especially recall the generous plate of ragu covered ravoli I enjoyed in the cozy confines of the Cavor along with house wine.  Yum, Yum, Gulp, Gulp, we all could have easily fallen into a second helping. 
The Sardinian flag depicts the heads of four Moors divided into the four quadrants of Saint George’s Cross.  It is a holdover of the historical flag and coat of arms of the Kingdom of Sardinia, which once ruled the island.  Why Moors on the flag, whether depicted blindfolded or bandaged (we saw the flag both ways), historians are not sure, but they are sure about its many invaders and the migrant movements of people over the centuries.  Its location along major trade routes was simply too significant to be ignored, making it a destination that was never new.
  While Alghero can’t compete against many Italian cities as far as the number of tourists are concerned, its historical sights, its cuisine, and its weather make it an ideal place to visit.  Like to sail like Jack does?  Here is the place. This was exactly our situation, where the mainland held so much of a draw that it kept us away and ignorant of places like Alghero for years.  I hadn’t even heard of Alghero.  Thankfully, our days there had the desired effect and changed all that.  Like those Moors of old whose mission had been to capture the island, ours was to capture a once in a lifetime treasure-trove of moments consolidated into a single, not to be forgotten, experience.  Mission accomplished, we did just that.  Now we know the tapestry of its stone-clad streets, have seen its cliffs that tumble to the sea, the yawning mouth of grottos the likes of concert halls decorated by the drips of time, along with the wonderment of its pristine stretches of wild wilderness.  So, when it’s time for some head cleaning, here is the place.  Life is short, we almost missed Sardinia and Alghero ourselves, so why not do as they say, “Take the trip, buy the shoes, eat the cake”!
From that Rogue Tourist

P.S.  In our own amusing way, we had lived up to the motto Take the trip, buy the shoes, eat the cake”.  Unquestionably, we’d definitely taken the trip.  However, instead of shoes, Mare bought a bottle of Mirto, the Sardinian digestivo I mentioned a few thousand words back and lugged it with her the better part of our trip, all the way to the airport.  It was while we were walking toward the security checkpoint that she issued a startling “Oh no”.  She’d just realized that she’d forgotten to pack the Mitro in our check-in luggage and instead had it in her carry on, sure to be detected.  So instead of cake, the four of us each enjoyed swigs of warming Mitro before she drained what we hadn’t consumed in the lady’s room.  As proof, we have the empty bottle, empty because in our haste we failed to think to keep at least the permitted three ounces!  Time to buy more shoes. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Sardinia - Part II La Maddalena

Paolo, a Fashionable Garibaldi, and Maria Elena
This is a continuation of last month’s story: “Sardinia - Part I,  Arrival”

Sardinia - Part II
        La Maddalena
… But it seems that when one angel disappears, another soon arrives.  This was our experience soon after we walked down the boarding ramp of the LST-style ferry in La Maddalena about forty-five minutes later.  Totally new to the place, we had no idea where our hotel,
Albergo Garibaldi, was located.  Oh, I had the address, but was short a city map which would have been an immense help.  Somewhere in the maze of traffic, jumbled streets, and the commotion that greeted us, it lay hidden.  It wasn’t long before I was tired of the clicking and snagging of my suitcase wheels in the cracks in the granite pavers.  I’d already made a few inquiries but was greeted with blank-faced, puzzled expressions that translated, “I have no idea”.  Our three-star hotel was apparently short of a shooting star.  It was in a bar doorway, however, that our luck changed.  Pointing in the direction we’d just come from, a patron rattled-off a barrage of directions that beyond the direction he was pointing to and reference to a marina, was incomprehensible to me.  We’d read of the pulls and influences of the varied languages in Sardinia.  They ranged from remnants of Phoenician, Catalan, French, Sardo-Corsican, and Italian, each with its distinct dialect.  God knows I’m no linguist, but here evidently was a language ratatouille.  An about-face was easier than attempting to decode the instructions.  At least we were all familiar by then with where the potholes and snags were.  Re-oriented, our foursome pressed on, retracing many of our recent steps.  It wasn’t long before we pulled off to the side of a piazza, next to an old customs house, to get our bearings, to where we knew not.  Like someone in a raft firing a flare for help, I was in the process of calling the hotel for assistance.  Just then, like an angel, the same man who’d given us
Looking for Angels?
directions earlier from the doorway of the bar appeared out of the blue.  Bars certainly come in handy that way!  God-sent, I handed him the phone.  After a brief chat, he indicated he’d bring us to our hotel.  In our experience, this unselfish willingness to help total strangers has been a recurring Italian theme.  Maybe we’ve just been fortunate, but on many an occasion, locals have stepped-up to offer their assistance and gone out of their way doing so.  We thought the toughest part of our arrival had been solved but the slog had just begun, and all uphill.  It seems we’d chosen a hotel positioned high up in the “burbs” of La Maddalena.  The cost had been right, the altitude above sea level way off.  We eventually got there with credit toward a cardiac stress test, sans the treadmill.

