Paris is always a good idea…

You cannot run away from your own mortality. As such, I did the next best thing. To celebrate this absurd and somewhat surreal 50th birthday, I conjured up the most preposterous answer: a weekend getaway to the birthplace of joie de vivre. Ah, The City of Lights, where Tango is danced (preferably for not the last time); absinthe and champagne flow freely; a moveable feast, where the definition of art and culture and fine food emanates from its every time-worn cobblestone and stone arch, from each outdoor café, fromagerie and brasserie. This magical, medieval maze of rues and avenues where Gargoyles watch from on high like grand bacchanalian overlords, egging on the tiny figurines as they revel in the daily appreciation of small-to-medium-sized indulgences. I had not been to Paris in 25 years.

Laissez les jeux commence… I needed that frame of mind when I realised, standing in the clusterf*ck otherwise known as Charles de Gaulle Airport immigration, it would have been faster to fly direct to Amsterdam and take a train to le Gare du Nord, where I was to meet my birthday weekend playdate. A preposterous 4 hours from the time my plane’s wheels hit French tarmac to those of my valise hitting the pavement on la rue Dunkerque, where an old stone building melts as a parody of itself, and my dear friend with his warmhearted smile waits more patiently than necessary for this sleep-deprived, travel-weary and absolutely famished birthday girl.

C has chosen a fabulous (and equally unexpected) B&B, essentially a guestroom in a lovely couple’s fantastic flat in the 10e arrondissement, a quirky neighbourhood that borders Le Marais, walking distance to everything else we’re to explore in the coming days. I’ll get out of the way that B&B Bouchardon was the most comfortable, charming, understated (whilst being utterly chic and meticulously appointed) bed and breakfast I’ve ever visited. The breakfasts were as delectable to the eyes as they were to the palate. The hosts, Frédéric and Jozsef, made us welcome as if old friends (C had stayed here a couple years earlier, and the mutual warmth clearly has not worn off). And so, almost immediately upon arrival, the champagne toasts commence.

I don’t drink much on the whole, and I’ve not slept or eaten in at least half a day, so we set off for a spot of lunch (Syrian Smörgåsbord, as it happened) and a wander around the neighbourhood to stave off the inevitable end-of-adrenaline, lest I fall over and ruin my own birthday party. We stroll the streets and into Le Marais with all its quirky energy and shops galore. Fresh autumn air does a body good, so we venture to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame to look for hunchbacks, find none, and settle for gargoyles. On the way home we pass a patisserie in whose window I see meringues the size of a smallish hedgehog (this alone should have been the giveaway), and I decide to indulge my curiousity. The real hint came when the store clerk asked what colour I wanted: pistache, naturallement, erm, vert. Tant pis, I think, as the non-pastry fails to live up to its potential; another day, another macaron.

My birthday draws to a close on this continent and with it I reach the end of my candle, so to speak. Luckily, it’s towards the end of an exceptional dinner at the unpretentious yet brilliant Restaurant 52; we’re at an outdoor table on a bustling but not overwhelming rue Parisienne…and there is a split-second realisation that there is nowhere on earth I’d rather be at this exact moment. Merci, C.

The first spark of birthday wisdom arises: one thing Parisiens do much better than the rest of us is savour…moments, fine food, warm smiles, small celebrations.


Vendredi: As if to thumb our noses at age, we set off the next morning to visit The Catacombs (not before indulging in the nothing-less-than-indulgent BBB petit déjeuner, which, on its own, is worth staying here).

If history was taught as a travel adventure story rather than dates and names, I might have become an anthropologist. This day’s lesson is that the stone used to build much of Paris’ lovely architecture like Notre Dame and the Louvre was quarried from the vast limestone deposits beneath the city. A network of pillars and tunnels were created to bolster against collapse, but 500 years of mining began to take its toll. In 1774, Rue d’Enfer lived up to its name, opening a 30+ metre-deep sinkhole that threatened to consume a neighbourhood if something wasn’t done. It was decided to turn a portion of these underground tunnels into an ossuary to alleviate the overcrowding of the city’s cemeteries (neighbours were complaining; perfume shoppes couldn’t keep up with the, erm, bouquet). Ultimately, somewhere between 2-6 million corpses were interred unceremoniously in what became The Catacombs. The place is fascinating, actually, these meticulously-laid bones, layered skull upon femur, bottom to top; Jenga-like stacks along the walls of the mine shafts. The sign above the passageway as you enter: Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.

