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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in the Europe.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in the Europe.
Dani, our guide, ducked beneath the threadbare prayer flags nailed over the cave mouth and smiled, pointing at an old mattress slid between two stalagmites: “Hippies!” he chuckled, “I pulled a whole kitchen out of one of these caves”. Continue reading
To say Gdansk’s past was eventful would be understating it; even by Polish standards. If its locals were sportspeople, they’d be tug of war champions. For the 20th century in this port city was very much that. It was annexed as Danzig by the Allies in 1920 following the First World War. Continue reading
The nesting doll’s eyes met mine from across the marketplace. Surrounded by a cornucopia of Soviet trinkets, vinyl records, embroidered shawls and kebab stalls, it was something about the promise she offered, of more treasures hidden within, that compelled me to start haggling.
The Mediterranean is an undisputed haven for island hopping. But while the waters off Greece and Croatia might be increasingly familiar to travellers, Italy is arguably still king when it comes to offshore escapes — and nowhere is this more evident than the cluster of islands sprinkled across the Bay of Naples.
Our family trip to Menorca should have been remembered as any number of things: the summer vacation when my daughter learned to snorkel, that time my dad ate a lobster’s face, the week of 17 impossibly per feet beaches. And it was all that, but halfway through our stay it also became the time my wife found out her mother was dying. We had rented a house along the Spanish island’s southern coast, in a community called Binibequer. It sounds like Binny Baker when people say it. We had a running joke about Binny Baker, whom we imagined as a legendary British comedian and predecessor to Benny Hill who’d retired to Menorca Binibequer is like an appealing Mediterranean version of a Florida enclave, with white cement and plaster houses clustered around a town center where you can walk around and buy sunscreen and beach pails and eat mussels and drink sangria made with Sprite at the bars.
Travel can be a trick you play on yourself. You can almost make yourself believe you actually live in another place. It’s effective. In just a few days, the memory of our real lives can be obliterated. Rituals help with that. On Menorca, we got our morning coffee from the bakery by the supermarket. We went to the beach around nine. This was our favourite local cheese, that was our favourite walk. But when texts with the news of Danielle’s mother began arriving at 3 or 4 am., it yanked us out of that fantasy. Suddenly we were just strangers in a place far from home.
It was a warm night, and Danielle must have been up checking her phone. She often can’t sleep. She has the metabolism of acute, extremely aware fox watching a ping-pong match, and she gets more things done between midnight and 5 am (if you count booking babysitters and panicking about global warming as getting things done) than I do all day long. On this night, for some reason I woke up, too. Disturbance in the Force or what have you.
“My mom had a stroke,” Danielle announced, sitting up in bed. She’d gotten a text from one sister first. That sister was prone to drama, though. My mother-in-law had had many strokes, all of them minor. But then a text came in from another sister. And then from my brother-in-law, kind of a gray-haired father figure who can always be counted on when a cooler head is needed to prevail. He said it was possible Danielle’s mother had only a short time to live. So the news was sanctioned. Danielle was funny about it. She was crying but also mordant. She said something about how her mother was probably telling a paramedic he didn’t know how to drive the roads near her house and was going the wrong way.
As daybreak arrived, the sky became a deep blue, and the wind picked up. The gusts were so strong in the mornings that they sometimes knocked over bottles of shampoo in the bathroom. Standing outside on the patio in that wind, we agreed that Danielle would fly home as soon as possible. I, along with our two kids and my parents, who were with us on the trip, would keep our return tickets and fly back in a few days. Soon Danielle was on the phone calling the airline. I tried to help but mostly just got in the way.
Upon our arrival in Menorca, we picked up a large car we had reserved. It was some kind of Renault, called a Mavis Gallant, I think. (Disclaimer: its real name wasn’t Mavis Gallant.) It was long and wide, and had enough trunk space to put another Renault inside of it. It was like a car designed by M. C. Escher. On our second morning, we packed into the Mavis Gallant to go to the beach. Danielle and I were in the front, while the children (Finn, boy, age five; Frankie, girl, age seven) sat about 10 miles away from us in the backseat, where they looked like shrunken businessmen in a limousine. My parents rented the same Renault Mavis Gallant, naturally. Gordon and Jill, ages 74 and 72 at the time of this vacation, are the happiest people I know, though they’ve been through some terrible hardships. Also, my dad is the slowest driver in the entire world. The vacation was mostly me pulling over on the side of the highway that runs across Menorca, through a miniature mountain range and bleach-blond farmland, waiting for him. He trailed me as we headed west out of Binny Baker.
