Travel Monitor contributor, journalist and travel writer, Joy Dodds, has filed this first review of the fantastic month-long Mediterranean sojourn she is currently enjoying … stay tuned for PART 2: Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast)
A month to indulge every interest and whim based on the globe’s most famous sea, the Mediterranean. What bliss, whether one’s passion lies in history, culture, languages, geography, ancient cities or matters gastronomic and oenological – or even animal husbandry.
Rome to Naples for Easter
Touchdown Roma at Fiumicino Airport was followed by a speedy train connection to Roma Termini, and thence on Frecciarosso express train to Napoli, day one of our 10-day Eurail pass from International Rail. The whole exercise took a little over an hour, and within another 20 minutes we were being welcomed to our Bay of Naples hotel, Santa Lucia, with panoramic vistas of Vesuvius in the distance, and across the street from the historic, originally Greek, fortress.
It’s amazing how restorative a hot deep bath can be in flushing away 24-hour jet lag. Knowing how fatigued it can be staying awake to coincide with local Italian time, presently nine hours behind AEST, dinner at a restaurant was out of the question.
Rather, we headed for the local supermercato in search of prosciutto, parmigiana reggiano, rucola (rocket) and of course a fine Pinot Grigio di Friuli. A fine repast based on our shopping and an early night, to prepare for our day in Napoli, savouring the famous city on the eve of Giovedi Sante (Good Friday).
My plan was to head for Naple’s famed Archeological Museum where some of the best remains of the most infamous volcanic eruption in history can be seen. Years before, in my twenties, I had explored Pompeii and Herculeum, and hoped to revive my memories of the amazing historic site.
Notwithstanding my plans, another touch of jet lag set in and, rather, we explored the stunningly beautiful and rather affluent hotel area, so very different from the rather confronting environs of Napoli Centrale Stazione, but still colourful with its many North African street vendors flogging everything from sunglasses and mobile telephone cases and others playing bongo drums with gusto.
Naples to Sardinia
The day passed in a flicker before it was time to head for the ferry terminal where Tirrenia Lines’ “Moby Dada” lay awaiting to whisk us off to SardinIa, or Sardegna as the locals call this mystical island between Sicily (Sicilia) and Corsica, home of famous Frenchman Napoleon Bonaparte.
Boarding proceeded seamlessly and within no time we were comfortably ensconced in our outside cabin, our porthole view dominated by Mt Vesuvius and masses of other shipping lines loading both passengers and large trucks, laden with everything from produce to manufactured goods, being transferred between mainland Italy and Sicily and Sardinia.
Our cabin was spacious complete with bathroom, closet and table and chairs, while on upper decks, the restaurants were already buzzing with activity. Those who had opted not to book a cabin were settling in for the long night, their bags beside them, some with dogs on leads, also seeking a comfortable position. For less well behaved hounds, there were caged kennels on the open decks, and I hoped that our crossing would be relatively calm and warm for their sakes!
Sleep proved more than possible for we fortunate passengers with relative luxury, especially after the odd glass or two of Fruili vino. Springing out of my bed, I wandered up two decks to order two cappuccinos, and watch the sun rise with a stunning rose-pink hue. The beauty of the situation was only partly spoiled by the crowd of smokers all gathered outside to enjoy their first draw on a cigarette after a long night inside where smoking is banned.
The coastline of Sardegna loomed into view rather like a brooding animal waiting to pounce, or perhaps it was my imagination running riot, based on legends of pirates and legions of invaders from the sea attacking the sheep-filled island. Whether they were Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians or more recently Bourbon invaders, they came to conquer and suppress but always the spirit of “Sardo” prevailed.
I was keen to experience such an island, such a people.
“Moby Dada” once again excelled, this time reverse landing at the dock in Cagliari, the capital, and we literally had to cross Via Roma to our boutique accommodation, Grand Hotel Cagliari, overlooking the marina.
The environs were bursting with restaurants and cafes, from classic Italian with a Sardo twist to those from Ethiopia, Cuba and Japan. In Viale Regina Margherita are two restaurants operated by celebrated local chef Luigi Pomata. Opening near our hotel was Gran Sole, the delicious pastry shop of Tomaso Piras, son of Luigi, of Padula fame.
Easter placed its imprimatur on our Cagliari experience, with the locals out in force, young and old, full of high spirits, and the city seemingly coated with rich Italian chocolate and festive cakes.
As well as the standard souvenir shops, mainly operated by Indian and Pakistani entrepreneurs, flogging the classic Sardonic emblem featuring four pirates, and the island depicted on everything from aprons to fridge magnets, fashion boutiques and those selling leather goods all offered Easter discounts, adding to the colour and ambience.
The lure of Cagliari’s history proved too strong for me and I headed up to the medieval Castello precinct known as the Centro Storica. The Palazzo da Citta and the Citadella of the Musei dominate the Castello Quarter. Cagliari’s Santa Maria cathedral and ghetto and stunning Elephant Tower are equally fascinating. History mixes with artiginal small shops, cafes and wine bars, in the narrow, winding streets leading up to the Bastions of St Remy and Santa Croce.
Archaeological fans should also not miss the Necropolis of Vitale Bonaria, the Sant’Eulalia precinct’s Crypt of Santa Restituta and Atilia Pomptilla’s Sepulchre, known as Grotta della Vipera (Vipers’ Cave).
However, to eclipse it all is the oldest Roman building on Sardinia, the Roman Amphitheatre, located near the Botanical Garden in the Stampace district. The stunning architecture is being restored to its original grandeur, where gladiators and beasts were forced to perform, as well as other forms of entertainment. Archaeology, art and faith all combine in Stampace, symbolic of the devotion of St Efisio, who is celebrated in a famous procession in early May.
Near the Centro Storica is the Natural Park of Molentargius, its pink flamingos flourishing in its salt marshes, a symbol of the island’s wild birds and natural jewels. Beyond lie some of Sardinia’s most famous beaches, the Devil’s Saddle promontory leading to Poetto Beach.
Our sojourn in Sardinia’s capital, Cagliari, has all passed so rapidly – but oh so enjoyably. Tomorrow it’s off to northern climes, via Oristano, to the rather flashy Costa Smeralda, the Emerald Coast, made famous by celebrities ranging from the Aga Khan and Hollywood glitterati to beloved Princess Di and hapless Dodi Fayed.