Ciao! Buongiorno! This is the boisterous greeting we received at 630am from a group of animated locals welcoming the overnight ferry from Toulon, France into Porto Torres, our first point of contact with this famous Italian island in the Mediterranean. Just a hop, skip and a jump away from Corsica (her fiery French cousin), Sardinia is much larger and very different in many ways. Remembering to ‘savour the first glimpse of a new country’ (as you only get a first time one time),MB (Monsieur Bleu) and I smile widely and high five each other like a pair of lunatics as we climb onto the motorbike, excited and ready to ride around and discover the secret charms of this new unknown land!
As usual, we hadn’t planned or researched very much prior to our departure as we like to ‘live on the edge’ and are spurned/turned on by the lure of stressful travel situations and last minute accommodation bookings! Yes, I know, weird but true! The only thing we knew for sure was that our goal was to ride the entire island coast in 12 days. Bring. It. On! Arrivederci confinement and andiamo ragazzi…let’s go guys!
Being slightly organised for our first night however, we had pre booked a quaint B&B, the Bassa Prua, in the piccolo port town of Palau, a leisurely five hour journey from Porto Torres. The cool, early morning ride after a long overnight trip on the ferry was a fabulous way to wake up and enjoy our first glimpse of Sardinia’s rugged coastline, dominated by vast clumps of scraggy olive and oleander trees and dotted with many small local spiaggia’s (beaches). We stopped briefly to admire the flash of apricot beauty of Castelsardo at sunrise, the first authentic Sardinian town we came across which was still closed, quiet and asleep. With tiny houses surrounding her namesakes castle perched majestically above the sea, we were looking forward to what the rest of this island had to offer!
Our first heart palpitation inducing espresso on Italian soil was savoured whilst overlooking a pristine beach in the picture postcard perfect town of Santa Teresa Gallura. Not far from Palau, it was agreed that we would HAVE to return there, even for just one day, because it was so pretty! And indeed we did, but not until the final night…
We eventually reached Palau, a cute little town with a few beaches, some lively restaurants and a craft market every night. It’s a great base if you are wanting to explore the main attraction, La Maddelena Archipelago, which is a mere 20 minute ferry ride across. Upon meeting our ‘man about town’ landlord, Marcello, he subsequently invited us for a drink next door at his local tabacchi and recommended we stay for lunch! Kind, warm and generous were the ladies at the bistro as was the dish of the day, a huge plate of spaghetti ai frutti di mare. Accompanied by a few glasses of the crisp, local Vermentino, it was just the welcome we needed after a long trip. Grazie Italie!
La Maddelena Archipelago consists of seven islands, the two main ones being Maddelena and Caprera which are both accessible by car or motorbike. The town of Maddelena is full of cobblestone streets, shops and cafés, but very quiet at lunchtime, so many restaurants/boutiques are not open or busy during the day as I assume that most people are on boat trips or the beach. Riding around on our own journey of discovery was more our groove and we managed to cover both islands in a few hours, but the boat tours take you out to the many pockets of bays, caves and secluded swimming spots, for which these islands are famous. An accidental encounter with a huge and very startled male billy goat on Caprera (the wild island, it actually smelled like goats cheese), a swim at one of the little beaches, finding an old straw hat on the side of the road for my hot head AND MB’s hysterical fall from grace with the breaking of a chair at a lunchtime Osteria, and a truly interesting day was had by all!
Next on the list was the large port town of Olbia, and a ride down the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) the playground for the rich and famous and the ‘most expensive location in Europe’, just happened to be on the way! Porto Cervo is the main town full of million dollar mega yachts and Cristal champagne sipping Nikki Beach style jet setters, (think Monaco meets Capri), but it’s really not for the likes of us so we didn’t stop! Instead, we opted to check out Porto Rotondo next door (as we met a girl once in Havana, Cuba who owns a chic boutique there and thought we’d say Ciao!) It was boring. Don’t bother unless you are a fan of man made towns with (literally) no grit or soul. The shop was closed and the centre dead and we didn’t meet the girl again, but we’ve never had much of fondness for this style of place anyway! Sooooo….we just kept on riding!