Here’s the deal with Menorca: it’s the most laid-back and family-friendly of Spain’s Balearic Islands. While there are sophisticated restaurants and places to stay (including a boutique vineyard hotel called Torralbenc, where they administer some top-notch massages, as I can personally attest), the island is emphatically low-key. It doesn’t have the hordes of British and German vacationers who make neighboring Mallorca so, at times, not-fun. Also absent are the untz-untz nightclubs—and dudes sitting on the beach in $400 flip-flops scrolling through Instagram—that plague Ibiza. What you have instead on Menorca are rocks, Spaniards, and a ton of great beaches.
Menorca’s beaches come in a full spectrum. There are tiny coves notched into the coastline everywhere, for furtive couples and nudists. There is Son Bou beach, perfectly long and wide and sandy. There’s the rugged and beautiful Gala Pregonda, which you hike to over a series of hills, each spot beckoning you to the next, just in case it’s even prettier and less crowded (and it almost always is). Three of Menorca’s most famous beaches are clustered along the southwestern coast: Cala Macarella, Son Saura, and Cala en Turqueta. They’re sort of Menorca’s analogue to the Eiffel Tower or Times Square—touristic imperatives. Places you have to visit because otherwise you wouldn’t feel like you’ve really been to Menorca.
As you drive to those beaches in your Renault MG, at some point you’ll come to large, mysterious electronic signs. You might guess that they have been placed in the peaceful, sun-beaten farmland to give people gate information for some cosmic portal. Stand next to this cow at 4:30 and you’ll be sucked into another dimension! But in fact they are something stranger: parking information signs. The prime beaches, in the height of the season (your late Julys through your ends of August), are so ungodly popular that a system was set up to start turning’ people away miles from the actual beaches.
We slowed the Mavis Gallant as we approached a sign for Cala Macarella parking. Next to it there was a lady sitting in the shade of a small tent. She explained that the lot was full. And suggested we eat lunch. In a few hours people would leave and we could come back. She helped me navigate a 14-point turn in the Renault. My father still hadn’t caught up. We decided to have lunch in Es Migjorn Gran, an inland town that is set into the side of a mountainette and has a beautiful, centuries-old center. At Bar Peri—a dark, quiet tapas spot seemingly not updated since the 1940s—we ordered typical small plates. Finn didn’t eat a single bite of nutritious food.
But he wanted dessert. “If you eat your tortilla,” I said, “you can have dessert. But if you don’t, you can’t.” Danielle looked at me: Don’t draw lines in the sand you don’t intend to back up. I glared back: Can you stop judging my parenting? “Okay, how about just three bites,” I said. “But I won’t negotiate anymore.” Daniele rolled her eyes. Looking at Finn, I could tell a whine was coming. There was a Spanish family with beautifully behaved children at the next table. My father was having just the friendliest conversation with them, even though he speaks no Spanish. He can do that Finn’s whine was getting’ louder and attracting attention. I was desperate. “Okay, just one bite…half a bite…forget it—just go pick some ice cream out of the freezer!”
Danielle was yelling at me without saying anything. That she was right made me angrier. There was a freezer near the bar stuffed with the kinds of factory-made, highly processed ice cream products people back home in Brooklyn are statutorily prohibited from giving their kids. Finn stood looking at the colourful packages. There were so many. Frankie was already eating an ice-cream cone, watching amusedly. “I can’t decide,” Finn said. He said it like it was an accusation—how could you take me to this place with all these kinds of ice cream? “Just get the one that Frankie has,” I begged. Jill joined in: “Ooooh, that one looks delicious!” We all knew what was coming. I tried getting’ philosophical: “Your indecision is so legitimate. Disappointment is inevitable.” I shot a quick glance at my wife, who wasn’t even trying to interfere: Let me handle this. When I finally got him to pick one, unwrapped it for him, and he tasted it, he dropped it on the ground and screamed, “I want what Frankie has!!!!” So I went over to buy him that one. It didn’t work.
