Saturday, January 30, 2010

Howth, soaking in nature

One of the nicest trips I've made when I lived in Ireland was in Howth. I went to Dublin's car rental and made my way towards the city's northeastern coast, in the quest for "the best salmon in the area".

As soon as I got there, I was offered the cutest sight ever: seals happily approaching tourists who were feeding them in the harbour. I had already swum side by side with dolphins in the Amazon River, but had never seen seals before.

Lucky me, it was a beautifully sunny and clear day, so I started trekking along the cliffs toward the tower on top of the mountain. I'm never very well trained (I know, I should be, shame on me), so I was breathless in less than no minute. Nevermind, I kept going, took it easy and eventually got to the top.

The unfolding panorama was fantastic, really, and not just from the top, but after every step I made, I could stare at a different view and take a different picture.

However, the cliffs and the sea are not the only reasons why a trip di Howth is worthwhile. The little town has in fact interesting heritage sites to visit, such as St. Mary's Church.

My guidebook in my hands, I started descending to the harbour. There was the port to visit, but since it was Sunday, just beside I could see the stalls of an openair market, so I guessed I would have wanted to stay a bit longer than planned, and decided to head to the old church before.

Needless to say, although I had a map, I couldn't find it. I asked everybody who come my way and after countless directions, hints, back and forth along godforsaken roads, I got there. "At last," I thought. "This must be really worth my efforts!" I had read it was built in 1042 by Dublin's King and redecorated or re-built altogether around 1235, so I couldn't wait to study such a piece of Irish history, so morbidly Catholic. I'm sure it was worth it, but I found it closed. And the sad is that I never got to go back again.
It was still early to go back home, so I wandered around the market selling local products from different European countries: great Polish bread, good Italian specialities from Calabria region, of course Irish delicacies.

I hardly resist when I find local specialities, so I bought some and headed back home, happy about my outing and with the promise to go back to see the Church some time in the future.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Places and people: what makes us richer

Recently, I've read a post on Grantourismo blog on how meeting interesting people makes travelling more pleasant and worthwhile. I couldn't agree more with this statement, as a matter of fact I think meeting people is one of the best aspects of the whole experience of travelling.

Unlikely history books seem to imply, I think the most important characters of mankind history are ordinary people, and not presidents, kings or prime ministers. Now that I've spent a couple of months in my hometown in Sardinia, after having left almost twelve years ago, I'm looking at the community where I grew up with a different eye.

Idiosyncrasies that maybe before bothered me, now amuse me, peculiarities that I used to find boring, now have become extraordinary. In a nutshell, I'm discovering my island all over again, this time not only going after its beautiful panoramas, but especially rooting out lost traditions and abandoned local crafts, and asking older people to tell me the stories of their youth and the ones of their parents and grandparents, for as long as their memory can go back in time.

In Sardinia there is a very rich oral tradition, so I didn't find this a very hard job: everybody was willing to share their memories with me. I can stay hours listening to old people, I never get tired, I find their tales an invaluable source of information about my past able to help me understand how we got here.

This is why in this blog I like publishing about quirky traditions and hidden places. Of course I'm aware that every country in the world has their own idiosyncrasies, but it's by no means easy to find them out. We need to live in a place for long time to be confident and fully understand even the slightest nuance of some local habit, and for obvious reasons, although I've lived in different countries for quite a while, I don't have there the same confidence I have here.

In the latest few months I've spent in Sardinia, I've been discovering an ancient land, where globalisation hasn't affected every aspect of life yet, where locals are keen on keeping old mores and crafts that reconnect them with their ancestors, a land inhabitated by proud people who have constantly fought to claim their territories and independence back from foreign conquerors.

This stormy past has inevitably affected Sardinian character: friendly but suspicious, hospitable but rarely willing to forgive an offense. It is now an ancestral legacy, and sometimes we even struggle to identify it, and this is the very reason I'm so determined on researching and understanding it.

I'm not much into series, but I've collected so many quirky stories that I'll be publishing one every month. Each story, be it funny, unpredictable or weird, has a deeper meaning beyond the surface, and it's that hidden message that makes them so precious.

Most of my tales will come from a small town that lies on the slopes of a mountain, near the sea of Sardinian western coast. The legend says that Craziness stopped in Seneghe and never left, and this would explain why Seneghe's inhabitants are all crazy. In every legend there is something true, and I have to say that Seneghe's natives are at least peculiar.

After all, however, Craziness was not that crazy: Seneghe is, in fact, nestled within beautiful surroundings, produces the best olive oil in Sardinia (oil that for many years has won the first prize among all European countries), can boast an excellent wine, be it red, white or rosé, and women have a special knack for textile crafts and for making the best cakes and pastries of the area.

The stories I'm going to publish here are a small glimpse on the past human conditions in the island, and a patch on the candour that beyond a superficial look reveals tough times and a desperation we find it hard even only to imagine. Some other stories, on the other hand, are actually funny, like this one I've chosen to be the first "pearl" to celebrate Seneghe with.

