The Med's Best-Kept Secret
Specifically, the city of Alghero, on the northwest corner of the Mediterranean’s second-largest Island, behind Sicily and ahead of Crete
I mentioned to my English friend Duncan that I would be taking a trip to Sardinia and, naturally (for him), he asked me, “Is that where sardines come from?”
“Sorry, Duncan,” I replied, “but the name Sardinia derives from the pre-Roman noun “sard-, romanised as sardus (feminine sarda). The name apparently had a religious connotation, suggested from its additional use as the adjective for the ancient Sardinian mythological hero-god Sardus Pater (Sardinian Father), as well as being the stem of the adjective "sardonic". Sardinia was called Sandàlion (Σανδάλιον in Greek, meaning ‘sandal’).”
Thus did I retain my title as King of Worthless Information.
And so it was, on a cloudy, rainy afternoon in Budapest, I emplaned once again to set off for what I hoped would be yet another spectacular adventure, this time on the “tiny” island of Sardinia, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. It is supposed to have great seafood and beaches, which was my main reason for going there. That, and the fact that I’d never been there before.
My early-evening flight from Budapest transferred me through Rome and landed me at the Alghero airport around 10:30 PM on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. I had arranged with my hotel for a taxi to meet me, as the buses stopped running shortly after my arrival and I doubted I’d have time to catch one.
I paid the taxi driver (25 euro) and included a two-euro tip, at which he expressed surprise and great pleasure, which surprised me. I should have known from that little event that this would be a different visit. Anyway, I was welcomed at the Alghero City Hotel around midnight by Alessandra at Reception, tired and sweaty and bedraggled. It had only been two brief flights from Budapest, but I did have to run through Rome’s Fiumicino airport to make my connection due to a late take-off by Alitalia, so I was hungry and thirsty and, as I mentioned, sweaty.
After doing a quick unpack in my room, I headed back downstairs to the hotel bar, where I found Tomaso, Algherian Bartender Extraordinaire, waiting for me (actually, waiting for anyone) to enliven his otherwise rather boring night. It turned out the hotel’s guests didn’t patronize the bar when they returned from their wanderings, so poor Tomaso was left to watch Italian basketball games on TV. Being a bar guy myself, I kept in mind the first rule of arrival in a new city: Always make friends with the bartender. And so I did.
Tomaso offered me a local beer, Ichnusa, and it went down just the way it was supposed to. There was even a bowl of crisps (potato chips to my American readers) to accompany my drink, a practice I found at all of the bars I visited during the coming week. Very nice. But just that one beer did me in, and I started for my room when Tomaso made himself a friend for life by stopping me and giving me a bowl of sausage and cheese snacks, as I had told him I hadn’t had dinner. It promised to be a good week.
The Alghero City Hotel is a fairly new building, located about a ten-minute walk from the Old Town and a 15-minute walk from the local beach area, just two short blocks up from the seafront promenade. Perfect. It bills itself as a four-star hotel, but I’d say a solid three stars would be more accurate. My room was certainly adequate, clean and neat, small flat-screen TV, desk and armoire, and a somewhat narrow, smallish bed. I think my cot in the Army may have been bigger. But it was a comfortable room, with a balcony, but no view to speak of, and I settled right in.
Wednesday, June 24, my first full day in Alghero, and, after a very nice buffet breakfast at the hotel, overseen by two people who would also become friends, Laura and Antonio, I was off on my orientation tour of the city. I checked in with the Tourist Information office at the edge of Old Town, then started wandering the cobblestone streets of this beautiful, charming old Mediterranean city. I was able to find most of the bars and restaurants on my list of places to visit. I stopped for a tiramisu and Planter’s Punch around 11 AM at the Trattoria Cavour, near the Piazza Sulis, at the southern end of the Old Town area, right on the side of the sea wall.
I started with a carafe of white wine and some fried cod fish balls, then moved to the Fregula with lobster. Fregula is sort of a Sardinian pasta, shaped in very small balls, like a larger couscous. The lobster was good as far as it went, but apparently Sardinian lobsters are not in the same category as their giant cousins, the Maine lobsters. Rather small and only a few bites, but still quite yummy. The Fregula (pasta) was prepared in squid ink, which sounds strange, but tasted delicious – and my teeth only turned black for a few minutes. Dessert was another new treat for me – seadas, sort of a flattened sopapilla filled with soft pecorino cheese and drizzled with honey. To die for!
