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.