    It wasn’t long before we were out and about, this time unburdened by seven weeks’ worth of luggage.  We made a few pleasant discoveries almost immediately.  We like to break-up an evening with drinks at one place followed by dinner somewhere else.  This way, we get to experience more of a new place and extend the pleasure of a night-out.  There’s no telling what we may uncover … new friends, new delicacies, sometimes life stories from the myriad of people sitting next to us at table only too willing to share.  Speaking of delicacies, we were on the lookout for one unique type fare, what we soon learned was a forbidden, illicit food.  This forbidden food wasn’t an apple from the “Tree of Life” but a kind of cheese.  It is known as casu marzu in Sardinian (framaggio marcio in Italian) which literally translates to “rotten cheese”.  Turns out it is a traditional Sardinian sheep milk cheese, derived from pecorino, that contains live insect larvae, alive as in crawling maggots.  Stay with me here.  Can’t be all that bad, after all, didn’t Maximus use them to clean a wound in the movie “Gladiator”?  The larvae are deliberately introduced to the cheese, promoting an advanced level of fermentation and the break-down of the cheese's fats.  The worms eat the cheese resulting in a creamy consistency.  That’s at least how it was presented to us.  I don’t really want to consider how it’s done.  Sounds just yummy!  We’d seen it once in a video.
  The cheese is associated with shepherds who tend their flocks high up on solitary plateaus.  It would not appeal to many, for it would take a stout-hearted, brave soul to eat cheese covered with maggots!  Maybe covered is an exaggeration though.  Not so brave, my plan while no one was looking, was to clear the larvae from the cheese before digging in.  But when in Rome …, why not just once.  Well, there was none to be had in La Maddalena, no speak-easy to whisper its name so the Carabinieri can’t hear you.  With that aside for the moment, we stopped for drinks at Il Club on the marina adjacent to the yacht-set glitterati.  Our waiter, Andrea, took special care of us as well as a special interest.  The rush of the August tourist horde had past and he had time to linger at our table.  He only added to the atmosphere of the evening out under Mediterranean stars and our willingness to return again other nights.

   By far a real treasure was discovery of Osteria da Lio (Leo with an “i”).  We didn’t find it per-say, I was brought there by our angel escort earlier.  How could we pass-up a two-hundred-year-old establishment where who knows, even Admiral Horatio Nelson may have frequented in the early 1800s (he’d been to La Maddalena then).  It welcomed us with an entryway adorned with a hanging vine that served as an awning.  Crowded, we sat outside at first awaiting our turn inside while Sarah

and Esther served us Sardinian Ichnusa beers (Ichnusa was Sardinia’s name at the time of Christ) and wine through a window- opening in the wall.  It was a treat, with friendly locals just inside the door by the bar playing something that looked like dominos, but wasn’t, and others enjoyed a kind of happy-hour snack spread out atop the bar.  Yes, it was rather a small place.  The walls were arrayed with old photos.  A special honor was reserved for another local historic personage, Giuseppe Garibaldi, while others depicted sailing ships and family members, possibly a “Leo” among them.  Another surprise, following ours swordfish and sea bass meals with pasta and salads, was the after-dinner drink, Mirto.  Similar to our discovery in Sicily, and then again on Ischia, different locales seem to have their own version of a digestivo.  Maybe island life is somehow conducive to a locally brewed concoction, something you can count on even if deliveries from the mainland are somehow interrupted.

This one was also delicious, its mild flavor derived from the blueberry-like berries of the myrtle plant with the aroma of sweet herbs.  It is hard to describe the flavor of this reddish-brown liquor, but it is pleasant enough that we bought a bottle soon after (we only had swigs of it later in the airport when Maria Elena realized she had it in her carry-on and we had to ditch it before going through security).  After all, aren’t herbs good for you?  Dessert was also special.  It featured another Sardo treat called Seadas.  Think of Seadas as a warm pocket pastry filled with melted cheese and coated in honey and you’d be right.  Four forks quickly did it in. 

