Where is this place?
Personally, and I blush to say it, a year ago I was sure only that Sardinia was an island, part of Italy, somewhere near Sicily. Obviously, I have never sailed in the Mediterranean. When I was invited on an educational trip to learn about Cannonau wines, I dashed to Google Maps. I then had to look up Tyrrhenian Sea, which I vaguely recalled from ancient history courses. If you’re as well-travelled but geographically weak as me, this next bit is for you.
Pertinent facts: Sardinia is south of the French island of Corsica and northwest of Sicily. It is the second largest island in the Mediterranean, a tad smaller than Sicily. You can fly to the capital city in the south, Cagliari, as I did on Vueling from Barcelona or from several points in Italy. I flew back to Geneva on Alitalia via Rome, which gave me a beautiful flight over the Alps. You can also fly to Olbia and Alghero in the north, but in both cases, summer is the high season for tourists, and there are fewer flights from mid-October, when the (slightly) rainy season sets in, to May. Swiss, Easyjet and Airberlin fly to the island, with competitive pricing, from Switzerland.
Tourists also arrive by ferry from Italy and France in summer, and droves of tourists come in to Cagliari on cruise ships; the Queen Victoria sailed out of the port past my hotel room as I woke up my first morning, a majestic pre-dawn sally forth towards the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Landing in the south: Cagliari
I didn’t have time to do more than pass through the city, but was pleased to see the beautiful architecture in the old centre, as Cagliari was bombed heavily in the second world war. An air-raid shelter, 180 metres long, that is one of the city’s tourist attractions, Don Bosco was actually built in the 1700s outside the city by Piedmontese, for military purposes. The city has created a walking trail along monuments and historical sites, one of six historical trails, and there are others centred around culture, shopping, etc. Next time I will stay for 2-3 days.
A guide who traveled with me for part of my trip lives in Cagliari and he confirmed what I had heard – anyone who lives there spends as much time as possible on the beautiful white sands of Poetto Beach, and when he is away he longs to get back there, the centre of Cagliari life.
The port cities north and south are where you’ll find seafood and excellent fresh fish. Be sure to sample Sardinia’s famous white wines, produced in several areas around the country. Vermentino is the best-known and easy to find; for those who haven’t tried it for years, you should know that the quality has improved markedly. Look for the two DOCs, Vermentino de Sardegna and Vermentino di Gallura from the north of the island, with the second generally considered more interesting – pale straw colour with a nose of mature fruit and Mediterranean plants, especially aromatic herbs (map of wine regions). In mouth it tends to be soft yet dry with a slightly mineral finish. It’s the perfect wine with seafood and Sardinian fregula pasta.
I also liked Nuragus, from Cagliari and Oristano, which is sharper, very fresh with a nose of citrus, green apple and sometimes white fruits or white flowers.
Highlights from the highlands and Cannonau
I was in Sardinia to study Cannonau, known as Grenache in France and Garnacha in Spain, whose grapes are grown throughout much of the country. Vines at lower altitude and closer to the sea offer lighter, fruitier red wines from this grape, generally drunk young, which I found pleasant if not generally on a par with the deeper, richer purple-red ones from inland areas. The latter are made in or near the ancient highlands that for me are the real beauty of Sardinia. The wine and the land here offer a very good example of terroir: land and wine, hand and glove.
See Travels in Sardinia: Cannonau, a wine to love (to be published 23 March).
Rugged, wild, natural – these are all terms that are used routinely to describe these mountains, and they fit. But the interior landscape is much more – a mix of these granite mountains that rise to 1,400 metres, with scrubland that resembles the garrigue of France’s Provence, here called màcchia mediterranea, small farms and hillsides of semi-wild pasture for cows, sheep and goats. Expect to eat cheese, pork and beef in quantity, all very flavourful, and part of the Mediterranean and wine diet that people here like to say is the key to longevity: Sardinia, like parts of the Greek islands, has a disproportionately high number of people well over the age of 100.
One of my most treasured moments during this trip came while we visited what is possibly the island’s highest vineyard. There is no winery here, just a small house used by workers at times during the season when the vines require heavy labour: our van had trouble getting up the steep gravel road and we spooked a wild goat out of the scrub. This is no place for machines to work the vineyards.
The views in all directions were spectacular but a chilly late October rain crept up on us and we soon scurried back to the lower lands. The moistness in the air magnified an appealing blend of wild herbs and underbrush which I later found in some of the Cannonau wines.
They may not absorb this directly from the soil or air, as popular wine lore has it, but drinking a wine that so clearly recalls its terroir is a wonderful pleasure.
Trails and masks
Mountain roads bend and twist along the contours of small ranges that are best understood from an airplane, where you realize that the sea is never far away. I was visiting just two weeks before knee surgery, so was limited in the amount of climbing I could do, but the island is filled with mountain bike and hiking trails, and I’ll be back once I have two functioning knees again, to explore more of Sardinia’s hills. And while I enjoyed the occasional late October drizzle I would come a bit earlier next time.