Menorca’s beaches are famous for a reason, and Cala Macarella is arguably the most spectacular of them all. It’s a turquoise inlet surrounded by cliffs and rocks and pine forest, tipped with a gentle slope of white sand. Spaniards were gathered on the beach and in the shallows. Topless women, babies, young couples rolling cigarettes. With the cliff walls it felt a bit like an amphitheater—all of us sitting on the sand to watch the sea perform.
I went for a swim. The water was perfect: blue-green, just cool enough to be refreshing. It was easy to get out far enough to feel that I was alone, the other people reduced to visual details, like little wildflowers in a field. In no time I’d swum around a bend and into another cove, a smaller version of Macarella called Macarelleta. The same deal—people on the sand staring out at the seal floated on my back, and for a minute I let go of all dissatisfaction. It added one year to my life. After I returned, we got the kids ready to leave. I was silently levying a protest against my wife. She responded with a wordless counter protest. But we dried and dressed the kids and desanded the clothes and walked back through the forest to the car in a kind of practiced synchronicity.
On the path to the parking lot, the sun was burning the carpet of pine needles at a slow roast, releasing a beautiful, dry smell. Roads on Menorca don’t always make accommodations to modem traffic. There are a lot of farm roads, lined by stone walls that push in from the sides. Two cars can just squeeze past each other. Usually. When a car approaches, you both keep slowing down and slowing down until you’re creeping past each other with minimal tolerance, pulling your mirrors in, sometimes passing close enough to reach out and change the other car’s radio station. And on the way home I found myself in such a bottleneck.
I slowed. The oncoming’ car slowed. My father crept steadily behind me, liking the pace, probably not even realizing that I was slowing down. As he penned me in from behind, the oncoming car penned me in from the front, pushing us together to a point where it was unclear how to disentangle all our Mavis Gallants. It was, I thought, kind of like the impasse that I’d come to with Danielle. Not so much a fight as both of us inching forward and not backing down, and neither of us knowing how to get out of it.
One of the things that makes Menorca the most authentic Balearic island, in my opinion, is that all of its towns feel real. Not BS tourist towns made up of hotels and little dry wall grocery stores but the kind of towns you’d expect to find on some hilltop in Castile—old and formidable, with heavy stone buildings and narrow streets and old ladies sitting on benches mumbling to each other. During the day, when everyone is indoors, hiding from the sun, these towns—especially those in the interior— can take on the air of a lost civilization, but at night they come alive.
Here on Menorca, you are constantly reminded that there’s a reason why the Spanish eat and socialize so late: because it’s f***ing hot during the day. The sun comes at you at an unpleasant volume, with retina-searing intensity. (One time Finn had to go out into an unshaded plaza to chase down his soccer ball in the middle of the day, and I half expected him to start smoking and burst into flames.) But at night? At night it’s civilized. Temperatures drop, and the wind courses over the island, whipping Menor cans’ towels and underpants as they dry on their clotheslines. During the summer, each Menorcan town has its own day of the week to host night markets— one evening it’s in Fornells, another in Ferreries, another in Alaior. On those nights, the bars and restaurants drag tables into the street, some kind of Spanish marching band or reggae five-piece is booked for a stage in the central plaza, and vendors sell bracelets and cookies and fresh fruit juices.
On Alaior’s designated night, we drove to its outskirts and ditched the Renault in a lot. With Gordon and Jill in tow, we hoofed it into the town center, toward the sounds of Spanish people having fun. Once we were there, it wasn’t long before my daughter discovered a hand-built merry-go-round setup in the middle of a lane. You paid your money and picked a “horse,” constructed out of old tires and scrap metal and broom handles. Then the man put the music on. He powered the contraption using a bicycle whose back wheel was connected to a gear, propelling the riders around in circles. I held Danielle’s hand as we watched the guy pedal (he basically had to complete a stage of the Tour de France over the course of the evening). We were suddenly not mad anymore. That was it. We didn’t talk our way through it. We just left it behind and moved on. When I was young and foolish, I wouldn’t have thought that was how you worked things out.
