Before embarking on our journey to Sardinia with three friends from Le Pradet, we spent two weeks reconnecting with the pace of life here. Since retirement we’ve been coming to Provence every twelve to eighteen months. Beyond the delicious Provençal dishes and the ever-pleasing regional rosé, what attracts us most to this region are the wonderful friends we’ve made over the years. With each visit, our circle of friends and acquaintances grows, and so do our dinner invitations. In the days before and after our visit to Sardinia, we’ve been feted royally, happy beneficiaries of the delectable Provençal cooking that our friends are so rightfully proud of. As in many cultures, food in Provence is essential to the intimacy of family and friendship.
A new experience for us was an evening with neighbors at a street party, une fête de voisins. Our friend, Martine, who serves as the neighborhood association’s president, called the gathering une fetê de civilité, ostensibly to smooth ruffled misunderstandings among neighbors. That evening we met a gentleman who shares my surname. Olivier is a retired airline pilot, who lived for many years in Los Angeles. He and Marc, another neighbor who builds model airplanes and whom he had not met before, had a spirited conversation for most of the evening.
We spent another memorable evening of fine dining with our friends, Catherine and Jean-Louis. About six months ago, they sold their wine vineyard and are now living in a large old house on the west side of Toulon, tucked among the trees behind a row of tony apartments. We had difficulty finding it. Missing from Catherine’s detailed directions was a turn into a long walled alleyway leading to their home. Their house number did not appear on the main street although our GPS indicated that we had arrived. Our mobile phone came in handy; Jean-Louis came out to greet us. As we’ve come to expect, dining at Jean-Louis and Catherine’s is never a small gathering. They’ve always had us over for a barbecue in their vineyard with a large group of their friends. This time our dinner was more intimate, and included Catherine’s sister, Martine, and brother-in-law, Pascal, from Marseille and another couple from Hong Kong, Anthony, an Australian, and his Chinese partner, Ernest. While waiting for another guest to arrive by train, we sat chatting in the garden under a beautifully moon-lit sky with appetizers and wine for almost two hours. The other guest finally could not make it, so at ten o’clock we began our meal with eggs and wild mushrooms, followed by a delicate fish stew over rice , and naturally a cheese course before having a clafoutis for dessert. It was well after midnight by the time we returned home.
A few days later, we drove to Juan-les-Pins to lunch with Alexandra and her mother, Célestine. (Alexandra was Melanie’s ESL student many years ago in California. She and her husband, Jean-Luc, and son, Victor, visited us this summer in South Bend. They produce champagne and were on a business trip to California to meet other producers and importers.) Alexandra flew down from Verzenay, to join us, a visit that pleasantly surprised her mother. Célestine prepared one of my favorite dishes, paella. What a feast!
On another wonderful day of dining, we grilled our food at the table at Natacha and Nicolas’ home. They too, with their daughter, Marie, will be in Sardinia later in the month. This evening we are going to their home, and over apéro, will share our Sardinian adventures with them. The family came to dine with us in Granger last year when Natacha was an exchange prof at IUSB.
Another new experience for us was participating in the weekend of celebrating the patrimoine, the annual celebration of France’s cultural heritage. In its thirty-seventh year, twelve million people visited over sixteen thousand monuments. With our friends, MariThé, Christian and Martine we visited two small villages St. Martin de Pallières and St. Julien Montagnier. At the former, we explored a twelfth century castle with a guide who grew up there. It was particularly fascinating to hear his boyhood adventures boating by torchlight in the castle’s underground cistern. In the latter village, we explored the narrow streets and the original windmill that is still standing.
Just over two years ago, we traveled to Corsica, and now with our friends, MariThé, Christian and Martine, we took the overnight ferry to Ajaccio. Once we settled into our cabins we all went to the dancing bar for drinks. Christian introduced us to Spritz, an orange flavored Italian liqueur, a bit sweet but refreshing. There a duo, a singer and guitarist, with programmed rhythm accompaniment, played wonderful ballroom dance music. Naturally, Melanie and I danced between the row of tables. We chatted with the singer, Mariella, But since the ferry crew and the musicians were Italian, we managed to communicate using French, English and gestures. Mariella told us that work for musicians in Italy is scarce. She’s from Milano and would like to come to America. We all laughed with her when she asked us in a deadpan voice to find her an American husband. She told me to show her picture to any interested men when I returned to the States. Later, I sent her a copy of the picture for which she thanked me, and in her note wondered if we had enjoyed our trip to her country.
