CALA GONONE, SARDINA — Sardinia has a serious identity crisis — and that means the best possible situation for those who come visit her.
So, what is the real Sardinia?
Sea or stone? Turquoise bays and ancient grottos or vineyard-laced villages hanging off the side of granite mountains? Smoked fish roe or herb-fed lamb? It’s difficult to tell. But one thing is certain; Sardinia is defined by two forces: the sea and the mountains.
After four relaxed, sand-filled days, we were ready for adventure. Out of Vilasimius, we headed north along the eastern coastline. The sea reflected the early morning sun to the right as we quickly cut inland — and up.
Inland Sardinia is shaped by two ranges of haggard mountains running north to south and protecting a low, fertile plateau in the center of the island. Outside of the E25 expressway that deftly weaves through the lowlands to connect Sardinia’s three main cities, there’s not much in the way of highways.
In fact, the main line from southeast to northeast is a winding two lane affair that rises a good 6,000 feet from the beach to the summit before tipping over a steep pass and down onto a wide plain. In our little Fiat, we climbed, climbed and climbed some more.
First stop on our way north was the little bandit stronghold of Jerzu. Perched on the side of a tall mountain, the town is the heart of the local wine scene, pulling in grapes from the many valley and hill vineyards around it. Navigating the city’s ancient streets at near 45 degree angles was interesting, but the best 1 euro cappuccino in the world (not to mention the free view) and the hearty local wine made it well worth it.
Refueled, we made the rest of the drive over the eastern range and again headed down to one of the island’s most epic seascapes.
The road to Cala Gonone is a game of foreplay and deceit. Running and zagging along the cliffs of the west side of the range, you can nearly smell the ocean, though no water is in sight.
At Dogali, the mountains finally give way, allowing you through a deep tunnel that opens up to the most beautiful panorama of sea from 4,000 feet up.
We weaved our way down to the coast. Cala Gonone is the jumping off point for the Golfo di Orosei.
This sea lovers’ playground boasts some of the most dazzling beaches on the island, all of which are completely inaccessible by road due to the steep coastal mountains. Instead, sailboats, dingeys and multi-million yachts head out from Cala to explore nearly 30km of coastline below.
Hitting the port at nearly 1pm, we were behind the crowds, but still managed to snag the last seats on an afternoon cruise that took us to one of the purest beaches, the aptly named curve of Cala Luna.
After a couple hours of sand, sun and snorkeling, we boarded the boat again for one of the largest maritime cave systems in Europe. The blue grotto is nearly 18km of caves carved out by the sea and underground rivers. We explored just under 1km of the cool depths that were the last refuge of the monk seal, now extinct on the island.
Once again toasted and salted to perfection, we made our way back to the port and back over the mountain range. The destination for the night was Castello Malicas, the remains of a 17th century castle now converted into a bed and breakfast, located just a few kilometers inland.
We showered and soaked up the view from the castle’s turrets with a sharp glass of Jerzu wine, oblivious to the juxtaposition of the sea and mountains, just a few minutes apart.
Agriturismos, basically family-run restaurants that help local farmers and ranchers supplement their modest income and show off their goods, are everywhere on this island. Famous for serving up amazingly fresh and traditional grub straight from their own fields and vineyards, each family seats as many people as they have room for and provides seemingly unending series of dishes made from what’s fresh that day.
Tanca e Gaia sat in the shadow of our castle-hotel on the other side of a dry river bed. We sat down in the warm sunset glow and sipped the bitter-but-good housemade wine while gazing out at the very hardscrabble vineyard from where the grapes came.
In this perfect quiet moment, we had no idea for the carnage we were in for.
It started with a series of antipasti including smoked ham and arugula flatbreads to just-made ricotta and mozzarella cheeses that the word “fresh” doesn’t even begin to describe to fried ravioli and a North-African-inspired roasted eggplant puree.
The secondi included the juiciest meatballs I’ve ever had, no doubt hand rolled from veal and pork grown right on the farm. Ravioli and orzo courses followed. By now, our bellies were full and three jugs of wine had come and gone, but we were not nearly done.
The main course was a cornucopia of swine and goat, harvested right from the pen that day. Spit-roasted suckling pig, on-the-bone pork chops, braised goat loin, fresh salsciccia and even tiny goat kidneys that allowed you to taste the terroir directly. Our pleasure was also our pain. After over 10 courses, we could hardly put a dent in the pile of heavenly meat that sat before us. I still wake up in the night and think of what would be if I could have brought that porky goodness home.
Salad, dessert, fruit, espresso, digestifs all followed and by the time the moon was high overhead, we were so painfully full that we thanked the family and made our way slowly home. Lesson learned.
The pleasures of the sea and land fully savored, we fell to sleep in the quiet, cool mountain night and dreamed of sausage and sea caves, the rocking of a salty boat and the gut-wrenching climb of a high mountain pass.
Personally, I don’t hold Sardinia’s split personality against her. Not one bit.