In the days that followed, we became familiar with the town.  We were familiar enough to quickly broaden the scope of our travels.  We took bus and trolley rides around the area.  One special treat was a visit to Caprera, a nearby island once owned by Italian national hero, General Giuseppe Garibaldi.  He’d once been exiled there, later to depart to lead an army of national unification, only to finally return to Caprera to live out the last twenty-seven years of his
life.  It was there that we had the opportunity to tour his home, now a museum.  In the final days of his life, Garibaldi had his bed moved to a room where he could see neighboring Corsica.  Why, I’m not sure, but it had something to do with the fact that he’d been born in Nice of Italian parents, which at the time was controlled by the Italians.  He’d been unforgiving and resentful of those who eventually returned the territory to

French control.  In this room, the original calendar and clock mark the date and time of this living legend’s death, 2 June 1882 at 6:20 pm.
Another indulgence, unique to Sardinia, was a boat trip aboard the Marinella IV to a group of islands known for their pristine beaches sheltered along breathtaking picturesque inlets.  One in particular was Spiagga Rosa that featured pink sand similar to beaches in Bermuda.  It proved too popular, however, and today this beach is roped-off by land and sea with a local guard for added security.  It seems tourists would leave with souvenir samples of the sand, thus threatening to eradicate this signature resource.  Crossing the gangplank to board Marinella IV at Cala Man Giavolpe in La Maddalena, the thought occurred to me, what had become of the other three Marinelli’s, this being the fourth?  I soon learned there was nothing to worry about, at least not with this captain.  It seems that Comandante Gabriele purchased the Marinella IV outright while the previous three had been wrecked!  Apparently Marinella is a popular name, worthy of being repeated, or might I say rebuilt ... comforting indeed and reinforced by the noted absence of any life-preserver drill.  Oh well, he probably did this every day and was certainly current.  Wasn’t he? 
Cruising the dazzling island shorelines beneath wispy clouds was unforgettable.  Many
were interspersed with forests dense with pinea trees, while beigey-pink rocks rose on edge as if they were the protective plates on the backs of prehistoric Stegosauruses.  They seemed to be everywhere, serving as Sardinia’s equivalent to the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy or the mysterious stone architecture of Stonehenge.  Many of these stones, timeworn from the crafty handiwork of wind and water appeared like monuments, easily capable to being christened with names like the “cathedral”, the “lions”, and the “citadel”, just as constellations of stars are given names.  Like plants, many appeared to jut from the sea, with many more visible just beneath the surface of the clear water.  Navigating them, our deft boat captain, a sixth-generation seaman, demonstrated his thirty years of personal experience.  The cruise brochure
had said: “He really knows the Archipelago, the depths, the rocks and every hidden bay.”  I quickly came to believe it as he maneuvered close, very close, to many of these natural stone formations.  You would think he’d been a former Grand Prix driver from the skill he demonstrated maneuvering our rather large craft through, around, and sometimes over these stony snares just to provide his passengers with better close-up views.  It was like experiencing what it says in the small print disclaimers beneath TV car advertisements: “Do not attempt this at home.”  Nature’s impediments weren’t the least of it either.  Equally amazing, were his choreographed movements through anchored flotillas of private boats.  With precision, he’d maneuver the Marinella precisely where needed to let us swim from a beach or