Once we reached Ajaccio, we drove south to Bonifaccio for the one hour ferry ride to Santa Teresa di Gallura in Sardinia. Before boarding, we had lunch with our friends, Marie-Jeanne and Guy at their home in Porto Vecchio. Joining us were their son and daughter-in-law, Pascal and Catherine, a couple of their neighbors, and Marie-Jeanne’s brother, Dominique, whose basement apartment we rented two years ago. Dominique is celebrating his ninety-first birthday this month.
Marie-Jeanne and Guy live in Paris, but spend several months at their Corsican home. On a clear day, which it was, the coastline of Sardinia is visible from their patio.
My first impression of Sardinia was that it was similar to Corsica, but after several days I concluded that Sardinia was less mountainous. As we drove along the coast to Alghero where we would spend the next five days, I noticed patterns of slightly ascending and descending slopes. The serpentine curves were fewer and less sharp than in Corsica and the hills were not nearly as steep. The terrain was more open; expansive flatlands were bordered in the distance by low level mountains. I noticed many small farms with cows. Christian believes that many of these homes are not farms at all and he conjectured that homeowners have cows so that their property can be labeled farms in order to lower their taxes. Whether this tale is true or not, it is quite clever.
Culturally, I found Sardinia to be more closely linked to Italy than Corsica is to France. Corsicans have a strong emotional bond to their island culture that places it ahead of their French citizenship. And although there are Arabic and Catalan influences in Sardinian culture, I sensed little traces of a cultural conflict with Italy. To me, the cuisine was clearly Italian with touches of Sardinian flavor. And I did not sense from the locals a Sardinian vs Italian identity. But what was most fascinating to Melanie and me were the archeological sites of the Nuragic civilization dating from the Bronze and Iron Ages. In Alghero, we visited several Nuragic ruins, the most interesting of which was the Palmavera, one of the most intact archeological sites in the country. We gleaned what Nuraghic daily life night have been like as we ambled through narrow corridors examining living quarters and peering into storage rooms that housed grains and other provisions. Also near Alghero, we visited a pre-Nuragic burial place, the Necropolis Anghelu Ruju. Toward the east of Sardinia we visited in Arzachena, the Tomba Moru, known as the giants’ tomb, elongated burial chambers of stone slabs where dozens, even, hundreds of bodies were buried. At some sites we saw petroglyphs.
I enjoyed roaming around the old city in Alghero. In spite of the ubiquitous boutiques that cater to tourists, the old stone houses along the narrow streets retained the city’s medieval charm. Residents of this port city are extremely open and friendly. On our first day in search of the Office of Tourism, we were given five different directions, all with certainty and a smile. And we still got lost. Surely, our difficulty was not in properly understanding the directions; MariThé is multi-lingual. In our wanderings, we stumbled upon a newlywed couple from the Czech Republic who were paying for their honeymoon traveling throughout Europe by playing in the streets. She was a professional musician and he, a very capable amateur. We enjoyed our chat with them. I gave them some advice about a happy marriage and left them a good tip.
The city also has character. Colored photographic portraits celebrating the city’s centenarians along the walls of some buildings told more about the city’s values than any tourist brochure. One evening at San Miquel Church we attended a polyphonic concert of two choirs. The first choir sang secular and religious hymns. The harmony of their voices gave an orchestral sound that filled the church. The second choir was exclusively male that sang in a circle with the choir director in the center, a style of singing that I had never seen before. The effect was that of voices projecting upward before spilling outward over the audience. The consequent resonance of their voices gave me chills.
