At 10.30am we hopped a bus for Delphi which arrived in the town center at 1. We hadn’t known that our hotel, the Arion, was on top a fairly steep hill. It was a relief that the hotel owner met us at the bus stop and drove us to the hotel. The view from our terrace was outstanding.
Lunch was at To Patriko Mas. We were so impressed by the service, the ambiance and the meal we reserved for dinner as well.
After lunch we walked a short distance to the main attraction, the archaeological sitewhere oracles once directed the political life of ancient Greece. The ruins include the Temple of Apollo, an amphitheatre and an outdoor “gymnasium” for competitive sports.
Set at the foot of Mount Parnassus with sweeping views over the region, the site would have been worth the trip even without the evocative reminders of ancient Greece. It was perfect to be there off-season to avoid crowds and sweltering heat.
We arrived just short of midnight to check in to the Hotel Phaedra right in the center of Plaka. We were starving. Was there any place to eat? Yes! And right near the hotel! The streets of touristy Plaka were blissfully empty.
May 5, 2022
In the morning, we woke up to this view of the Acropolis from our room.
After breakfast we trudged around the Acropolis which was swarming with tourists. Much better was the visit to the Roman Agora, marked by the Tower of Winds.
Compared to the Acropolis, the site was surprisingly under-visited. Nearby was the Ancient Agora and the Temple of Hephaestus.
Here’s where Sophocles held forth, merchants displayed their wares and armies of workers chiseled out marble columns in the 7th century BC. There were a number of references to “tribes” which we figured out meant the powerful families in charge of Athens at the time.
The Stoa of Attalos was a cool respite from the sun and contained a small museum.
Although the site was excavated by the American Society of Classical Studies, I did not get a half-price reduction on the admission fee that my French friend routinely enjoyed as a European citizen.
After a quick lunch we headed to the Acropolis Museum displaying finds from the site. There was a lot there but what particularly stands out are the Korai, 6th-5th century BC life-size statues of maidens that may have been (no one knows) a votive offering to the goddess Athena (a bad-ass by any measure).
The effect of dozens of korai with their kindly, stone eyes staring out from antiquity was mesmerizing. A wealth of other statues made it easy to trace the evolution from the Archaic through Classical and Roman styles.
We finished the day with a meal at To Kafenio, a popular Plaka restaurant. Foodies will be disappointed with the rest of this blog I’m afraid. The food was generally fine although unmemorable except in a few places which I’ll mention later on.
This morning was difficult. We decided to explore the Anafiotika neighborhood, one of Athens’ oldest. Although it makes many lists of “hidden gems”, the neighborhood was anything but. It was just too darn cute to remain hidden in today’s era of mass travel.
The narrow, climbing streets were jam-packed with tourists, especially the platform on top which afforded excellent views.
We were futzing around, taking pictures with everyone else, when a young woman pulled out a map and asked my friend in good French, where the Acropolis was. She tried to help her out, we descended the stairs and at the bottom my friend realized that her backpack had been opened. A hat and her favorite scarf were the only things missing as her wallet, fortunately, was at the very bottom of the bag.
Pro tip: do not bring good stuff on your trips. Bring your second-favorite scarf.
From there we made our way to the “chic” Kolonaki neighborhood where well-dressed Athenians sipped coffee in tree-shaded cafes. After lunch we took a look at the Holy Church of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Patron Saint of Athens
After window-shopping a bit we headed off to the Archaeological Museum of Athens which proved surprisingly difficult to find. Once there we were rewarded with a stunning visit to classical Greece.
I was particularly fascinated by the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient Greek mechanical device recovered in 1901 from the wreck of a trading ship that sank in the 1st century bc near the island of Antikythera. It’s sometimes considered the world’ first computer as the incredibly complicated device measures solar, lunar, planetary cycles and much, much more.
We probably could have used a device like this to find our way back to the hotel. We made a series of mistakes on the Athens metro and wound up taking a taxi. The driver gracefully transported us across town for a measly €5.
It took four buses to get from Cabras to Alghero which sounds more complicated than it was. The buses came like clockwork: Cabras-Oristano-Macomer-Sassari-Alghero. No changing of stations; just get off one bus and on to another and watch the scenery go by.
The Zia Amalia Villa Asfodelo (what a stupid name. Who can remember it?) was ideally located near the bus stop and the old town. The room was slightly musty but the hospitality was first-rate.
