Posted on October 3, 2015
Saying goodbye to Sardinia tonight, as I anxiously await a 5 am wake-up and a day of travel to my next trip in France, I’m thinking about what it’s like here, and what memories I”ll take back with me. I’m always fascinated by the elevator speech–what will you tell people when you only have about as long as the average elevator ride, about what the place was like?
Sardinia is big–really big. Looking at a satellite photo the island is huge, just a little smaller than Sicily, and so what I saw here on this second visit since 2008 were miles and miles of open country. In the Sinis Peninsula, where we spent our time, it’s wide open vistas, some farmland, some unused scrub land (near the ocean) and in the distance, mountains frame the edges. There were very few seagulls or birds that I saw, and not that many cars. In fact we never got into a traffic jam nor waited at a light the whole six days! Compare this with any where else in Italy, it’s quite a contrast.
We learned from our guide, Davide Beccu, tonight that Sardinians still aren’t used to dealing with tourists. As we approached one of the stops on our tour, we tried to enter a gate. A man began yelling at our driver, challenging him, pushing the limit with rudeness. Many people here don’t care about tourists, and especially, are not willing to treat them as important people to respect. It’s the exception, certainly not everyone, but there has never been the volume of visitors that other parts of Italy see, so the development of tourism is still relatively new except in the far north’s Costa Esmerelda. That makes it feel authentic, and to me, more special than destinations that are always making it special for visitors. Here, you get what you get.
If you visit a seaside town, every meal will include the following: The famous wafer-thin bread called carasau, and bottarga, the salty and delicious spread made from grey mullet fish roe. Some sort of clams, mussels or shrimp with their heads on will be brought out, as well as vegetables like eggplant, whole round cherry tomatoes, or salad. Pasta, sprinkled with bottarga. (they love this stuff!) will usually come second. Most of what you eat will be local. They truly have the locavore thing down, in fact in many markets, everything for sale is made nearby. I wanted to move to something different after the sixth day, but our last meal, of course for the third course was a giant platter with three kinds of grilled whole fish. There’s just no getting chicken or a burger here, as far I can could tell.
People here are proud of being Sardinian–they have their own language, they boast about how beautiful their country is, and they rarely if ever call themselves Italian. No, they’re Sardinian, and they don’t give a hoot about what’s going on over in Rome or Florence. Actually nobody here cares much about what’s happening in Cagliari, the island’s biggest city, either. People are intent on living their lives in their own village, or town, or wherever in Sardinia they call home.
Sardinia is a fantastic destination that never disappointed me. If you want something that has the charm and beauty of Italy, with far less people and cars, this is where you should visit.
Posted on October 2, 2015
I’ve spent this week in the town of Cabras, Sardinia, moving between our city center hotel and various attractions relating to the Marine Protected Area that encompasses the sea all around the island’s west coast. We’ve gotten a rare opportunity for a trip like this…to spend time in one town and get to see everything that’s available for those interested in eco-touring, history and gastronomy.
The usual long bus trips have been replaced by short walks in town to dinner, and short drives beside the lagoon toward the beautiful Cape of San Marco that stretches out capped by a lighthouse atop 60 foot cliffs over the ocean. One one side there are perfect surfing breakers, and blue water, and on the other, small ripples and turbidity that turns the water dark green.
Today we got our history lesson at the Archaeological Museum of Cabras with Renzo Carrus serving as our guide. And when he says ‘We’ referring to the ongoing excavations of the famous Giants of Mont’e Prama, he’s not kidding. He was there back in the early days in the 1970s when the first found fragments. Today he leads tours with the zeal of a student, sharing many details about the finds that have barely scratched the surface of the large Phoenician and Roman settlement discovered at Thassos.
Forty years later, in Cabras’ museum, you can see these re-assembled life-size giants who once lined the road at the settlement of Thassos on Cape San Marco. The museum houses archeological finds from Cuccuru Is Arrius from the Nuragic era, from Tharros dating back to Phoenician-Punic and Roman times, and from the shipwreck near the island of Mal di Ventre. This contained lead bars which were scattered in the seabed with huge anchors and other debris.
We sampled some Vernaccha wine that’s been named in honor of the town’s famous Giants at Attilio Contini, a mid-sized winemaker that specializes in this unusual variety. It’s a white wine that’s aged–we drank some from 2001, and it has a slightly red color and a strong taste. As our guide Davide Beccu described it, a ‘meditation wine,’ one that often spurs conversation and contemplation because of its unusual taste and color.
A stop at the Centro di Recupero di Sinis was another way to connect to eco-tourism in Sinis. Here, marine biologists have loggerhead turtles in tanks in various stages of recuperation, they feed them daily rations of sardines and help them get better with a goal of sending them back to the ocean some day. The injuries are often from fishing lines, but one turtle was there because he was living in an aquarium and mistreated.
The center studies many other endangered mammals and does research into how plastics and other waste threatens the Mediterranean and the rest of the world’s oceans. Did you know that a disposable diaper takes 450 years to decompose in the ocean? And an aluminum can, 200 years?
Posted on October 1, 2015
In our earthy crunchy Pioneer Valley, we like to talk about eating local. We talk about 12-mile meals, and eating farm-to-table, but tonight, I have them all beat. Once again, on a visit to Italy’s magic island, Sardinia, I’ve eaten a 100 foot meal, and boy was it good!