After lunch, we drove to the lighthouse. When we arrived, Jill went to the information kiosk (she’s interested in things; I’m not) while my dad sat down and soaked it all in from a restful position, as is his wont. Danielle was on the phone with her sisters. I took the kids out to a cave. Menorca is pocked with caves—in cliffs and underwater. Caves into which ancient contemplators disappeared, where Jews were imprisoned, treasures hidden. Caves that now host expensive cocktail lounges, like the famous Cova d’en Xoroi. Near the lighthouse, a hundred yards from the cliff’s edge, there is a cave entrance. Just a hole in the ground. And into that hole we saw people disappearing one at a time.
As soon as it was our turn, Frankie wriggled right down the ladder and disappeared into the blackness. But Finn was frightened. He stared into the hole. Finn at age five was such a force of nature, approaching the world with such defiance, that it surprised me when he got scared and grabbed onto my thumb with his soft little hand. He looked at me and said, “I want to go, but I also don’t want to go. Should I be scared?” The main psychological questions laid bare, without any of the repression we learn later in life. “I would be, probably,” I said. “But it’s not actually going to be scary when you’re down there.”
Finn eventually proceeded, solemnly, into the blackness. Frankie was waiting for us, and she took one of my hands while Finn took the other. We walked down a long underground passageway until we came to an opening, protected by a metal grate, overlooking the sea at a terrifying height. The three of us gazed out, kind of willing ourselves to bear witness. I like to think Frankie and Finn shared my sense of staring into an unknown—just as their grandmother was doing back home in America Turning’ toward the exit, Finn said he wanted an ice cream cone. I told him to ask his mom.
Marvel at the architectural mash-up of East meets West that defines Old Town
European, Russian, Asian and Middle Eastern influences intertwine among narrow winding streets, crumbling arches and hidden courtyards. While Tbilisi’s Old Town evokes images of faded grandeur, this enchanting hillside community and UNESCO World Heritage site is a riot of colour from its blue painted wooden balconies to the terracotta rooftops.
Enjoy an elevated perspective of the city
Narikala, the 4th-century ’Mother Fortress of Tbilisi’ has dominated and defended the city since it was founded. Overlooking the Mtkarvi River, take the 1,500-metre- long tourist trail that has stunning views at every turn. The vista is especially charming after dark due to the city lights twinkling far below. For the easy way out, take the aerial tramway back down.
Get closer to nature at the National Botanical Garden of Georgia
Nestled in the city foothills, the 300-year old gardens are a showcase for more than 4,500 species of flora from the Caucasus region and as far afield as Japan and Siberia. Take your time wandering through the fragrant gardens and forested slopes before taking a bracing dip in its picture- perfect waterfall.
No trip to Tbilisi is complete without a visit to the Dry Bridge Bazaar.
This vibrant local market is a great spot to spend an hour or so with a captivating collection of jewellery, antiques and bric-a-brac on display. Following independence from the USSR in 1991, this is where cash-strapped Tbilisi residents would come to sell their prized possessions. In a reversal of fortune, today it is the haunt of entrepreneurial local traders selling to tourists. Open daily, weather permitting, be prepared to haggle for a bargain.
Follow your nose to Tbilisi’s famed sulphur baths for a skin-softening soak.
Favoured by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and French author Alexandre Dumas, the city’s legendary baths are a novel way to feel rejuvenated. Located in Abanotubani, on the edge of Old Town, and topped by distinctive dome-shaped roofs, the oldest bathhouse has been around for over 300 years. Follow your nose through the narrow alleyways to building number five, for a hammam-style session. More modest bathers can opt for a private room and menu of therapeutic treatments.