We were immediately taken with the walled Spanish town and spent several hours wandering the streets. Even though there were plenty of shops (mostly selling red coral from the Red Sea which is apparently legal), somehow the medieval palaces remained as impressive as ever.
Even better was a walk along the port.
But the piece de resistance was a walk along the bastions at sunset.
After a morning stop at another Chinese merchant for more cheap but necessary stuff, we boarded an afternoon boat for “Neptune’s Cave” despite the chilly, cloudy skies. It was exhilarating to be on the sea and the cave was majestic.
It was like the backdrop to a Russian ballet. I could easily imagine white tutus to come fluttering from the shadows.
It was Sunday night and the town was relatively busy with visitors from Milan. There are direct flights and apparently a lot of Milanese have bought second residences in Alghero. I can sure understand why.
The following day we headed to Bosa a much beloved former fishing village about a one-hour bus ride from Alghero. The coastal scenery was spectacular. I was glad to look at the scenery without having to keep my eyes peeled on that winding coastal road.
So when you see a street that straight you can only think–Romans! I love those guys with the straight streets. Later the Spanish came of course and now it’s mostly tourists that come. October is quiet though. Many shops had closed for the season but I can imagine the crowds in summer. There wasn’t a lot to see but what there was, was gorgeous.
No visit to Alghero is complete without a stop at the beach. But my bathing suit had been stolen! There was not a bathing suit to be had off-season on the entire island. Until. . . back to the Chinese merchant who got me sorted out right quickly for only €12! On to the beach. How good it felt to walk on fine white sand.
The water was clean, calm and not too cold for swimming either.
And, as if Alghero wasn’t perfect enough, we found an all-you-can-eat Japanese lunch for only €15. Unlimited sushi! This is the place for me. What a perfect ending to a turbulent trip.
They said it couldn’t be done but we decided to do it anyway. That is, try to get around Sardinia without renting a car. Mostly it worked pretty well as the Italian bus and train system is highly reliable except on Sunday when buses virtually stop functioning altogether.
Our only real challenge was in getting from Iglesias to Cabras which would have been a 1 1/2 hour drive. Instead we took a 2 1/4 hour train to Oristano with the idea of getting a bus to Cabras, only 11km away. Poor planning. The Oristano bus station is nowhere near the train station. After waiting a while for a bus to a bus station, we snagged a taxi to Cabras for only €20. It was a pleasure to check into our B&B Torremana
The modest village with plain, low houses and wide streets had an easy charm but for some reason the street layout made no sense to us and we were constantly lost. The treeless streets all looked alike. It was like being caught in an under-designed video game. Pleasant and slightly disorienting.
The best part of town was the tranquil lagoon (pond) that was a protected wildlife habitat and bordered a lengthy stretch of beach.
Anyone looking to round out their wardrobe (for whatever reason) should head to “Hanks”, the local Chinese merchant who sold everything at unbelievably cheap prices.
The following day we decided to visit Tharros. Excavations showed that from the 8th century BC until its abandonment in the 10th century Tharros was inhabited, first by Phoenicians, then by Punics and then by Romans. It might have been even older. To visit Tharros we had to rent a car for the day as no buses went there off season. It was a fantastic site, well worth the trip.
After Tharros we stopped in to the Archaeological Museum which displayed the totally weird finds from the nearby Monte Prama excavation. This necropolis contained over 5000 fragments of statues that are being painstakingly reassembled. These blocky stone statues probably date from the nuraghic civilization, about 600BC. They would be the oldest sculptures in the Mediterranean. The enthusiastic curator pointed out that the ancients hadn’t yet figured out how to keep the statues upright. They appear to have been suspended somehow or were buried vertically.
Cagliari’s Archaeological Museum was the perfect follow up to yesterday’s visit to Su Nuraxi. The museum displayed a number of finds from the neolithic period through the nuraghic and on to the Romans. Particularly interesting were the bronze figurines from the nuraghi and the clay fertility goddesses from the same period. It was well displayed with explanations in English.
In the afternoon we caught a train to Iglesias. (Contrary to stereotype, I found Italian trains and buses highly reliable and comfortable). The town seemed curiously underpopulated but it was a center of Spanish rule and the medieval Pisan and Spanish architecture made it worth a stop.
