Focus on Sardina

  • © Marco Polo Travel Magazine. Photographer: Raffaele Celentano

How a small family found great holiday happiness on the island of Sardinia – a story of the joys of Italian beach life, the pleasure of sipping wine on your own balcony high above the cliffs, and the turquoise sea at the heart of everything...


Anyone who has travelled to Italian towns and cities in the height of summer will recognise this picture... Many shops are closed, residential quarters abandoned, and the houses show tightly shuttered windows instead of romantic lines of washing. One crucial element is missing from Italian towns and cities in the summer – the Italians. Where are they then...? Simple, they're all holidaying on Sardinia instead. 


All? Well maybe not quite, but certainly a large proportion. Sardinia is the Italians' undisputed favourite holiday destination. As for us, we hadn't been to Sardinia before, but we do have friends who have holiday homes on Sardinia and would invite us time and again: 'Just pop in sometime! We have acres of space!' 


So when last summer came around and we were finally ready to hit Sardinia, our friends didn't have any space at all, having accommodated other friends of theirs. Still, we headed off; after all, it was only late June, the ferries were not expensive, and we were sure we'd find something once we got there.  


I'm writing these lines in a mix of trembling exhaustion and a breathless sense of victory on the balcony of our flat in Costa Paradiso, a holiday settlement on the north-western coast. Our holiday home – a simple two-room apartment, a little damp yet equipped with a sublime sunset balcony above the cliffs – is not that amazing. What is amazing is that our little family of three found any accommodation at all. 


After rolling off the ferry in the morning in Olbia, we optimistically set out for a region called Gallura, where the bays are supposed to be particularly charming. This is what our friend, Raffaella, had told us anyway. 


  • Alghero © Marco Polo Travel Magazine. Photographer: Raffaele Celentano

The narrow, winding road led through hill country; here and there the glittering sea appeared from below in strong shades of blue and green. The desert Sirocco wind was blowing gently across our car, and once in a while we were overtaken by a Ferrari. We were quite obviously moving into the catchment area of the Costa Smeralda. At some 30 kilometres/18 miles long, in summer this heavily indented stretch of coast around the artificial luxury villages of Porto Cervo and Porto Rotondo turns into a meeting place for industry bosses, TV starlets and four-time  Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, who doesn't maintain just one but several estates here. A three-bedroom holiday villa with a small private pool in Porto Rotondo can cost some 20,000 euros a month in high season, which is why we decided not to start our search here. 


It should be a villa really. Every Italian child knows that in Sardinia you don't live in a hotel, but in a villetta, a holiday home that ideally you yourself own. And if not - you rent one. That's what we were planning to do. Where exactly in Gallura it was supposed to lie wasn't that important, but having followed a signpost saying 'Conca Verde' to the coast, we all called in unison: 'here!' Whitewashed villas under red slate roofs were sinking into the flaming splendour of the bougainvilleas, while the little sandy coves further down were fringed by the light-green fingers of the pines. It was very hot, and so the first thing we did was unpack our swimming gear. Do I need mention that the water was crystal-clear with small fish dancing around our legs? Later we had a picnic with pecorino cheese and tomatoes in the shade of a eucalyptus tree. Right, we'd be happy to stay here.


We didn't though, as Conca Verde was fully booked up even in June. The agent recommended the next bay along, pointing northwards. The neighbouring bay was called Valle dell’ Erica, and it boasted such an adorable location that there was not even a real-estate office. The owners of the little villas nestled charmingly into the macchia probably preferred their own company. We trekked on along the coast, taking ever new and narrower roads down to the sea, to holiday settlements where nobody was renting or where the agencies were lying abandoned in the sun. Which was slowly sinking. It wasn't looking too good.


Until we got lucky at last, with our apartment on the Costa Paradiso. Not only does it have wonderful views, it is also very typical for Sardinia. Most holiday accommodation on the island is not in organically grown fishing villages, of which there are few, but in allocated and parcelled out spaces, lottizzazione in Italian. This is where all kinds of artificial holiday villages have been built over the past 30 years, full of terraced houses, mini villas and grocery stores. The Sardinian coast is dotted with these complexes, some of which just stand there concreted into the landscape, with no context or connection to the place. In Costa Paradiso we made a lucky choice. The villette occupy the space between the fantastically-shaped, reddish-glowing rocks, keeping a respectful distance between each other, built with taste and using natural stone echoing the red of the rocks.