As you do after seeing piles of centuries-old squelettes, we wend our way to the Quartier Latin and a proper crêperie for lunch, people-watching as we sip cidre (the real kind!) from bowls. This day is like a postcard, vraiment, tho we’ve dubbed it Day of the Dead. We toast to not being quite ready yet. Next up, Le Panthéon. The building is itself a magnificently-carved statue; once a church, it is now a mausoleum, housing not only the likes of Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Marie Curie, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Rousseau, but also Foucault’s Pendulum (I simultaneously rue and thank Umberto Eco upon seeing it). The panoramic view of the city from le colonnade is unexpected and spectacular; well worth the climb up the hundreds of steep stone steps. Who says you can’t earn adventure points* in Paris?

Views viewed, we wander across the Seine in search of Shakespeare and Company, a gorgeous, independently-owned bookstore near the banks of the river. It is because of shops like this that Amazon can’t ever fully win. Shakespeare and Company is situated at kilomètre zéro, essentially the centre of Paris. So, we did that too. And, later, wine and charcuterie and an encounter with some drunk Danish guys to round off the evening. Because, you know, Paris.


Samedi: Le Louvre, les escargots, le fromage, le tarte tatin, Les Tuileries, a climb to the top of l’Arc de Triomphe (the view from Le Panthéon was better) and tea on the Champs Elysées, finding the ones to which all other macarons aspire. Adventure points awarded for both the eating of escargot and the extraction of said snails from their shells with the bistro’s creaky snail tongs.

Le Louvre

Boston, where I live, is among the oldest established cities in the US, a mere infant compared with Europe. So being in a bustling Paris, where (centuries-) old meets (relatively) new every day and rides the metro to work, it’s like a history lesson of the evolution of Europe at each corner. In French. C’est chouette.

Perhaps we’ll dedicate this day to the iconic symbols of excess of la Ville-Lumière.

For the final dinner of birthday weekend, our hosts recommend Brasserie Julien, an exquisite classique Art Nouveau brasserie, mere blocks from the B&B. One does not have to do much more than swap out diners’ vêtements to imagine the likes of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel singing as their artiste friends fill the tables here. We indulge in an absinthe aperitif and beaucoup de champagne with our meal, which is as delectable to the palate as the decor is to the eyes.

 


Dimanche: A quick visit to Montmartre suits the final morning, where the smaller Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, seen during Sunday mass, did not fail to impress; diffused morning light streaming through stained glass onto 12e ciècle pierres (lit., stone), choir resonating in the hall’s towering ceilings…

After this, it’s trains, planes, and, unfortunately, delays, as I make it into my own bed by the stroke of 1 am. Visions of a fin de la semaine parfait dancing in my head.

 


Dernières pensées: An understandable amount of time was spent this weekend talking what-ifs and pondering what-nexts; reflecting on this place we find ourselves (metaphorically and literally), mid-way or more through the short time we have here…in Paris, in this lifetime, and is there a difference?

I feel a combined envy of, and something like inspiration from, the laissez-faire nonchalance in which revelling Parisiens congregate. At the same time, there’s a pang of melancholy for those things you can’t get back: youth, missed connections, crossed signals, diverging paths, bad timing, unspoken words. So I focus on the present moment, and a fantastic weekend with a wonderful human…where or whether we tango again is in the hands of a certain elephant-headed god**. 🕉️

 


*C and I devised the system of Adventure Points a year or so ago on a hiking trip in Sardinia.

**Ganesha, Indian god and remover of obstacles, metaphorically weaves his way into our lives, injecting humour and roadblocks; opening doors and shining light on possibilities. In the couloir of the B&B is a stone sculpture of elephants. There are always elephants. Sometimes they sit just outside the room.

 

Zanzibar Part III: Istanbul (?)

[Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic]  |  [Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town]

Two days before I’m scheduled to depart for Africa, Turkish Airlines changes my return ticket so that instead of another couple of days in Zanzibar, I’ve got a 2-day layover in Istanbul. Turns out this isn’t as big a deal as I had envisioned… Stone Town is hot and dusty, and our one whirlwind day is plenty.

It also turns out that getting a Turkish e-Visa and finding a lovely little B&B just blocks from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia while sitting in my kitchen some 5000 miles away was also a piece of cake. So like that, I had plans to spend a couple of days in a city I thought I’d never get to see during these convoluted political times.

I had left Boston a week earlier, feeling angry, disheartened, rebellious, frustrated, embarrassed and altogether disapproving of the US current administration. Wanderlust raging and fernweh in high gear, I felt like an alien amongst my fellow Americans. I needed to get OUT. The stream of propaganda emanating from my country’s gold house makes me sick to my stomach; the deeper their hole of hate and other-izing is dug, the more my stomach reels as it did in the meat market in Stone Town.