I followed one of the footpaths near the Grotta Su Marmuri in Ulassai (fellow travellers clambered up and down multiple sets of rocky stairs to see the impressive stallactites and stallagmites here). Within minutes I found the wild versions of seven of my favourite herbs as well as wild persimmon trees. Its fruit, I was told by locals, is used for making marmalade.
When I stepped into the low, scented forest to test the fruit I again startled two goats, this time domesticated, who dashed uphill bleating in fear. The forest is green but very dry underfoot; there are few rivers and only about 200 mm of rain a year falls here, a paltry amount that leaves riverbeds dry and pastureland looking parched.
A curious side trip was an hour-long visit to the Museum of Mediterranean Masks in Mamoiada, a wine village high in the hills, surrounded by rough gray peaks. As dusk fell and the mountains seemed to draw closer I watched the museum’s very good short film on mask traditions, featuring the town’s own “Mamuthones” and “Issohadores”, part of the tradition of Carnival here. The costumes and explanation were startling enough, but I kept thinking it must be extraordinary to visit in winter, with howling winds, bells echoing the march of heavy feet, snow blowing through cracks in doors. This might be the 21st century, but it would be easy to forget that.
And then this February, a friend was a judge at the international Grenache wine competition, which took place in February in Sardinia as Carnival was getting underway, and she suddenly found herself in the midst of masked creatures in Mamoiada:
Highlights: hotels and food
Sardinia, the tourist destination (starting point for planning what to do, where to go: Sardegna Turismo), has no shortage of hotels and B&B options, and a good range of prices, although many are open only from March to October. Two of the hotels where I stayed are worth a mention; I’m not always a big fan of hotels but I would rush back to either of these quite different places. Note that my colleagues were not all as lucky with their rooms – it is definitely worth paying the extra to get one of the better views or rooms.
The first was Su Gologone, in the highlands near Oliona, 25 km from the sea, so day trips to the beach are an option. You have to look for the entrance, so discreetly folded into the màcchia is this hotel that began life as a restaurant near a well-known mountain spring, which gradually added a hotel and Sardinian fine crafts and art centre. It’s all the more surprising then, to realize that here are scores of rooms and suites, a multitude of nooks and crannies: a classy and contemporary cactus garden that leads to the breadbaking corner, one of the finest gardens of herbs I have ever seen (watched over by scarecrows in designer fabrics) that will delight anyone who grows these. The red and blue breakfast patio and a pink holy water font corner that is simply funky.
The venture was started in 1967 by Peppeddu Palimodde, who convinced his wife they should open a restaurant featuring local foods. His wife Pasqua and their daughter Giovanna continue to run it; Giovanna is responsible for the extraordinary décor and al fresco areas.
My room was one of the suites: a gate that led down a lavendar and scented yellow rose path to my bedroom, a sitting room, 2 bathrooms, hammock outside and outdoor jacuzzi. Very comfortable and I loved the decor that comes from Su Gologone’s workshops. Food at the hotel, which is known for its local fare, was excellent, from a buffet lunch to a more intimate breakfast.
The hotel offers several art courses, some practical and others theory and history. The art shop doesn’t carry typical tourist souvenirs, but serves as an outlet for artwork from the island that blends the traditions and history of Sardinia with contemporary approaches to art.
Happily, next to the shop, which is open in the evening, is the cozy , outdoor Tablao bar. It was in this outdoor space, just as night fell, with candles flickering near the sparkling wine and firelight from braziers, that I had a musical experience which sent shivers up my spine. A weirdly haunting noise came out of nowhere, almost like animals – an hour before I’d been listening to nearby cows and sheep. It turned out to be four men, the haunting and eerie Sardinian polyphonic singing that has been done here for centuries. They had been invited to entertain my group and gave us an acapella Sardo poetic song about wine and love. Polyphonic singing here, like jazz, relies on improvisation, with four voices that sometimes sound like instruments. While tourist versions of this musical tradition are often not so impromptu, be sure to say yes if someone gives you a chance to hear this music, which is on the Unesco intangible cultural heritage of humanity list.
A second hotel I loved was La Bitta by the seaside in Arbatax. My double room had a jacuzzi on the balcony that overlooked the infinity pool, which spilled over into the sea – and the kitchen prepares beautiful food, perfectly matched to the wines we tasted. A colleague had a less charming room, so do ask for a sea view. On my next visit I will build in time for a glass of the local white wine while watching the sun set over the bay, from my jacuzzi!
One more don’t-miss attraction: lunch at one of the farmstays, or agriturismo farmhouses that offer meals and B&B. My visit to the farmhouse restaurant in Camisadu was far more than a place for a spot of lunch. We had a banquet, with several of the wine producers in the area, but we also had a chance to see how traditional foods are produced or cooked. Beef slow-roasted over an open spit, served with endless sheets of carasau, the Sardinian crisp bread, garden peppers and Cannonau aged wines was enough to make me want to stay on and volunteer for farm work!