Monday, October 31, 2011

September in Sardinia, Part III: Giants' Tombs, Sassari, and the Sinis Peninsula

(A Week in Sardinia, September 2011, Continued)
Arzachena, Tomb of the Giants "Coddu Vecchiu"

Arzachena and Tombs of the Giants
After leaving Su Gologone, we headed north to the town of Arzachena, the center of a half-dozen Nuragic sites. Besides the towers, the other distinctive structures of the Nuraghic culture are the so-called “giants' tombs”, large stone sepulchers, often fronted by a huge stone “door”.  In fact, the graves were not for giants, (the ancient Sardinians were of relatively small stature) but intended for multiple burials.  At first I thought that the tiny opening at the bottom of the center stone was meant for people to crawl through, but then learned that it was symbolic, intended as a door for the spirits.

Sassari, Sardinia’s University Town
Sassari Cathedral, Gargoyle
Our next three nights were spent in Sassari, at the Leonardo da Vinci hotel, in the center of town not far from the university where my husband, Art, was attending a conference for two days.  While he was at meetings, I explored the town, visiting the main square and the Cathedral, the Museum Sanna, which displays both costumes and artifacts discovered in the area, and wandering along the narrow side streets.
Cactus fruit, eggplant, olives
I also did a little shopping, buying torrone (almond candy) and some orange flavored cookies to take home as souvenirs.  I also bought a package of carasau bread to bring home.  The bread, so thin that it is almost a cracker, had its origin in the days when shepherds spent weeks alone in the hills with their sheep and  needed a food that would stay fresh.  We are still enjoying the bread I bought, weeks later!

Bay of Nymphs
Lighthouse, Porto Conte
On the last afternoon in Sassari, we drove about half hour to the coast for a 4.5 mile walk through a nature preserve at Porto Conte, known in ancient times as Port of the Nymphs.  We followed a track through a scrub forest to Punto Giglio (Lily Point) where there are the remains of barracks and gun emplacements from World War II.  On the way, we were surprised to hear the noise of vehicles behind us.  Soon a policeman appeared on a motorcycle, leading a convoy of jeeps, motorcycles, trucks, and other army vehicles, all decorated with American and Italian flags and filled with men and women in U.S. military uniforms.  At first we thought it was some sort of military exercise, but then we noticed that the uniforms were fifty years old!  Perhaps, we thought, we had landed in the middle of a movie reenacting the American liberation of Italy.  It turned out to be a club of people who collect World War II memorabilia and have excursions like this in “costume” to historic sites.  (As it turns out, the war never actually came to Sardinia.  The Americans bypassed Sardinia on their march into Europe from Africa, entering Italy via Sicily.) 
Punto Giglio (Porto Conte)

Roman Ruins and Flamingos
Tharros, Roman Ruins
For our final day in Sardinia, we headed to the Sinis Peninsula, near the town of Oristano, to see the remains of an ancient Roman settlement at Tharros which sit on a narrow spit of land protruding into the bay.  Sardinia became a Roman province in 238 B.C. after the defeat of the Cathaginians in the first Punic War and Tharros developed into a major religious center.  The buildings are mostly collapsed, but the basalt slabs of the original Roman road remain, making it easy to imagine toga clad citizens making their way to the baths and temples.
Flamingos, Stagno Ena Arrubia
After lunch on the beach and visiting the nearby paleochristian church of San Giovanni di Sinis, we drove south to Stagno Ena Arrubia, a seaside lagoon declared by our guidebook to be a “birdwatcher’s paradise.”  It was. From the edge of the road, we were thrilled to see hundreds of flamingoes, as well as coots, gulls, egrets, herons and other birds in the shallow water.

