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