Olbia…what can I say. Unfortunately we arrived here on a Sunday at around midday searching for a restaurant for lunch or even to stay overnight. Um no. The place was a ghost town with one café open and a group of lost English tourists mulling about! The old town is cute, small with paved alleyways, but probably better on a weekday. We both decided to ditch poor old Olbia and keep riding south as hunger was calling and we were hot and tired so we were entering dangerous territory!
Saviour came in the form of the little seaside town of Porto San Paolo and Ristorante Il Portolano! Mama mia! We just happened to stumble upon this lovely restaurant with a view of Isola di Tavolara, got the last table AND enjoyed resting in the heat of the day with yet more Vermentino and juicy, local pork belly. Delicious! The question at hand…should we stay or should we go? Explore the the unknown or stay put? We decided to keep riding (good call) and ended up bunking down in San Teodoro, a gorgeous little town which boasts a long stretch of beach with white sand and turquoise water – Spiaggia La Cinta.
We finally came to rest for two nights in the lovely Hotel La Palma, (a Tuscan villa with a little terrace) which was a five minute walk from San Teodoro centre and Spiaggia La Cinta. This discovery, however, had taken some time after we had exhausted the two other surrounding towns which were full or had no accommodation. We had a strange encounter at a ‘hotel’ in sleepy Budoni (a sad little town about 15 mins from ST), which when we asked for a room with the elderly lady in the reception area, she had to go and find out but then returned to inform us that the hotel wasn’t even operating (despite the fact the doors were open, cars in the carpark, keys behind the desk and a room rate and menu board out the front)….mmmm?! This was of course all done in Italian which neither of us speak, so maybe we looked too wild, misunderstood her or she had no idea and was just someones nonna visiting from Calabria!
The beaches of Spiaggia La Cinta and Cala Brandinchi are the main reasons everyone hangs out here in San Teodoro as the waters are crystal clear and the sand squeaky and white. One downside is that literally everyone was on La Cinta beach the day we visited, so you had to walk for quite a while to find space. It’s not too unpleasantly crowded and we also had a long walk and swim early in the mornings before the influx of large Italian families started to descend! Well worth it tho’ to go!
Whilst in San Teodoro, we also spent a serene day at the next tiny town of Porto Ottiolu (not much there but pretty enough for a visit) and had lunch in one of the little restaurants at the marina and a swim nearby on their local beach. Both were very quiet, so it was a pleasant break from the manic running around and crowds.
Scenes from Faulty Towers floated to mind as more confusion ensued when we were checking out of little Hotel La Palma! Here’s the story: At check-in, we had been told that there was only one room left and that came with half board; meaning breakfast and dinner but for a higher rate. So we thought ok, with no choice and being tired, irritated and sightly overwrought, it might be a hoot to try family dinnertime at the restaurant! But this came with a set of instructions, as you had to complete the menu order sheet in your room prior to handing it to the waiter when you came down. Just like filling out a tuck shop form at school! It was hysterical. Our dinners, though sounding good on the ‘menu’, were nothing special and MB even received the wrong meal (?) but the staff were very sweet. Upon check out though, a different staff member enlightened us to the fact that we actually didn’t have to use the half board and could have just had the usual room rate instead (which was less expensive)! Pardon? Anyway, it was all a laugh and now part of a story, but just irritating to be told two different things. Ah, and this is the reason we love and prefer Air B&B’s…so much simpler!
Right…the big one…riding to the capital Cagliari. With my (ahem) VERY IMPORTANT 48th birthday just around the corner, we opted to stay put for four days in the centre and booked a posh Air B&B with the most comfortable bed in the world and the smallest kitchen but with an enormous red SMEG fridge, plus a huge balcony! From here we could decompress and check out the city and surrounding areas at leisure. It is a very long ride from San Teodoro to Cagliari (as you have to take the highway around the national park) but the roads were brand new, with no tolls and very quiet, including numerous tunnels that kept the heat of the day at bay!
