|Behold: the Mediterranean Sea of mozzarella.|
I have to admit, Naples was not what I'd expected. Julia had warned me of its grittiness multiple times through the planning stages of our journey, having visited before; yet the city's identity as the birthplace of pizza made it, for me, a nonnegotiable destination. As we made our way out of the train station and through the city, I examined the urban tangle of dirty streets through scuffed skyscrapers and storefronts, a far cry from the pristine, historic cityscapes I had been spoiled by in San Sebastian, Bordeaux, Florence, and the like. Even the monuments in Naples came across as somewhat shabby, their graffiti-scarred stones a stark contrast to those we'd thus far encountered. Nevertheless, we reminded ourselves that we were there not for the ambiance, but for the pizza.
Well aware of the lackluster charm offered by the city's center, Julia had secured us a hotel on the coast, and our arrival to the more scenic harbor helped to soften Naples' edge. Mount Vesuvius slept stoically across the sea, and the shimmer of the Mediterranean was captivating, its dramatic clouds rolling lazily overhead. We checked in, happy to discover that our room had a balcony offering the same views of dazzling sea and sky, not to mention the majestic Vesuvius. We spent the last bit of the afternoon enjoying these views before heading out for a stroll to scout pizza options. We were armed with over a dozen restaurant names collected from various friends who'd visited Naples, but eventually we began to realize that fantastic pizza is pretty ubiquitous in the city (especially after some conversation to that effect with a few locals on the train ride in), so we asked the hotel front desk to point us in the right direction and we were on our way.
|Fact: everything is better with prosciutto.|
|In heaven, this would be my swimming pool.|
The next day we took a hydrofoil to the island of Capri. It was my first time on a hydrofoil, and I was completely unaware of the perils involved in sitting toward the front of the boat. Even after a gentle warning from a passing tour guide prior to departure, I thought little of it; after all, I had never experienced even the slightest flirtation with seasickness. But as I mentioned, this was my first time on a hydrofoil. For those of you unfamiliar with the gut-curdling watercraft, a hydrofoil is a boat that is designed to repeatedly lift out of the water as it gains speed, as less contact with the water reduces drag and allows the boat to move faster. Essentially, the craft moves like stone being skipped across the water, its hull often spending several seconds in the air before crashing back into the (in this case) already choppy sea. And though great swiftness is, in fact, achieved, its side effects warranted attendants who constantly circled the ship's cabin, offering sickness bags to all those in need. I only wish I could say the bags stayed empty.
|Slabs of sexiness.|
|Like untangling Christmas lights… only more delicious.|
I spent the next day in bed with a minor cold while Julia sought out a nearby spa for a bit of pampering, and we both turned in early (after another incredible pizza) in preparation for a pre-sunrise cab pickup. By ten the next morning we had landed in Olbia, on the island of Sardinia. It quickly became evident that Olbia was far from a bustling metropolis: mid-morning and the airport was a ghost town, populated only by those of us who had just landed. We collected our luggage and made our way to the car rental desk, eager to travel in control of our own destinies after so many trains and planes over the last month. And though I had painstakingly documented every leg of our journey across the island in the hopes of navigating us with swiftness, after a few miles it became clear we would need to rely on our instincts more than our preparations. The signs for route numbers were painfully inconspicuous, and in a language not our own, common words were often indistinguishable from place names. Nevertheless, we aimed the car west, using a large mountain range to the north as an orientation point, and zoomed off into the countryside.
The landscapes that whizzed past our windows along the rural roads were not ostensibly remarkable, but they were certainly beautiful. Ubiquitous flocks of sheep dotted and flowed about the green and golden meadows like splatters of spilt grey paint, and apparently represented the most numerous portion of Sardinia's population. Autumn vineyards struck across the spectrum as we traversed the island, from earthy, vibrant purples and maroons, to glinting pale yellows, to electric greens that still clung to the fading fingers of last season's warm embrace. The highway never grew to more than two lanes, and it rarely stayed straight for very long. As the coast grew closer, we watched our surroundings climb from sheep-specked hills into woodsy mountains, then roll down into a valley that spilled toward the sea. In the coolness of the valley a dense fog had collected in the distance, settling over everything and pooling like thick chowder. We rolled up our windows as the temperature dropped and the vast, white blanket drew closer. When it enveloped us, the world vanished, and the sun above cast smoky shadows in the fog. Their muffled forms whipped by in fast-forward, morphing into clarity mere feet before we passed them and then evaporating. It felt otherworldly, and I drank in the cinematic experience.