I went to Zanzibar, American passport in hand, for a diving holiday with a dear European friend. We were in the far-flung reaches of a place not many tourists go, let alone even know exists. Aside from a very small handful of other travellers and assorted Peace Corps or aid workers, there were no other white people visiting there; Pemba is roughly 99% Muslim, as is Istanbul in theory. At Ataturk Airport, I’m mulling the fact that it’s almost a relief to have been surrounded by others for whom aggressive white (read: Christian, American, ignorant…) nationalism is just not a Thing at present.

And so I arrive in Istanbul, sad at having just said goodbye to my co-adventurer, slightly anxious about this new stamp in my passport, and more than slightly squeamish about my nationality and what it represents in a country mine has so recently postured to hate. Paradoxically, my complexion belies my country of origin and from the first interactions I’m asked, “Argentina? France? Spain?” I figure that some of my rusty Español and a strategically-asserted “Canada” here and there will be invaluable.


Sultanahmet. 

This mind-chatter is still occupying space in my head as I step out of the taxi and into the adorable Hotel Empress Zoe B&B. The neighbourhood is called Sultanahmet, which contains both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, sights I’ve been told are not-to-be-missed here. It is also the site of 2015 and 2016 suicide bombings. I’ve been warned of this as well. Of the school that lightning doesn’t usually strike in the same place (erm, 3 times), I’m slightly mollified by the presence of police with obvious machine guns and armoured vehicles at nearly every open space here. My room is fantastic. The greeting I receive by Layla is warm and welcoming. She arms me with a map and we orchestrate a sights-to-be-seen plan for my next 48 hours. The greeting I receive from the resident cats is equally as inviting.

Once I’m settled, the intention is to get the lay of the land and find some dinner. The first hot shower in a week is medicine for the chilly, damp gray air to which I’ve travelled; stark contrast to the prior week’s steamy East African days. I rebound and set off to explore.

Istanbul not Constantinople.

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Bosphorous Bridge from the air, connecting Europe and Asia

Called Lygos, Byzantium, Constantinople and then Istanbul, this city is a perfect confluence of east-meeting-west. Quite literally, since Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus, the strait that separates the continents of Europe and Asia, and has been a key trade route for millennia, connecting Black and Aegean Seas, commingling humans, spices, slaves and customs from ancient Greek, Roman, Persian and Byzantine empires before early Christian v. Muslim conflict delivered rule to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century.

Tourism is sparse. I’ve arrived to this normally teeming-with-tourists city in both a political maelstrom and the height of the low season. Glad that there are no lines to contend with at the major sights, I’m also a target for the desperate carpet-sellers that pop from nowhere to begin innocent chatter. “Hello, Argentina?” “Parlez-vous Français?” “Hablas español?” “Where are you from?” Learning from my first mistake, where a conversation with a friendly local turned into an introduction to his other “new friends from South America” and an invitation to the nearby rug shoppe. I declined the kind offer and deflect future propositions like these – of which there are many – with a firm “no,” as the promise “I’ll come by later” is clearly too naïve.

My first impression is that Istanbul is clean. People are chattering and smiling. Most, if not all, women are wearing a hijab. Men are dressed smartly, in tapered-leg suits. Even the street dogs are tagged and friendly-seeming. Like in India, some men hold hands in companionship. New York City seems more stressed-out to me than this place of recent turmoil and conflict.

It’s evening and the sun is preparing to set; we are between late-afternoon and evening adhans (calls to prayer), and I’ve set off to explore the plaza that sits between the Sultanahmet Mosque (dubbed ‘Blue Mosque’ for its elaborate inlaid tilework) and the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish), which mesmerises on first sight. Once a Greek Orthodox church and the world’s largest cathedral, Hagia Sophia’s pinkish stucco is transformed to a glowing architectural sculpture in the late-afternoon sun. I did not get a chance to go inside, but the domed structure itself is breathtaking.

I wander the Sultanahmet Square and note its peculiar mix of political metaphor: Greek and Egyptian obelisks and a German fountain dotting the plaza. Recalling the Istanbul scene in Dan Brown’s Inferno (which transpires roughly where I stand), I locate the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, which is where I’ll go first in the morning. I also find a gorgeous sweet shoppe, displaying the mounds of Turkish Delight that I’ll soon see is ubiquitous in this city. It reminds me of a Charleston Chew-meets-nougat-meets-gummy bear, only with pistachios and coconut. I’ve never had anything quite like it and I vow to find the best one in the city and buy some to take home with me (because clearly the 100g I’ve purchased won’t last the evening). Dinner is exquisite grilled calamari that rivals what I had in Sardinia, fresh bread with muhammara (a fantastic Turkish red pepper and walnut spread) and grilled sea bass, plucked from a pile of just-caught poissons on display in the lobby. My first quarter-day here is pas mal, if I do say so myself.

