Rome, Part IV: Holy extortion, Batman…Is it time for lunch?

Read from the beginning: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

Day 5: So we set out early today, and walk the familiar streets across the Forum, over the river and through the…Not Throngs! We arrive at the Vatican before 9am and are greeted by an early morning glow in St. Peter’s Square. It’s so much more peaceful here without the hordes, where you can actually see the square. But it’s a strategic decision, because one cannot get to the Vatican Museum (and Sistine Chapel) directly from the Basilica, so it was a choice to either start here or there and then stand in line for the other.

The cathedral is spectacular: it’s an opulent display of the Church’s wealth and stature, and the artwork is stunning even to this heathen’s eyes (involuntarily hoping I won’t burst into flames in the center of the room; that would be both messy and embarrassing, and my companion would not be amused. Or maybe he would 😉).

There’s an admission fee to get in to see the Basilica’s Duomo, which feels inherently wrong to me. A devotee to what is essentially the best-funded religious organisation on the planet makes a pilgrimage to the Holy See and still has to pay to see all of it. Fact: you can pay 2€ less if you “walk” (it’s 500 steep, narrow, windy marble steps; you save 100 steps per € or so if you ride the elevator part-way up). Another fact: it was designed by Michelangelo, who had a hand in a lot of the artwork here, the Pietà and the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for starters.

I’m a visitor, and not remotely Catholic, so I don’t exactly mind the fee, but there are a thousand other churches in Rome, some equally beautiful, that one can just wander into without a queue or the purchase of an E ticket. That said, the view from the top is stunning: you can see the entire city on this crisp, clear morning.

Next stop: the Vatican Museum. It’s barely 10:30 when we arrive, and the line is already around the corner. So the choice becomes whether to wait the 2+ hours in the queue or pay one of the hustlers on the street for a “skip the line” pass and walk in. We cave to temptation and are shuffled, first to the ticket office, then to the front of the line (to get to the other line to enter the museum). It all seems like a grand scheme to extort € from tourists, but this being our last full day, we don’t want to spend it waiting. Until we get inside and realise we’re packed into the halls, surrounded by tour groups from a multitude of lands, each guide sporting a pom-pom on a stick and shepherding their lot through the galleries. Oh, the imagery.

It is, as they say, what it is: we flow with the crowd through the different halls (Raphael’s Philosophy mural, School of Athens, blows my mind: Aristotle and Plato and a cameo by Raphael himself in vibrant hues – incredibly preserved since the 14th Century!), from here through the tapestry-lined hallways and to the Sistine Chapel. As we wander, it strikes me as ironic that the Church has plastered and painted fig leaves on many of the works.

I had expected a chapel, not a grand ballroom filled wall-to-wall with bodies, necks craned to take in the masterpieces that surround. It’s here I learn that Michelangelo poked a little fun at the Church in painting The Creation of Adam. It turns out that he hid a perfect anatomical model of the human brain in plain sight in this painting.

After the Sistine Chapel, the crowds seem to thin. The map room is amazing, as are the little sculptures and artifacts that dot the halls. The stairway itself is a work of art. We exit into the blue-skied Roman day, satisfied that our ransom was (mostly) worth the price.

All that art-gazing makes a tourist hungry. So it’s to another landmark of sorts: the birthplace of fettuccine Alfredo. On an unobtrusive side street sits Alfredo alla Scrofa who claim to have invented the iconic dish. We sit, order, then heed the waiter’s instructions to eat it hot! This is some of the best pasta I’ve ever had…it does not disappoint!

We wend our way back towards the Forum, passing by the Pantheon again (and into, this time). It is only after-the-fact that I learn that one of the statues inside is an early Michelangelo (Christ the Redeemer), sans foule, sans admission fee, at eye-level! This city is incredible.

We’d planned to take in the late afternoon atop Palatine Hill. But it can’t be accessed without a ticket, which for some reason entails waiting in the obscene line for the Colosseum (or paying another ransom); so instead, we take a suggestion from a friend and walk up to the Piazza Caffarelli, and admire the views over the Teatro Marcello and Portico di Ottavia, and towards the 12 other palaces that dot the skyline in that direction…their domes magical in the golden light.