The halfway mark was a town called Arbatax, (I kept calling it Mars Attacks)… never heard of it, just found it on the map! We thought we might as well stay there (if we could find somewhere) as the drive straight to Cagliari would be far too long in one day. Exhausting as you can imagine. Sardinia’s worst meal ever was served to me here in a local place near the water: A dead chicken leg dry as the Sahara with some wilting, sad excuse for lettuce on the side. It was one choice out of three meals and the least boring, but I refused to eat it and complained but no one cared. Cheesed off, still hungry and severely unsatisfied, we were about to ditch the whole idea when we had a drive around and found Hotel La Bitta, a five star establishment on the bay (again with the Tuscan villa look and cascading bougainvillea, thank you very much)! Hurling cash and caution to the wind, we booked a room with a small balcony overlooking the street but with a view of the sea, and settled in for an afternoon of luxury on a chaise by the infinity pool! We even got a discounted rate as I told the girl it was my birthday. More high fives all around! A pizza just up the road at Il Faro and loads of vino rosso that night and our day ended a thousand times better than it had begun. Sometimes it IS possible to turn it all around, and a good feed of wood – fired oven carbs helps too!
With the relief of knowing that our accommodation in Cagliari was sorted, MB and I could leisurely drive the coast road the next day as check in time for our red SMEG suite wasn’t until 3pm. We pulled in for a very good lunch of local octopus salad and a swim (of course) along the way in Villasimus, yet another pretty, southern seaside town. In hindsight, we could have stayed there as well, but didn’t have time as a city vibe was calling our name for a slight change of scene!
Cagliari – Sardinia’s lively capital, sits on the water and has a large marina, an ‘old’ old town, the Castello district, a ‘new’ old town full of steep, narrow streets with restaurants and shops, a quartier dedicated to aperitivo style dining and the more suburban new town neighbourhood. We stayed in the latter which was right on the edge of the new old town and a brief walk/ride to Castello. It also has a 12 km stretch of beach, Spiaggia Poetto, the Sardinian equivalent of Venice Beach in LA. It lies just out of the old/new town centre and seemed to attract a very beautiful, tanned and muscular crowd that all sported six packs and thigh tattoos and who liked to lunch in their g-string bikinis! I sound bitchy but it’s true! Maybe it was just the season for it, as they obviously didn’t get the memo in Cagliari to stay in and overeat pizza (like normal people) during Covid -19 confinement!?
We went to Spiaggia Poetto twice as it was a great beach to swim and ‘perfect people’ watch. Here there are a few restaurants and some snack places, but we discovered the best beach bistro which was La Palmette. Don’t even waste your time going anywhere else. It had an interesting, innovative menu, excellent staff, and was reasonably priced. You can sit out on the deck overlooking the sea and sip your Aperol Spritz whilst contemplating how many sit-ups you need to do to burn it off!
Cagliari, outside the main centre, is a huge city, so a car or motorbike is a good idea. The Castello district is very well maintained but not very exciting. Lovely old buildings and streets, but that’s all as it is still a residential area but has a great view over the town. The main attraction and the symbol of Cagliari is the Bastione di Saint Remy, an enormous white sandstone structure built in the early 20th century which looms over the pedestrian shopping area in the city centre and Piazza Costituzione.
In case you hadn’t noticed, MB and I are food lovers and keen cooks, so anything slightly food/market related is exciting for us! We read somewhere that one of the biggest indoor markets in Italy and Europe was in Cagliari – San Benedetto Market – so we raced along to check it out. Disappointed! It was just two floors of produce (not even that big really) of fruit, vegetables, cheese and deli products, many of which were the same stall one after the other. A variety of seafood occupied the ground level. After being spoilt travelling to diverse countries and exploring a great deal of food markets in our time, it was a far cry from the many that we had seen… BUT, we have the utmost of respect for market vendors so of course we contributed to the country by buying bread, cheese and tomatoes and making a robust salad in our minuscule kitchen. All was not lost!