As all travelers know, we love to discover new places, new friends, new foods and drinks. My recent travels had taken me to Casablanca, Verona, Cesky Krumlov and Rome, and all were wonderful in their own way; but dining along the sea wall in Alghero, sipping wine and eating some of the best food anywhere, watching the sun set – well, that will steal your heart away.
I took the long way around to the hotel after dinner and arrived as Tomaso was tuning in to another Italian basketball game. He was happy to see me (he was probably happy to see anyone) and eagerly poured me another nightcap of limoncello – or maybe two, he treated me to so many shots that week. I finally succumbed to post-prandial lethargy and sank into the arms of Morpheus.
Thursday was Excursion Day, an all-day cruise aboard the Andrea Padre dive boat. After my usual breakfast buffet, I headed down to the marina around 9:30 for our 10 AM departure; naturally, we were 25 minutes late leaving due to several inconsiderate latecomers. I’d have left them flat after 10:05 AM, but guess that’s why I don’t run an excursion business. Anyway, we got out onto the open water, towing a couple of inflatable rafts used for diving, and we cruised across the bay to the Capo Caccia cliffs, sheer granite walls that rose more than 600 feet into the sky. I had thought entry to the famous Neptune’s Grotto was included in the trip, but it turned out, since the entry fee was extra, we wouldn’t be seeing the stalactites and stalagmites after all. Ah, well, it was a nice day on the sea.
Lunch was served around 2 PM. A starter of sausage and cheese squares, first course of pasta with one tiny piece of nearly inedible crab or lobster (hard to tell what it was), wine, mussels (most of which opened easily and were edible), and a dessert slice of watermelon, along with a shot of mirto. The meal was filling but unimpressive.
More swimming and we returned to the marina around 6 PM. After a quick shower at the hotel, it was back to Old Town for drinks and dinner. This night I stopped again at the Jamaica Inn for several of their wonderful cocktails, and ended up having some chicken wings and fries as a dinnertime snack that took care of me for the evening. Another stroll around the town and marina and it was back to the hotel bar. This time I found a Swedish woman sitting on the terrace and had a nice chat with her before she had to turn in.
Friday was beach day. The nearest beach to Alghero is the Lido Beach, just a 15- minute walk from my hotel. As I walked along the apartment-building and hotel-studded promenade, I realized there were no big major hotel chains along here (Hilton, Marriott, Kempinski, etc) and that none of the buildings were over five stories tall. What a nice surprise; no major tourist inroads yet into this still-pristine area. In addition, although I did see a sign pointing to a McDonald’s, I never did see the Mickey-D itself, another blessing; none of those nasty American fast-food restaurants in Alghero.
The sun was hot during my visit, anywhere from 25-30 degrees Celsius, but the almost continuous breeze (the Mistral) kept the island cool and dry at all times. Very tropical. I passed the afternoon in my lounge chair and in the sea, enjoying every minute.
And then it was time again for my pre-dinner libations, this time at a small terrace bar near the Piazza Sulis at the southern end of Alghero. A nice Planter’s Punch hit the spot. Tonight’s dinner plan was for some of Sardinia’s world-renown porcetto, or suckling pig, what we in the states refer to as pulled pork. I found the spot mentioned in Trip Advisor, Trattoria Lo Romani and quickly scarfed a table for dinner. The restaurant was deserted when I arrived, but filled up within the next 30 minutes, so it was a good thing I got there when I did.
Along with my suckling pig I had a small salad and ½ bottle of Sardinian Cannonau red wine. Dessert was, once again, that scrump-diddly-umptious seadas, along with another shot of mirto. If you think I was staggering by this time, you may be right, as I wended my swerving way back to the hotel. I don’t know if it was the weather, altitude (or lack thereof), strength of the drinks or difference in food, but it seemed during my stay in Alghero that one or two drinks was all I could take before I had a nice buzz on. I never get that way after such a small intake, but this time the alcohol sure affected me more than ever before. Maybe it was the Mistral.
Anyway, another mirto (or maybe two) with Tomaso and it was out for the count.