My stepfather loves talking about Seneghe, his hometown, and, lucky me, he has an excellent memory, both from his own experience and from the tales he's heard from someone else. I'm wondering if he realises I take notes every time he goes back with his imagination. The first anecdote is, by chance, travel-related.

"One day, quite recently, I happened in Seneghe," he told me, "I entered the grocery shop and I found the shopkeeper and her nephew busy in a sort of argument about Australia. I knew this was going to be beyond grotesque, so I tried to avoid participating," he continued after a pause

"'You happen in the best moment!' - told me the woman, 'I'm trying to explain to my nephew that Australia is not in America, but he keeps insisting I'm wrong. You have travelled a lot, tell him where Australia is!'"

"So what could I do? I started telling him that first of all Australia was a continent itself, it was very big, had nothing to do with the American continent and that it was actually very far from America."

"He stared at me in a very attentive manner that I was almost convinced he understood. Only at the end of my explanation I realised he didn't: he snapped at the sandwich he had just bought and darted out the shop nodding: 'I have no idea what you are talking about!'"

"This," my stepfather went on, "has reminded me of other two funny facts: a woman who, after acknowledging I lived in Brasil, kept insisting I go visit her uncle in Argentina because 'I was around anyway!'; and a friend of mine who, in the late 1970s sent me a letter from Sardinia to Borneo, where I was working, by writing in the envelope only 'To fellow Domenico'. Guess what? I got it. My manager couldn't believe his own eyes to the extent that, after showing me the letter, took it back and still exhibits it as the evidence of an incredible event!"

Travelling hasn't always been so straightforward, and sometimes, even today, is seen as epic. By all means, in Seneghe we will find a representative piece of humanity.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Confession: I can't backpack

I have been reading on the web about a sort of "match" between backpackers and "luxury" travellers. First of all, I'm not sure why who doesn't travel with a backpack is seen as a luxury-traveller. I never "luxury-travel" and I never backpack, I just travel.

I think the main difference between the two "travel-types" is meant to be the amount of money someone is able/willing to spend when travelling. One of the main aspects, apart from the type of luggage, is the diference of the places travellers choose to sleep: backpackers usually prefer hostels, other travellers stay at hotels.

These two differences aside, I don't think there's any other reason for argument.

As for myself, I'm usually quite close to a broke status, so I always travel on the cheapest budget possible, however, even if I'm aware that hostels are much cheaper than hotels and B&Bs, I can't think of staying at a eight-bed dorm (I know, I'm not twenty anymore).

Also, I'm not able to backpack. Literally. First of all, most backpacks are bigger than I am; second, I don't know how to stick all my stuff in it without messing it and crumpling my clothes.

Besides, if men have invented the wheel, why do I have to carry all my stuff on my shoulders and cause myself a sure backache, when I can easily use a trolley?

Yes, I confess, I use trolleys. They are small, easy to handle, they fit comfortably in the proper space on the buses and my clothes don't come out crumpled.

In fact, another myth is that only backpackers use the public transport. When I arrived in Ireland, my choice was between the Dublin car rental and the 16A: I didn't wait for the bus only because of money issues but also because, coming from Italy, I would have surely tended to drive on the wrong side. But this is material for another post.

My tiny black trolley? It's used to buses and any kind of adventures.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sardinia's Mamuthones, dancing around fire

A while ago I wrote about Mamoiada's Mamuthones, mysterious masks that populate Sardinian carnival. Actually they weren't born as carnival masquerades but to reproduce a propitiatory ritual that is believed to date back 2,000 years.

Academics, historians and all types of researchers are trying to give an explanation to this myth, that still today is shrouded in mystery. Mamuthones are respected and feared figures that remind of Sardinian lost civilisation. They are dressed in black-sheep skin and wear a scary mask: the uglier, the better.

Along with the Mamuthones, also the Issohadores are part of the parade: they lead the Mamuthones and try to grab women with their rope (another ritual: women are the symbol of life).

The first time I saw them was in the occasion of last year's carnival, and I liked it so much that this year I went back for the festival of Sant'Antonio Abbate (Saint Anthony Abbate). According to the Mamuthones themselves, Sant'Antonio Abbate is a much more important and proper occasion, "because the carnival is somehow "hybrid", and we end up mixing with the other masks."

I have to say, seeing Mamuthones and Issohadores dancing around the fires was better than seeing them parading along other masks. The atmosphere was joyful, and children and adults alike were following the mysterious characters, projections of their past, their traditions and their ancestors.

I had booked a room at a guesthouse named "Perda Pintà" (Painted Stone) in honour of a massive stone dating back at least 5,000 years, even prior to the prehistoric civilisation that in Sardinia is known as "nuragica". The stone was found by the owners some ten years ago and Mamoiada's council decided it was best they would keep the stone where they found it, to maintain its original location, but they would have to allow tourists in. In fact, their garden is always open for visitors.

The rooms of the Perda Pintà guesthouse are exquisitely cosy and the cleanest place I've ever been to. Should a guest suffer from insomnia, Maria Giovanna gives a solution: books are available to anyone in every room and hall. The morning continental breakfast comes with a choice of milk, coffee, tea and cakes made by Maria Giovanna herself.