Having purchased zilch, zip and zippo that wasn’t food related in any of the other towns so far (as the shopping was not really our style or interesting to us), this was a trifle perplexing! I had imagined and wrongly assumed that there would be an abundance of little boutiques selling lovely Italian clothes, bags and shoes! MB managed to buy some fluorescent orange swimming trunks, but apart from that, Cagliari didn’t offer much in the way of anything different from any other major European town. We could find the usual upmarket designer stores (but Gucci wasn’t on sale unfortunately), run of the mill fashion brands, sports stores and, of course, the ever present bazaar/asian shops that sell everything from nail polish to washing machines! Maybe I just wasn’t feeling it, OR (God forbid), shopped out!
BUT there are numerous restaurants, bars and tapas places to choose from which ease the shopping pain dilemma! We found a quaint, turquoise restaurant in the old town/marina area called Su Smurzu which was lovely, served typical Sardinian fare and had a cheeky waiter. We also dined at the up market and acclaimed Fork Bistro, sister of the Michelin starred Dal Corsaro, for my birthday dinner which was a bit of a non event unfortunately. Lively aperitivo italiano time (6-9pm) is the thing to do everywhere in Sardinia, so stopping for a glass of vino, Prosecco or a bottle of the local Birra Ichnusa accompanied by an assortment of Italian deli delights and pizza bites is a must at least once. It was slightly confusing for us due to our poor Italian language skills, but we made a dinner of it one night which was fun! (NB: There is a 2€ pp cover charge in every restaurant).
Chia, the most popular beach area in southern Sardinia and about an hour and a half out of town, is another ‘must’ whilst visiting Cagliari. It has twelve different beaches, all different in their own way but all with that quintessential look of perfect sand, craggy rocks and cobalt blue water. There was also an abundance of salmon pink flamingoes in this area which was a beautiful addition to the already perfect setting. Just awful as you can imagine! MB and I spent the day at Spiaggia di Turredda, a large and very busy beach and the only one with a restaurant. (NB: The majority of Sardinian’s all take huge picnics with them for their ‘day at the beach’ due to most areas being quite remote, but when one is traveling and staying in hotels, you don’t have the luxury of this convenience and so need to go where restaurants are available) plus a girl’s gotta eat! At the end of the day, we had a long drive around the cliffs and took time to just admire and gape at the sheer natural beauty of it all! We had been told by many locals to make sure we visited this area, so we were so pleased that we made the effort.
Time again to move on and up the coast on the other side of Sardinia we go, as we were on our way to Alghero, the ancient walled city on the northwest coast. It’s quite a hike to Alghero and time was running out, so we decided to take the highway to shorten the route. We had read about the pretty canal town of Bosa, (Sardinia’s answer to Amsterdam, which I have never visited by the way, but smaller with less bikes and no hash cafe’s… basically nothing like it really) which was not far from our destination, so we headed in that direction! Stopping for fuel and feeding a family of stray cats the last chunk of our sacred pecorino in Oristano (much to the delight of the sweet little station owner) along the way, we then rested and nourished ourselves in yet another quaint seaside town, Cuglieri.
Here in Cuglieri, dotted along the cliffs and nestled amongst the olive trees, are Greek/Spanish white washed houses with a “yabba dabba do” Flinstones Style twist! I nearly fell off the bike in awe and wanted to buy one and move in immediately as they were so damn cute. I tried to take a photo but it didn’t turn out very well unfortunately (see below).We enjoyed one of the best meals Sardinia had to offer in this little town grazie to Altamarea Ristorante and wished we could have stayed overnight here as well. I highly recommend this area to everyone if you are passing through!
We eventually reached Bosa and had a quick drive around. We rode up to the castle, took a few photos, admired the tree lined streets and coloured houses all wedged together then whizzed off to Alghero, our second final destination of the trip!
I was immediately captivated by Alghero. Enclosed within her ancient walls lies Catalan gothic buildings, little piazza’s, shops, cafés, restaurants and churches. My favourite thing – cobbled stone streets – zigzag their way through the town and with a beach and a marina, she makes it hard not to fall in head over heels in love! MB, being an ex ‘boatie’, also found his dream Air B&B rental for two nights which was a ‘tiny-house’ houseboat! YOLO and all that jazz, it was a bit like living in a cupboard with a kitchen, but had a fabulous deck area upon which we enjoyed the stunning sunsets and a great breeze. No cooking in the cupboard was being attempted, so eating out twice in the old town, which has an array of restaurants to choose from, was the plan du jour. We (again) unfortunately had a bad experience on night one, with terrible risotto (undercooked long grain rice…?) and bad service, but enjoyed a lovely, simple pizza (again) and a pitcher of local wine in a tucked away laneway on the second evening!
