Thursday, May 31, 2012

From Alghero to Barcelona

Last day to enjoy that beautiful view!!

  Day four, sadly, was our last in Sardegna. Linda and I would be moving onward to Barcelona, a city I had had my eye on for several years, that evening. Even though I desperately wanted to visit Barcelona, I had thoughts of ditching the Spanish city, and staying in Alghero a few days longer.

  Sardegna had been prefect. And there was still so much to be seen on the island (and so many more hours relaxing on the beach!). But we stuck to our itinerary, and would be getting on an airplane back to mainland Europe that night.

  In a perfect world, we would have visited Barcelona first. Done the sight-seeing, the walking, the 'touristy' things, exhausted ourselves, and THEN gone to Sardegna for some R&R. But the schedules just didn't work out that way (when Ryan Air has flights for 7 euros, you kind of have to go when they say to go)! So we had to bite the bullet, and leave paradise when we really didn't want to (but then again, when do you EVER want to leave paradise?).

  We wanted to soak up every last second on the beach our last day, so we stayed out extra-long for our after-breakfast coffee on the sand. And even though we had to check out at noon, we planned to hang at the hotel a while after that, playing in the water, and relaxing on the beach.

Linda and our delicious focaccias from Bar Milese.
  We didn't have to be at the airport until almost 6pm. So our plan was to have lunch at Bar Milese again (the focaccia was too good NOT to have it one more time!), and then spend some time in Alghero, shopping, and seeing the old city sights: the ancient city walls, the harbor, and the scenic narrow streets.

  The weather that day was the warmest we'd had. Roughly 80 degrees, and you could really feel the difference. Both in the air, and in the atmosphere. Everyone was out on the water, or at the beach.

  In fact, when we ventured into Alghero for our focaccias, followed by an afternoon of souvenir shopping, we found nearly every store closed. And it was a Thursday! I chalked it up to the first really warm day of the season. So everyone closed up shop, and headed for the water. But I could have been wrong.

  None the less, I found a few things to take with me from beautiful Sardegna. With the stores closed we had nothing but the streets to walk and the old city to see.

Sardegna, Italy, and Alghero flags.
  Because of its location on the Mediterranean Sea, Alghero was a fortified port dating back to the 1100s. In the 1300s, Alghero was taken by the Catalan colonists, explaining why you see such a strong Catalan influence in the city.

  We walked around the harbor and the city walls, and enjoyed the last views of Alghero (for the time being, anyways!).

  I hope to visit Sardegna again soon, revisit some of the beautiful sights we already saw, and see even more of the island: Costa Smeralda, Stintino, and any other place that is suggested!

  I can't stress enough how perfect a May visit was -- few tourists, and beautiful weather. I can imagine August on the island gets a little dicey. All of Europe goes on vacation in August, and I'm willing to bet many of them have Sardegna circled as a potential destination.

  I recommend Sardegna 1000 times over. It is, without a doubt, a hidden gem. For those of you in the US, if you get to Europe, make the extra effort and visit Sardegna. You will not be disappointed. And if you're already in Europe, what are you waiting for?!? Get to Sardegna!
Me at the Alghero Harbor.
  But onward to Barcelona! As sad as I was to leave Sardegna, I was excited to finally get to see Barcelona. I had heard so much about it over the years, from friends who had been lucky enough to  visit. Many said Barcelona was their favorite European city. So how could I not be excited?

  By nightfall, we were in the hustle and bustle of the Barcelona city center. While it was merely 400 miles across the sea, Alghero couldn't have felt further away. Linda and I were in Barcelona, but it's safe to say our minds were still on the beach at Hotel dei Pini.

  Ci vediamo presto Sardegna ...  see you soon (I hope)!


From Hotel dei Pini
There's Capo Caccia again. From Alghero.
From the old city walls.
Alghero Harbor.
Linda at the Alghero Harbor.
Alghero Harbor.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Alghero: Day 3 Kayaking and Amazing Focaccia

Just south of Alghero.

  Day three arrived in Sardegna, and it was time to get active. Linda and I had talked for two days about renting bikes, snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding, and so on, but we had nothing to show for it.