over the side.  People aboard these other craft, some with designs that harkened to Phoenician days, would stop whatever they were doing to watch, anticipating, I’m sure, a collision that I suspect could not happen with this captain at the helm.  I doubt there will ever be need of a Marinella V!  It was as if a game of “My hull it bigger than your hull” were underway.  I’m sure from observing their reactions to his close approaches that these potential collision victims were unfamiliar with his skills.  We’d get so close to them that our captain would attempt to console them over our ship’s PA system.  The reactions from the Italians both aboard our ship and those in Captain Gabriel’s crosshairs were evidently humorous.  No one got upset, no one was hit, there was never a need to don any lifejackets, wherever they were.
It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm with a light breeze as we swam in various anchorages like the Condé Nast prefect beach at Ilso Santa Maria and again at Passo degli Asinelli, or played lizard lying on the fine salt-colored sand only to retreat in search of shelter from the sun under
shore-side trees.  The water was a transparent sapphire blue, so clear it gave the illusion that boats were floating in the air.  I must admit there was no illusion about the water’s temperature.  There is no mistaking cold, cold like the Gulf Stream that washes the Maine coast, and it was that, but regardless, all four of us eventually took the plunge.  My hesitation probably made it worse as I ever-so-slowly made a pageant of walking out into deeper and deeper water.  I’d not come this far to not take the plunge. 
Back in town, we played obligatory tourist with a stop at the cathedral, Santa Maria Maddalena.  In La Maddalena, Mary Magdalen is honored, not only with the main church named after her, but an entire island.  The much-maligned Mary Magdalen through the centuries has been repeatedly contorted, reinvented, and contradicted in her historic presentation to suit the times.  It wasn’t until the Middle Ages for instance that theological fiction (what we refer to of late as “fake news”) first portrayed her as a prostitute.  In recent times, Hollywood lore in movies like “Angles & Demons” has added to her mystique while the unearthed gnostic gospel, “The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene”, gave this first woman apostle voice, contentious theological standing, all while continuing to stir the pot with conjecture.  Stories of her sometimes take the form of cult stories and range in their presentation of her as an early follower of Christ, a close friend, his lover, his wife, prostitute, and today, in what appears to be a miraculous make-over, as a saint of the Catholic Church.  A large painting of Mary of Magdala is displayed in the church vestibule.  Sitting on the ground before the cross, faceless with her back to the viewer,  it maintains her mystery.
There are just so many meals you can enjoy in a brief stay.  We tried our best to make each especially enjoyable.  As you might imagine, La Maddalena has a rich tradition of fish and sea food.  Forget about mussels as simply crab bait.  There mussels are found in soups, straight out in heaping bowls, or in pasta dishes, either with tomato sauce or "green" which means to be cooked in olive oil, garlic and parsley.  Beef was also plentiful.  Our dinner at Ristorante L’Avvenntura by the commercial pier one evening was magic as we dove into Pasta alla Vongole then Tagliata de Manzo. 
 Just yummy.  I rate their tagliata as the best I’d ever had and here I’m out on an island, offshore from another island.  Someone, please figure that one out. 
While tourism is its main industry these days, its strategic position predestined it for a rich military history.  In 1793 for instance, a French expedition unsuccessfully tried to occupy the island.  It was the first combat experience of a 24-year-old French lieutenant, one Napoleon Bonaparte.  It was on a Sunday morning in February that Bonaparte, in command of two companies of Corsican volunteers, ordered the bombardment of La Maddalena from the neighboring island of Santo Stefano.  The first shot hit the roof of Santa Maria Maddalena Church, where the population had taken refuge.  Reports say the second round hit the right edge of the facade, while the third and the fourth hit the roofs of neighboring houses.  The fifth exploded in the center of the church square, while the next entered a window of the church and exploded at the base of the statue of Santa Maria Maddalena without causing severe damage.  He did much better in years to come.  Over two hundred years later, one of the cannonballs fired by Buonaparte is on display in the Piazza Garibaldi town hall.
Later during the Napoleonic Wars, Admiral Horatio Nelson used the archipelago of La Maddalena as a base for his fleet to keep close watch on the French fleet.  In the interim, Nelson befriended the local port commander and developed a fondness for La Maddalena.  On his departure he presented a gift to the church, much opposed by his non-Catholic crew.  Today, in the sacristy of Santa Maria Maddalena, the two candlesticks and crucifix Lord Nelson donated along with a letter signed in his hand while aboard his flagship "Victory" are showcased.
It was later in 1887 that a base was established there by the Italian Navy.  In 1943 during World War II, following Italy’s decision to side with the Allies, Benito Mussolini was held prisoner in La Maddalena for twenty days before being moved to Vigna di Valle in Lazio and his eventual demise.  Following Napoleon, Nelson, Garibaldi, and Mussolini, came the Americans.  Beginning in 1972 during the height of the Cold War, there was a U.S. naval base on Santo Stefano, the same island from which Bonaparte had initiated his bombardment of La Maddalena.  The base served as the home port for several US Navy submarine tenders until the facility officially closed in 2008, ending a 35-year US presence in the archipelago.  Today, cruising among these islands, you can still make out lonely WWII outposts long since abandoned.  The soldiers of that time who from these remote stone citadels reported what passed, have today been succeeded by enclaves of the well-to-do on the lookout for the latest in fashionable yachts or the refined whinny of 500 Ferrari thoroughbred horses.
La Maddalena is an alluring island of stone and sun, where past and present mingle.  With the intensity of time, then to now, its stones have turned to sand by the erosive forces of wind, surf, and
sun.  Like the forces that shaped the land, it is also a place shaped by language.  I imagine this crossroad in the sea has always been this way, from the dawn of pre-history to a later time when Phoenician gauloi, Roman triremes, and most recently American submarines plied its channels.  It is where the island escapes into the sea from hidden crescent-shaped bays with beaches lapped by a cobalt sea that the luxury of its simplicity emerges.  Though the land is basic, a scrub landscape intermingled with Mediterranean parasol pines and the occasional pencil cypress, it nevertheless can cast its spell wide and urge a return.   But more than its rich history, more than its tapestry of stone and cliffs tumbled into the sea, it is home to the Andreas, Gabrieles, Francos, Sarahs, Esthers, and yes, even an occasional angel who made our visit there so memorable.
To be Continued
From that Rogue Tourist