Monday: in which I do the tourist thing.

Olives and cheese and eggs for brekkie: I could get used to this. Well-sated and map in hand, I head out for a day of touristing. First stop: Basilica Cistern. Descending the 52 steps into this ancient cistern, an underground reservoir that filtered water for the grand Topkapi Palace, the first word in my head is WOW (and it’s the first word of those who enter just after me as well). Turkish music echoes. The ceiling is 9 metres high, its stone arches making it seem more cathedral-like than anything underground. Unfolding around me is a sea of carved marble columns radiating and reflecting the reddish light. The arches look medieval and Greek and Persian all at once. Towards the back of the cistern, a pathway leads to Medusa heads carved into column bases, supporting just two of the 336 columns in this magically eerie place. There are Doric and Ionic and Corinthian columns, and one which is called “Hen’s Eye” and is said to represent the tears shed by slaves who died building this place. I pause for a moment to connect the dots of horror from Zanzibar’s slave market, visited mere days before, to this grandeur. The music is haunting.

My next stop is Topkapi Palace. Almost by accident, I’ve wandered through one of the grand, guarded, fairytale-arched entrances to the palace, following old stone walls as I walked along the tram route towards the Bosphorous. I’ve purchased a scarf at a local shop to ward off the chilly air. From the patient proprietor, while talking tourism (v. slow these days) and sales tactics (low-pressure wins more business), I learn where to find the best Turkish Delight in the city: Koska, a fact subsequently confirmed by more than one local (luckily, it’s mere blocks from stop #3, the Mısır Çarşısı or spice bazaar).

Meandering through the gardens and buildings of Topkapi Palace and taking in the architecture, I reflect on the way of life in a place like this: servants and slaves and someone to wait one’s every whim. Gilded rooms and accoutrements abound, I bristle at the present-day irony of what the commoners’ tax dollars supported in medieval times. I dare not reflect on what today’s aspiring western Sultans would do with the harem or their quarters.

I consider the concept that I’m guided by spices as I continue walking, the narrower streets widening to a bustling downtown that reminds me of a cross between 34th Street in NYC and small villages like Jojawar in Rajasthan, the cobblestone streets and ancient stone mosques yielding only partially to modern commerce and city din, set on the banks of a strait dotted with Ottoman castles and mansions, the European-influenced Galata tower rising from the far European shore of what’s called the Golden Horn. I find the candy shop as well as the spice bazaar, not without getting turned around 6 or 7 times and stumbling upon a demonstration of sorts in the square just outside the market.

I wend my way back to my B&B with time to purchase some souvenir-worthy Turkish baklava, chat with more ever-so-friendly carpet sellers (I am mistaken for a Turkish woman from the back, with my new scarf tied apparently well enough to pass), partake in some local cuisine (for the record, my hummus is better!) and crumple into bed, exhausted, just after the last adhan sounds. Walk-weary legs having surely earned a pile of adventure points for the 17km I marched today.

The next morning, I have time to visit the Blue Mosque (exterior more impressive than interior to this tourist), wander some more around the charming neighbourhood, and I find myself lost amidst narrow cobbled streets and old relics of a time when building was an artform in stone.

At the airport, my travel bubble is burst when I am subjected to a ridiculous succession of security checks and passport controls between the entrance and the gate, an apparent result of the new regulations passed whilst we were in Africa. I fleetingly contemplate ditching the flight to the US altogether and boarding a train to northern Europe. The roaring of distant dragons compels my return to finish projects-in-process back in the real world. Bleh.


Back home, as I succumb to the jet-lag and collapse into my own bed, I feel the irony of re-entry pulse through my every cell…head in East Africa, body in North America, heart in Europe. Demain est un autre jour, I promise myself. My last thoughts before sleep finally takes hold: soothing accents, a swirl of bright colours, azure sea and sky, a personal aquarium, the embrace of a dear heart, mounds of spices in a faraway bazaar, dreamy magic carpet-like music, the sun setting over the Indian Ocean and the germinating seedlings of what I’ve dubbed year of Africa.

[Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic]  |  [Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town]

Sardegna: ultima parte

[prima parte]   [seconda parte]   [terza parte]   [chrisgoja parte]

Final notes, in which we learn lessons on what to pack, proper hiking footwear and tourist attractions to perhaps avoid. Holiday ends on a high note, as much adrenaline as spirits.