  Our morning went just as it had the previous two days: breakfast at Hotel dei Pini, and then coffee on the beach. A nice, relaxing way to start the day off, and a great place to game plan for the day.

  The weather was a bit cloudier than it had been, so we thought kayaking would be perfect. With a light cloud cover, we wouldn't roast in the warm sun, and it wouldn't be too hot to sit out on the water for a couple hours. The waters were calm, so it seemed to be perfect conditions for hanging out, kayaking, in Alghero Bay.

  We found two hours of kayaking for 20 Euros at a place called Ocean Tribe. So we headed towards Alghero to start our adventure on the water. Once we got our 'sea-legs' (I was sure I'd get flipped into the water at some point -- I'm not the most graceful thing on the water), and figured out how to paddle in sync, Linda and I had a good time seeing the sights from the other side of the water. We saw a school of jumping teeny-tiny fish (sardines, in Sardinia maybe???), but nothing else too Earth-shattering.

The boats sporting red flags outside our hotel.
  One interesting thing we did come across were two seemingly remote controlled boats, out in the middle of the bay. They had red flags above them and moved in tandem. Linda and I had no idea what they were (though a CIA spy bot did cross my mind), so we quickly paddled in the opposite direction.

  The following day, we actually saw the same boats in front of the beach at our hotel. Only that time, a diver surfaced on occasion. I suppose he was collecting some kind of data, but thought it was interesting that he was so far out in the bay when we saw him from our kayak.

  Ocean Tribe also had stand up paddle boards for rent, which I contemplated giving a whirl. I have seen paddle boards non-stop the past few years: on Lake Oswego, all year on the beach in Dunkerque, and here was my opportunity to give it a try. But I was in such a good mood, and knew the first couple tries at paddle boarding would probably result in me spending more time in the water, than on the water, so I passed. Maybe I'll try it out this summer while I am home!

Another beautiful day!
  Linda and I had worked up quite an appetite paddling our kayak around Alghero Bay, and it was well-past the lunch hour, so we were starving! I had gotten a recommendation for a good lunch spot that I had been wanting to try out called Bar Milese, which specialized in focaccia sandwiches.

  When we were turned our kayak back in at Ocean Tribe, we asked if they knew Bar Milese. They knew right where it was; always a good sign!

  We found the focacceria, located right in the harbor, and it was jam packed. And it didn't seem to be packed with tourists -- even better! We managed to grab a table outside, and ordered. I tried the Melanzane (eggplant) focaccia, and it was to die for: garlicky goodness. In my opinion, the only way to have eggplant is with a heavy dose of garlic.

  We even spotted one of ladies that worked the front desk at our hotel at Bar Milese. If the locals frequent it, you know you're in the right spot! Linda and I promised to go back the next day for another focaccia sandwich.

  Before we ventured back to Hotel dei Pini, we stopped in for a quick gelato on the go. This stop provided us with one of the funnier moments of our trip. As I mentioned before, while I'm not fluent in Italian, I do understand a quite a bit. After we ordered, and went to pay, the woman who scooped our gelato hollered at the man taking our money at the register: and for the 'ragazze piccole' (little girls)...or not so little girls since Linda and I both stand over six feet tall.

  I burst out laughing, and went on to enjoy my gelato. What people will say about you when they think you don't understand!

Where the wild things are?
  After lunch and gelato, I hit back roads again for an afternoon run. Only this time I was solo. About five minutes into running, I started thinking (too much) about all those critters and animals that were surely out there. And for the first time ever, I ran with a rock in my hand. Though, I'm not exactly sure what a rock would do, but it was better than nothing, I suppose! I managed to have a nice run, and avoided any unfortunate encounters with any wild critters.

  Since it was our last night in Sardegna, we wanted to find a great place to have dinner. Linda wanted to find some fresh seafood, and I wanted to try some of the local fare (not much of a seafood eater). After researching some places online, we headed back to Alghero with a list of potential restaurants.

There's Capo Caccia again.
  Before dinner though, Linda and I wanted to see what the coast was like south of Alghero. So we decided to drive for a bit, and see what sights were on the other side of the city: beautiful countryside, rolling hills, and surprise, surprise, more gorgeous views of the sea.