Alghero has roots in Arabic and Catalan culture, the historical influences of which still remain in its architecture, its food, its customs. Some residents still speak Catalan. Italian, of course, is the lingua franca. I loved listening to the locals speak. One afternoon seated on bench at the port, I listened to a gentleman during his phone conversation. The rise and fall of his voice coupled wth the expressiveness of his body gave an operatic quality to his speech. In this very Italian city, attached to the bench where I was seated, was a plaque in French with these words, “J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris. Mon âme a son secret; ma vie a son mystère.” (I have two loves, my country and Paris. My soul has its secrets, my life has its mysteries).
What I’ve come to appreciate traveling in Europe at this time of year is the paucity of tourists. The second most common language I heard was German. The Germans seemed to be everywhere, many with children in tow. I learned later that the German schools were on holiday. If I had’t heard them speak, I would have easily thought they were locals. They blended in with many of the Italian families I saw walking around in the late afternoon along the port and in the old city.
From Alghero, we took a boat trip to the Grotto di Nettuno, first explored in the 1740s. Our guided programmed tour took us through about 600 feet of the grotto’s 8,200 feet.
Since pictures were prohibited in the interior, my only picture of this beautiful space is at the entrance. Our boat trip over, we lunched in the old city at Al Tuguri, a restaurant that served authentic Sardinian cuisine with a Catalan touch. Recommended in our guide book, we had actually considered it the day before but for reasons which I do not remember, perhaps timing, we chose to eat elsewhere. But before leaving, the proprietor cautioned that other restaurants served food and in his restaurant we would find fine cuisine. We were not disappointed. It was the first time I had had black and white pasta. (The black side of the pasta had been dyed with squid ink. It didn’t change the taste.) Served with seafood, it was delectable. And generally, I would agree with the proprietor in his distinction between food and fine dining. Although we had tasty food during our stay in Sardinia, the only other time we had a fine dining experience was in the restaurant, SottoVento , on the island of La Maddalena. Two Sardinian wines that we enjoyed, and recommended by Melanie’s nephew, Mike, who spent four years in Sardinia with the U. S. Navy, were Cannonau di Sardegna and Vermentino di Gallura, red and white respectively.
Our five day stay in Alghero over, we headed eastward to Palau where we stayed another four days. On the way, we stopped for a visit to Sardinia’s most famous Romanesque church, Santissima Trinità di Saccargia. There in this simple and austere sanctuary, I prayed and lit a candle for two ailing friends in South Bend, Judy and John Charles. I learned later that Judy had died two days earlier.
Before reaching Palau, we spent the afternoon in Olbia, a more modern city than Alghero. We had lunch there, walked around the old city, visited the cathedral and window shopped, except for the fine linen Italian shirt with rolled up sleeves that Melanie bought for me. Palau was our home base for day trips to the islands of Maddalena and Caprera, the latter the home of Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose compound and gravesite we visited. This area of Sardinia is considered to be one of the most affluent on the island. We visited several towns along the coast, San Pantaleo, a charming village in the mountains, and Porto Redondo and Porto Cervo, chic, clearly upscale communities that attract the well-to-do and their yachts. The streets and public spaces were well-maintained and manicured. Four and five star restaurants adorned the coastline. Tony shops in Porto Cuervo like Gucci, Cartier, Versage, Hermès and Luis Vuitton were not in my price range. A mojito cost 23 euros, and I didn’t order one. I had one of the best ever in Alghero and it cost me 4 euros. I do confess to indulging in a gelato for 6 euros.
After nine splendid days in Sardinia, we traveled back to France in reverse. That is we took a one hour ferry ride to Corsica, drove north to Ajaccio. On the way, we stopped in Sartène at U Sirenu for a lunch of scrumptious Corsican cuisine including lamb brochettes cooked over wood coals in the fireplace beside our table. Fully satiated, we continued northward for the overnight ferry to Toulon. And yes, we did dance to the music of another swinging duo of a saxophonist and female singer. And no, she did not ask me to find her an American husband.
We returned to Le Pradet in time for the Annual Mussels Festival. What a feast! It’s one of the joys of living on the Mediterranean. Now it’s time to think about returning home. We have one week left and there is still time to indulge my epicurean tastes at one of the celebrated bistrots in the surrounding villages.