Quick trips have a way of leaving you wanting more. And this Eternal City escape is no different. We walked more than two marathons this week and saw dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of centuries-old wonders, ate fantastic food and drank local wine. My head hits the pillow this last night, prosecco-filled dreams of Roman gods and cobbled ways.


Epilogue: Homeward, revelations, intentions, Rome-ance…

The tip of Corsica as we leave…

I sit, stuffed into a window seat, on a chatty day flight home through Philadelphia. I’m already cringing at the loud, sharp, nasal ‘Merkin accents that abound, and think about the New Year’s Eve conversation about goals and intentions.

There’s the writing: publish the damn thing already. And the travelling: whale sharks and mantas and lemurs (and of course the elephants), far-flung forests and daunting peaks are all calling. And the living: it’s time to figure out where I fit, and on what continent. Big shifts happen about every 7 years, so it’s time…and so we’ll see.

A friend asked me if Rome was Rome-antic. I ponder this, having spent the week here with a human who sits firmly in my heart. Sure, there are long-stemmed roses on offer and cobbled-street strolls and prosecco toasts and the effect of the city’s magical light. The word romance comes from (the Old French romanz which comes from) the Latin romanicus, which, of course, means Roman. But Rome is a city built of passion and hubris. The heart leading the head (and body) into battle for Empirical supremacy, its buildings erected in fervent tribute to the Pagan gods and Roman leaders who were exulted as gods, said edifices desecrated and re-dedicated to those that served the hearts (and bellies) of the people over the millennia. Art is love, and this city is swathed in it. We see tributes to Jupiter and Juno, Minerva, Neptune and Venus, dotting the Piazzi and adorning the bridges over the Tiber. The river itself is named for the god Tibernius, credited with finding Romulus and Remus, whose story is where myth borrows magic and becomes history. We see temples to Roman gods turned into Christian places of worship, layering historical fact and folklore upon architectural wonders. Myths and legends, these stories weave their way from the heart to the head and to the hands and bodies of Romans who carved chronicles of their gods and Emperors and war heroes in marble throughout the city, preserving them eternally in the fountains and structures across Rome.

So, yes.

The Eternal City only stays as such if it is held in the heart. The heart only stays true if you choose it over the head and the body.


Read from the beginning: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

When in Rome: Part III, Traversing Trastevere and unsung Roman wonders

Day 4: The next morn, we set out for (quite literally) the bowels of the city. Atlas Obscura had pointed us (albeit vaguely) towards what is one of the oldest sewer systems in the world. Turns out, in the 6th Century BC, the Cloaca Maxima was how they (also literally) drained the swamp that was to be the grounds of the Roman Forum, and C was keen on seeing this engineering marvel. We followed squidgy directions, and finally, over bridges and down lesser-used stone stairways, found what amounted to a hole in a hole in the banks of the river, next to which was someone’s makeshift camp. On the bright side, the detour took us past the weirdly popular Mouth of Truth (say a lie in its presence and it will bite your hand off), and also enabled us to see the Tiber from a different perspective, taking us to a part of the city that didn’t have throngs of people milling about and queuing up to see just about anything.

View from below, as it were…

Over the bridge and through the charming quarter of Trastevere, with its vine-clad buildings and the narrow, cobbled streets I adore. This is the way I like to see a city, wandering without a specific agenda and bumping into authentic local wonders.

There’s poetry and tragedy and comic relief plastered throughout the city in its street art. And we stumble upon an old church that incorporated ancient Roman graffiti into its façade. It’s little marvels like this that impress me as much as the one we would stand in queue for the following day.

During this day of wandering, we come upon the Palazzo Spada, an almost nondescript palace tucked into an unobtrusive side street, where we encounter a small wonder called Borromini’s Perspective. We walk into a courtyard (the sculptures of which are a wonder in their own right), which contains a window to an optical illusion – a corridor has been built, at the end of which stands a statue. The statue is a mere 60cm (or 2’) tall, and the corridor is a mere 8metres long. By the magic of mathematics and architecture, the perspective looks like a regal gallery many metres longer…the distance between me and the couple in the photo below is in fact greater than the distance between them and the statue.

