Sardinia: Part 1 – Cagliari

We flew into Sardinia via Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia. The city itself was not too big; many sights are within walking distance other than the Poetto beach and Park of Molentargius. In our view, the sights itself were not as impressive as ones you may find in other major Italian cities but we checked them out anyway given that we spent 3 nights in the capital. In hindsight, probably 2 days in Cagliari would have been sufficient.

The highlight of Cagliari was definitely the food which we found to be different from other parts of Italy. Here are a few which we highly recommend:

Clockwise from top: fregola with mussels and clams; Durke which sells the tastiest amaretti biscuits; one of the many seafood dishes in Martinelli’s; squid ink pasta at Sa Picchetara.

  1. Ristorante Martinelli’s – We came here for our first evening. Good thing we booked as we could tell many people were being turned away on the night! On the recommendation of the waitress, we ordered the seafood platter under the Appetisers section of the menu. The seafood included salmon, tuna, swordfish, prawns, octopus, squid and much more. Who knew that the texture of fresh octopus actually tasted closer to fish? We were absolutely blown away by the taste, humongous portion and affordable price (our bill for two came to approximately £40).
  2. Sa Picchetara – This restaurant was slightly further out from the centre but we walked there nonetheless. Here, we had some tasty pasta with fresh tomato and prawns, as well as spaghetti de nero seppia (squid ink) with claims and bottarga. It was the first time that we tried bottarga – salted and cured fish roe, usually from grey mullet or bluefin tuna. I had no idea what the bottarga we ate came from but I prayed that I wasn’t contributing to the extinction of bluefin tuna! Bottarga may sound unappetising but we enjoyed it and even brought back some for cooking at home.
  3. Amaretti biscuits – These biscuits made of almond and sugar are typical Sardinian treats you could find in many cafes but our absolute favourite was from a tiny family-run shop called Durke on Via Napoli 66, which were so fresh and chewy. We only wish we brought back more!
  4. Fregola with mussels and clams – This is a traditional pasta dish you will find in many restaurants in the city but we first tried this in Kasteddu for lunch. Fregola is a pasta shaped like tiny balls and they tend to tuck into the crevices of the mussel and clam shells. We liked that the pasta was cooked in a light stock-based sauce with fresh seafood so you don’t feel too heavy after the meal. In fact, we found that most pasta dishes in this city weren’t loaded with cheese which is quite nice for a change.
  5. Toyo Sushi – At first instance, it seems strange to have Japanese food in Sardinia but the seafood was so fresh which makes very tasty sushi and sashimi.

Clockwise from top left: Antico Caffee has been around since 1855, a great place to take a coffee and patisserie; the main street next to the wharf is bustling all the time with market stalls; snapped this photo while we were cycling along the promenade; Bastione di Saint Remy where we watched a sunset.

Other than the food, we joined a cycle tour with New Way Sardinia which took us out to the places we couldn’t see on foot. We lucked out because it ended up to be a private tour! We were keen to see the Park of Molentargius because it was apparently a breeding ground for flamingos. The best time to see the flamingos is during spring when as much as 20,000 flamingos could be seen in the park’s grounds. Unfortunately, on the day we went in early/mid September, we could only see a few flamingos, and one flamingo in particular was quite close but rather grey than pink. Our guide told us that grey means that the flamingo is young. Following the park, we cycled onto Poetto beach which was the closest beach to the city. It was rather windy on the day so we didn’t swim but we could imagine it would be very busy during summer.

Back in the city one evening, we watched the sunset at the top of Bastione di Saint Remy, a perfect end to the day!

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Loire Valley by Public Transport

Cycling in the Loire Valley was one of those things that we’ve always wanted to do and on this year’s bank holiday weekend, we nearly did it. If it wasn’t for the 33°C heatwave.

Tours

Tours was an excellent base as the train station is well served by trains to many cities in the Loire Valley. It was also one of the busier towns with more things happening. We stumbled upon a few delicious places including QG Restaurant Artisanal (this was our favourite), Dagobert (for alfresco dining side by side Parisian style), Bar Les Trois Ecritories (for its salmon tartare and escargots), and Smaak (for an excellent salad after you get tired of eating all the meat).

The Les Halles market at Place Gaston-Pailhou is a feast for the eyes. Great place to purchase fresh seafood, meat, cheese, bread and fruits if you are in a Airbnb accommodation. We bought some delicious cheese and saucisson there to bring back home.

Not too many of those hip cafes you would normally find in London except Le Petit Atelier – we really missed our daily coffee whilst in France! However, there were loads of bakeries around (Honoré Le Boulanger on Rue Nationale did not disappoint!) and we had our fair share of pain au chocolat every day.

