Monsieur and I had been driving for most of the day, leaving Cagliari early so we could see some of Sardinia’s west coast and central areas before arriving in Porto Cervo. Our guidebooks recommended a break in Nuoro (also pronounced ‘Nugoro’ in Sardinian). One of the island’s literary greats, Grazia Deledda, was born and lived there once upon a time and the town is touted as a cultural centre of significance, but navigating our way off the autostrada into Nuoro proved problematic.
You’d think a ‘literary’ centre would take care with its signage. Not in Nuoro. Flying blind in an attempt to follow contradictory signs with only a near-useless guidebook map to aid us, we somehow found ourselves parking next to the Cathedral. By this point our bums were quite numb with all that sitting so we were keen to stretch our legs.
The late afternoon sun stung our skin, taking us by surprise as we stepped out of the air-conditioned car. Surely the sun should have been losing its strength by now. Immediately hot and parched from all the driving we wandered through an ancient archway, down a little street to a large, empty piazza. Turning right we stopped at a bar, sheltering in the shade as we greedily glugged on icy Peronis. They weren’t enough to quench our thirst, however. Gelato would be required for that and as fate would have it, there at the foot of the street leading back to the Cathedral sat a conveniently-placed ice cream shop called Peter Pan Gelateria, so in we went.
When you’re as fussy as I am about gelato, it’s easy to tell how it will taste well before it enters the mouth. There’s the texture of the scoop – which should be creamy and pliable, not rigid and over-frozen. There’s the selection – avoid the freezers with only two or three flavours; those purveyors of gelato don’t care enough about it to replenish the empty tubs. Look also for a selection that has not only the predictable vanillas, chocolates and strawberries, but the less usual flavours like pistachio, tutti frutti, cassata and caramel-rich rafaele. Price is always a key factor: more than €5.00 for a cup of three scoops is daylight robbery, too often demanded for mediocre gelato near tourist traps. Less than €4.00 for a three-scoop cup overflowing with a surplus of generosity and creamy goodness in a tourist-free zone is well worth the money. Peter Pan asked a modest €3.00 for three huge scoops of PERFECT gelato. It felt as if we were robbing them.
Savouring our gelati on benches in the Cathedral garden, we licked the drips from now-sticky fingers, keen not to waste a single drop. My cup, filled with cocco, stracciatella and pistachio, disappeared too quickly. I frowned at the empty container.
“Don’t worry, darling,” soothed Monsieur, “we’ll stop by Peter Pan on the way back to Cagliari.”
You just about have to be Houdini to get out of Nuoro without a proper map of the place. It’s a tangle of roads to nowhere. Following those lying street signs we went up a hill, down the other side, found dead ends in all directions, stray dogs enjoying their lone adventures and streets named after Freud and Pablo Neruda. Some time later we fell upon a road that led us back to the autostrada. With sighs of relief we were off again.
As good as his word, Monsieur took me back to Nuoro some days later for another Peter Pan treat. This time getting into town was easy as we’d come off the autostrada an exit too early, following the twist of a country road up, up, up to the hilltop town and in through the back door. This time we found the cathedral quickly, parking there once more and walking down through the arch to the Peter Pan Gelateria. But man cannot lunch on gelato alone, although I know one woman who’d be keen to try. We went in search of pre-treat savoury sustenance.
Once more, it was hot, perhaps too hot for cooking because we couldn’t find a single restaurant that was open, and this time there wasn’t the excuse of it being the day of worship. The bars were mostly uninspiring, the domain of the greying male, their terraces hazy with smoke through which you could just about make out the old men of the town.
Even this newsstand was closed, presumably for a home-cooked lunch and heat-busting siesta.
Even the Devil’s Own Pizzeria took the afternoon off. If you can’t take the heat, get out of Hell’s Kitchen I suppose.
These looked good. We considered going back for a takeaway panini bag if we didn’t find anywhere else. By now I was feeling dizzy. The heat combined with a lack of food made me want to crumple in a heap on the cobbled streets. I’ve heard of spontaneous combustion, but this felt more like potential human evaporation.
A giant stopwatch outside this jewellery shop caught our eye. It, too, was on strike in protest at the heat; it simply refused to tick tock and tell the correct time.
Eventually we settled for lunch at this quiet bar just around the corner from the Peter Pan Gelateria which was our main reason for returning to Nuoro.
We were so thirsty that the cokes disappeared in seconds and the water wasn’t far behind. For once, food was secondary.
The menu wasn’t much to write home about but we were too hungry to fuss now.
The pizza came fresh from a freezer box and the pasta had been microwaved with a sauce from a jar. Never mind. Peter Pan would be next on the list and a cup of their divine wares should more than make up for a lack of gourmet flair here.
But it was closed. We stared at the opening times in disbelief. The Peter Pan people were out for their own lunch. Ah. We’d forgotten that they, too, might need a break. Heads hanging low with disappointment, we were about to turn away when we heard a yell: “Arrivo! Arrivo!”. In seconds the owner was there, opening the Peter Pan Gelateria especially for us. At that moment, the Peter Pan Gelateria became my favourite gelateria in the entire world.
We chose our flavours: limone, vaniglia, cioccolata for Monsieur, stracciatella, cocco, rafaele’s caramel ripple for me. I thanked the owner profusely, explaining that his gelato was our main reason for stopping in Nuoro today. He waved away our thanks with the humble manner of a man who knows how magnetic his product is. Our pilgrimage did not surprise him in the least.
And once more we took our cups to the cathedral garden, slurping our spoonfuls of creamy deliciousness on benches in the shade of the trees.
I wanted to go inside to light a candle of thanks for the beauty of Sardinia, a safe trip, friends and family and the simple pleasure of perfect gelato, but the church doors were locked tight. The priest was away.
It would seem that even Sardinia’s men of the cloth are not immune to its blistering summer days. No matter. I just wonder how often Don Floris enjoys a treat from the gelateria at the foot of his cathedral’s hill. As for this pair of hungry travellers, we were just grateful to have found the hidden treasure of Nuoro, which we were fortunate enough to have enjoyed twice in one week. Now all we had to do was find that elusive autostrada and get back to Cagliari. Easier said than done.