I have shot a *very* rudimentary video (hey, I'm just starting and it's taken with an old little camera), to give you an idea of the ritual and the cheerful atmosphere the Mamuthones can provoke.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Istanbul, my first shipwreck

Travelling is all about experience, that's why when I'm on the road I try my best to look like a local, adopt locals' manners and customs that are different from what I'm used to and try to think and behave like a local.

Lucky me, I'm helped in my efforts by the fact that everywhere I go, I'm mistaken for a local: I go to Brasil, locals think I'm Brasilian, I go to Istanbul, locals think I'm my friends' local guide, in London Arabs talk to me in Arabic, Iranians in Farsi and so and so forth.

I love it.

So, when I was in Istanbul I was determined to live up to my principles and I tried to emulate locals wherever I was: I smoked nargileh, played a table game because I saw everybody was playing it (although I couldn't manage to understand my teacher's explanations in Turkish, and I lost) and I kept wearing the veil even outside the mosques (this is just because I'm convinced that it suits me, but I took it off when I realised I was the only one wearing it).

Despite my vocation though, the best experience came about by some quirk of fate when I was behaving like the perfect tourist. My friends and I booked a cruise along the Bosphorus to relax and enjoy Istanbul's most momentous highlight, and ended up shipwrecking.

The beginning was not too bad, ship-wise. Actually it was great, a lovely sunny day, our guides, Alparslan and Vittorio, were showing us the wonders on both sides of this stretch of water that divides the European from the Asian continent, explaining the differences between the two parts of Istanbul and granting us with some tips about where to go to eat, club and shop.


After passing underneath the huge bridge that connects the two Continents, we stopped for a coffee on the Asian side. A great espresso taken sitting outside a lovely bar perched on the very edge. Yes, sometimes happiness can be that simple.

We hopped on our boat, started up the engine and stared at the coloured flowers while we moved away toward our coast. Almost immediately after departure, we perceived some concern within the crew members, even if we didn't understand Turkish. It didn't take long that the engine stopped working.

At first, we thought we were about to stare at something really worth a stop, but in less than no time we understood we were in trouble. The boat started sinking and allowing too much water in. We were surrounded by other boats so we weren't that scared. At the beginning laughter and jokes came out spontaneously and we even suggested our guides to consider staging a shipwreck during their tours.

The engine didn't seem quite keen on working, so our captain called his brother to tow us to the port. He arrived, picked us up and our engine started working, so he left us alone. Only ten seconds later, our engine broke down again.


Among our travel companions there was a Spanish couple: the lady wore the orange rescue jacket to amuse everyone and she actually managed to, but at the end, more than an hour later, they both felt seasick. I thought I could swim, as I'm a good swimmer and it was a warm day, but when I looked at the water and saw it was full of jellyfish, I hoped someone would come to rescue us as soon as possible.

At the end, we went for a drink with our guides and today, thinking about the adventure makes me smile and realise how much I miss Istanbul. The crew members were great, never stopped laughing and joking, as well as our guides.

Although unplanned, shipwrecking made the cruise all together more interesting and worth remembering, and by all means, it was an experience. The conclusion was as unpredictable as the beginning. Only when the danger was averted, I called my parents to tell them about my latest adventure, doing my best not to make them worry:

"Today, while we were cruising along the Bosphorus, we shipwrecked, but don't worry, we were rescued and I'm completely fine!"

"You shipwrecked?? Lucky you! We're so jealous!"

"But, mom..."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Travel safe: B&B or luxury hotel?

Recently I've written an article about a robbery at the Hilton Hotel of Fiumicino Airport and I happen to think about it now and then. I've read about robberies and I've also been a victim sometimes, but this story has something unusual.

First of all, the fact that it happened in the Hall of the Hilton Hotel is definitely not common. Travelers, in fact, expect to get robbed more at the bus stop, on the tube, near a dodgy train station, but at the Hilton, we (at least, I) would expect some security guards around.

As I've described in the article, after the robbery, the staff of the hotel didn't rush to help the victims, proved reluctant to cooperate and their security guard appeared after half an hour. This makes me wonder: is it possible that at the Hilton is so easy to rob? Is it possible that a worldwide chain employs so unprofessional people?

According to the victim, Mr Carecci, the hotel refused to show the CCTV, so they are still waiting to know the police response.

Are we so exposed when we travel? Also, how exactly does it work at the Hilton Hotel: anybody can come in? Are there not security guards at the entrance?

After the robbery, Mr Carecci run after the thieves, who have had plenty of time to flee. What was the hotel's staff doing that particular moment? Why was the place so unprotected? Do these events happen often?

Finally, the thieves aimed directly at Mr Carecci's briefcase. Usually briefcases contain working-papers relating to companies, pretty much useless to common thieves, that's why pick-pocketers rather prefer personal bags: did they know they would have found a so high amount of cash?

This event is very unpleasant, first of all for Mr Carecci and his family, but quite ugly also for the other business travelers regular customers of the Hilton Hotel.
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