  You could look back into Alghero, and also see across onto Capo Caccia. Again, it was nice to see the island from a little different perspective!

  For dinner, we chose La Botteghina. It seemed like a fairly new restaurant, or at least, a newly remodeled space. It had a small dining area, but a nice atmosphere, and great food. Linda found her seafood, and I tried the gnocchetti (pictures below). I also tried the local digestivo Mirto (at the urging of the hostess), and introduced Linda to Limoncello. Sorry to those who enjoy Mirto, but I think I prefer Limoncello.

  Our time on Sardegna sadly, was winding down. With only one more day to go on the beautiful island, we wanted to make the most of it! Our final day in Alghero, coming soon!


The views south of Alghero.
Linda finally got her seafood!
Gnocchetti with Pane Carasau. Two specialties of Sardegna.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Alghero: Day 2. Netupune's Grotto and Capo Caccia

At the top of the stairs at Neptune's Grotto.

  After a fabulous start to our European vacation, Linda and I were going to be hard-pressed to top Day 1 in Sardegna. Lucky for us, Alghero and its surrounding area, was filled with gorgeous/unique sights, and new places to explore everywhere we went.

  But before I could really start my day, I was in desperate need of a workout. After four or five days of no running, I was getting a little anxious to get a sweat worked up.

  Since we had done a little exploring of the back roads and trails the day before, I felt comfortable with the lay of the land. So now I wanted to get out and see a little bit more! I've always thought the best way to explore a new area was by foot, and what better way to do that than with a run?!? Linda was game for a run as well, so we headed out on the Sardinian countryside shortly after breakfast.

  It's amazing how great a run feels after you've taken several days off. I definitely had missed it! We saw lots of little lizards scampering on the roadside, and heard critters in the grass just off the road. Nothing like Mother Nature forcing you to pick up your pace!

A little chilly!
  With my workout out of the way, I was fully prepared to lounge on the beach, and soak up the sun for the rest of the afternoon.

  Amazingly enough, we had the beach entirely to ourselves that day. There wasn't another soul in sight, other than than the two hotel workers that were still clearing the beach from the storm that had passed through two nights prior.

  It may have been a little chilly and cloudy to start off, but the weather eventually cleared, and we had another beautiful day! I got back in the water, though this time it was a little too cold to go any further than waist-deep.

  We watched as a cruise ship came to port in across the water in Alghero Bay. I've never been on a cruise before, but I think I need to find one that docks in Sardegna for a future vacation!

  After another lunch on the go, Linda and I inquired about going to visit Neptune's Grotto later that evening. Because of its location on the sea, you need to make sure the water isn't too rough to visit. On a stormy afternoon, entrance into the cave isn't possible. We got the OK to go, after checking with the folks at the front desk.

Capo Caccia.
  Capo Caccia, where the Grotto is located, was only a 20-minute drive from Hotel dei Pini, so we arrived by late afternoon. We had planned to visit Neptune's Grotto, have a quick dinner, and then catch the sunset from the cliffs of Capo Caccia. And honestly, those are the best plans we could have possibly made!

  I'm not really sure how to describe Neptune's Grotto and the area around it. I don't think I have the words to properly do it justice. But here's a quick summary: it's the most amazing thing I have ever seen.

  If you ever are in Sardgena, and DON'T visit, you are doing yourself a disservice. So please go! I might even go as far to say that Neptune's Grotto alone is enough reason to hop on a plane (or boat) and visit Sardgena. It's that good!

  To reach Neputne's Grotto, you can either go by boat from Alghero, or drive to Capo Caccia and walk the stairs (there are 656 stairs, so be ready!). We chose the stairs, and I think we made the best choice. I'll let the video speak to that. If you go by boat, you don't get this view:

  That view as I turned the corner gave me goosebumps. With the sun hitting the water, the bright blue sky, and the tan/brown/red cliffs surrounding me -- it was truly an amazing place. And we hadn't even seen the Grotto yet!

Pretty awesome views.
  It took us forever to walk down to the water because we stopped every five seconds to take more pictures. It was very difficult to put the camera away and just walk because every view seemed just a little bit better than the previous one!

