Travelogue

Italy Journal – Northern Sardinia

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View from our room near Aggius

Along the way to our accommodations in Northern Sardinia, we had lunch at a place called Red’s Bar in the small town of Chiaramonti. Inside the restaurant looked like any other bar/sandwich shop just about anywhere else. The bathroom was another story. One memory that will stick with me is the hole in the floor. Not just a toilet without a seat. It was a hole in the concrete. Even more charming was the small window at neck level (pre-squat), which still puzzles me. Luckily, squatting was not necessary this time around.

At an outside table placing our order, the waiter couldn’t understand my request for something “non carni”, so I got stuck with a proscuttio panini – basically a ham sandwich. Yes, all of the folks who know me as a semi-vegetarian (no red meat, including pork), go ahead and get your laughs out. It was all very entertaining to all of us, at least at first. Between the heat and the travel fatigue, opting out was not really an option because I needed something in my system.

Even before lunch, I was already a bit car sick from the constant left/right curvature of the road bouncing me around. This wasn’t Kristy’s fault, it was just the result of sitting in the back seat a bit too long, and we weren’t exactly driving a Lexus. In Positano the reason for the road’s serpentine construction was a coastline with an immediate drop of hundreds of feet. In Sardinia, even though we were nowhere near the sea at that point, it was the semi-mountainous terrain. It was similar to the most remote parts of Central and Northeast Pennsylvania. Except in Sardinia – unlike PA – I was tossing around in the back seat with a lead pig in my stomach. The after lunch portion of our trip to Aggius was a delicate balance of car sickness, potential food poisoning and the aftermath of the previous night’s wine and grappa.

We found our next stop, Il Muto Di Gallura near the town of Aggius just in time. It was in the middle of nowhere, and I hate to think what would have happened had we missed the barely visible turn into the small parking lot. We were off the GPS grid, so it’s likely we would have driven for another hour or so, in which time I would have surely made the back seat a whole new experience.

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Il Muto Di Gallura - Aggius, Sardinia

Il Muto Di Gallura, named after a mute outlaw, is what is usually called an agritourism location where tourists can experience authentic regional cooking and living. It’s a popular way to experience a country, particularly for foodies like us. Everyone is treated like family and you are basically living in the same environment as the locals. If Tarthesh was the most posh, this was the most rustic experience. While there were air conditioners in the rooms (sort of a necessity to keep the really soft tourists happy), everything else about the place was low tech. Extremely small bathrooms; small but efficiently designed bedrooms.

A much needed nap, shower and rest in our cool room put me in a better mood, but it would take me the next 24 hours to truly recover from the drive and the sandwich. I explored the house and grounds lightly, realizing at any moment I may need to go back to the room. Some of the farm dogs took pity on me and acted as my guide through the grape orchard.

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Vineyards at Il Muto Di Gallura

That first night we met a couple from Britain – Jay and Vicki, both professors. They were tandem cycling across the vast Sardinian brownishness. They were the only other (native) English speakers. I was encouraged to pull the guitar out, but admittedly did not give my best performance. We also met Paulo, a friend and neighbor to the farm and a cork farmer himself. Yes, cork as in bottles. We had, unknowingly, stumbled into one of the primary locations in the world where cork is farmed. So over the course of the next couple of days we saw the trees and harvesting process, as well as many items made from cork that we hadn’t previously considered. It always seemed to me that cork was one of those substances that just sort of “exists” and I never paid it much mind.

The next few days were extremely relaxing – a highlight of the entire trip. The food was very good, grown or raised on premises. The farm also had their own local mierto and a wonderful mint aperitif. But aside from the foodie stuff, just roaming the farm was a treat. It was a snapshot of a simpler time, easily a location for a film of some sort.

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Cork tree

One day we took a short drive into Aggius proper to visit a Sardinian folk crafts museum that Jay and Vicki had mentioned. This was true gem, and shed light on some of the otherworldly artwork and dress that we saw during our trip in the south. It was also the only place I could find some local music – on CD unfortunately, but it would have to do. A second stop at a gallery gave us the opportunity to see the looms in action on the regional rugs and tapestries that we had previously seen at the museum.

The second night back at the farm turned out to be better for me musically, as I was more rested and actually had a chance to warm up during the day. Paulo, the resident cork farmer, took a special interest in hearing me play. He also showed us a film about the local crafts and culture, featuring the same vocal group whose CD I purchased (Coro di Aggius Gallurra).