Summit summited, the next day we venture out to ride mountain bikes to a secluded beach, attainable only via boat or trail, Cala Sisine. We rent bikes from the local shop (I’m giddy with excitement to have been loaned a gorgeous carbon fiber Giant that I find out is the owner’s personal ride), and I’ve brought my bike shoes from home. I’ve not been off-road on a mountain bike in ages, but as they say, it’s just like riding a bike…

map_territorio_2_big

Internet photo © www.antoniofancello.it

We park at what we deem a good starting point, 10 or so km from the beach. It’s crumbly, tractionless fire road and though not that technical, it’s hard going because you have to pay keen attention to the rocks and the ruts, as the ground shifts under your tires. We’re not 3km in, and the (elephant-headed?) gods of cosmic mischief are clearly not done with us: C’s chain breaks as we get to the top of a gnarly hill. Luckily we’ve landed in front of a compound of sorts, and the owner is at home. Less luckily, he only speaks Sard (closest to Latin, they say). Through pantomime and greasy-fingered hand gestures, we determine that his tools will not help the situation, nor will the chain tool I left at home, back in the US (because of course they’ll have one at the bike shop in Sardinia and why do I need to pack that?). So it’s a limp back to the car and back to the bike shop for repairs. We acquire a chain tool (that of course we won’t need now that we have it), just in case. After a calculated stop for grilled squid for lunch, we set out to finish what we’ve started.

Consulting Google Maps (2nd mishap of the day if one is keeping track), we are directed to Golgo the restaurant, instead of Golgo the trailhead (which, we were to later find out is 17km down the road). But we don’t know that we’re in the wrong spot until we bike down to the semi-crowded parking lot for Cala Goloritzè (see map above: exchanging looks of “how did we arrive here?”) and see that a) we’ve arrived where we didn’t expect and b) it’s clearly a trekking trail. Bikes are locked in the car, and – even though today was not supposed to be a hiking day – we decide to hike the 3km (yeah, right!) down to this famous landmark.

Aside: I am wearing my mountain bike shoes, and the only other shoes in my bag are flip flops. These are trail-hardy shoes with old but decent cleats. I decide that the Sidis will be a better choice than the flip flops.

I send C ahead, as he is better equipped for the trail in his running shoes (I’m also sure he’s needing to vent some of the pent-up frustration in the day’s mishaps thus far), and it takes me at least an hour and a half to reach the beach. By which time, I have slipped, stumbled and sure I’ve nearly died no less than 6 times. When I get there I realise that the soles of my Sidis have been chewed away by the carnivorous volcanic rock, and as such I’ve essentially been walking down a treacherous loose, rocky trail on plastic and metal. Trail teaching of the day: do not hike in MTB shoes.

I’m hot, tired and grumpy when I (AT LAST!) reach the beach (and my warmly smiling companion; or maybe he’s just feeling sorry for me…). There are too many tourists here, I decide, even though this is one of the iconic Sardinian sites to see and it’s not particularly unexpected. The water soon washes away my mood and we swim out towards the famed arch of Cala Goloritzè.

The slog back up from sea level is surprisingly easier, even in flip flops. Trail lesson #2: don’t hike in flip flops either. Adventure points earned (total of 10km MTB, 8+km unexpected and footwear-impaired hiking, seeing iconic sights), smiles return, gorgeous Sardinian seafood for dinner and all is well in the world (or at least, for now, in our little corner of it).


Un ultimo giorno…

On the last day of adventuring, we are determined to a) not find mishap (or let it find us) and b) find Cala Sisine.

20160924_100947Bikes, check. Tools, check. Maps, check(ed!). Today is mountain biking for real. We drive the winding mountain road to our starting point; a desolate spot where, though there are trail signs, there are no signs of other adventurers. We’re not sure whether or not this is a good sign.

The trails are wide fire roads. It’s crumbly, tricky and windy doubletrack with rock crunching under our tires and jaw-dropping rock formations on each side. The landscape reminds me of the American West as much as it does Kauai, but the slight hint of salt in the pristine air and the almost-metallic sound of the volcanic rock under our tires reminds me that we’re somewhere otherworldly. This is possibly the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever ridden and with each turn is another photo opp, though the photos cannot do it justice. Each climb is rewarded with a tricky downhill, and the kilometers roll away as we reach the spiaggia. Riding a bike always makes me feel like a kid again, no matter if it’s down the block or down a gorgeous trail in a foreign land. We arrive at Cala Sisine, giant smiles on our faces, and are rewarded with pristine, virtually empty beach. One or two boats moored offshore, and a guy climbing a cliff with a selfie stick, preparing to jump. Gah!

We arrive, glad to have no mishaps to recount, and loll on the beach, swim in the bright blue sea and find ourselves the only ones here for the better part of an hour. Bliss, until a tourist boat arrives to deposit its load… and at that it’s our cue to make the trip back. C humming Indiana Jones music as we maneuver the Baunei backroads, wishing we had a 4×4 instead of the rental Fiat (fully-insured except for the tires…we needed to be a little careful, as Ganesh has yet to rear his elephant’s head today).