Off the Beaten Track for Americans
Our trip to Sardinia was timed for September to take advantage of the good weather (not too hot, not too cold) and to avoid the summer tourist crowds.  Sardinia is a popular tourist destination for Europeans, especially in summer when they flock to the beaches.  However, few Americans go to Sardinia.  During our week there, we did not encounter any and we only met a few native English speakers including one generous Englishman who helped us navigate our way through Cagliari when we got lost.  Earlier that day, when we asked the hotel clerk for directions into the city, she had asked rather incredulously, “You didn’t get GPS with your rental car?”  We didn’t opt for GPS because of the expense, and although we did manage without it, there were a few times when it might have come in handy.  Much of Sardinia IS off the beaten track.  One of the things we liked best, is that in many places we visited, we were the only ones there.  
Arzachena:  Nuraghic Complex "La Prisgiona", entrance to the tower

Getting there: Sardinia has airports in Cagliari, Olbia and Alghero.  You can fly to Sardinia from several cities in Italy on Alitalia, or from Paris on Meridiana.  I flew from Los Angeles to Paris, and then to Cagliari via Rome.

Shopping:  Most shops, except in tourist areas, are closed on Sundays.  During the week they close for lunch between 1:00 and 4:00 and then stay open until dinner time at 8:00 or 9:00. So, if you need to buy anything, plan to shop when they stores are open!
ATMs: Only the larger towns have banks with ATMs and even then, there may be just one or two.  It helps to ask at the local tourist office for directions to one.

(Look for Sardinia, Part I:  Ancient Crossroads of the Mediterranean posted October 17 and Sardinia, Part II: The Supramonte posted October 24.)

Monday, October 24, 2011


(Trip to Sardinia, September 2011, Continued)
Valley below the Supramonte, near Su Gologone

Su Gologone
Entrance to Hotel Su Gologone
After leaving Barumini, we headed north for the town of Oliena, located at the foot of the mountains of the Supramonte, and Su Gologone, the large, upscale country hotel where we would spend three nights.  (Su Gologone gets its name from the ancient spring across the road from the hotel. “Su” is a Sardinian word meaning “the” and “gologone” means “spring”.) The hotel is reputed to have the best restaurant in Sardinia and the food was excellent.  Dinners feature suckling pig roasted on spits in a huge fireplace in the dining room. Breakfasts are a smorgasboard of fresh fruits, breads, meats, yogurt, muesli, cheeses, pastries, eggs, juice, plus tea or caffe latte.
Breakfast is eaten on a screened in terrace
The rooms and hallways of the hotel are filled with the art collection of the owner, displaying colorful costumes, masks, paintings, pottery, rugs, and other typical Sardinian crafts.  From the balcony of our bright and airy room we could hear the tinkle of sheep bells on the nearby hillside and glimpse the top of the stony massif beyond.  To orient ourselves, we signed up for an excursion the next day.
To the Top of Mount Corrasi
Climbing to the top of Mount Corrasi, nearly 5000 feet high
In the morning we met our guide, Antonello, who escorted us to a Land Rover, pointing to the top of the massif and indicating that we were going there.  He only spoke Italian so we didn’t get details.  We assumed that we’d drive part way and hike the rest.  We didn’t realize that he planned to drive nearly all the way to the top!  After zigzagging through the narrow streets of Oliena, he turned off the highway onto a dirt track, passing first through a forest, then along the rock face, one hairpin turn after the next, on the narrow boulder strewn road which had no guard rail and dropped precipitously on one side.  Finally, he reached a small parking area.  From there we scrambled on foot over rocky terrain between the thistle and other low growing plants to the summit of Mount Corrasi.  The view was, indeed, breathtaking and worth the rock jolting trip up.

The Lanaitho Valley
Nuraghic Stone basin and Ram's head water spouts at Sa Sedda e Sos Carros
 The second half of our excursion with Antonello was to the Lanaitho Valley, a long secluded river valley within the Supramonte.  At the far end, after passing through olive groves, horse meadows, and along a tree lined avenue, we came to the grotto of Sa Ohe e Su Bentu and the Nuraghic village Sa Sedda e Sos Carros. After paying our entrance fee for the village, we got a private tour in English from an extremely knowledgeable young woman who pointed out, among other things, the elaborate plumbing system–still in place!  Like many prehistoric sites in Sardinia, the village was completely buried and unknown until just a few years ago. It is still being excavated.  When we returned from the village, Antonello took us on a tour of the cave, one of the many limestone caverns throughout the Supramonte. 

