Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Sardinian Holiday

The fear of boredom and of insanity is a potent combination. It's been a while that I've been hopping from the UK to Catalunya and vice versa, and it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't travelled to a new country for, oooo, too long. My solution? Book a ridiculously last-minute trip to any place I'd never been before: Cagliari, Sardinia.

It was so last-minute that I didn't even really have time to coerce anyone to come with me, thus ticking another box on my 'never-done-this-before' list; that is, taking a holiday by myself. It's such a good job I'm a fabulous and interesting person - I couldn't possibly get irritated by my own company...

I looked forward to good food, and I was not disappointed. For lunch, I found a restaurant half-hidden down some shaded steps and almost overdosed on pasta. It would have been rude not to, with a deal of 7 euros for all the pasta you can possibly fit into one's tummy; furthermore, the Italian who served me invited me to a glass of mirto, which is a typical Sardinian liqueur of myrtle berries or leaves. It's delicious but very sweet.

It was time to do some sightseeing, and almost the very first thing I saw was a procession celebrating Good Friday and mourning for Christ on the cross. About three-score or so participants were dressed in white, a few others in black with their faces veiled in a terrible appearance of emptiness and sadness, and a young boy dressed as the Saviour complete with a plastic crown of thorns, which - to be brutally honest - I thought was quite creepy. The young boy was quite innocently swinging it in his hands but for me, knowing the implications and the story behind it, it was disturbing.

Wandering around Cagliari gave me such a feeling of satisfaction and peace, for all my preconceptions of Italians were being fulfilled! Sunglasses seemed to be permanently lodged over eyes, as if taking them off would reveal dark burning holes of nothingness, or perhaps of lasers - which would make more sense because then wearing shades all the time would at least meet certain safety regulations  regarding the protection of the ice-creams they were eating. Scooters were arranged in a mish-mash net in piazzas, and people insisted on saying 'ciao' at every available opportunity in that delightful sing-song tone that Italians are famous for. Pedestrians took their life into their own hands when they crossed wide roads, horns blaring and tooting in a not quite so pleasant way as people's voices.

I have also never known a place to be so full of churches. I truly believe it must be the gateway into Heaven or be the portal into Paradise. How could it not be with Sant'Anna, Sant'Agustino, Sant'Efisio, and Sant'Eulalia guarding the corners of every street whereas in Barcelona every street corner has a prostitute defending her turf? All these pious excursions exhausted me, I confess, so I decided to have a coffee and read my book before diving once more into the  breach and see Cagliari at night. It twinkled with lamps and bustled with people out for a stroll before dinner. It was altogether quite peaceful, at least in the smaller streets in the old part.

 After some much-needed sleep, I awoke on the Saturday morning to beautiful sunlight warming my eyelids. I lazily showered and attempted to dry my hair with the ridiculous breathy hairdryer which looked like the trunk of an elephant and was about as useful as a pair of butterfly's wings flapping desperately to rid the strands from moisture.

Giving up in a good-natured huff, I thought it was about time for breakfast. It was 11 a.m. Off I went to a cafe I'd seen the day before that promised books within. Not that I could read any in Italian but I enjoyed skimming the alien letters of titles, and I was content with my choice of dolce sarda and latte. The dolce are typical sweet pastry-esque things from Sardinia and were rather delicious. However, I almost choked on my coffee when a text arrived from a friend enquiring if I'd seen any lovely Italian men or just 'fatty lobster English' boys.

There was an archaeological museum in the vicinity so I grudgingly paid 5 euros for the privilege of seeing some bits of shattered pottery and religious artefacts. I felt rather cheated, even though I'd been momentarily amused by a statue of the Virgin Mary riding on what appears to be a hippo. Perhaps it got lost in the Bible and couldn't find Noah.

Speaking of random animals, the giant tower in the high part of the town is called the Elephant Tower after its imposing size (I imagine) as well as the statue of a creamy white elephant perched on the side next to the gates into what was the old castle. The most interesting fact I learnt here is that in ye olden days if you were unfortunate enough to still be in the castle once the gate had shut, you were rather unceremoniously - and fatally - thrown off the top of the wall. It also showed off trophies in the form as heads, as decapitation was a la mode. Clearly a welcoming city.
At the back of the tower were dizzingly steep wooden steps; so much so that I had to actually count them on the ascent to keep my mind occupied and so I didn't freak out and fall in an undignified manner. Or dignified manner; I didn't want to fall. Once I reached the top, however, all was worthwhile. The views from the top were absolutely spectacular. The city sprawled out beneath me in a haphazard terracotta maze through which the grey tarmac roads, carrying bug-like cars, viciously slashed. Pinnacles and spires of all the churches and the cathedral punctured the skyline, as if trying to draw blue sky down into their stone bodies. One dome looked like it had burrowed into a snakeskin hat, scales for tiles, and sunshine glinting off its reptilian surface. Down at the port ships cautiously crept into deeper waters, as though unwillingly sucked by some greater nautical power. Far off towards the horizon, mountains stretched towards white ice-cream clouds, in the end disappointed because they just weren't quite high enough.

Clambering down the steps wasn't as hard-going as going up, I'm pleased to report, and I didn't trip, fall, or otherwise fatally injure myself.

Even though I didn't manage to walk around the entire city, this is the memory of Cagliari I will cherish. To be up so high and smell the fresh sea-breeze, feel the heat of the sun and the coolness of the wind at the same time, was incredible.
The other memory will be of a wonderful little piazza in the old quarter, sheltered from the breeze, writing my postcards that were destined to be sent from Catalunya - for it slipped my mind that it was Easter. It seems such a trivial memory but, you see, I was giggling to myself practically the whole time. In my mind, I was replaying The Italian Job.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Palm Sunday, or the Blessing of the Lasagne.

Palm Sunday, or El dia de rams, is a very special day in the calender here. Although rather fabulous if you are to be on the receiving end, it's rather unfortunate if you're a godparent because tradition dictates that you shell out a potential fortune on a tortell (a kind of cake) or la mona (a chocolate figure). I've seen many in the bakeries, orientated towards young children, in the shape of Hello Kitty or a Smurf or whatever else kids are watching nowadays on the tele.... I've also seen the hugest Easter egg, which I'm dying to roll down a hill in true English fashion. Except that there aren't many hills in Girona so the closest thing I can think of would be the escalators in the train station, but even this would be problematic, for there are only up escalators. But I digress...

The other tradition is for the children to carry a palm leaf or cross to the church on Sunday, dressed in their very best, to have the priest bless it and so bring them good fortune for the rest of the year. And it truly was adorable - some of the students from the academy were there in their pretty little dresses or smart jeans, and they clung to their palm leaves in the hot sunshine, attempting to get the best place to be blessed. It all took place in the square by the church, priests standing on the steps and announcing the beginning of the ceremony to the congregation below, most of whom scarpered when the priest invited us to mass, demonstrating that while traditions are being kept alive, in Catalunya at least, religion is not as prevalent as once it may have been.

Children have the palms, then, but for the parents? The adult equivalent of bringing palm leaves to be blessed is instead bringing a branch of llorers, or bay leaves; they leave the ceremony safe in the knowledge that for the rest of the year their culinary creations, their spaghetti bolognaises and lasagnes will be blessed and holy. Proof that lasagne is divine.

Alas, I had no bay leaves to be blessed, not even packaged supermarket ones. What's a girl to do if even a bolognaise won't protect her? Brother Maynard, fetch forth the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.