There was bistecca di cavallo on the menu at dinner (where it remained, at least at our table). Calamari, spaghetti vongole and pulpo on the plates. Red Sardinian wine in the glasses. Adventure Points earned today, then redeemed for a final gelato at dessert.

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I’m going to mix metaphors or something here by introducing the Sanskrit word sri (shree). It means simple, radiant, natural beauty. And for all the obstacles tossed, rolled, flung in our paths this week, the thing that sparkled high and mighty above all was the infinite beauty, the sri, of this place. From the bluest blues of the Mediterranean Sea to the imposing peaks of the Sardinian mountains, graceful and strong as they contrast against the azure blue sky.

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View of Pedra Longa and one of my favourite photos of the trip

A final limoncello toast this night to birthdays, overcoming obstacles, laughing at mishaps, getting lost, finding the way, sore muscles (and Sardinian mussels), grilled calamari, local cheese, pane carasau, gelato in excess, musical goats, gorgeous panoramas (and gorges), the magical Med and future adventures…

[prima parte]   [seconda parte]   [terza parte]   [chrisgoja parte]

 

Sardegna: terza parte

[prima parte]    [seconda parte]   [ultima parte]   [chrisgoja parte]

Part III: In which we learn about the limitations of one American’s driver education, find the correct trail, reach the summit, lose the trail, use technology to find it again, begin the descent and get rescued by the Germans. In the process, we observe how small we really are in the grand scheme of things!

Il giorno seguente and all legs are really sore from our rambling, brambling adventure. Thus, day 2 was dedicated to kayaking. The Golfo di Orosei is dotted with coves, caverns and exquisite beaches, the likes of which I’ve never seen in my life. Excited to see the coast from the water, we drive up to Cala Gonone in search of kayaking adventure. It’s also my birthday, so that the day began with pressies from abroad didn’t hurt my mood one bit.

Kayaks procured, we’re in the water after an early lunch (seafood salad, octopus, bruschetta – the real stuff – a girl could get used to this Mediterranean food!). We kayak down the coast, ducking into the time- and water-swept rock formations that make up this amazing coastline. One beach (Cala Fuili) is virtually empty… only accessible by water, and I am sure this is where they take those surreal photos you see in travel magazines. Each time we maneuver around a curve in the coastline, the view is more breathtaking than the last. Our final point of interest is Grotte del Bue Marino, a giant cave set into the shoreline. We only scratch the surface here, as the walkways into the grotto were closed.

It’s at about this point that C’s eyes begin to react badly to the combination of glaring sun and salty Mediterranean Sea, so we turn back, indulge in a gelato (we’ve earned it for having done a 10km kayak and having a birthday to celebrate) and head home.

I interject here that, although three people have attempted to teach me over the years, I have still not mastered the art of driving a standard. We’re in Italy, on a mountainous island with steep, windy, hairpin-turn roads. C’s eyes do not improve. As life and luck would have it, my stick shift skills have not either. So our options unfold as a) camp out on the side of the road in our rental car, b) borrow a driver from a passing vehicle going our way or c) slog it out. One or two attempts in borrowing a driver result in some really strange looks, careful retreat by some tourists and a possible blow jobbus interruptus (which is Swedish and/or Latin for “we almost stopped a ‘parked’ car to ask for a ride” then decided we best not). Staying put does not suit either of us.

The elephant is blamed again.

So we begin the slog (I interject again here again to praise not only the driving skills of my partner in crime but his tenacity and a sense of something akin to humour, even under duress); slow and steady winning the day, with the prize coming in the form of a limoncello nightcap on the most fabulously memorable birthday in recent history (grazie ancora, mio caro amico).


 

Day 3 of avventura: we decide to find the summitand so we start out from Pedra Longa towards Punta Giradili.

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Punta Giradili trail map; via Rother Walking Guide

When you’re walking these trails, there is a faint resonance of goat bells and bleating in the air. Sound carries in the quiet sky; goat chatter bouncing off volcanic rock, mingling with the clonking of their bells to make a sort-of sporadic background music suggestive of wind chimes.

Today, we’ve consulted two guide books and an actual expert (Riki, from The Lemon House), who had shown us the ridge we were supposed to be on last time. And so, avoiding the bramble experience of the other day, we stick to the trail and as we ascend – this time on the right track – we are awestruck at the landscape (and the views) that unfold around us. This is some of the most magical terrain either of us has ever hiked. Akin to looking into a star-laden night sky or staring into the deep blue sea at 25 meters, the sheer scale of the cliffs we’re ascending gives perspective on one’s place in the Universe. Just WOW.