For a taste of authentic Georgian cuisine, head to Sakhli 11
In a city filled with endless dining opportunities, Sakhli N11, which is a short walk from Freedom Square, welcomes visitors as if they were family. The menu may be a bit more expensive then other Georgian restaurants, but is worth every lari. Try the Chakapuli – a heartwarming stew made with lamb and herbs, or go for fried local trout and traditional honey cake.
ASK A LOCAL:
“A trip on the restored funicular railway to the top of Mount Mtatsminda is a favourite summer activity for visitors, due to the amazing views from the Funicular Restaurant terrace. Get to know the locals and you may be invited to join a traditional Georgian feast (Supra) with singing and folk dancing.”
Otar Bakhtadze, concierge, Radisson Blu Iveria
If you feel like taking a sneak peek inside one of the city’s grandiose old apartment blocks, don’t forget to carry some small coins. Why? Step inside the elevator and you’ll spy a small box next to the button panel. Unless you slot some coins into the box, you’ll stay stuck on the ground floor. Trips cost around Dhs1.
RADISSON BLU IVERIA
Located In the heart of Tbilisi, this luxury hotel has a glass facade offering amazing Mtvari River views. Suites feature traditional Georgian design touches and the intriguingly named Andropov’s Ears restaurant is a seafood hotspot.
Brunel’s railway bridge, its brick arches reflected in the river, was doing its best to blend in with the water meadows just south of Goring-on-Thames. Coots were nesting on it as I passed under it one early- summer morning. Saplings sprouted from its piers. Bushes peeped over its parapet. But the camouflage couldn’t conceal the railway that Isambard Kingdom Brunel built it for, back in 1838.
I emerged into sunshine to see a train hurtle across the top, intruding on my parallel universe. As suited passengers prepared for meetings in the Big Smoke just 45 minutes away, here I was beginning another day in a drowsy backwater, immersed in fields of sage-scented purple knapweed. My approach to the capital was a grassy tow path, passing banks of blue forget-me- nots, and my meetings would be with moorhens. Trains on the Great Western Railway might run two or three times faster than when Brunel built his bridges, yet the Thames still flows below at the same pensive pace. I’d lived near its banks for years but never found time, among modern pressures and mundane drudgery, to see its forgotten corners. But, reading aloud a chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to a young relative one evening, I realised that much of the idyll in his 1908 publication lay virtually on my doorstep. If I took off, how easily might I find his timeless wilderness?
Walk the Thames Path from Oxford to London, and the frantic contemporary world recedes behind a leafy veil. Clocks and schedules fade to changing skies and the slow shift of seasons. Time flows backwards. The river, as it heads for the North Sea, is a water-world of nostalgia: wisteria-hung public houses, with tables among riverside apple trees; unhurried tow paths, where the only sounds are rasping mallards, rain on the reed-framed water, or cuckoos calling over sun-warmed fields. Poets, from Shelley to T S Eliot, were inspired by it; so were painters, among them the mystical Stanley Spencer, as well as novelists such as H G Wells and Jerome K Jerome, whose Three Men in a Boat is a comic masterpiece.
On a scudding-cloud morning in early June I set off from Oxford’s Folly Bridge to follow the meandering Thames by boat, on foot and aboard the odd steam train. From this bridge, on mid-Victorian afternoons, maths prof Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would row Alice Liddell and her sisters, entertaining them with surreal adventure stories that began with a now-famous girl following a white rabbit down a hole. As I stood by a traffic-choked street, 151 years after Alice in Wonderland was published, it was easy to believe London was only an hour away by train. But boarding the Edwardian Lady Ethel, an open-topped, royal-blue craft, I was soon gliding into the past, spotting the long-horned cattle and lacy cow parsley of meadows, Oxford’s ochre spires sliding behind dappled oaks.
Salter’s Steamers was founded by two brothers back when Lewis Carroll was rowing Alice. The same family runs the riverboat company today. I was almost alone on the two-hour trip to the market town of Abingdon, with Tim doing the rope-work, Mark at the helm.
As we drifted by flowering chestnuts and carpets of buttercups, they talked about the boat-lovers who escape to the sanctuary of the water every weekend; about the ‘rich and shameless’ living in the riverside properties; and about the Thames itself, which lashes out now and again at those who try to build too near.