We made it to the sleepy, picturesque seaside town of Alghero by mid-afternoon. Famished and a bit haggard from the early rise and subsequent ten-hour journey that lay behind us, we sought out a bustling cafe sporting an enticing array of focaccia sandwiches and outdoor seating. Each sandwich was built on a massive slab of halved focaccia that measured several feet in either direction, the size of a small coffee table, before being cut into smaller (though still rather large) portions. I had a brief and amusing vision of Moses descending from Sinai, holding two halves of focaccia solemnly above his head. Meanwhile, Julia ordered a couple of sandwiches for us while I grabbed two beers at the bar and found a sunny table outside. Finally able to exhale, I took in my surroundings: the familiar cackle of seagulls; the distant but unmistakable sound of lapping waves; clear waters stretched to the horizon and met sky, while a wispy net of clouds softened the sunshine. We had officially arrived at our final destination, and nearly a month of nomadic memories lay behind us.
|There are certainly worse ways to end the day...|
|Moments later, she was 300 feet out at sea!|
|Flexing my mussels...|
|They huddled together in fear when they saw the look in our eyes...|
The show-stealers of the meal, and on par with Julia's veal chop from Paris, were the Gamberi Rossi, head-on red prawns. We paused momentarily as the dish was placed on the table, savoring the aromas that drifted off the autumn-hued shellfish, then went to work disassembling the prawns like yummy little puzzles. As we sucked our respective heads, their robustness overwhelmed us, seafood flavor as sweet and clean and pure as I've ever experienced, the very essence of prawn captured in hot liquid form. It's impossible to attempt description of the experience without breaking the damn of sexual innuendo wide open, so I will show some restraint. Suffice it to say, they were spectacular, and could convince even the most squeamish diner to suck some head.
|Holy moly, it's a cheese donut!|
For my birthday, we kept things simple. After chocolate croissants and exquisite cappuccinos at the hotel, we got lost among the inner alleyways and cobblestone streets of Alghero, window shopping and getting a feel for the city and its people. By noon, we had been walking for a couple of hours and decided it was time to seek out lunch options, ideally to bring back to the hotel and enjoy in front of the view. No sooner had we considered our mission than we were stopped dead in our tracks by the familiar, intoxicating aroma of roast chicken, its perfume penetrating directly to our brains and hitting all the right buttons. We followed our noses into a nearby store and discovered spits of roasting chickens, spinning lazily and dripping their miraculous, browned, umami juices onto chunks of potato below. My stomach rumbled as I eyeballed the well-done corners and cripsy edges spiked throughout the potatoes, and I communicated to Julia with urgency that she absolutely must specify the crispy bits when she ordered. In addition to a whole chicken and only the brownest, most amazing potatoes of the batch, we also got some caponata and a couple of cippolini onions that were roasted and stuffed with buttery breadcrumbs. We picked up a loaf of bread and a chilled bottle of Vermentino at a market on the way home, along with some mineral water and snacks for later. It was the least extravagant, most unassuming birthday lunch I've ever had, and it just might have been the best.
|Few are aware that Boston Market got its start in Sardinia.|
Dinner was kind of a bust: upon arriving to the restaurant we'd been excitedly anticipating for my birthday, we discovered it closed for the season, so we settled on a small trattoria tucked inside a quaint alley. We at some good fettuccine and drank some decent wine, but when a very large, very beautiful pizza arrived to a nearby table, it became clear we might have erred in our order. Not ones to waste time on menu regret, we comforted ourselves momentarily with memories of Naples, and then enjoyed the rest of our meal. The next day we spent the entire morning strolling once again, taking in the historic and seemingly undisturbed status that Alghero had enjoyed over the last few centuries. One got the sense that little had changed since the city's catapults were operational; between that, and its location on the edge of a seemingly endless sea, it felt isolated and protected, like a city sitting on a cloud that existed outside of time. It occurred to me that such a place was not a bad spot to spend a few days before plunging back to earth and returning to our lives at home.
We snagged a couple more sandwiches from the focaccia shop on our way back to the hotel, returning to our panoramic terrace for the the rest of the afternoon. When it came time for dinner, Julia used the leftovers from the previous day's picnic to make a hearty chicken soup; it was the first home-cooked meal we had eaten in weeks, and it couldn't have been more appreciated. Putting the warm soup in our bellies as night fell and the temperature dropped, we were as content and elated as we'd been at any point on our trip. After dinner, Julia found Dumb & Dumber in English on television, and we nearly did backflips with excitement. Falling asleep on our island in the cloud, it became clear that we were gaining appreciation for the simple things.
|Pacific Northwest in the Sardinian Northwest.|
|Is there anything more beautiful on a Sunday afternoon?|
|I see you checking out those curves...|
|It's nice to let the scallops feel right at home until the moment we devour them...|
We took our time walking back to the hotel, savoring our last day abroad. It seemed poetic to me, however unintentionally so, that we began and ended our adventure in the same city; like arriving to the last page of a book and then nostalgically flipping back to its first. I drank in the street's views and smiled, both for the memories behind us, and for home that awaited us on the other side of the ocean.