Honore Le Boulanger

Visiting Amboise and Chenonceau

Picnic by the Loire

Visit Amboise on Sunday because it hosts the regional market where you will find everything from cheese, bread, meat, fruits to clothing and shoes. We bought some fresh tomatoes, bread, goat cheese and took a picnic by the Loire. Ah, bliss. We then walked around Amboise’s centre which is made of two main streets.

Normally you could get a bus from Amboise to Chenonceau during the summer months but the bus does not run on Sundays. We went to the Amboise tourist office and asked them to order a taxi for us – thankfully most staff in tourist office and attraction sites spoke English. The taxi ride cost us £37 and about 20 mins to get to Château de Chenonceau. It was worth the ride; otherwise, we would’ve had to train back to Tours and take another train back to Chenonceau.

Château de Chenonceau is indeed as beautiful as the postcards. It has some interesting history having once served as safe passage for refugees and a hospital during WW1. The exhibition also shows the influences we may not have recognised from the various wives, mistresses and aristocrats had on its architectural transformation to date.

Visiting Blois and Chambord

Exploring Chateau de Chambord

The other chateau on our list was Château de Chambord. Our original plan was to train from Tours to Blois, then rent a bike and cycle to Chambord. As we were on the verge of a heatstroke, we took the Navette 41 shuttle bus for 6 euros return. Note the bus schedule is infrequent with only two bus on the day that we were there. Check this website for the bus schedule. Technically we could’ve taken the same bus to visit Cheverny that same afternoon but we headed back to Blois instead. Other than the Royal Château de Blois, the town was unfortunately rather underwhelming. The main street was full of old and dusty shops which were mostly closed or shut down. One even appeared to have a signed that said it was closed as of 2004.

If we had more time, we would have…

  • Spent longer in the Loire Valley – we didn’t realise the grounds of the castles were so large that you could spend half a day visiting just one castle.
  • Tried some kayaking along the Loire river starting from Amboise with the option of camping among one of the many secret islands. Check Loire Aventure for details.
  • Took the Eurostar instead of a flight because it would mean we could’ve carried a few bottles of nice Vouvray wine!

Charles, Charles, Charles in Prague

Charles Bridge, Charles Square, Charles University – who would have thought so much of Prague could be influenced by one person. The monuments of Charles, however, were a great addition to the grandness and historic feel of the place and we thought Prague was a romantic setting for a short getaway at a pretty reasonable cost.

Walking around Prague was like being transported to a different era. Imagine cobblestone lanes, centuries old churches and grand halls with chandeliers and gold painted walls. It was well worth a visit to Prague castle and Golden Lane – a toy-town like street with short doors, thatched roofs and colourful painted fronts. Try to go early as it got exceedingly crowded at times!

There was a serious selection of craft coffee outlets for the coffee lovers out there. We really enjoyed EMA Espresso Bar (and what a great start to the day it was). Coffee plus yummy croissant all for 25 czk.

We didn’t realise how many concerts took place in the city. We were lured by a poster for one at the Rudolfinum where musicians played in an impressive private hall. We felt slightly under dressed in our walking shoes as many had dressed up in suit and dress for the occasion. Nonetheless it was a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing experience.

We paid approximately €30 per person for an enjoyable evening of classical music. We were sitting in the last row but we could still see the musicians’ faces.

We found walking through Mala Strana less busy and a pleasure. It was interesting to see emblems (violins, swords, animals) on each building  that historically were used to locate buildings like house numbers and street names today.

Walking past Mala Strana, away from the bridge was Strahov Monastery where you can find an ancient library elaborately decorated in every inch of space. To take a photo of the libraries, you either had to do it sneakily or pay 50 czk.

There were pretty of interesting artwork outside of museums, including the famous Dancing House by Frank Gehry.

Our favourite restaurant was La Veranda , which had a bookshelf wall and looked like some-one’s old living room. Really homey and warming atmosphere and fairly priced. Other places we also enjoyed: Vegan’s restaurant (Vegan) which served Traditional Czech dumplings, Estrella (Vegetarian) and Restaurant Mlynec. Given that historically Prague cuisine was heavily meat based, we were pleasantly surprised to find a number of vegetarian options.

P.S. Don’t buy bananas from a marijuana shop. We paid 40 czk for two bananas which was a total rip!

3 days 2 nights tour to Sahara desert

Stargazing in the desert was one of those things on our travel bucket list. So we signed up for a 3 day 2 nights trip to the Sahara desert.

What we didn’t realise was how far away from Marrakech we were going.

Our mini van navigated the narrow and windy roads which at times make you feel like you will veer off the edge of the cliff. In fact, many barriers which were crushed and travellers before us probably disappeared into the deep ravines below. Only later did we learn that the Tizi n’Tichka pass has one of the highest death rates in the world.

We stopped by Ait Benhaddou, a kasbah which is a great example of Moroccan earthen clay architecture. It was also used as a site for many films including Gladiator. Our guide told us that filming was very welcomed there, as it brought economic benefits to the local villages. In fact, our guide has been an extra in the films twice and was paid around 3000 dirhams each time.