After 18 years working on this stretch of water, Mark, it seemed, had absorbed its calm. ‘When it comes to the Thames,’ he said, gnomically, as we parted by Abingdon Bridge, ‘you either get it, or you don’t’. I recalled his words some hours later, as I rested among blooming hawthorns and stately poplars, looking back down the river’s mazy curves from the grassy ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort. I ate my last pain au raisin (from Abingdon’s Patisserie Pascal), gazing across at Dorchester, a mossy-roofed village with a square-towered abbey church.
I’d seen almost nobody on the 14km walk, just weeping willows dipping their long, green tresses in the meditative Thames. Now fork-tailed red kites wheeled over the beech-crowned chalk, dragonflies darted among ox-eye daisies, and I felt myself relax. ‘Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it,’ says Grahame’s Water Rat in his hymn to ‘messing about on the river’.
I was, I felt, ’getting’ the Thames.
But I couldn’t linger, not if I wanted to get a bed before nightfall. The medieval arches and flagstone floors of 12th-century Fyfield Manor lay a good walk east, near Wallingford and the old-fashioned bathtub was just what my sore feet needed. Waking in a building fundamentally unchanged for hundreds of years, with a kingfisher-haunted brook burbling through the garden, I wouldn’t have blinked to see Jerome and friends strolling past in striped blazers, or hear Ratty on the riverbank, singing to the ducks.
There was welcome respite for my feet that morning: a nostalgic jaunt on the Cholsey and Wallingford steam railway. The 4km-long branch line didn’t make much downstream progress, but the noisy red and green steam engine was a delight, drawing waving spectators on its cross¬country puff to Cholsey, where Agatha Christie is buried in the churchyard.
Feet reinvigorated, I could feel the river’s reedy calm calling as I hurried along Cholsey’s sycamore-fringed Ferry Lane, back towards the Thames. The tow path soon led to the hamlet of Moulsford and a drink outside the Beetle & Wedge Boathouse, where I watched geese and swans glide on their rippling highway, enjoying the smell of the Beetle’s charcoal barbecue. The Beetle & Wedge is the ‘little riverside inn’ in Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat where George and J stop off on a walk and where the trout on the wall in the bar, which all the locals claim to have caught, turns out to be made of plaster. It’s also H G Wells’s Potwell Inn, where Mr Polly takes a job. Just as Wells described it, the rose-trellised garden runs down to a broad bend in the Thames; and, as the light faded, the river started to resemble Jerome’s imagined watery idyll near the start of the novel, full of sighing rushes and rustling trees.
Lunching at Agriturismo Sa Marighedda, a farm restaurant outside Castiadas, in southeast Sardinia, my husband Michael and I couldn’t have been further from the bling of the island’s celebrated, supermodel- draped Costa Smeralda. We’d jumped at the chance to spend a week here, in a house offered by a pair of Sardinian teachers, Giuliana and Mario, and right now we couldn’t have been happier.
The food was no hotel-bland international fare. On Sa Marighedda’s fixed-price menu we had already chewed our way through cured meats, tangy pecorino cheese, olives, grilled aubergines and ‘rustic’ focacce, all brimming with that sunny taste of the Med you can’t replicate back home. Two types of Sardinia’s distinctive pasta in a rich tomato sauce followed: culurgiones, fat oval pillows filled with pecorino, and ridged, trilobite-shaped malloreddus. To wash it down: the local Cannonau red, full of those lovely antioxidants that help the locals live to be 100.
Yes, this was Sardinia, the Sardinia we first visited 35 years ago while researching our first travel guides on the western Med: the fantastically old, mysterious island that existed long before Michelin-starred chefs descended and swanky resorts set about colonising the beaches. Somehow we also managed dessert: pardulas (tiny cheese tarts under flurries of powdered sugar) and seadas (warm, fried cheese ravioli oozing arbutus honey). But it was the scent of the mirto, Sardinia’s famous myrtle digestivo, which really evoked memories. ‘Do you remember when we had all this before?’ I asked Michael.