From here, we return to the Forum, where we’d hoped to get a sunset view from Palatine Hill. Little did we know that only a fraction of the hill was accessible sans billet, as it were, and that the rest of the site closed at 3:30 – a good hour and a half before sunset. Another place added to the next day’s itinerary.

Skirting the crowds, we find a spot to gain some perspective from above and it’s here that we stop to marvel at the site (sic) of so many structures that formed the center of ancient Rome; the Colosseum, perhaps the most famous structure in this now-modern city, is but a tiny dot in the background.

I can see how one becomes inured to these wonders, and how easy it would be to take for granted these things, though magical and important to new eyes, they can become near-boring on one’s daily run to the store for milk and bread.

And life is like that, I think, as we toast with (massive!) flutes of limoncello to the marvels around us, the majestic Colosseum quietly looming across the way and chatty Italian millennials snapchatting and tittering at the table behind us. We see what we take time to observe, we undervalue what is easily at our fingertips, only maybe revelling in gratitude upon reflection.


We’ve wandered more than a half-marathon’s worth of steps today and the cobblestones seem to wobble more on this walk back to the B&B (it could, perhaps, have been the limoncello), the Colosseum seems to glow brighter, the crisp Roman night seems to embrace us as we wander through the Forum, clip-clop of horse-drawn chariots (erm, carriages) resonating in the night.

Tomorrow, we visit The Vatican.

Read more When in Rome: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II]

When in Rome, Part II: An audience with the Pope’s audience, world’s best tiramisu and Fawlty Towers – Rome edition

Read more: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part III]

Day 3: We wake up on the early side of New Year’s Day with a plan to see The Vatican. It turns out that we’ll miss the New Year’s Mass (which is fine by me, actually, since I’ve been a practicing heathen since I can remember), but we set out in that direction anyway, making a b-line towards Vatican City, which is technically its own country. It turns out they don’t stamp passports here, but we decide that would be a fantastic business opportunity should the winds change. I learnt some factoids this day: Vatican City is the smallest country on the planet, and its capital (essentially, St. Peter’s Basilica) is built upon an ancient Roman (read: Pagan) burial ground which contains St. Peter’s tomb and catacombs. VC even has a surrounding wall sporting grand archways and a passageway to secrete the Pope away (in the private sense) from any danger.*

On the way, we pass through the Piazza Navona and wonder at its magnificent fountains, the most impressive depicting the 4 Rivers (Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata, representing the 4 continents throughout which papal authority has spread) and boasting an Egyptian obelisk at its center. There is another fountain for Neptune, and yet another depicting il Moro, the Moor. Wandering the winding streets, with their ornate doorways, balconies and narrow cobbled alleyways, then bumping into weird and wonderful sights, away from the hordes of tourists, is what I’m liking best here thus far.

So it turns out that half the population of Rome, plus perhaps half the Catholics in Italy, also thought it was a good idea to try to see The Pope today. If the previous night’s throngs weren’t enough, they were all now out in broad daylight. The good news is that while maneuvering through the crowd to ask a guard what all the people were waiting for, we find out that The Pope is slated to do his New Year’s message of peace in just 20 minutes. Somehow, we then maneuver ourselves to the security line (it pays to have a co-wanderer that is a head taller than the crowd!) and into St. Peter’s square in time to see the Papal Rug unfurled and il Papa take his place at the window. While I’m not religious, nor do I understand Italian, I understand the word pace and think that this Pope is trying to guide the Church (albeit kicking and screaming) towards the 21st Century.

Audience with the Pope (erm, an audience with his audience anyway), check! Next stop: Pranzo. Reminded of the food hawkers in Jemaa el Fna, each restaurant here has a maître d’ out in the street, trying to woo customers. One is successful (l’Isola della Pizza) and we’re treated to some of the best roasted vegetables I’ve ever had, a very decent pizza al forno, and an outdoor table for quality people-watching. Nearly every restaurant or café here has outdoor seating and propane heaters to make a meal on a brisk afternoon both charming and much more comfortable.