Digression: While my best-ever single meal is still probably the dinner I had at Palkin in St. Petersburg, Russia, for all-around culinary ambiance, flavor and diversity, I now believe that Alghero has moved into the top spot. The food in this northwestern Sardinian city simply has to be experienced to be believed. It is a magnificent blend of Italian and Catalan dishes. The tastes are sharp and colorful, the dishes presented in ways pleasing to the eye and the service and prices are enough to justify my new opinion. The only comparison I can make is to New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, in that both places serve food that is unique to their area and, while attempts are made to copy it elsewhere, one can really only get the true fare at its home base. In brief (and when have I ever been?), Sardinian cuisine just keeps you coming back for more and more and never disappoints. Salute and Bon Apetit.
I had read on the Internet about a flea market held the last Saturday of each month in the Piazza Civica of Alghero and, since I’m a souk and bazaar addict, was happy I would be in town for this event. I breakfasted and walked down to the Piazza early so as not to miss anything and, as it turned out, I missed everything, because there was no flea market. And, of course, no one to ask about it that early in the morning, so I was SOL again. I had originally planned my Hop On Hop Off bus tour for Sunday, but, since I was now at loose ends, decided I’d do it today. So, came 10 AM and the bus rolled into sight, I was there waiting for it near the marina.
The weather was a touch hazy that day, but would probably clear up in the afternoon. In fact, all during my stay the weather was wonderful. The bus tour goes around the bay and ends up at the Capo Caccia cliffs, then comes back. No major sights or sites, but a nice trip through the Sardinian countryside and along the northwestern coastline. I thought briefly about hopping off at the cliffs and taking in Neptune’s Grotto, but to get to it one must descend 657 steps; that wasn’t so much of a concern as the fact that I’d have to ascend those same steps for the return trip. After a six-second consideration, I passed.
I wanted to hop off somewhere, maybe at one of the beaches up the coast, but it was a one-hour wait for the next bus, so I had to choose carefully. Our hostess suggested the Spiaggia Mugoni (Mugoni Beach), where I could hang out in the sand, take a dip or two in the sea, get some lunch (it was then around 11:30) and then rejoin the tour on a later bus. Cool, I’m all for that.
So I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere at a T-junction, fields and bushes and trees surrounding the area. Hmmm. OK, I walked a few minutes down the side road and actually found a parking lot for the beach area. I wandered into the trees and found a barbecue pit and terrace, along with a snack stand for munchies and drinks. I approached the lady at the barbecue pit and asked her if they were serving yet; she replied, “No, we start serving at 1 PM.” Hmmm, 90 minutes away. Not good.
But OK, I could still have a cold drink and snack. The snack stand had a sign saying “Cocktails – Mojito, Daiquiri, Caipirinha, Gin/Tonic.” I was ready. I ordered a caipirinha from the young man, who replied, “Oh, we don’t have cocktails.” I motioned to the sign with a questioning look at him, but he merely stared bovinely back without comment. Sigh. Here it was again, signs offering products which were not, in fact, available. It is me, right?
I settled for a soda and strolled along the beach area, which, I quickly found, was roped off so as to charge an entry fee. Well, Scheisse! Strike three. I finished my soda, sat in the shade for a while and walked back out to the road to wait for the next tour bus, due at 12:15 PM. My beach afternoon was a complete bust, but at least I got to take a nice pee by the roadside.
We arrived back at the marina around 1 PM, and I immediately walked across the street to one of the local trattorias lining the marina promenade. A yummy crab salad and white wine, followed by one of those amazing seadas, topped me off quite nicely and I walked back to the hotel to escape the heat of the day.
Before dinner on this Saturday night I had my caipirinha after all on the terrace of the Café Gilbert in the Centro Storico (historic central district). I chatted briefly with an English couple who had just arrived a few short hours previously, had a pina colada and strolled the sea wall to build my appetite for what I was certain would be another amazing feast in Alghero. This time I chose Movida, overlooking the marina. Upon opening their menu, I read, “The minimum of two persons, which may seem unpleasant, is a rule based on experience to assume the success of the dish and service.” Fortunately, the dishes to which this interesting warning applied were not those in which I was interested that night. I grabbed a table next to the marina sea wall walkway and settled in.
My ½ bottle of white wine arrived quickly, followed by my appetizer of Sardinian cagolas (sea snails), interesting, but definitely an acquired taste. The main course was veal scallopine with a small salad, followed by a tasty seadas for dessert. A small mirto liqueur finished me off nicely. Passersby strolling along the sea wall occasionally watched me eat and drink; once in a while I purposely slurped my wine, just to give them a thrill.