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After dinner entertainment in Sardinia

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Rockin' on the Baby Taylor (Photo by Kristy)

One of my biggest fans.

Paulo, Kristy and JD.

 

Italy Journal – Southern Sardinia

{Reposted from my original 2008 trip journal and reflections in 2009}

Audra sold us on the idea of Sardinia as an off-the-beaten path adventure that was somewhat less touristy. In that sense, Sardinia delivered. It was certainly remote. We allowed enough time to see the south and the north, first staying at Hotel Tarthesh (http://www.tartheshotel.com/tarthesh.html), outside of Cagliari.

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Hotel Tarthesh, Sardinia

Tarthesh (one of several spellings I saw) was easily the fanciest hotel of the trip. It was in the middle of nowhere – a destination in itself where spa services and the attached restaurant make it the kind of self contained place you may not want to leave. A small town of Guspin nearby offered a few shops, grocery store, gelateria and restaurants.

As nice as it was, it was foreign in an otherworldly way, not just a European or Italian sense. My immediate reaction was that of a Star Trek episode where the crew beam down to a planet that sort of looks like Earth, but really isn’t. The language, the ancient stylized dress, the color scheme and even the smell of the place were all alien, but not in a super modern sci-fi sense (though the hallways all had light sensors and turned on and off as they anticipated your every move).

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Hotel Tarthesh lobby

There were many confusing design elements. The stone construction was at times perplexing. The dark stone of walls and steps and ramps sometimes blended into each other in such a way that you could easily trip because it was hard to see the change in terrain. There were glass panels everywhere and it was very easy to see how people could mistake them for doorways. There was a nice lawn (tended by robot mowers), but you didn’t feel welcome to explore it. There are no paths leading to the grass and you were diverted to stay on the stone. This was frustrating in such an otherwise brown environment.

Our bathroom had a noisy fan. The kind of noise you expect from a Motel 6. The oversized glass shower door ran right into the shower head and the sound properties in the shower were bizarre. The standing sound wave from the fan was so intense that two people could not use the shower and talk and expect to understand each other.

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Hotel Tarthesh, Sardinia

I noticed broken or problematic things in the downstairs bathroom too. The paper dispenser was broken, faucets were confusing as hell and there were ants on the floor coming up out of a place in the floor where come caulking was missing. So for all of its poshness, Tarthesh didn’t quite impress on all levels.

We ate dinner at the hotel our first night, mostly because we were completely exhausted from the car/plane/car juggling we had to do to get there (note: gas stations are not open on Sundays.) The meal was wonderful (for the full report see our cuisine section), and we had our first Sardinian wine, probably the best of the trip. My fish was not descaled very well, and was very difficult to eat – leaving a mutilated marine carcass and some appetite left over. To compensate, the waiter brought us some cookies and introduced us to mirto, an herbal aperitif specific to the region made from myrtle. This was enjoyable and reminded me of Unicum, though sweeter.

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Hotel garden robots

The next day we took a day trip to Cagliari, where most things were closed and we just roamed around. Then we went to Su Naraxi Baramini, a 4000-year-old Nuraghic ruin. It was a blistering hot, though dry, day so the opportunity to get inside of a 50 degree cave-like structure was appealing. I got my “Cites of the Underworld” fix going through the nooks and crannies of rocks.

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Su Naraxi Baramini

Back in Guspin, we visited the local supermarket, LIDL, which to Americans would look much like an Aldi Foods. The main difference was that they also sold alcohol, including a local grappa, which I sampled back at the hotel before dinner while we watched the Italian news. It was then that we learned of George Carlin’s passing, and the much more earth-shaking loss of the latest soccer finals to Brazil. It was then that we knew that the subject of soccer was off limits for the rest of our trip. After a noisy shower we had a satisfying dinner at the Hotel Santa Maria restaurant in Guspin (see cuisine report).

After checkout from Hotel Tarthesh the next morning, we went north for the next part of our Sardinian experience, a farm near Aggius. It was during the next stretch of travel that all doubts were confirmed – the Sardinian landscape has the most shades of brown possible. It is likely that the color brown was invented there, after many attempts to get it just right.

Italy Journal – Music in Positano/Ravello

{Reposted from my original 2008 trip journal and reflections in 2009}

Looking back on the pictures and the trip as a whole, the Positano region, including the nearby town of Ravello, was the most musical of the trip.