A friend who lived here has given me recommendations for some of his favourites: food, gelato and tiramisu. It is the latter that we then go in search of (one benefit of traipsing across Rome and back by foot is that the exquisite food is somehow earned!). Another queue, but this one much shorter. Pompi is a chain of bakeries that touts itself as the best tiramisu in Rome. We concur, as we meander and devour our treats, we wander through the charming Piazza di Spagna, towards the Spanish Steps (still not visible) and through the Piazza Colonna, with its impressive monument to Marcus Aurelius, a column built in the 1st century, in a storybook style depicting the battles of the Macromannic Wars, not dissimilar to Trajan’s own colonna just down the street.


We’ve been wandering for hours and the sun begins to set, casting the buildings and statues around the piazza in a golden glow, setting fire to Victoria (Nike), as she rides the Quadriga atop the Altare della Patria.

We’d logged 20km this day, so we arrived back at the B&B both weary and starving. Thus, we were determined to find dinner close to home. What luck that we’re staying quite near a little square, somewhat removed from the din of the Forum and Colosseum, and we find a sweet-looking place nearby that looks bustling. Little did we know that Basil Fawlty had a long-lost twin who ended up in Rome and opened a pizzeria/restaurant 3 blocks from the Colosseum. The meal was decent (not the best nor the worst gnocchi I’d ever had), as was the wine. But it was the service to which I’d give 5 stars for its comedic value. It was like the Flying Karamazov Brothers met an Indian-Italian comedy troupe and decided to partner with Fawlty to open a restaurant. It went something like this:

Waiter 1: *leads us to a table

Waitress 1 (to Waiter 1), carrying food: Is this table 25?

Waiter 1: Sì.

Waitress 1: *goes to put the food down on our table, but realises we’ve just been seated and whirls away

Waiter 1: *vanishes, flustered.

Waiter 2: *arrives with menus and demands our order

C: un momento per favore. Una piccola caraffa di vino et l’acqua spumante

Waiter 2: Okay (English). *vanishes

Waiter 3: *arrives at the next table with a tray of food, offers it to us, then the next table over, realises it’s not for any of us and vanishes.

Waiter 1: *takes our order

Waitress 1: *brings one glass of wine

C (in English now): we ordered a small carafe of wine, please

Waitress: we only have it by the glass. *disappears

Waiter 2: *arrives with a bottle of water marked “still”

C (to any waiter who will listen): we ordered sparkling water. *we give the “still” water to the table next to ours, who open it to find it is, in fact, sparkling. They give it back.

Waitress: *appears as Waiter disappears, brings one glass of wine, which she then gives to the woman at the next table

Waiters 2, 3 and 4: *haphazardly shuttle food back and forth between the large table sitting next to us and other tables around the restaurant.

Other patrons: *confused and amused, watching the show

Waiter 1: *looks at our one glass of wine, then up at us. (At this point, I can’t help but envision Manuel the waiter)

C (straight-faced and I don’t know how at this point): can we have another glass of wine?

Waiter 7: *brings another glass of wine and a massive salad in a bowl with no serving utensils. We still have no forks or knives.

It continues somewhat like this until we have our meal. Placemats and silverware have also materialised. The large party next to us has finished and gets up to pay; one brave soul returns a moment later to look for a waiter who will give them their table number (this is apparently the only way to call up the bill on the electronic system). The waiters and waitress discuss table numbers amidst much pointing and looking over their shoulders. We finish and go to pay, only to find a small queue and a frenzied cashier trying to sort out which table got which food and which bill goes to whom. We do not know our table number. The cashier is going through every open bill with the couple in front of us. C and I exchange a look that confirms that we agree we’ve just eaten at Fawltius Torris. We track down one of the wait staff to determine our table number just in case.

