On a recent snowy night, I hunkered down to clean out a dusty over stuffed plastic tub. You know the kind – large, filled with files and memoribillia you will get to some day, covered with a snap on lid and left to fade in the back of a closet. I opened the tub, pulled out a batch of files when a folded cache of browning papers fell into my lap. Was it very old love notes from a high school beau? Or recipes in my beloved zia’s hand. Giggle, I slowly unfolded the cracked paper and saw the date – January 2009. Wow, it was a love note of sorts, my notes on an earlier trip to Alghero, Sardegna and Italian lessons at the fabulous Centro Mediterraneo Pintadera. Walk with me back to January, 2009 and take an armchair voyage.
We were excited to be heading back to Alghero. Never having been there in the winter we didn’t know what to expect. The city juts out into the sea. Walking the sea wall in the summer is bliss. Will it bluster in January?
On Saturday, January 3, 2009 – courtesy of air miles we flew Primo Classe on Alitalia from Newark to Rome. (In those days there were flights out of Newark, New Jersey.) I still use the little grey tweed makeup bags they gave us filled with mini stuff that I probably tossed. .
On Sunday, January 4, tired and still tipsy from all that Primo Classe booze we lugged our suitcases across the terminal to our jumper flight to Sardegna. We had an uneventful but cramped Air One flight to Alghero. (They went out of business in 2014.) A 25€ cab ride organized by Pintadera brought us directly to the apartment they had found for us. Pintadera co-owner, Nicola, met us with keys in hand. I looked at the steep staircase from the street leading up to the apartment, muttered bad words and lugged my suitcase up. Gasping for breath I walked in and saw the sea. The steps were worth it. Wow, we have an apartment with an ocean view. The terrace was tiny but a terrace. There was a twin bed with pillows in the front room, a chair or two, table and a kitchenette. The bedroom had a king-sized bed. For the amount of time we planned on staying there it was perfect.
I love Pintadera. This was our second trip to the school. We are so taken with the place and people, that I had organized a group of Italian language students from New Jersey to join us this time. Starting Monday, January 5, we had classes daily from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM. The weather was perfect. Staring at the sea, sipping a cappuccino at a bar with a view was heavenly. January in Alghero means very few tourists, sales in the stores and lots of sun.
The queen of not doing enough research and just diving into travel, I really lucked out. The first week in January, Alghero was transformed into a cultural Mecca. We had no idea how important Epiphany was nor how involved the arts community would be. That Monday, after class we strolled the tiny cobble stone streets and alleys following the sounds of carolers. Sparkling arches of holiday lights topped the throngs out for a pre-epiphany passegiata. Itinerant volunteer actors dressed like La Befana or the three Kings could be found in every small piazza dispensing nuts and fruit to every child. Even us kids in our second acts!
Piazza Teatro lived up to its name. A troupe of wheelchair assisted and developmentally challenged actors costumed beautifully portrayed the manger scene. The love pouring out from every actor filled the piazza and my heart. Their focus and passion for the nativity brought the scene to life.
After a scrumptious dinner of roasted calamari and l’insalata at a nameless little spot we followed the sounds of six part harmony. Angelic male voices filled the air from Piazza Civica. The crowed surged there. It felt and sounded like there were hundreds of men dressed in black with white collared shirts singing in intricate harmonies. Traditional Sardo and spiritual songs wafted over the crowd as we trailed the singers from piazza to piazza. Choiristers sang a rousing march as they moved from spot to spot. I never found out if all of these musical artists were from Alghero.
La Befanas scampered about clutching brooms and tossing sweets at children. The the night before Epiphany, La Befana traditionally flies from house to house bringing candy to good children and carbone, coal, to evil monsters. Besides engaging with the crowds La Befana was also plastered on doors or hanging from lamp posts. (The universe must be kicking me. I just had finished yet another rewrite of my play “Mamma Mia – La Befana!??” when I found this picture. Hmm – time to start pitching that work???)
Often, other amateur actors appeared dressed as angels or in traditional Sardegna garb to entertain with stories, dance and pageantry. Music and art was everywhere.