A Day at the Beach
Cala Fuili Beach, near Cala Gonone
The next day we drove to the coast, about an hour away, winding our way down the mountain to the town of Cala Gonone on the Gulf of Orosei.  Our plan was to take a boat to the grotto and beach of Cala Luna a few miles to the south.  However, because of expected high winds (which never appeared while we were there) all boat trips for the day were canceled.  Instead, we hiked to a closer beach, Cala Fuili, about 2.5 miles away at the end of the road from Cala Gonone.  By this time it was noon and warm in the full sun (the temperature was in the low 80's), making a swim in the sea even more attractive.  As we arrived at Cala Fuili, we discovered dozens of rock climbers scaling the walls of the canyon.  For ourselves, we walked down the steps to the beach!
At the end of the day we returned to Su Gologone to enjoy a glass of Sardinian red wine on the terrace and watch the sun set over the valley below.

(Look for Sardinia, Part I:  Ancient Crossroads of the Mediterranean posted October 17 and Sardinia, Part III:  Giants' Tombs, Sassari, and the Sinis Peninsula posted October 31.)
Ruins of an early church near Su Gologone

Monday, October 17, 2011

September in Sardinia, Part I: Ancient Crossroads of the Mediterranean

A Week in Sardinia, September 2011
Su Nuraxi:  Bronze Age tower and village built about 1500 B.C.
Grazing sheep, olive groves, and ancient vineyards stretched on either side of the road as we drove through the rolling Sardinian countryside.  Then, as we rounded a curve, the ruins of a huge, beehive-shaped tower loomed over the landscape.  We had arrived at Su Nuraxi, the remains of a neolithic settlement that had been a center of Sardinian life more than 3000 years ago.  Huge stone towers, called nuraghi, are unique to Sardinia and give the Bronze Age culture that built them its name. The Sardinian landscape is littered with Nuraghic ruins (more than 7,000 sites have been documented) as well as the remains of Etruscan, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, and other civilizations that have put their stamp on the island.  The richness of Sardinia's ancient history was one of the reasons we wanted to visit.
My husband and I spent a week in Sardinia in September, visiting ancient ruins, hiking in the mountains and along the coast, going to museums, birdwatching, and enjoying the rich and delicious Sardinian cuisine.  With blue skies and comfortable temperatures (in the 70's), it had all the elements of a ideal vacation.

Cagliari, the Provincial Capital

Cagliari: Gate to the Citadel, location of Museum of Archeology
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean (after Sicily). We arrived in Cagliari, the capital, in the southern part of the island. After a night at the Holiday Inn, chosen because it was near the airport and theoretically easy to get to (we got hopelessly lost trying to find it), we headed for the center of town to visit the museums in the Citadella, or citadel, the old fortified part of the city at the top of the hill above the port.  The Archeology Museum in Cagliari is the largest and most complete collection of ancient artifacts on the island.  With four floors chock full of pottery, masks, clay, bronze and iron figures, jewelry, projectile points, mosaics and more, representing Sardinia from prehistoric times through the Roman period, it was the perfect introduction to the mix of cultural influences that have created Sardinia and a clue to the wealth of ancient artifacts that have been found there.  Luckily, the introductory panels in each room, which often included maps and diagrams, were in both Italian and English.
Archeology Museum: Wrestlers, Bronze Age figures for votive offering
Sardinia has been part of modern Italy since 1861 and Italian is the official language. Children learn to speak Italian in school, but their first language is Sardi, a Latin-based language, but with words and word forms from earlier times and other cultures. Before the trip, I took a short course in Italian for travelers.  It helped a LOT because, with few exceptions, most people do not speak English in Sardinia.  If they do speak another language other than Sardi or Italian, it is most likely to be French. (The island of Corsica, which is French, is directly north of Sardinia.)