C and I laugh as we walk off dinner, taking in the huge Christmas tree in front of the Typewriter, the structure looming as regally as it did when it was built: the center of most everything nearby, its spotlights illuminating the marble steps and statues that guard the tomb of the unknown soldier.

I fall asleep this first day of the New Year grateful for the experience of travel, grateful for the health and job and friendship and an acquired sense of adventure and wanderlust that make even small trips like this one possible. I giggle a little to myself as I replay the cartoon dinner we’ve just had.

Tomorrow we go back to The Vatican and try to get in.

Read more: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part III]


*This article had me rolling (ROFL and my eyes) when I read it upon my return.

When in Rome, Part I: Arrival, Wandering, and New Year’s Eve

Day 1: Arrival and the beginning of a mini-adventure, in which I meander from Termini (station) to Forum (B&B), arrive in awe of the sheer magnitude of the architecture, and wander about the crowded streets that divide the Fora and lead the throngs to and from the Colosseum.

The evening before, I had boarded a British Airways 747, my frequent flyer miles and some manipulation of schedules landing me in a Business Class seat. A multi-pronged luxury it was, as the past 3 months had been a whirlwind of work and little sleep, resulting in an unintentional avoidance of adulting, and a lack of attention to detail on the home front. When you get home, you’ll have to deal with it all, a somewhat-envious inner voice reminds. That noted, I feel only a bit guilty at the indulgence and glad to leave the gray December New England skies behind if only for a few days.

I arrive groggy, from both a short night’s sleep and more than enough vino plied by the nice airline folk. A Roman day with its crisp and clear blue sky greets me, tho; the relative warmth already seeping into my pores.

Arrival is always a little overwhelming; not knowing the way, the landmarks, the language… It’s mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve eve, my first time in Rome and I’m still semi-embarrassed because it’s a rather frivolous way to end one year and herald in the next. I’m here a day early to shake jetlag and get my sea legs before I meet my co-hedonist. I navigate the uneven Roman streets from Termini station towards my B&B, thankful for Google Maps to guide me because I’m too frugal (read: aghast) to pay the 60€ for a car from the airport. This is a marginally longer commute, but I rather like walking and it’s a nice way to get immediately immersed in a new place on arrival.

I’ve been warned enough of the pickpockets here from the travel blogs I’ve read and all the signage everywhere… Is it such a rampant problem, I wonder, or are they just stoking visitors’ anxiety around being in a Foreign Place? Foreign, being a relative term, as it looks more foreign to me than it actually feels. Decidedly European, I decide on first impression; confirmedly ancient, I then observe, as the Colosseum leaps into view when I turn a corner towards my hotel. There it looms, large and impressive at the end of the via. Another corner, and 3 columns of one of the Fora materialise at the end of the street. Cobbled steps, a fountain (one of hundreds that are scattered throughout the city) flowing with clean, fresh water. 10 more metres and I’m at the B&B, where I see my first ruin up close.

I arrive also without much of an itinerary, save a map I’ve bodged together to mark recommendations from friends and sites that look too good to miss. It’s in the spirit of getting the lay of the land that I set out to wander the neighbourhood to keep occupied and awake enough until proper bedtime*.

Real first impressions: it’s crowded, where crowded is an understatement. I start the journey a little off-put if I’m honest. I don’t want to spend our precious days here waiting in line alongside tour groups. I chalk up the looming mood to cranky, hungry, tired, travel-weariness. But the sites so far are breathtaking: the Colosseum at dusk, the Foro di Augusto glowing in the evening’s light; the Roman Forum across the way; the 35-metre tall Colonna Traiana, with its comic book-looking depiction of the wars between the Romans and Dacians spiralling up its length; the magnificent Typewriter building, the Altare della Patria, whose imposing stature dwarfs the other wonders in this area.** Non male, as they say, for the first few hours…tomorrow, I explore!


