When Shane was a teenager he had a t-shirt with the slogan “Be a traveller not a tourist” which neatly summed up his and my attitude to travelling. I’ve often pondered the distinction between the two.
A typical Italian sea-side holiday at a beach-front holiday apartment or hotel with days spent lounging on a lettino under an ombrellone is not for me although thousands upon thousands of Italian tourists love nothing more than to spend their time that way, returning year in year out to the same patch of sand, claiming their space early in the morning and barely moving until the last rays of sun disappear from the sky.
One significant difference between the Chinese and Italians is that the Italians love their tan. As the summer wears on not just i ragazzi but men and women of all ages, even the nonni and nonne, turn an ever deeper shade of mahogany. The Chinese on the other hand, who guard their paleness as a sign of wealth, will simply ask as Des Bishop put it “why you want to look poor?”.
I haven’t the patience for day long sun-bathing but I love Italian sea-side towns, especially if I can get under the skin of them and pretend to myself that I am living like a local – well like a local that eats out most nights at any rate. Each place has a character all of its own and some are surprisingly beautiful. Alghero is one such town. The old town is a warren of narrow cobble-stone streets lined with honey-coloured buildings, home to shops selling trinkets, coral and beachwear, and small piazzas, all shaded by old ramparts from the sun and the breeze off the sea. It retains a distinctive Catalan feel and is often described by residents of Barcelona and by locals as Barcellonetta ‘little Barcelona’.
The modern part of the town stretches back into the plain beyond, bustling with local commerce.Past the pretty port and marina, a lido is strung out along the bay connecting stretches of beach with their serried rows of umbrellas and beach bars, while on the other side of the coast road hotels and holiday apartments unravel their guests, billowing across the pedestrian crossings with towels, beach chairs and their picnics for the day.
If you walk far enough along the lido the character changes. Here pine woods line the sea-front and you have to clamber up and over dunes to little coves. Eventually, after about 6 km, you come to Fertilia, a little port village with a sleepy atmosphere and some nice restaurants on the street leading down to the harbour.
Where to stay
In August accommodation is at a premium in Alghero but through Niamh Shield’s blog Eat Like a Girl I came across House Trip who specialise in short-term lettings, many of them in residential areas. This was my first time to use the website and I was impressed with the quality of the service and the range of accommodation options on offer from whole houses to studio apartments. Through their site I found Apartment Dhalia in a small residential apartment block in Via Cellini, about 8 minutes walk from the beach and 10 minutes walk from the old town.
When we arrived from our three days of hill-walking on the east coast of the island (see the last blog post) I knew what to expect – a basic one bed-room apartment with a small balcony overlooking the common courtyard, not luxurious but adequate for a four night stay. What I did not expect was the amount of effort Fabio the owner would put in to making us feel at home. All the little things that you need for a short stay were provided – washing liquid for the washing machine; olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in the kitchen; kitchen roll, refusacks, washing up liquid, soap; tea towels, beach towels, hairdryer – you name it, he had thought of it. There were even a few cold beers in the fridge along with bottles of water. He pointed out the location of the large supermarket three minutes walk away, the places where we could find free parking on the street outside and the direction to the beach and town. And that was it. I was ready for small town italian life.
What to do
For the next four days we pottered happily around the town, our hire car never moving from its original parking spot. The little alimentari two doors from our apartment stocked everything we needed for an impromptu breakfast or lunch – prosciutto crudo, salami di sardo, ricotta, local breads and fresh fruit. In the mornings we wandered down to the old town or out along the lido, enjoying a cappuccino e corneto in a cafe in one of the sunny piazzas, paying a visit to the local mercato to admire the scary swordfish and the array of mediterranean vegetables or walking out of town in either direction as far as the footpaths would allow.
One day we arrived at Fertilia around lunch time and had an excellent lunch in Ristorante Acquario.
This was my first taste of fregola a local pasta like large couscous, dotted with prawns, courgettes and speck. Sautè frutti di mare of mussels and clams tasted straight from the sea.
The afternoons were for relaxing at the apartment or along the seafront where you could commandeer a sea-facing iron bench on the lido if you didn’t want to get sand in your book. I finished one afternoon with a mojito at a beach-side bar as the sun began to drop in the sky and waited for il tramonto.
There’s a grittiness about the back streets as you return home in the evening, litter blowing in the sea breeze and cluttering the gutters with flyers and wrapping papers. That’s something that the local authorities need to tackle but meanwhile it adds to the realism of the place.
Where to eat
Evenings were for dinner out in one of the many local restaurants. Like all holiday towns Alghero has its fair share of tourist traps and I had been warned off the more touristy restaurants on the Ramparts by a waiter in Dublin whose father hails from the town. But with careful research I found four places that I visited and can recommend. As often happens in Italy the menus are very similar from restaurant to restaurant – I nearly turned into a sea bream – orato – by the end of the week. The difference lies in the care the chef gives to the preparation of simple ingredients, the friendliness of the owner and waiting staff and the ambience of the place.
The four places we tried for dinner were:
La Lepanto – a stylish restaurant with an array of fresh sea-food and live lobster on display. It is pricier than some of the more casual places in town but worth it for the quality and presentation of the fish. Sashimi grade tuna was excellent and the platter of local affettati was first class.
Al Vecchio Mulino – this place was recommended to me by my Italian waiter friend. It is a lovely setting in two parallel dining rooms hewn like barrels from the rock. The staff are warm and most of the clientele were locals eating huge pizzas. We had a prawn cocktail and gnocchi al sardo as a first course and shared a whole sea bream, accompanied by perfect chips and grilled mediterranean vegetables. There are many good reason to return here, not least the great value pizzas.
Osteria Barcellonetta – you can’t reserve tables at this little place so we got there at 7 pm to avoid the queues that were forming outside by the time we left. Yet another example of simple cucina tipica, my fish of the day turned out to be sea bream again but cooked in wine and olives this time. This was also where I tasted seadas for the first time – a light, filo-like pastry filled with ricotta and drenched in honey.
Bar Ristorante Dietro il Caracere – this was a real find. Just five minutes down the road from our apartment, on a quiet street away from the old town, I noticed tables sprawling onto the footpath from a small cafe bar and the owner Gianni chatting with diners who seemed to be mostly locals. We went there for dinner on our last night and tried two pasta dishes – a perfect spaghetti carbonara and trofie – a twisted pasta – with swordfish followed by a platter of exquisitely flavoured, grilled local fish and the perfect Creme Catalana. The cost was about €60 for two including wine, making it one of the best value meals we had. Don’t expect luxury here and be tolerant of the local traffic but you can be sure of a warm welcome from Gianni. This unpretentious little spot will be top of my list for the next visit.
Four days in Alghero can seem like a lot longer as you lose yourself in the pace of italian sea-side life. And yet it is barely a 3 hour direct flight from Dublin to an airport that you can clear through in less than 30 minutes and then just a 20 minute bus ride to the town. With a “summer” season that runs from April through to October, it is a perfect destination for a short italian break, no car hire needed and lots of hotels and apartment options to choose from.
By the end of the week in Sardinia I had slipped into my “I could live in Italy” mood. As I watched the excitement of young children enjoying the Ferragosta fireworks, I was dreaming of coming back to Alghero but this time with Shane, Shan and Dermot in tow.