Sardinia: Part 2 – Pula

The next part of our Sardinian journey began with a nervous start.  In an unfamiliar car rented from downtown Cagliari, we joined the busy flow of traffic out of the capital and stalled several times. Drivers shouted in Italian (who could blame them?). Cars zoomed past. After several times of stalling and getting out of the way of many of some who were in much more of a hurry, we  escaped the chaos and complete the more tranquil 40km stretch to the town of Pula. Sharon insists that next time we will get an automatic.

Pula was a small town and had a feeling that people worried less and had a more carefree attitude to life. Residents watched football on a large TV placed in the town centre, ate home-made gelato well into the night and lazed on the beach, filling in crosswords for hours on end.

Our accommodation ‘Cosy Sunflowers’ was spacious and cosy. Our host had plenty of heart and hospitality; he even provided a local mobile phone with data allowance to use. We think we were staying in his house as we could see many shirts and he regularly walked back to the direction of his Aunt’s when he visited us. We were too shy to ask just in case he was!

The things we enjoyed in Pula most were:

After spending a windy day at one stretch of the Chia beach, we discovered the Campana beach which was more sheltered from the wind.

1. Chia Beach
We enjoyed bringing our beach gear to this glorious beach. We loved this beach so much that we went there two days in a row. There are a few beaches in this area but they are largely next to each other along the same stretch of coast. The warm sun dried our bodies as we swam in the ocean, enjoyed our dried fruit and bananas (for digestion), sunbathed and napped among the fine sand all throughout the day. We were aware that the beach could get quite windy at times, so we would highly recommend taking a beach umbrella. If you’re unfamiliar with setting up a beach umbrella like us amateurs, eventually some friendly Italian will help you out.

2. Hanging around the town centre
We loved the gelaterias serving olive oil based ice cream and browsing the stylish shoes on offer (wish we could have bought a pair). It was enjoyable to have dinner in the square and listen to the sounds of people enjoying their evenings.

3. Home cooked meal by our hosts’ aunt

Our host provided a home cooked meal for us to have at home. It was a splendid arrangement of fish, pasta and a limited amount of vegetables (potatoes) The portions were huge (as you might expect from Italian hospitality) and our host’s aunt took huge pleasure from us devouring her food.

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to the south of Sardinia and left with many fond memories to treasure. The most memorable moment of all was that after the best day at the beach, Jason decided to propose when Sharon was nearly asleep. “Let me get my glasses so I can read this card.” Come again?

Chia beach and Pula will always hold a special place in our hearts because it is the place where we got engaged. Next time, a visit to the North?

Breakfast tasted extra sweet the next morning!

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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!

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!

Split in September

Although this post is long overdue, Split was by far our favourite city in Croatia. It was bustling but not as crowded and touristy as Dubrovnik. It has a beautiful Old Town centred around the Diocletian’s Palace, a spacious promenade, lots of places for swimming, and equally tasty restaurants which provided more value for money compared to Dubrovnik and Hvar.

Split Old Town Croatia

We stayed in a studio which was a stone’s throw from the Old Town – it was nice to be able to walk everywhere. Our host recommended a wonderful cafe called Luka Ice Cream & Cakes which we went to everyday during the three days we were there. It was, hands down, the best place for ice cream on a hot summer day. There were many options for vegans as well.

To burn all the calories consumed, we would recommend the walk up the steep streets in Veli Varoš quarter to a hilltop cafe called Vidilica, where you can have a drink while watching the sun set over the entire city of Split. It looks just like in the movies, except we weren’t fortunate enough to get a table at that hour.

Vantage point Split

Hilltop cafe Vidilica

Hilltop cafe Vidilica

Nevertheless, we did eat at many other great places such as Uje Oil Bar (where you can dine next to the Old City walls and feel like you’re living in the medieval ages) and Galija for Mediterranean/Italian food.

From Split, we joined a local tour for a day trip to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. It’s an impressive park with many terraced lakes, waterfalls and emerald green waters. We debated between renting a car and joining a tour but we were glad we joined the tour because the tour guide gave us an interesting lesson on the history of Croatia. Sights wise, we personally enjoyed the Vintgar Gorge in Slovenia more, possibly because it was less crowded and touristy. At several points along the route in the Plitvice Lakes National Park, tourists were walking so close together such that if you wanted to stop and take photos, you felt you were holding up others. Perhaps this was because early September was peak season?

plitvice-lakes-national-park

Price per person with Portal Travel Agency: €80

If you’re on a budget, time-strapped or want to get away from heavily touristic areas, we think you’ll enjoy Split more.