To get a proper swim though we have to take the car, having tried the official beach of Costa Paradiso, a small sandy crescent, on the first day, and deeming it a bit too small for the number of beds of our lottizzazione. Only inches from our towels, an elegant couple from Bergamo were rustling their 'Corriere della Sera'; on the other side we were flanked by four giggling girlfriends with four tweeting mobiles, and that was just for starters: across the cliffs an endless convoy of beach guests were crawling towards the small cove, a colourful, uninterrupted chain of shorts and sunshades, flip-flops and backpacks, parasols and cool bags. All this was living proof of something that we'd always sensed yet had never seen so clearly as on Sardinia: the Italians worship the sea. 


  • Cala Domestica © Marco Polo Travel Magazine. Photographer: Raffaele Celentano

'Il mare' is not really about swimming; it's a dream, a destination, and in summer it's a state of being. The sea in Sardinia takes your breath away, sparkling crystal clear and in the most incredible colours. Turquoise here, emerald there, sometimes a strong cobalt blue. And it has remained wild. Unlike other places in Italy, where the resorts force a certain regimentation on their visitors with measured-out rows of deckchairs, Sardinia's beaches have remained untouched by infrastructure. Everybody brings their own sunshade and settles down where they like. Individualists at heart, the Italians appreciate that. However, because they don't like being by themselves either, you find them sitting on the same beaches, all together: the best holidays are those enjoyed 'tutti insieme', with all the individualists piled together.


When in Rome, and all that... we do as they do; the sea has become the centre of our universe, the beach in the bay of Ca Serraini that we settle every morning with our bags brimful of swimming and picnic things, sunshade and water bottles, our purpose in life. Not much else gets a look in here. We hardly explore the back country, apart from a short trip to the mountain village of Trinità d’Agultu, which has the nearest cashpoint. We rarely drive to Santa Teresa di Gallura for a stroll. We don't even go out for dinner. Instead we buy fresh pecorino, colourful peppers, pounds and pounds of tomatoes and courgettes from the mobile vendors at the side of the country road and cook pasta with vegetables in our kitchen-cum-lounge. By eight o'clock at the latest we are sitting on the terrace, fork in hand, looking westwards. Towards the sea. The low-hanging sun is transforming it into a silver soup, with the former prison island of Asinara floating in the distance like a piece of driftwood. The horizon appears like a line scored with a knife. This is how the sun goes down, every evening, for our eyes only.


Then one morning the phone rings. Raffaella, our friend with a holiday villa, is inviting us to spend a day on her favourite beach. Raffaella's favourite beach quickly becomes ours too. A bay in Valle d’Erica, framed by large, smooth granite boulders. Colourful sunshades flap happily in the wind. The sea beyond sparkles like a treasure chest full of emeralds and turquoise gems, with the rocky islands of the La Maddalena archipelago standing out in dull grey, a calming counterpoint to all that brilliance. 'Why is it that all the Italians holiday in Sardinia?', I ask Raffaella. Who looks at me as if I'm mad, and then makes a gesture to include the beach, the sea, the granite formations and the fluttering sunshades. Finally she shrugs her shoulders, helplessly. She's probably never heard such a stupid question.


  • Porto Cervo © Marco Polo Travel Magazine. Photographer: Raffaele Celentano

Marco Polo Insider tips: 


Europe's oldest tree 

The northern shores of the Lago di Liscia (access via a narrow road) hide a true natural wonder: millenia-old olive trees. With their roots firmly in the ground near the little country church of San Michele, three gigantic wild olive trees stand next to each other, all in perfect health and with lush green foliage. The youngest has long passed the 1000-year mark, the middle one has clocked up 2500 years, and the awe-inspiring tree called S’Ozzastru a quite unbelievable 4000 to 4500 years: with a trunk diameter of 12 metres/nearly 40 ft and its ample crown, a true temple of nature.


Eat at Grandma's table

The culinary gem of Trattoria Zia Giovanni nestles right behind the Romanesque church (worth a visit) of Padria. While the restaurant might be old-fashioned and small, it does offer fabulously authentic Sardinian fare to go with a very friendly ambience. There is no set menu; instead the daily menus change according to the season (closed on Sat, Via Fratelli Sulis 9). 


Dolphin-watching trips 

The only place in Sardinia for unforgettable boat excursions to the dolphins roaming La Maddalena national park. Lasting five hours, the tours start twice daily in season and cost 100 euros per person. Information from Whale Watching Sardinia


Taken from the June 2013 Marco Polo Travel Magazine


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