We drove out toward the coast, to the Sinis Peninsula, to Agritourismo Il Sinis. Here, brother and sister Salvatore and Magdelena Porcu brought out dish after dish of simple food that all came from their farm. They offer 20 rooms for guests and a large dining room where the star is the food that they raise themselves. The only item that they didn’t grow or make themselves was the bread. “We only make that during the winter,” they told us.
Set before us as we entered were a panoply of plates. Grilled eggplants and peppers. Fried eggplant balls, stewed beef, fried squash blossoms, olives and artichokes…and these were only the starters. Then Magdalena brought out her homemade ravioli, filled with ricotta, and after sweeping away our second plates, the piece de resistance, suckling pig, two months old, from the barnyard. They told us that the sows had plenty more piglets for their table, and don’t worry–if the nine of us didn’t finish the groaning board, “roast pig is better the next day anyway.”
We were dining with five Marine biologists, Georgio, 39, Stefanie, 34 two Andreas, 40 and 34 and Sabine, who had done a demonstration hours before about their work trying to save loggerhead turtles in the Mediterranean. The wine in little carafes flowed, and then Salvatore broke out his own liqueurs–one bright green made from wild fennel, and another from pears. We asked them how the got those big pears into that those small bottles. And they said that many of the trees branches grow right into the empty bottles, affixed with rope the a branch!
It was another night of fun conversation and discovery. Magdalena showed us photos on her phone, stabbing at the screen, of the marvel and seemingly unusual yellow tomatoes. Then she brought out an egg from one of their ostriches–which when cracked can make an omelette that serves 12 people.
Times like these are when I revel in my life as a travel writer, I enjoy meeting people like this, hearing their stories and eating such delicious food that came from right here.
Posted on October 1, 2015
Daniela Meloni, Anton Marco Musso, and Jean Paul Bassaget share a love for a vessel and for sailing the sea. We joined this unlikely trio for an afternoon sail at the marina in Cabras, on the Sinis Peninsula, Sardinia where they all spoke glowingly about the 42-foot long boat they love, the Santa Maria, and how they all got here.
It was a story of determination, and of finding the perfect person for the job. The vessel, built in Italy and designed by Sparkman & Stephens, the renowned boat architects who designed the famous Swan racing boats, was sitting unused for a few years. Daniela, a 42-year-old sailing fanatic, knew those lines, having sailed on similar boats, and inquired about it. The owner said it was too much, it was such a racer that it would take more than a weekend sailor to master her. “It doesn’t have mechanized devices you find on pleasure boats,” Daniela explained. But the owner recognized that here was his boats perfect master, and he agreed to let her take over the slip payments and begin sailing the Santa Maria for charters.
Daniela has a few friends who are sailors, among them Jean Paul Bassaget, who could easily stand in for the guy on the Dos Equis commercials known as “the most interesting man in the world.” He casually mentioned that he’s been a sea captain for decades and spent ten years as captain of Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso! Now 76, Bassaget owns property in Argentina, and has worked all over the world doing work servicing oil rigs and long haul yacht transfers. He knows sailing and the sea intimately and was happy to join Daniela sailing the Santa Maria in this bay. Her other sailing mate is young, 24, and handsome. He’s Anton Marco Musso, a long jumper who also surfs and windsails. A great combination of experience, beauty and brains!
Our sail took us past Tharros, the hilltop archeological site that includes a Spanish built tower, among ruins that date back to the Romans and the Phoenicians. Just past Tharros is a dramatic sheer rock cliff, with a lighthouse perched on top. This is what you see when you sail the coast of this unspoiled, and always dramatically beautiful island, Sardinia.
Daniela’s afternoon charters include a sail beside this beautiful land and a delicious lunch she prepares in the Santa Maria galley. Pasta with bottarga (grey mullet roe) and locally picked porcini mushrooms, paired with a starter of mussels grown not 100 feet from where we were sailing made a perfect repast. And the company, with stories of sailing, long jumping, and the Calypso, made for a memorable day indeed.
Posted on September 30, 2015
Seven years ago I first came to this second-largest island in the Mediterranean that the Romans and Phoenicians called Ichnusa. Sardinia today is an autonomous region of Italy, but as my guide Davide told me, it’s not Italy–the natives even speak a unique language on this island, though most people here also speak Italian. Sardinians, like the Corsicans to the north, are a proud and independent people who don’t need the mainland to control their laws and their lives.
We arrived at the airport in Cagliari and then took a dusty old train filled with commuters with wide-open windows for an hour-long trip north to Oristano, where we took a cab to a small fishing village called Cabras, and checked into the Villa Canu, where I type on this drizzly morning.
As we crossed the vast wide plain, full of artichokes and wheat fields, I learned about how few people there are here…a population density of just about 50 people per square mile. Sadly, the unemployment rate for the 1.2 million Sardinians is about 22 percent, so like many island nations, some of the young move to the mainland to pursue careers, leaving their unspoiled rustic land. In July and August, Davide told me, as many as a million more people come to the beaches and especially, the Emerald Coast, the star-crossed high-income enclave in the far northeast, a place where super yachts and private jets are everywhere. Until 1962, when the Aga Khan discovered the region, there wasn’t even electricity in that part of Sardinia, but today, it’s wealth makes New York’s rich Hamptonites seem like pikers.