By now, we’ve made the summit, exchanged high-fives and started for the exit, as it were. But in our eagerness to explore the razor-sharp moonscape that is Punta Giradili, we’ve lost the trail again in the flat light against the lava rock. Time spent backtracking to where we should have been: 1 hour. Cheers for Garmin to lead us in the right direction: 3.

There’s a rock-ridden fire road that wends its way down from the summit to the back side of the mountain and into the towns below. We trek onward and downward, and 2 or 3km on (feet screaming, sun blazing), we agree that this is not much fun. Seeing as the car is back at Pedra Longa, a 5-9km slog from where we are (depending on whose sign/directions you dare consult), a ride would be good at this point. We’ve already gone about 17km, so we decide to hitchhike.

I’m hopeful when (within minutes) a tourist bus passes, slows and finally stops (there must have been a vote in those seconds, “do we pick up these sweaty strangers or non?”). As we board, the first question is, “sprechen sie Deutsch?” I’m grateful for other countries’ language requirements (and that I have a multilingual companion), the answer is “ja.” Less optimistic when they ask “where are you from?” and C says, I’m from Sweden (nods and smiles all around); L’s from the US (a collective groan issues forth). Chatter continues, however, and they drop us at a point “3km” (more like 4.5) from the car. The finish line is at last in sight as Pedra Longa comes into view.

Today we earn Adventure Points for a 21+ km hike, a found trail, hitchhiking, and being rescued from a desolate road by a busload of German tourists. C earns bonus points for using Garmin to get us back on-trail and speaking near-flawless Deutsch (somehow even bringing in Ewoks into the conversation).

Grilled squid and gelato rule the evening as we plan giorno quattro.

[prima parte]    [seconda parte]   [ultima parte]

[Click Here for ChrisGoja’s Sardinia travelogue]

 

Sardegna: seconda parte (let’s go exploring!)

[prima parte]   [terza parte]   [chrisgoja parte]

The trip from Cagliari to Lotzorai takes about 2 hours. And our ride is on windy, but extremely well-paved roads, not without the occasional “sorry, we’ve closed this highway and you’ll have to trust Google Maps to get you to where you need to be, grazie” (without, however, the asterisk in direction that says Google Maps is only marginally reliable in these parts).

Eventually we make it to The Lemon House B&B, haven for outdoor adventurers (and those who practice what Scandinavians call friluftsliv), catering more specifically to the climbing/hiking/trekking/biking set. It’s simple accommodation but it works; and we’re greeted by Riki (innkeeper), and a bottle of local white.

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Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Watterson

I’ve met up with Chris, my favourite co-adventurer. Except for points made on a map some weeks ago, we’re going into this trip rather blindly and are open to whatever hills, trails, rocks, beaches, etc. we can tackle in a week. C is like Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes fame. His motto is “let’s go exploring” (though he’s Swedish, so I suppose it would be something more on the order of “låt oss gå på upptäcktsfärd!”). I expect I’ll need a few days to recuperate when I return home.

Accounting for travel, we have exactly 5 days to fill to the (adventure-laden) brim

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From “Sardinia: 63 Selected Coastal and Mountain Walks” (Rother Walking Guide)

Day 1 is hiking. So we set off to hike from Santa Maria Navarese to Pedra Longa and aim to get to the summit of Punta Giradili (this hike, I later discover, is part of the first stage of the infamous Selvaggio Blu trek). I’ll start with the caveat that Sardinian marked distances are somewhat approximate; there are few to no trail markers to indicate key intersections; the trail guidebook we’re using was seemingly written for those who have actually hiked here before; and, as stated above, Google Maps is doing some guesswork of its own. As such, we set off. The promised spectacular views did not disappoint. Ever. Nor did the “easy” part of the trail.

At some point, while looking at the aforementioned views, goats, wild pigs and the interesting things (like the shepherd hut built into the cliffside) that would have made fantastic landmarks (better, say, than the “you’ll arrive at a steep uphill slog” printed in the guidebook), we veered off-trail. We were knee-deep (as it were) into the “difficult” section of the route, and since the scrub brush was alternately razor-sharp pricker bushes and fragrant wild rosemary, at least our shredded legs smelled nice.

So after 6 hours or so, with afternoon waning and legs smarting unsmartly, we decided to abort the quest for the summit, scrabbled our way back down to better-known parts and rewarded ourselves with skinnydipping in the Mediterranean Sea (what sounds much easier in print was an effort that took nearly 3 hours).