Watch out, that's the accordion player!

Street band in Positano

Our first night in Positano, we saw a street band perform… quite literally in the street, precariously positioned on a windy corner typical in the town. While we missed a major music festival in Ravello, one highlight was playing for guests at Mama Agata’s after our cooking class.

Playing for Mama Agata and guests

Playing after making dinner with Mama.

Later, I played a few songs on the main square of Ravello, and some other tourists took my picture, perhaps thinking I was one of the locals. Shortly after, a wedding party came out with their own guitarist and mandolin player.

Wedding in Ravello

Later that same night we went to a club to see a tarantella show that we saw adtertised on some flyers around town in Positano. Note to self: Never pay 14 euro to get in to a club. While that cover may include your first drink, you are going to need to drink a lot more to offset the cheesy PC-backed opening group with pre-recorded dance music, and the mediocre gothic dancers. We left after 30 minutes, cutting our losses.

Can we go now?

During our next day in Positano, the only music was a piano player at a restaurant playing instrumental American stuff and jazzy interpretations. Despite the two previous rather disheartening experiences, our third and final night in Positano turned out to be the best. Eugenio Bennato’s performance at the Marina Grande was one of the top shows I’ve seen anywhere, ever. It was the highlight of the trip in terms of live performance.

Finally, some real music Eugenio Bennato’s Taranta Power!

Taranta Power included two female singers, one Arabic rapper (who also played oud), a percussionist using a foot pedal for bass trigger, guitarist, and a bassist. There was a guest female vocalist toward the end, but I was unable to determine her name. From her flamboyance and the crowd’s reaction, I suspect she was at least moderately famous. Guitarists traded mandolins and mandocellos. Some of the music seemed political from my limited understanding of the language. I was one of the 800-1000 people on the beach within arms reach of the band. Incredible.

Though it makes little difference, I still do not know just how popular Eugenio Bennato is in terms of nationally or internationally. For all I know he could be the Italian equivalent of Bob Dylan. Check him out at: www.tarantapower.it

Italy Journal – Capri Photo Op

On arriving in Capri, we heard opera singing coming from an opera festival that was winding down not far from our hotel.

In Capri

Otherwise, aside from some street music and this sign… not much going on musically in Capri.

Italy Journal – Music in Rome

Rome violinist

{Reposted from my original 2008 trip journal and reflections in 2009}

It’s worth reiterating what I said on my review of our travel agent:

“My own personal pet peeve was that Hidden Treasures seemed to be completely oblivious to any specifically musical offerings along our way, and did not go out of their way to make that info available. I realized that they were not a world music travel agency, but I just expected more. Next time I would seriously consider using Songlines Music Travel operated by The Tailor-Made Groups Company, which only recently formed after our plans were made.”

Reading that a year after the trip, I don’t think it was harsh. Every other aspect of the travel agent’s performance was top notch, but I remain disappointed in the lack (or cheesiness) of the musical experiences we found.

In terms of what we’d do differently (and what I plan to do for future trips overseas), we would plan better for more music. I made the conscious decision that our trip was a vacation – not a tour, so I wasn’t interested in performing in any official capacity, though open mikes would have been welcome. I knew going into this that our travel agent did not specialize in musical interests or destinations. I knew we’d have to seek out venues and performers, but I underestimated just how much digging was necessary.

I heard rumors that Italy was a bit off the path for many artists, but it wasn’t the large touring acts that I wanted to see anyway. Jethro Tull was coming through (they are big in Italy), but of course I have seen them several times in the States.

I felt like we missed a lot of the local musical flavor, mostly because we stayed on a rather touristy schedule that did not allow for many late nights (when most clubs actually start up). Aside from the pleasant atmospherics of the occasional accordion player (which I expected), Rome was a disappointment. There was street music of course, but so much of that is for the tourists with rehashed versions of “Volare” and “That’s Amore”. Finding a venue where musicians gather to interact on the main streets or even off the beaten path was difficult, if not impossible. One day we went on a wild goose chase (many blocks) looking for a jazz club that I had read about, but it turned out to be closed. Our coliseum trip yielded a behind the scenes look at how they set up for a concert, but our itinerary did not take that venue into account as a possibility to see a show (I’m not even sure who was performing).

I need a capo! Where's the music store?