David and Veronica James, publishers of The Gypsy Nester, send us this dispatch from Sardinia:
The Italian island of Sardinia (Sardegna) brought out the adventurer in us. Our first stop was Sassari, a city of about 120,000 with a rich history dating back to the early Middle Ages. A college town, home to the University of Sassari with about 18,000 students. It opened in May of 1562.
Our host, Gianluca, a treasure trove of Sardinian lore, put us up at the Hotel Vitorio Emanuele in the center of the old city. As we walked around the meticulously preserved town center, we found cobblestone roads, ancient buildings, and streets so narrow we could touch the walls on each side at the same time (yet locals navigate cars, trucks, and scooters with side mirrors-tucked-in ease). The dialect of the people around us, especially the children, sounded beautiful, like music.
Sassari can seem so foreign to modern, New World eyes, yet we soon discovered that behind the ancient veneer were 21st century conveniences. In our hotel, we found motion sensor lighting, video security, wireless access, and a staff that spoke an amazing repertoire of languages, seamlessly moving from guest to guest. Just a passing glance (or in Veronica’s case an intentional snoop) into the open doors of the homes revealed all the newest gadgets. State of the art kitchens with gleaming, compact appliances, LCD screens on widescreen TVs, and computers and furniture to die for.
Over the first night’s dinner, conversation turned to local food and customs. Gianluca mentioned that horse and donkey were the “national foods” of Sardinia and that people who are not from the island can find them hard to eat. It wasn’t meant as a challenge, but to us, the gauntlet had been dropped. Since David had tried horse on a previous visit to Italy, it was obvious that we must, instead, eat the ass!
The next day, our culinary adventure staring us in the face, we noticed an intriguing little local haunt called Trattoria da Peppina in a tiny piazza near our hotel. Turns out “assenello” (little donkey) was one of the least adventurous menu items. Spinal cord, small heads of lamb, three kinds of snails, various entrails, and goat feet were the big adventures, as well as several things we couldn’t decipher even with our fairly complete dictionary. This was it — we’d found our place. The obvious jokes preceded our meal: “That’s some nice ass,” “There’s just nothing like a good piece of ass,” “How’d you like to bite my … “ Well, you get the idea.
We were hoping a nice sauce might cover our ass, but as we were enjoying our pasta “first plate” we heard the distinct sound of meat on the grill. Sure enough, the ass was served straight up, all alone on a plate, grilled to perfection. They even went so far, perhaps by accident, (perhaps not), to serve it in a shape that could be seen as a toilet seat or a human butt.
Lemon and salt were added as we summoned up our courage. The steak was cut, rather tentatively, and the first bite sniffed and inspected. Smelled good, looked OK. Here we go. It’s good! No, really, it’s good. Fully expecting to only try a bite or two, we ate every bit. It’s really good. So now, best of all, at dinner we could truthfully say, “No thank you, I had ass for lunch.”
After lunch, it was time for more exploring. Sassari sleeps during this part of the day, so it felt as though we had the whole place to ourselves, but we did find the Museo Nazionale Sanna open. This museum has very convenient hours and houses some of the earliest Stone Age and Neolithic finds on the island. Phoenician and Carthaginian objects like pottery and gold jewelry, Roman finds with statuary, a sprinkling of coins, bronze belt buckles, and a stash of heavy Roman boat anchors that pay homage to Sardinia‘s seafaring history. They share the space with the art collection of Giovanni Sanna, whose family built the museum.
Next we visited the famous fountain, Fontana di Rosello, crafted in 1606, which first supplied the aqueduct for the nearby seaport of Porto Torres. Later, the citizens of Sassari hauled the water away in buckets by hand and on donkey — before dinner, we assume.
At one point during our walk we happened by a souvenir shop hocking tee shirts that read, “No Mirto, No Party.” Intrigued, we stepped in to ask the proprietor, What’s Mirto? With little language in common, we learned through hand signals and interpretive dance that Mirto is a traditional Sardinian liqueur that tastes harmless, but in half an hour all hell breaks loose. Immediately upon arrival back at the hotel, we started our own research in English. Mirto, we found, comes in two varieties, red and white, and is made from the myrtle plant — the red (rossa) is made from the berries, the white (bianca) from the leaves. Nothing about hallucinations. Since we were not sure who to trust — Wikipedia or the guy at the souvenir shop (could he have been exaggerating just to sell us a tee shirt?) — we felt that further, more personal research must be done.
We made our way to Piazza Italia, home of the only clock in Sassari that tells the correct time. It resides on the provincial capital building, the Provincia di Sassari. After dark, Sassari really comes alive. The plaza was filled with outdoor cafés, strolling families, necking teenagers and, as always, the old guys sitting on benches, watching.
Situated at an outdoor table, we decided to start with the Mirto Rossa. Very sweet, 32 percent alcohol, with a back taste of herbs. We enjoyed some people-watching, letting some time pass, hoping that the effects of the drink will not be too harsh. Still coherent, we decided to share a Mirto Bianca. The herbal taste of the Bianca is more obvious, as the sweetness of the berries has been eliminated. Again we wait for the hallucinations. Nothing.
Our study concluded that while Mirto will warm your spirit, it’s probably best not to expect a mind-expanding experience, but it may make you want to exclaim the local howl of “Aiooo!”
Category: Travel & Leisure