Agriturismo–Farm Stays in Italy
Throughout Sardinia and the Italian countryside, you see signs offering Agriturismo, which is basically a bed and breakfast stay at a working farm.  For our second night, we stayed at Su Boschettu, a typical agriturismo hotel about an hour’s drive from Cagliari, located in the midst of an olive grove.  It also offered dinner, advertising that everything on the menu was organic and locally grown.  The first course, antipasti, included the typical Sardinian green olives (perhaps from their own orchard), which have a delicious, slightly sharp, nutty taste, and the classic crisp Sardinian flat bread, carasau, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and toasted.  (Throughout our stay in Sardinia, every meal began with olives and carasau.)
The bread and olives also came with a roasted eggplant dish, sauteed onions and cabbage, and a type of seafood ceviche.  This could have been enough, but was followed by ravioli filled with ricotta (the primi piatti) and salad with a plate of cold meats– sausage, duck and ribs–  (the secundi piatti).  Dessert was fruit, grapes and super-sweet melon, and a small cup of thick Italian coffee.  (I always asked for caffe decaffienato because, at full strength, I knew that the coffee would definitely keep me awake all night.)  We went to bed stuffed, leaving our window open to the fresh country air and perfect silence.

View of the village of  Pauli Arbarei from Su Boschettu

Su Nuraxi–A World Heritage Site

View from the walkway at the top of the Su Nuraxi Tower; stone walls were built without mortar
Our destination the next morning was the town of Barumini and the ancient site of Su Nuraxi, a UNESCO World Heritage site. At Su Nuraxi one can see the ruins of a large central tower, surrounded by four smaller towers and the remains of a large village.  It is the largest and most complete Nuraghic excavation in Sardinia.  From about 1500 BC onwards, villages were built around the tower-fortresses called nuraghi (Northern Sardinians call them nuraghes, Southern Sardinian call them nuraxis, plurals of nuraghe and nuraxi respectively), which were often reinforced and enlarged with battlements. The boundaries of tribal territories were guarded by smaller lookout nuraghi erected on strategic hills commanding a view of other territories.

Nuraghic model of a tower showing the flared upper story
We bought our tickets for the tour of Su Nuraxi (the only way to visit the site), and although the tour was supposed to be only in Italian, the guide generously translated everything into English for us and several other English speaking tourists.  We followed our guide up the stairs of a scaffold on the outside of the tower so we could descend the steep stone steps within the wall to the inner courtyard to enter the lower rooms and see the well. (Many nuraghi were built around wells.  Water has always been a valuable resource in Sardinia.) Only two levels of the tower remain, but originally it rose to 65 feet! Given the size of the huge stone blocks used for building, one has to marvel at the engineering.
Our ticket also got us in to several museums in Barumini.  One displayed artifacts discovered in the excavation of Su Nuraxi; another displayed farm implements and Sardinian cultural items, including the many different forms of Sardinian bread; and another explained the making and playing of a flute-like instrument called  launeddas.

Maps and Guidebooks: We relied on our Michelin map to get us around Sardinia.  You can order it online.  Our main guidebooks for sites, hotels, restaurants, etc., were the Lonely Planet Sardinia and Rough Guide Sardinia.  We also made good use of Sardinia: Car Tours and Walks by Andreas Stieglitz, which has very specific instructions for walks and driving routes.

(Look for Sardinia Part II:  The Supramonte and Sardinia Part III: Giants' Tombs, Sassari, and Sinis Peninsula to be posted October 24 and 31.)

Cagliari, Sardinia, view from below the Citadel

Monday, October 10, 2011

UC Botanical Garden, Berkeley: A Plant Lover's Paradise

Oak Knoll in the California Section
Research and Conservation
Nestled in the Berkeley hills, just above the Cal campus, more than 13,000 different species of plants on 34 acres grow in the University of California Botanical Garden, a scientific collection of plants from around the world and a wonderful place to spend the morning or afternoon.  I recently went there for the first time.  The garden is a living museum, created as a research garden but open to the public.
Old Rose Garden with view of Berkeley and San Francisco Bay
A network of paths takes you through the garden, which is arranged according to the plants’ geographic origin. These include Mediterranean, South America, Mexico/Central America, Eastern North America, Australasia, Asia, Southern Africa, New World Desert, and California. The garden’s website cautions visitors that it is virtually impossible to see everything on one visit.  It says that to see every plant in one two-hour visit, one would have to see one hundred different plants a minute!