NEWSFLASH…I went SHOPPING! Obviously fully recovered from ‘non-purchase disorder’, I went crazy and bought lovely silk pants and two pairs of hand made sandals straight from the creator. They became my belated birthday gifts too so I was even more delighted! The boutiques here, like tensione in, offered something different and also had the summer sales on, so it was a pleasure to stroll the worn down old via’s and find a one off bargain, even if trying to fit them in the motorbike’s small side box when we were leaving was challenging!
It wouldn’t be a holiday in Sardinia without a routine trip to the beach, so having the luxury of a bike, we forwent the main spiaggia in town and rode off to explore the area around famous Capo Caccia. Huge natural rock formations (similar to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico) make up this amazing part of the world and you can hike all around the cliffs here too if that’s your thing. Neptunes Grotto (Grotta di Nettuno), an enormous cave, is available to visit by sea or a three million step walk if you have the stamina or burning desire to lose consciousness! We avoided both and decided to just admire from afar which was much more pleasant!
As is the case everywhere in Sardinia, there are numerous little beaches tucked away down off- beat, dusty side roads, so choosing one is difficult! We came across a little beauty that beckoned us with her sparkling sea and we decided to make camp there, as of course there was a restaurant AND a pop-up dress stand in the sand calling my name! Back up the bike Mike, I’m going in! Naturally I bought a fabulous gown (and have worn it to death already), but my poor MB bought nothing. All he needs is a campari and soda and and a plate of melon and prosciutto and he’s one happy chappy!
To throw in a bit of ancient history and culture, all around the island you see large beehive like structures high on hills. These exotic bronze age relics are called Nuraghes and were used as hide-outs, look-outs or just general dwellings. No one is really sure of their exact significance, but they are beautiful symbols of Sardinia and, in certain areas, can be visited.
It was time to move on once more and our little houseboat had to be departed, as we were now on the homestretch and, leaving the best till last, we were off (once again) to Santa Teresa Gallura – our FINAL destination in Sardinia!
Now, if you love pastel coloured buildings surrounded by lush gardens and giant flower pots, then THIS little town in northern Sardinia is for you! We spent our final night on the island in the pink and green striped art deco Hotel Da Cecco. With an unspoilt view of Corsica from our balcony and a huge plate of local meats and cheeses kindly brought to our room by the owner for our complimentary aperitivi, it was with a heavy heart that we had to say arrivederci.
Squeezing the last drops out of our amazing race style vacation, we explored Santa Teresa Gallura till sunset. Lined with beautiful rocky calanques that plunge into the mediterranean, flocks of lithe brown bodies hurled themselves off the cliffs with the carefree abandonment of the young! We watched with dread and felt old, muttering warnings about safety, breaking necks and water depth under our breath! In town, the streets are flooded with the creamy candy floss mint and pink hues from the houses. The main beach, however, is the star of the show as the silky sand and perfect water attract both locals and tourists. We didn’t go for a swim (amazing I know) and opted instead to stroll around the piazza, stopping for our final espresso in the same place it all began and indulging in the tantalising aroma of olive oil, garlic and oregano wafting towards us, reminding us it was time for our last supper in the sun…
Sardinia was lovely. Diverse and rugged, but pretty as all the pictures, and full of eager friendly folk who try to please. Of course she has her downfalls, as all islands do, but perfection is boring! Our Italian improved by the end and I could (maybe) pass for a local with all the hand waving and ciao-ing going on! I also discovered a new found respect for al-dente pasta, which was a plus, but no, sorry, not once did we eat sardines!
…”There is not in Italy what there is in Sardinia. Nor in Sardinia what there is in Italy”… (Francesco Cetti)…very deep Francesco, very deep!