‘At the shepherds’ feast,’ he said right away, even though it had happened 35 years ago.
“The wild landscapes, vast skies ana simple, stucco ranch style architecture seemed ideal for spaghetti westerns”
The shepherds’ feast was the most magical day of our five-month-long journey. Back then, before Sardinia was a beacon on the package-holiday map, the authentic was all around – you didn’t have to go in search of it. That said, our VIP pass that long-ago day had something to do with the fact that we were travelling with the best accessory you can have in Italy: a cute baby. Doors fall open. Chocolates and bonbons fly out of handbags. People take you in a 4WD to a mountain meadow where you’re the only foreigners, where shepherds slow-roast meat in a pit, as they’ve done since antiquity.
Where a floppy-hatted male quartet cupped their ears in their hands and burst into uncanny, archaic, cantu a tenore polyphonic song, while our baby was passed around, smothered with kisses and stuffed with tidbits. It felt downright Homeric. Isolated for centuries from the mainland, everything about Sardinia – its cuisine, its language, its festivals and music – seemed older than the rest of Italy.
How much of the island would still be the real deal this time round? We couldn’t help wondering what disappointments might lie ahead, as we set off back to our temporary home in Oristano. Initial signs were promising: kilometres of rugged, primeval Mediterranean terrain, and rustic sheepfolds amid tumbles of granite boulders, parasol pines, olive and lemon groves and vineyards. Cork oaks blushed reddish orange where they’d been stripped of their bark. The wild landscapes, vast skies and simple, stucco ranch-style architecture seemed ideal for spaghetti westerns. I could imagine Clint Eastwood in his poncho and Stetson riding over the hill.
“I always wondered why Sergio Leone didn’t film here,” I said. ‘After all, Sardinia is just a ferry-hop from Rome’s Cinecitta studios.’
“I imagine Spain was cheaper and emptier,” Michael replied. “Besides, it would look odd if there was a shoot-out with a nuraghe in the background.”
We had already passed several of these characteristic single or multi-lobed towers: nothing shouts ‘ancient Sardinia’ like them. After the pyramids, nuraghes, built here and nowhere else from about 1500BC to 500BC, were the tallest megalithic constructions ever created, and a mind-boggling 7,000 of them still dot the landscape, often isolated in dramatic settings.
We were headed for a revisit to the daddy of them all: Su Nuraxi, just outside the village of Barumini. In the distance were the hills that gave the region its name, the Marmilla. In fact, before Su Nuraxi was excavated by the Sardinian archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu in 1949, everyone thought it was just another perky protuberance. Local adults warned it was home to an enormous child-eating fly.
The den of the fly turned out to be the interior of a nuraghe tower, a huge three-storey structure surrounded by a rampart and four other towers. In 3D reconstructions, it looks like a medieval castle surrounded by a dense Hobbit village of round houses.
While elsewhere, on the coast, the holiday crowds would be rolling up their beach towels and heading for happy hour and ambient sounds, we felt wonderfully alone in the island’s historic embrace: we were the only ones there for the 7pm tour, the last of the day, when the rich light played on Su Nuraxi’s colossal basalt boulders. I had forgotten how complex it was, with narrow passages, stairs and massive corbelled vaults built within the thickness of the walls. As we emerged near the top it was like standing on the shoulders of giants.
At daybreak, the sun was already scorching as I coasted into the Tuscan village of Spergolaia on a rusty silver cruiser. I passed cream-coloured stucco buildings, stables, and cattle chutes before arriving at a dirt lot where an athletic-looking Italian man in his 30s, dressed in a pristine tan gilet, a white shirt, and dark riding breeches, was bending over to put on a pair of leather boots. He looked quizzically at me and my bike. “Buongiorno,” he said.
“Buongiomo,” I replied, and asked if a horseback ride with the butteri was scheduled for that morning. He nodded. As this would be my first time, I asked him how difficult it would be. “Impegnativo” he said. Challenging. I’ve been riding since I was a little girl, but I’m no pro. Still, there was no way I would be deterred from riding with Italy’s very own cowboys, which I’d been dying to do since learning about them when I lived in Rome, two decades ago.