Sunday was another beach day, spent at the Lido. I baked and broiled in the hot Sardinian sun, but was always cooled off by the ever-present cooling onshore breeze, so the 30-degree-Celsius temperature was easily bearable. Plus, occasional dips in the sea helped. I had lunch of sausage and cheese snacks at one of the beach cafes, then got ready for my dinner at Mabrouk.
I had read about this great place on Trip Advisor where everyone who ate there raved about it, so I had to give it a try. I starved myself all day. During the meal, I avoided bread and tried desperately to pace myself. Dinner was a 12-course tasting menu of local food and drink, and by the time I finished I was ready to be rolled back to my hotel. But damn, it was worth it!
Their standard tasting menu is whatever the catch of the day has been, plus whatever the chef decides to cook. No menus, and a set price for the entire meal. First, they serve four antipasti dishes (octopus with potato; stingray; monkfish and sardines), quickly followed by a plate of mussels. Usually the mussels would be followed by the pasta dishes. They start with a mixed seafood risotto (crab, mussels, clams, prawns), followed by a Sardinian pasta with a fish ragu, and finally a squid ink pasta with a Sardinian cheese. By this point most diners would have already begun groaning, but the best was yet to come, in the form of three fish courses: prawns in a garlic butter sauce, fried calamari and then a whole sea bream (with potatoes)!!!!
I knew I’d never make it through the last fish course, so I pre-ordered the aragosta della catalane, which is the local specialty – rock lobster! My lobster took the place of the pasta dishes and the fish courses and was nice, but somewhat skimpy on the meat. In retrospect, I should have gotten the standard tasting menu and passed on the lobster. I’d have been more filled up, but much happier.
And then, just as my eyes rolled back in my head and I began to slowly slide off my chair and under the table, I was asked to choose from a variety of desserts to round out the meal (and my stomach!). The choice was tough, between watermelon, profiteroles and other sweet goodies; I succumbed and nodded at the crème brule cake which, needless to say at this point, was incredible. Included in the set price was a nice carafe of house wine, which left me waddling back to my hotel along the Algherian cobblestone streets! All of this for just 50 euros! It is an incredible value for the price due to the quality, freshness and quantity of the food. And Mabrouk is still generally unspoilt by tourists, which makes it even more appealing.
Monday, my final day in Alghero, was, as is my usual practice, shopping day, for gifts and souvenirs and any other shiny gew-gaw which might catch my eye. I spent the morning looking for fun things for family and friends, wandering the tiny narrow streets of the Old Town and peering in the tiny little shops. I found pretty much everything I wanted during the morning, and a few more things besides, so decided to hit the beach in the afternoon to top up my tan. A nice way to finish off my daytime activities.
And my last night’s dinner was back at Dietro il Carcere, that quaint, tiny little trattoria in the shadow of the former prison walls. Gianni and his wife Franca welcomed me back with open arms and a shot of mirto. We dined al fresco, at tables set on the sidewalk and in the street. Dinner was fregula with seafood (mostly mussels and clams), made lovingly by a local chef. I stuck with the good Sardinian wine and, after a dessert of Catalan Cream, had my ubiquitous shot of mirto, with yet one more ‘forced’ on me by Gianni. The warm Mediterranean light spilled over all of the diners like honey. Another fantastic meal.
And back at the hotel, my buddies bartender Tomaso and breakfast staffer Antonio were waiting for me with farewell shots of limoncello. How could I refuse? I couldn’t. Tomaso, who took such good care of me curing my visit, didn’t even want to accept a gratuity from me, which was my only way of thanking him for being more than just a bartender, but I won out in the end. Both Tomaso and Antonio gave me manly abrazos and cheek kisses on parting; when European men say farewell to another man with cheek kisses, you know you’ve been accepted. It’s a nice feeling. It really felt like I was part of their family and for the first time in many years I actively considered returning next summer for another visit. We shall see.
June 30 was my return flight to Budapest, and it was a standard day of getting to the airport for my noon flight (this time I took the airport bus, for only 1.50 euro, as compared to the 25-euro taxi ride), hopping my one-hour (late again!) flight to Rome, quick scamper to my connecting gate, 90-minute flight to Budapest, 45 minutes on the bus and metro and home again around 7 PM.
And now? Well, I really can’t wait to get back to Alghero. Great place, Great weather. Amazing food. Welcoming, friendly people who accepted me into their families with warmth and gusto. Alghero, Sardinia………I could die there.