Throngs and wonders, a big dome with a hole in it, a creepy crypt, and things that go ka-boom in the night

Day 2: Before C arrives, I’ve got about 5 hours to see some of the sites I’ve plotted on my map. First, it’s the Pantheon – not to be confused with the Parthenon (Athens) or the Panthéon (Paris)! 😂

Like many monuments, the Pantheon is a former Roman temple that now serves as a church (I take a heathenistic moment to ponder whether there are enough congregants for the astounding number of churches in this city). One of the factoids I’ll learn this week is that the dome of the Pantheon is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The astounding fact to me, tho, is that it was built in 126AD and still in pristine condition! And as if to out-do all other fountains I’ll see here, the one in the Piazza della Rotunda is a wonder in its own right.

Speaking of fountains: toss a coin over your (left) shoulder (with your right hand) into the Trevi Fountain, and it will ensure a return trip to Rome (more coins assure both romance and marriage). And over 1m € per year are thus tossed. I’ve read that the €s go to the needy. I’m not hard pressed to fling coins, but I’m pressed hard as I squirm my way to the fountain’s edge, disenchanted by the throngs by the time I’m down there.

There’s always an elephant…

On the way to the Pantheon, though, I passed a man playing what I surmise is a hammered dulcimer. He’s set up in front of an elephant bearing an obelisk that sits in front a nondescript church. It’s the little wonders, I remind myself, and not necessarily the big attractions that are some of the most memorable.

After Trevi, I find I’ve still got time, so I head towards the Spanish Steps (when in Rome…). These 174 steps run from the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the the Trinità dei Monti church and are the darling of many a famous movie and song. More fountains; ditto, the throngs: it’s because of the latter that one cannot see any actual steps, and for just a moment I wonder if I’ve mis-stepped in coming here.

What steps? But a nice view from the top!

Fleeing the masses, I point my GPS in the direction of an Atlas Obscura oddity: the Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, or the Crypts of the Capuchin Friars. This ossuary rivals that of the Catacombs in Paris; what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in creativity. Suffice to say that the artiste took creative liberties in arranging not only the stacks of bones (some 4000 skeletons are (dis)assembled here), but also the various bodies in repose (fully-frocked Friars) and flight (child-sized bodies looking down from the ceiling; skulls with scapula-wings). The walls and ceilings were covered in mandalas and chandeliers, each surface laden with myriad symmetrical designs, all made from individual bones and carefully arranged in gruesome patterns that affected something of a moribund paint-by-number display.

As I wend my way back, I stumble across the We Run Rome road race and flash a 2019 goal to do a 10k (we’ll see!). But first, it’s Pizza for lunch, a trip to a local wine and cheese shop for aperitivo supplies and then back to the B&B to get ready for New Year’s festivities.


Ringing in the New Year, Roman style!

Italians eat dinner late. So an 8:30 dinner is on the early side, but we’ve managed to find some fantastic melanzane parmigiana at a little local place in the piazza near the B&B. New Year’s Eve, thus far: Prosecco and Parmigiana. Next stop, Pyrotechnics.

I’m not a fan of huge crowds or wild New Year’s Eve parties. But since it’s my first in a European city, la Fiesta di Roma is on the docket. It takes place in Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), the grand sports stadium where they once held chariot races and Ludi, festivals for the gods. In its day, the capacity was 250,000. Tonight, I’d estimate there’s 50,000+ modern Romans. We listen to the weird music, watch the bizarre dance and aerial show (a tribute to the ludi of yore?) and ooh and ahh over the fireworks display over the ruins of the Palatine palace. It may be the most dramatic setting for fireworks I’ve ever seen.

The festival goes for 24 hours, but 2am feels like we’ve been up for a week. We make it long enough to purchase a bottle of bubbly from a street vendor (C’s post-midnight haggling is impressive!) and toast to goals and future adventures.

The finale of the NYE fireworks at Circus Maximus, Rome

Happy New Year!  Read more: [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

*Jet lag avoidance tip #1: when travelling East, stay up as long as possible the day you arrive, so you go to bed at proper local bedtime in an attempt to fool your body into waking up at a moderately human hour the next morn.

**Among other nicknames for the monstrosity are la dentiera (the dentures, in reference to its white marble in stark contrast to its surroundings) and la torta nuziale (the wedding cake).

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]