Friday, July 8, 2011

A Three Hour Tour

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship.

Our final day in Sardinia promised to be full of adventure as we had booked a sailing cruise from Porto de Tuelada, a drive of slightly under an hour from our resort in Santa Margherita di Pula along the breathtaking coastal road from Chia to the port. This piece of the puzzle fell into place late in the previous day, as we had stumbled upon the port, more of a marina really, on the way back from our ill fated (but eventually successful) adventure to Porto Pino. While our overall Sardinian itinerary had been assembled at the last minute, we had put together a wish list of things we wanted to do on the island and renting a sailboat or going on a cruise (un' escurione) was high on the list. We had pretty much abandoned that idea the previous day, however, when we discovered that it would take a couple of hours to get to Sant' Antioco, where we knew there were some charters available. Our fortuitous stumbling upon the much closer Porto de Tuelada and finding the crew aboard the day before seemed to indicate that the travel gods were indeed watching over us.

Nonetheless, our expecations for the escursione were fairly low and uncertain. All we knew was that a group of about 20 others would be aboard and that the cruise would last from 10am until 5pm. Lunch would be served as well. We expected it might be a cheesy affair (the cruise, not the lunch) but looked forward to a day on the water, although we somewhat regretted that we would miss the opportunity to return to the beach at Teurredda (apologies for mistakingly calling it Teulada in my earlier post - perhaps you can see how I might be slightly confused), one of the 10 best beaches in the world!

We arrived at the Porto under bright blue skies, a few wispy clouds smattered here and there. More importantly, the sea was calm, even if the winds had not yet built up sufficiently for a good day of sailing. We were the first of the passengers to arrive at the Milmar, a handsome, well kept ketch of about 70 or 80 feet, so we found a shady spot on the main deck under a canvass awning and spread out two towels to mark our territory. A few moments later our shipmates began to arrive in groups, the first a group of 10 or so Italians in two or three families, apparently all staying at the same resort and arriving by resort transportation. A young couple (we later found out from Germany) arrived as did another large group of Italians. The passenger list was rounded out by two women who spoke English, although we never did quite place where they were from, understanding them to be from the People's Republic of China. We were quietly grateful that we had not stumbled upon the British or American tourist boat.

We hoisted anchor and set off from port under motor just a few minutes behind schedule, a minor miracle in Italy, when the Italians immediately decided that they preferred our shady spot to theirs and proceded to lie on our towels. After chasing them off with a smile, not an easy task, we spent the next hour or so alternating between enjoying the scenery, the building breeze and defending our territory.

We sailed southwest along the coast, and were treated to a running commentary by our hostess, a pretty but ageless Italian woman with a slender tanned frame and a microscopic bikini, unsure if she was 20 years old or 60. She genially provided information about the passing islands and the coastline, which, for the first half hour, consisted of an enormous, sparsely inhabited military base. What she told us, we believe (and she did tell us this in English), was that the area was used as a bombing range during 9 months of the year rendering the coastline navigable by non-military vessels only during the summer, after the military had cleaned up most of the artillery and other explosives that had missed their targets and landed in the water. Most of? Reassuring.

We reached Ponte Zafferano, the southermost point of Sardinia and dropped anchor and the hardiest souls dove into the crystal clear waters, possibly rather than heading below to use the ship's head. Turning around we anchored at American Beach (our guide really couldn't tell us much about the origin of that name, only opining that perhaps the Americans used this one as their bombing range) and were taken to shore for an hour or so on an inflatable tender. Meanwhile, the crew remained aboard, preparing our lunch.

When we returned to the Milmar we motored to the lee of Isola Rossa (Red Island) and dropped anchor and the crew began to serve lunch. We were only beginning to enjoy the local olives and Sardinian bread called pane carasau, a flat, ribbon like rustic cracker whose name apparently derives from the word for sheet music when a coast guard boat came along side and told us to move along. Grumbling, the captain agreed to do so and halted the serving of the pasta, but as soon as the authorities moved along he dropped anchor again and resumed the lunch serving.
Italian obedience to authority is not always so strong.

What mussels!
Before the pasta even reached the long table covering the foredeck you could smell it. A simple spaghetti dressed with fresh mussels sauteed in tomato sauce. The enormous portions of pasta (there was a similar sized serving without the mussels for those not preferring seafood) were served in enormous terra cotta pots, and I do mean enormous, that resembled the type of giant flower pots that you can plant trees in. I half expected to find a bunch of roots at the bottom of the pot, but our group, despite seconds and thirds, was unable to reach the bottom.

It is hard to describe just how perfect food tastes when prepared and eaten aboard a boat (provided the seas are calm). We (and our friends, family and guests) have literally devoured everything put in front of us when on daysails during our frequent visits to the Cayman Islands, a frenzy of group eat set off by a certain marinated conch dish prepared by our favorite Captain Crosby. The spaghetti and mussels triggered this same sort of feeding frenzy, this time the triggering mechanism being the aroma of the pasta, herbs and mussels. For a half hour or so this gregarious group was literally silent.