After class one day, I saw a sign for a children’s theatre performance at Alghero’s opera house, Teatro Civica di Alghero. Built in 1829, the space is amazing. Think a jewel box version of Carnegie Hall with draped box seats surrounding the house. It is unique because it is the only Italian theater built entirely of wood. Lavish is an understatement. We ventured in and sat down in our box excited to see our first performance in Italy. It was the worst children’s theatre I have ever experienced in my life. Disclaimer, in the 1970s I was the director of a touring children’s theater company so I kind of know what works and what doesn’t. Here are just some of the reasons it was abysmal – for the first fifteen minutes the star – a middle aged curly haired sprightly woman stood on stage directing traffic to seats. Then the curtain opens – late of course – on an amateur cardboard set. Add to that bad lighting and a shared microphone and you have all the stuff you need for failure. I love audience participation and pre -show warm ups but this crew did a warm-up that lasted an hour. Then there was a brief pause and the scripted piece began and went on and on and on. The show started at 5:00 PM. We snuck out with many others at 7:00 PM and the show was still going on. Do I sound snarky? I love theater and it pains me to have troupes produce less than professional work for children. That said, seeing the interior of Teatro Civica was worth the distraction.
Early Wednesday mornings I took an early morning jaunt to the covered market. This market is classic. One whole section is just stall after stall of fish vendors. Sardegna is an island and Alghero sits right on the sea – perfect location for the freshest of fish. Fruit and vegetable stalls, ready-made treats and more filled the space. I love wandering the aisles and discovering what I will be cooking.
I love this city! We also loved the wine and local cheese plates we enjoyed in Ovella Negra, the grotto like bar below the apartment. (We have been back to Alghero many times since and sadly, this bar is no longer there.). The owner was a real foodie. He only served local fare and treated us like visiting royalty. During our two week stay, we did go there almost every single day so I could see why they treated us well. This particular night, I must have had an orgasmic food experience – why else would I have written down every morsel. We tend to share lots of small plates – think tapas style. First, he served us a fresh, unsalted goat cheese that was so light and creamy it must have been made by angels. With that, of course we had Cardegna, a dry white wine. Next, some room temperature small plates to warm ones heart of dried tuna and sword fish. Yup, caught off the coast. We tasted bottarga, Sardinian cured fish roe, for the first time. Now, we are bottarga junkies. Bottarga is cured, air-dried roe from flathead mullets and is a Sardinian staple. After dinner, we were given a glass of Mirto – a local digestivo. It is the national drink of Sardegna and made by infusing alcohol with fresh myrtle berries. Most nights we staggered up the stairs to our apartment. The stairs seem easier when I stagger.
Saturday, January 10th we took the train to Sassari. The train ticket was 3.80€ roundtrip. It was a twenty-minute walk to the train station from our center city apartment. The ancient train meandered through a valley and we were surrounded by mountains. Sheep, sheepdogs and olive groves completed the picture. They city of Sassari was reminiscent of any neighborhood in any major Italian city. Cobble stone streets, buildings that were built during the middle ages and – of course – one of the finest restaurants on the island. We had the best grilled calamari ever at the Trattoria Gesuino. Seriously, the best ever! So very tender – I can still taste it. We visited the Museo Nazionale “Giovanni Antonio Sanna.” This archeological museum was chock full of great finds – including glass from 200 BC. We will go back someday.
Every great day takes longer than you think. Gulp, we missed the last train back. Thanks to that snafu we experienced even more of the island on the bus. The bus was 3€ – bella vista – we saw hills, small towns and more sheep. No wonder the local cheese is so fantastic! The bus meandered through villages the train passed by. We were dropped off in the park by the city wall. It was a shorter walk back to the apartment. Which of course we didn’t enter, going down to the bar instead.
Life in Alghero for educational tourists like us is magical. We didn’t know what to expect in January – except cheaper prices – and were happily surprised by the temperature, holiday culture and the food. Since I kept that journal in 2009, we have been back to Pintadera at least four additional times. We love the sea, the food, the people and of course Centro Mediterraneo Pintadera. We will return – perhaps we will see you there too.
PS: Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo is organizing for 2022. Today we read about travel. Tomorrow we travel.