One of the major highlights of Sardinia (besides the beaches) is the archaeological heritage. The island was once the center of the Nuragic civilization which developed from 1700 to 600BC. Not much is known about the Nuragic age (sounds like the headache age) except that these Bronze Age folks were traders and they built thousands of stone structures known as nuraghe. The one in Su Nuraxi is the best preserved and is a Unesco world heritage site.
Getting to Su Nuraxi from Cagliari
But how to get there? We had determined to get around by public transport which presented some challenges here. The site is about 1 1/2 hours drive from Cagliari. A tour company offered to take us out there for €60pp which seemed excessive. Diligent research revealed that there was bus transport to Barumini, the adjacent village with a change at Sanluri for a total travel time of 2 1/2 hours. It sounds like a lot but the buses were comfortable and we got to see some of the countryside which was mostly flat and dry. The ancient Sardinians provided grain to the Roman empire and even now we saw a lot of cultivated land, mostly grains, vegetables, olive trees and the occasional vineyard.
Visiting Su Nuraxi
The entrance ticket to the site includes an obligatory hour-long tour that leaves every half-hour. We started at 4 and left in a small group of about a dozen people.
The complex has four towers but it’s unclear what the structure was used for. Residence? Fortress? Temple? Who knows. They did build a solid structure using stones and no mortar that managed to last 3000 years so, bravi tutti. There was a well in the center and some alcoves in the walls may have been used for food storage.
Inside the nuraghe tower
The ruins outside the towers are the remains of late Bronze Age huts that were later occupied by the Carthaginians and then the Romans.
From Cagliari to Su Nuraxi the countryside was pretty much as depicted above.
The ferry from Civitavecchia to Cagliari was 15 1/2 hours but comfortable and pleasant, especially since I splurged on a reasonably-priced cabin. Here’s the first look at Cagliari:
I checked into the delightful Palazzo Fulgher, a beautifully restored and decorated old villa right in the center of town. While waiting for my travel companion, Chiew, to arrive I ambled around the old streets. It was a lot easier to get my bearings than in Rome.
The following day, we set out to explore the Castello district, high over the city with medieval streets winding around towers and walls, opening on to sweeping views of the city.
View from Castello
That night I discovered the Sardinian pasta known as fregula, often served with seafood and bottarga. Yum!
For my last day I decided to check out Trastevere, immensely loved by tourists.
Building in Trastevere
Too loved. Shop, pizzeria, trattoria, shop, pizzeria, trattoria, shop, pizzeria. . .I wasn’t impressed. Trastevere is a vivid example of the destructive power of AirBnB. Almost nothing remained of the old neighborhood except the magnificent Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere
There was a wedding that day which meant the visit was limited. The wedding gift was parked right outside: a gleaming red Ferrari with a bow on top. A far cry from Trastevere’s working class roots.
Much more charming was the bridge linking the Tiber island with the river banks and the stunning riverside promenade.
Later, I picked up a new suitcase from the “Coveri Collection”. Have you heard? It’s the latest accessory and only costs €38. Spoiler alert: it lasted until the end of the trip.
Then on to Civitavecchia and the overnight ferry to Cagliari, Sardinia.
Ostia Antica was a great way to get out of the bustling Eternal City and step back to the Roman days. The ruins were far more extensive than I had expected and presented an evocative display of how upper middle-class Romans lived. The transport connections were far more straightforward than the rats nest of buses connecting Rome’s sprawling neighborhoods.
Mosaic floor of Roman baths in Ostia Antica
Every day was spa day in ancient Rome. Why don’t we have public baths? Why are we relegated to lonely showers? Bathing should be an enjoyable public ritual.
Amphitheater in Ostia Antica.
Decorative masks outside the theater.
Free baths, free public entertainment: life could be good in ancient Rome.
Mithras slaying a bull in underground shrine
Altar of the Twins Romulus and Remus. Relief depicting Cupid carrying the chariot of Mars (left); Romulus and Remus suckled by wolf.
Temples, tombs, shops, villas, warehouses–and very few tourists.
I poked around most of the day and then headed to the trendy Monti neighborhood, northeast of the Forum for a Prosecco and–more shopping! This time it was fun. Monti is the hipster neighborhood with vintage and used-clothing shops lining the cobblestone streets. It was the perfect place to round out my little wardrobe.