Edible Plants
One of my favorites parts of the garden was the section on crops of the world.  In one corner was the “Three Sisters Garden” so-called by Native Americans referring to the interplanting of beans, corn, and squash.  The beans fix nitrogen in the soil, which feeds the corn so it will be tall and healthy.  The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb on.  The squash plants provide ground cover to keep the soil moist and free of weeds.  Recent studies have shown that this method produces higher yields than the typical planting of a single crop (monoculture).
Tomatillos in the World Crops Section

Changes With the Seasons
Every season has its highlights, making the garden a worthwhile visit at any time of year.  We visited the garden in August, when late summer flowers were blooming, while earlier blooming varieties were reaching maturity.  In the garden of old roses, bushes were lush with old-fashioned varieties.  It was a warm afternoon, but paths through shady groves and along ponds and streams provided welcome places to stop and rest.
Japanese Pool in the Asia Section
The garden is also a haven for wildlife.  As we meandered through the various zones, lizards skittered across the path, hummingbirds hovered over the flowers, and bees and butterflies were abundant. Throughout the garden, helpful signs identify plants, sometimes with additional information.  But, even if you don’t want to know the plants’ names, you can enjoy them for their natural beauty.  It’s better not to try to see one hundred plants a minute, but to enjoy a few at a time.  I plan to go back in several months and explore some new paths and see what is growing at a different time of year.

Directions:  The garden is located at 200 Centennial Drive, Berkeley, CA 94720 (midway between the UC Berkeley Memorial Stadium and the Lawrence Hall of Science.) Phone:  510-643-2755. For directions and more information, go to the garden's website
Tours: Docent tours of the garden are offered at 1:30 on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Smelling the Roses in the Old Rose Garden

Monday, October 3, 2011

Puppet Parade, Hillsborough, NC

Giant puppets are animated with large sticks.
Picture giant handmade puppets, rollicking ragtime bands, performers on stilts, dancing troupes, and hundreds of children and adults marching through the streets of a small North Carolina town celebrating the diversity of their community.  In October 2010, when we were in North Carolina visiting family, we went to the handmade puppet parade to watch our granddaughter’s Girl Scout troop carry their giant caterpillar “puppet” through the streets of Hillsborough, a historic town not far from where they live in Chapel Hill.
Caterpillar created by the Girl Scouts
  The girls had spent weeks assembling their caterpillar with cloth, paint, and hula hoops.  It resembled a giant Chinese New Year dragon and required several girls to carry it.  The girls took turns and we followed along, marveling at the ingenuity of the “puppets” which, in some cases, towered over our heads and required teams to adults to move them along and to operate their limbs and other moving parts with long sticks.  The theme was wildlife found along the Eno River, which runs through the town.  We saw various bird puppets, including a great blue heron, a woodpecker and an egret, a giant decorative snake created by a local school class, bugs of all sorts, and some imaginative creatures.  It was a perfect fall day and a wonderful low-key entertainment.  While many spectators lining the parade route were friends and relatives of the participants, it was truly an event that anyone could enjoy.
Everyone who participates in the parade must wear a costume!
The Hillsborough Handmade Parade was conceived in 2007 as an annual community participation celebration by Mark Donley and Tinka Jordy. In the spring of 2008 a series of workshops both public and private were initiated that led to the First Annual Handmade Parade in October 2008.  Parades were also held in 2009 and 2010.  The next parade will be in 2012.  Check the Arts Council website for the date and details on how to register and participate. 
This large puppet reverses to have a smiling face and yellow costume on the other side.