Post lunch activities consisted of more beach hopping and swimming, with a noticable hour long lull starting around 2:30, when the Italians among the group all simultaneously fell asleep on deck. After rising from their group siesta the watersports began again, with much diving and splashing around the boat. The Italians were particularly fond of jumping overboard and doing the "bomba," their particular version of our "cannon ball." I used my weight to advantage and showed off the canopener, which they seemed to find impressive and which restored a bit of American pride on board. A few moments later, however, the red, white and blue became the object of admiration among not just the Italians, but the entire crew.

One of the young Italians, a boy of about 10 years, was quite active in doing the bomba, but leaning so far forward with his body that he nearly cracked his face on the water (which from the height of the deck, about 8 feet above the waterline, could cause some real pain). In addition, he wore his mask as he dove in, over and over, nearly landing on his face time and time again. After a few dives the boy's parents asked him what he had done with his mask and he matter of factly told them it had fallen off and sunk to the bottom. He apparently was not interested in retrieving it. I was in the water at the time, wearing a pair of swim goggles and although they were quite fogged up I could see the tiny mask on the sandy bottom directly below the boat. Taking a deep breath, I dove down to rescue the mask, thinking it would not be too difficult. I am a recreational scuba diver and fancy myself as a pretty good free diver, generally able to reach 30 or 40 feet on a single breath. However, in the more bouyant Mediterranean, with ever expanding and ultrabouyant love handles and no fins to assist my descent, I abandoned my attempt not half way to the missing mask. When I surfaced I explained to the boy and his parents, as well as to the rest of the ship's company (who were now all quite concerned that he get his mask back) that it was too deep to reach. A few of the Italian fathers took that as a challenge and attempted to reach the mask but with the same result. Then a young German lad, a surfer as it turned out, urged on by his girlfriend who told Suzy that he could reach the mask because he was fit, gave it the good old German try. He, too, came up empty.

Do you believe in miracles?
Suzy, taking charge as always asked one of the crew members if they had a pair of fins on board and a few moments later a pair was thrown to me, who had been keeping track of the mask. Suzy overheard the German boy telling the German girl that they should "let the old man try it. If he can't do it I can." This was truly a moment of self realization for me (I've never been called an old man to my face) and a moment of challenge. I donned the fins (pietone, it seems, in Italian, which I translate as "big feet"), fixed my gaze on the mask below, and hummed the Star Spangled Banner in my mind. Then rolling forward, extending my legs upward above the water, I plunged downward toward the sandy abyss, a child's smiling face imploring me downward to the bottom of the ocean. With the fins, it took only a few powerful strokes before I knew I would be able to achieve the mission and within seconds I was on the seabottom, mask securely in hand and turned to rejoin the land of airbreathing creatures. Breaking the water's surface I literally breached (please hold the whale jokes) as the entire cast of passengers and crew broke into spontaneous applause, shouting "bravo," which is the first time I have heard that word spoken to me in Italian. It literally means bravo.

From that moment on I was a minor celbrity on board, the American who had saved the day. It was then that I knew that our country, America, will regain her footing in the world and once again rise to a position of preeminence, plucking childrens' masks metaphorically from the sands of the ocean and restoring them to their rightful and hapless owners. For if a fat "old man" from American can do this, there is nothing America cannot achieve.


* * *

We continued along the beautiful Sardinian coast, anchoring and swimming, our final stop along a beach that looked slightly familiar. It was, in fact, la spiagga Teurredda (one of the 10 best beaches in the world!), the beach we had regretted not being able to pay a farewell visit to on our last day. We jumped in and splashed around, thankful that we had been given this wonderful opportunity to say goodbye.

But as the ship pulled into dock at Porto di Teulada around 5:30 we realized we had enough time to visit Teurredda for a couple of hours before they closed the parking lot at 8pm. So back we went, giving our favorite beach a proper send off - with a mojito.

* * *

We returned to the hotel, packed our bags for our early morning (5:30am) departure the next day and headed into nearby Pula to see if we could find an authentic, non-touristy restaurant. The travel gods were indeed smiling on us as we passed the Trattoria dei Pescatori, an open air restaurant with a few tables, most of them filled and all of those filled, obvious from their dress, with Italians. We found a parking space, were shown a good table, ordered and consumed one last fresh seafood dinner, checking off our Sardinia list our wish to have a bowl of pasta ai ricci (pasta in sea urchin sauce - absolutely delicious) and headed back to the Costa dei Fiori resort. Stopping to refuel along the way, we noticed a slip of paper under the rental car's windshield wiper. On the paper was a printed note from the Commune di Pula saying something along the lines of "in order to provide an opportunity for everyone to park, parking is limited to a certain amount of time and requires payment of a fee. We remind you of this so you won't do it again in the future."

When the gods are smiling on you even a parking ticket is just a warning.

We spent three and a half days and four nights in Sardinia. In some ways we didn't even scratch the surface and we certainly did not get to know the people or the culture as we had hoped. But we left with wonderful, warm memories and a strong desire to return some day soon.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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