The butteri are the cattle breeders and horsemen of the Maremma, a rugged coastal region that stretches across southern Tuscany and northern Lazio from the coast to the plains. Their way of life dates back to the spread of agriculture during Etruscan times. But beyond Italy, few are aware that among the celebrated vineyards, hotels, and restaurants that now dot the countryside between Florence and Rome, a vibrant cowboy culture has existed for thousands of years—and is today struggling to survive.
The man in the lot directed me across the road to the main stable of the Tenutadi Alberese, a state-owned, 10,000-acre ranch six miles from the Maremma coast. There I met Stefano Pavin, a 51-year-old buttero with golden hair and sun-bronzed skin who was placing military-style scafarda saddles on a row of Maremmano horses, a bay-coloured breed indigenous to the region. Pavin wore a stylishly simple outfit—straw hat, olive-green cotton work shirt, khaki pants, dark brown riding boots—typical of the butteri, whose sartorial preferences have inspired fashion designer s like Dolce & Gabbana. A pair of Italian visitors and l would spend the next four hours helping him and two other men check fences and move a herd of is foals from a hilly pasture to the salt flats on the other side of the ranch.
Because of the low wages and physical demands of their work, the butteri have been in steady decline, a trend accelerated by Italy’s economic downturn. Fewer than 50 are thought to remain in the Maremma. Most earn a living raising livestock, making wine, and producing organic grains, olive oil, and meats for Slow Food purveyors. Pavin is one of two full-time cowboys at the Tenutadi Alberese, where he cares for 70 horses and 450 cows. “Being a buttero is away of life, not a fashion style,” he said as he rode beside me. “It’s not easy. There’s the extreme heat and the cold, and getting thrown on the ground and stomped on. The weak go away.”
There are about two dozen associations in Italy dedicated to preserving butteri culture. In spring and summer, several stage spettacoli, in which horsemen demonstrate their gallantry before a paying audience by performing elaborate dressage routines and cattle drives in traditional costume. Working farms have also adapted to modern times by embracing tourism. The Tenutadi Alberese now offers farm stays, some in historic buildings like the Villa Fattoria Granducale, built as a fortress by the Knights of Malta in the 15th century. For US$65, the ranch also invites experienced riders to show up in Spergolaia on any workday at 7 am, as I had done, to accompany the butteri as they go about their morning chores.
We cantered across the fields, making sure the rough-hewn chestnut fences were still intact. We visited a watering hole for the horses, passing a herd of robust gray-and-white Maremmana longhorns, before continuing along rocky switchbacks, through a grove of olive trees and into a meadow where the reddish-brown foals were grazing. This terrain was inhospitable marsh, rife with malaria, until Mussolini drained it in the 1930s. Today, it is still fierce. “I wear a straw hat to protect myself from the sun and a long shirt to protect myself from the horseflies,” Pavin said. He swung his uncino, a hand-carved wooden stick with a hook on one end that he uses to open gates, herd cattle, and train horses.
There was a rumbling of hooves as the foals dashed up the hill. Pavin spun his horse around in pursuit, his uncino resting casually on his shoulder. I followed gleefully at a full gallop, crouched low in the saddle, holding the reins in one hand. After falling behind, I caught up with the group at the gate to Maremma Regional Park, a protected 25,000-acre nature reserve. Inside, we followed a meandering dirt path through Mediterranean pines, grassy meadows, and the occasional cow pasture—a landscape that felt untouched by time.
We posted speedily, passing the Tower of Collelungo, a crumbling 13th-century stone lookout. The path gave way to sand dunes, which we crossed to reach our final destination, the Spiaggiadi Collelungo, a pristine gray-sand beach that was completely deserted. I followed the butteri into the emerald waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. As the horses splashed in the shoals, we gazed at the islands of Giglio and Elba and the Monte Argentario Peninsula on the horizon. Even with all that’s changed for the modern butteri, the view was as breathtaking as it must have been for their ancestors when they roamed the Maremma so many centuries ago.