  Again, we couldn't have picked a better time to visit. I can imagine in August the stairs are crawling with tourists. But on that Tuesday evening, Linda and I were the only ones to be found.

  We finally reached the bottom of the stairs, and the entrance of Neptune's Grotto. What a
cool place! We paid our 13 euros, and waited for the top of the hour, and the tour of the caves to start.

Inside Neptune's Grotto.
  The entire cave system is actually about four kilometers (2.5ish miles) long, but only a few hundred meters are accessible to the public.

  The limestone stalactite and stalagmite formations seemed surreal, like someone had made them by hand. But it was actually the result of water dripping over the course of millions of years. Not something I can really wrap my brain around!

  The temperature inside the caves is always roughly the same: 16-18 C (60-65 F).

Linda checking out the sights of the Grotto.
  I wasn't sure what we'd find at Neptune's Grotto. I had seen pictures, but pictures never fully let you appreciate something like that. I constantly found myself saying wow, and this is incredible. Hopefully the pictures and videos are able to explain it better than I can!

  While you were near the entrance of the caves, you would occasionally feel a vibration in your body and ears -- a very weird sensation. That was the sound of the waves crashing into the side of the cliffs. Would hate to be inside during a bad storm! I can imagine that would be pretty scary!

  There is only one point inside the Grotto that receives sunlight  -- the back wall just inside the entrance. That spot is green, and blue, and brown from photosynthesis (so said our tour guide -- I was always terrible at science!). I thought it was cool because it seemed to resemble Earth from space.

  To me, Neptune's Grotto is just another example of how awesome nature can be.
The one spot inside the Grotto that receives sunlight.
  Linda and I slowly made our way back up the stairs, and contemplated where we were going to watch the sun drop into the water later that evening. We thought we'd be able to watch from the stairs, but the gate at the top is locked when the tour guides from the Grotto leave for the evening. They told us that we'd be able to see a beautiful sunset from the 'Panoramic Lookout' located nearby.

  We had less than an hour to kill until sunset, and Linda and I were both starving! Capo Caccia is a fairly remote place, so we weren't going to have much to chose from. Not to mention we were short on time. So we set out to find a quick snack.

Heading back up the stairs!
   We stumbled onto a Bed & Breakfast restaurant with a beautiful patio area covered in flowers. There was no one to be found, with the exception of a little old Italian lady, and an older woman who clearly ran the B&B. It looked like I was going to have to use my brilliant Italian to see if we could get something fast to eat!

  I somehow got my point across (though looking back on it, I cringe at how bad I must have sounded! My grammar was awful, wrong tenses, couldn't remember any vocabulary -- the poor woman probably thought I was insane.)! She offered to make us two panini, which we quickly ate, and hurried back to the lookout in Capo Caccia.

The sunset from Capo Caccia.
  The previous night's sunset was a hard one to beat. But watching from the cliffs of Capo Caccia was incomparable.

  The sun was so bright, and being able to watch it disappear directly into the the sea was pretty awesome. A breathtaking ending to an overall perfect day!

  Out of the eight days of vacation in both Barcelona and Sardgena, our second day in Alghero undoubtedly gets my vote as the best day of the trip. Neptune's Grotto, and that beautiful sunset on Capo Caccia are just too much to surpass!

(note: both Linda and I took 150+ pictures that afternoon/evening, so there are a TON! And 2 more videos at the bottom)


The obligatory toes on the beach shot -- relaxing at Hotel dei Pini. Cruise ship in the distance.

Lunch on the balcony at Hotel dei Pini.

Looking down atop stairs to Neptune's Grotto.
The walk down to Neptune's Grotto.
Looking down into the water from the stairs.
Finally at the bottom of the stairs!
Just inside the Grotto.
Right inside the caves.
The Dome.
Inside the Grotto.

Linda on her way out!
Time to head back up the stairs!
656 steps back to the top!
Capo Caccia from the airplane a few days later!
Wait for me!
The 'start' of the sunset.
Looking back towards Alghero from Capo Caccia.

Very peaceful.
Almost into the water.
All gone.