While C blames the mishaps and misadventures of the day on my patron saint of sorts, Ganesha, elephant-headed Hindu god of new beginnings and destroyer of obstacles (who is also known to place them in our paths to make sure we’re paying attention), on this day we had logged 8+ hours and 20+km (it was not fast going), toes blistered, legs sore and bloodied; at least we were still smiling.

Somewhere between the leg-chewing brambles and the Pedra Longa rocks from which we swam, C and I devised a system of Adventure Points to reward ourselves for our escapades and experiences. Today’s points: 50 for the hike out; 50 for surviving the leg-mangling; another 50 for making it off the mountain alive and still in daylight; and a final 50 for skinnydipping in the Med in the late afternoon shadows of Pedra Longa.

The ocean cures all.

[prima parte]   [terza parte]   [chrisgoja parte]

Sardinian Adventures: prima parte

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Having chosen Sardinia on account of its high potential for grand adventure, I’ve arrived in Cagliari a day before my travelling companion to ward off jetlag and see the capital prior to heading north- and eastward, to Lotzorai, to begin the adventuring for real. And it’s there that I am to spend my birthday week, celebrating with fantastic company, food and outdoor adventure.

2016-09-18-22-08-07The planets align and one of my dearest friends is able to take the weekend and pop over to Cagliari for a short holiday (the downside of living in the Northeastern United States is that a weekend trip to a different country with spectacular food and centuries-old history is not particularly feasible). Thus, I get to spend my first night here with a friend who not only speaks fluent Italian, but knows this island well. Let the celebrations begin.

By night, Cagliari reminds me of a medieval relic, caught somewhere in the centuries between the lure of modernity and its roots in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, where Cagliari housed a tribunal. I’m even staying at a guesthouse with a history (Casa Mundula): it was once a convent (if the walls could talk!!). I’m instantly enamoured with the grand doorways set into the old stone walls that make up the steep and windy streets.

Sardinia is a large exporter of Pecorino cheese and claims fame to myriad other specialità. And so, we’re off to taste the local fare and in the process hunt down some of Sardinia’s famed flatbread, pane carasau. Though the restaurant does not serve pane carasau (this is a disgrace, I’m told), the grilled pecorino sardo (a slab of sheep romano, grilled just so: the exterior is slightly browned and the inside is warm but not melty), grilled calamari, melanzana or Sa Fregula (a small pasta that reminded me of Israeli couscous but better) do not disappoint. Nor does the gelato (which would factor highly in the days to come).

2016-09-19-10-45-16By day, the city comes alive and its Marina district, in the South of the city (where I’m staying), opens itself to international trade and tourism (here’s where both the tourist and cargo ships dock); luckily I’ve not arrived on a cruise ship day, so do not have to compete with the swarms of tourists to see the city.

Throughout its history, Sardinia has been invaded by many regimes (it’s conveniently located between Italy and North Africa and was considered an ideal strategic base amidst the trading routes), and as such a fortress was built above what would become the marina district. There are three lookout towers in the fortress, and it’s said that the Torre dell’Elefante has the best view of the city, so I set out to do that.

As I climb the streets of this old wood and stone fortress-cum-city (the village above the Marina is aptly named Castello), I can see the mountains looming in the distance, as well the points at which they seem to melt into the alluring (and methinks magical) Mediterranean Sea.

Up at these heights, you can see for miles, perhaps imagine the sounds and smells of ancient goings-on. I encounter only a smattering of tourists, some shop owners and students. I am, to my amusement, propositioned by a charming and handsome Italian man sitting at an outdoor café. In an effort to avoid doubling back across his path (I am to meet my intended handsome European man in a matter of hours, and I feel this tête-à-tête would be in poor taste), I miss the street on which Torre dell’Elefante sits, get a bit turned about, and climb even farther uphill than planned. A fortunate bend in the road, perhaps, because the view up here is stunning.

I finally wind my way about the cobblestone streets and find the Torre dell’Elephante and make the ascent. 6 flights of old wooden ladders and stairs open to a fantastic view of the city. When I come down, I decide to go back up to the Torre di San Pancrazio to compare views (Elephants win the day, and will become a theme of the week to boot!).

After climbing towers and cobbles, I make my way back down to sea level to prepare for the next part of the journey. I acquire some of the local cheese, pane carasau and (in ridiculously broken Italian) also procure focaccia, pomodori, mozzarella, prosciutto crudo and other snacks from a local shop and I’m off to the airport to meet my co-conspirator/adventurer for the drive up the coast to Lotzorai, where we will spend the week hiking biking and exploring the Sardinian mountains of the Golfo di Orosei region.

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[seconda parte]   [terza parte]   [ultima parte]   [chrisgoja parte]