CAGLIARI, SARDINIA — As an outsider, you don’t quite get it at first. After all, everyone speaks Italian, the espresso is strong and there’s a pizzeria on every corner. Sounds like Italy, right?
That is, until you start to notice the little things.
Case in point: Cagliari is geographically closer to North Africa than it is to Rome. That doesn’t mean it has an overly African feel, but just that it has historically and culturally been isolated from mainland Italy.
In fact, the Catalans had as much of an influence here as did the Genoese. You can destinctly feel the Spanish influence in places like Alghero, with its wide arcades and warm sandstone walls.
In the end, it’s the mish mash of cultures and the distinctly unique feel that makes Sardinia such a draw card. And then you see the beaches.
We came for the full offer: a bit of relaxation on the beach, a bit of adventure on the road. First: the beach.
Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones with this idea. Sardinia in August is destination numero uno for about 20 million mainland Italians. Luckily, we were able to carve out a little piece of quiet. Halfway between the cosmopolitan capital of Cagliari and the five star hotels of Costa Rei, we found a little resort tucked behind a dry hill to call home.
It was the perfect starting point from which to explore the south’s innumerable beaches, ancient sites and culinary wonders. We unpacked in the searing heat and b-lined it for the beach.
The colors are what hit you first. It’s not that you can’t find beaches like this anywhere else in the Mediterranean; there are spots in Greece, Turkey, the Balearics where you can find similar turquoise strands. It’s that there are consistently so many breathtaking spots here. Literally every km or so of coastal road is signposted with a “Spiaggia” that rivals anything you could find in Tahiti or the Caribbean.
About an hour outside of Cagliari, we stopped in Santadi. A dusty little crossroads town, there’s not much to see. But it was the perfect spot to stop, stretch our legs and check out the local winery.
Wineries in Sardinia are not the snobby, white linen, 40 euro per tasting affairs you’ll find in other wine regions. In Sardina it work like this: you roll up to the front door with empty 5 liter water jubs, select Rosso, Bianco or Rosato and they fill you up from a retrofitted gas pump from the huge barrels of house wine. Leave the bottles to the tourists.
Jugs full, we made our way along one of the most beautiful stretches of the island: a two-lane coastal road that follows the curve of Costa la Sur northeast back to Cagliari.
On a small triangular peninsula on the road back to the city lies one of the most important archeological sites in the Mediterranean. Nora was originally a Phoenician outpost before the Romans took it over as the heart of their Sardinian corner of the empire.
Today the site is one of the largest Roman ruins in the world, even though nearly half the site is now underwater. Wide boulevards, ancient palazzos, Roman style baths and an ampitheater facing the sea are all clearly visible, as well as some of the most complete mosaics in the world.
Hot, salty and hungry, we headed from Nora back into Cagliari in search of some of the most unique pizza in the world. Despite being completely surrounded by the sea, Sardinians are quick to point out they are pastoral eaters rather than pescian — a bit of a letdown for seafood lovers.
But there are two Sardinian delicacies that are pulled from the sea: Ricci — the soft orange inner flesh of the sea urchin — and Bottarga — the cured, dried and powdered or sliced Mullet roe.
Both have a deep sea flavor and both are the hero ingredients on the crispy pies of Cagliari’s most famous pizzeria: Il Fantasma. How could we help ourselves?
Wine from gas pumps, ancient cities and pizza with some of the strangest toppings in the world — already we were beginning to taste what makes Sardinia something different. That unique flavor is repeated, in fact concentrated, in its capital city, Cagliari.
DH Lawrence famously compared it to Jerusalem and, in truth, this is like no other “Italian” city. Built on steep hills that crash into a wide port, the city sprawls around a huge sandstone citadel, Il Castello. Young, fresh, weird and — at the same time — ancient and regal, Cagliari is just another of the curiosities that this island promises for those who dig deep enough. We were just getting started.