At Ait Benhaddou village, you will find all sorts of handmade arts and crafts sold. In our opinion, the prices seemed more expensive than other ones we’ve seen in Essaouira. However, we do believe the money from the products sold goes direct to the villagers.

On day 2, we rode 1.5 hours on the camels to reach the camp. En route, we enjoyed the magnificent sand dunes (Erg Chebbi) bathed in golden light and then watched the sunset. Our asses were sore when we reached the camp.


We laid on our backs in the sand to stare at the sky. Sounds quite romantic if you ignore the fact that sand was literally inside my trousers and everywhere where sand shouldn’t be.

Jason: “Is that a faint glow right there or am I making it up?”

Sharon: “Oh yes, there’s a faint glow, that must be the Milky Way!”

So we thought we saw the Milky Way. After all, how else is it supposed to look like to the naked eye if not but a faint glow? If you’re very serious about stargazing, you certainly would not make the mistake we did as we realised when the full moon appeared!

We spent the night around the campfire while the berbers drummed and sang songs with funny lyrics like “Obama is African”. We had a tent to ourselves but don’t expect it to be warm. The desert was freezing at night – beanie and down jacket recommended.

On day 3, we rode the camels back out and enjoyed the sunrise. The rest of the day was spent in the car as we raced back the 200+km to Marrakech.

We would recommend going on a desert trip if your itinerary permits. However, we both agreed that once was enough!

Price paid per person for group tour with Discover Morocco: €120 including transport, accommodation and tagine dinners.

Our only criticism was that one cafe where we were brought to for lunch was far from fantastic because 1) we felt cheated by the cafe owner when he made us pay for a pizza based on ‘per person’ price and 2) I made the mistake of ordering pasta with cheese, which turned out to be Laughing Cow cream cheese rather than Parmesan cheese.

Essaouira – an unwinding stay in a charming and fresh moroccan port city

I have to admit – when we first planned a trip to Morocco, I had never heard of Essaouira. Situated on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast, it was lined with white and blue painted walls and riads with old wooden front doors. It was full of fresh produce, friendliness, music and gentle sunshine. The list goes on – and we really enjoyed Essaouira for its dazzlingly colourful medina, laid back atmosphere and fresh air.

   

   

Getting to Essaouira was fairly straightforward. There was a coach service run by Supratours which took 2hrs and cost 75Dh. It also had a nearby airport where flights to London Luton were £20 one way.

The town had a chilled vibe and  walking the Medina was a hassle-free joy. Towards the port side there were bounties of freshly caught fish, buskers perched by the sea walls and fishermen tending to their wooden blue boats. The smell of charcoaled fish led us to the numerous stalls offering to grill the fishermen’s catch as a fresh, tasty lunch. We enjoyed this so much we went there twice!

   

Towards the bottom half of the medina were rows of colourful bowls and tagine pots seen on display. Various shops offered all sorts of leather bags and shoes – and in others “Grandma hand-woven carpets” – many of which had a story to tell. Whether or not it was their Grandma’s I don’t know, but some sure looked impressive!

   

Towards the top half of the medina was filled with mountains of olives, fresh herbs, fruit and veg. We were told that many locals did not own a fridge and went to the markets daily and who needs to when it was all freshly picked! (The oranges were exceptionally sweet and juicy).

Olives!

A cooking school, L’Atelier Madada, offered half day classes in a small group. Here we could choose which dishes we’d like to learn and managed to turn our amateur skills into something worthy in a restaurant (the taste was definitely better than places we had been to).

   

   

The course also included a spice tour of an extremely knowledge-able herbalist’s stall, which gave a fascinating insight into the origins and correct uses of spices and natural sources in Moroccan life. It helped us know which spices were poor quality or counterfeit and made us realise how much of what we use today now comes from unnatural sources! e.g:

  • Lipstick was, and still is here, made from poppy flower seeds
  • Purple dye from snail gland mucus (which would help explain why historically it was worn only by the wealthy!)

Some other interesting points included:

  • Cassia cinnamon, which is cheaper and far more common than the Ceylon variety is actually toxic in high doses.

Cumin was used to help digest food that may be off and hence its presence on certain dinner tables!

   
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Some of the spices use in cooking and visit to the spice shop)

   (Seasoning for the seafood pastilla – kind of like a fish pie and … the final product)

Zaalouk – spiced aubergine and tomato

In the evening, we treated ourselves to a massage at Azur Art and Spa. Combined with a mint tea at the end, we found this a very relaxing break. Massages were from 350Dh for 1h.

To top off a day, we enjoyed watching the sun set by the beach with a view of the medina and by Taros cafe as the sun set beyond the Atlantic ocean. We thoroughly enjoyed our short stay in Essaouira and we left with very fond memories.