Our Italian adventure with our friend, a native, took us further down, South of Rome, onto the Island of Sardegna. A short flight to the Cagliari Elmas airport later, we all traipsed with much luggage to our previously booked online car rental.
The cloudy skies and the rain made for a predictably fitting welcome, knowing that our friend’s annual pilgrimage home was always marked by a sudden downpour. Sardegna has short and mild winters, long hot summers but it enjoys the sun for more than 300 days every year. We arrived in September; when the days are long, there being light for almost about 9 hours and very pleasant temperatures at around 26 degrees centigrade.
It took us a little more than 80 minutes to get to our destination, the haven of tranquillity, Portixeddu, which really means small port, near Fluminimaggiore. We used the SS130 and SS126 for around 86 kilometres. All the while, during which, the landscape gleamed gloriously in the dappled sun after the rain, with its lush plains and verdant meandering hills. As we neared Iglesias and beyond it got serenely breathtaking, while the morning mist enveloped the mountain sides, densely vegetated with junipers and Aleppo pines.
This range of mountains of the Iglesiente is thinly inhabited and can be accessed through only one road, which further on from Guspini, is long and winds steeply to the highlands around Arbus and further to Fluminimaggiore and Iglesias. This is a road which has been known from Roman times, which passes enroute through the valley where the Punic-Roman temple of Antas was erected. The landscape is typically Macchia Mediterranea with its evergreen woodlands , rich in endemic species.
The Island is steeped in a harsh past, but boasts a culture and tradition that implies a lot of courage and independence which is most noteworthy in its cuisine. Economic and political shenanigans have drawn tourists and developers to a once unspoilt coastline and industrial corporations, mining conglomerates have exploited the empty spaces inland and the cheap labour market. Despite this, the island and its coastline remain largely appealing and unblemished to those seeking a break from the frenzied pace of life elsewhere.
The village itself, Portixeddu is tiny and charming, and was mostly unrecognised by our GPS, which positioned it adroitly in the sea yonder. The cliffs overhanging a pristine lick of beach scantily dotted with a few day trippers, coddled by a gentle bay is an unexpectedly winsome sight.
After a hurried unpacking at our self-catering apartment, we headed off for lunch at a nearby ristorante on the beach. There are a few bed and breakfasts around, a hotel, some luxury apartments and the ubiquitous but highly recommended Sardegnan Agriturismos. Organically grown, traditional Sardegnan food is a major attraction, especially in the farm guesthouses or Agriturismos. Seafood is in abundance. The highlight of our first day was the lunch. It was a gourmand experience for the uninitiated in the cuisine of the Sardi coast. Langoustine scampi, mussels, risotto, fish with basil, fried calamari and tagliatelle with pesto was a treat to the palate. The house wine was highly palatable. This was also our first flirtation with Bottarga or grey mullet roe. Once known as the poor man’s caviar, it is the salted, dried and pressed roe of either tuna or the grey mullet. Roe from the mullet or Muggine, can be sliced, grated, or shaved onto a variety of dishes. The most popular in Sardegna being linguine con bottarga, which is a combination of chopped bottarga, olive oil, red pepper flakes and chopped prezzemolo or parsley. This delicious salty flavourful condiment was grated generously onto the pasta we wolfed down.
As we languorously made our way to sleep off such a decadent feast we could not but help plan the menu for supper. This was to be a mainstay in the planning process of our itineraries.
The south west coast offers many activities which include snorkelling, fishing, trekking, rock climbing, cycling and surfing. European surfing championships have been held in the area. Cycling enthusiasts find this a veritable treasure trove of terrain. The challenging roads and great surfaces offer opportunity for serious training. There is an extensive network of dirt roads closed to motorized traffic that makes off road cycling technically easy and fascinating.
Sightseeing around Portixeddu is a must. Buggerru is a nearby lovely harbour village with a history in the mining of granite. The panoramic view from atop the nearby Pranu Sartu plateau is magnificent. The town is nestled in between two promontories lushly vegetated with Cistus, Spanish broom and junipers. Some of the finest beaches of Sardegna like Torre dei Corsari of the Costa Verde lie on the west coast. Many of the pristine beaches with their beautiful sand dunes and hidden bays have been discovered only recently by travellers wanting a detour from regular tourist haunts. Albeit challenging to get to due to the long and winding roads, than it would to the beaches around the bay of Cagliari, their sheer beauty, uniqueness and isolation can surely make the visit to Sardegna a much more memorable and treasured experience.
During the summer months, Buggerru, Fluminimaggiore and Portixeddu offer night-life, traditional festivals, small concerts and much more. Having missed the Fluminimaggiore goat fair and the folk festivals in August, September turned out to be a quiet month, as we watched the scant tourist populace dwindle away.
Supper that evening was Sardi ravioli stuffed with ricotta topped with a generous helping of home stewed ragu. Accompanied by chunks of Pecorino Sardo, which is an uncooked hard cheese made from fresh whole sheep’s milk and thin cuts of salame Milano, all downed with a generous Cannonau red.
A refreshing nightly repose and we were set for a lovely day and a late brunch. The morning sojourn to the village bakery in Fluminimaggiore saw us return with armloads of pane and pistoccu, locally produced nougat or torrone and a veritable cornucopia of fruits. We had an assortment of peaches, melons and grapes, all from the hinterland. With eggs, sunny side up, salame, cheese and creamy smooth cappuccinos, we partook of the feast with commendable haste.
The evening was spent in the sparkling bay of Portixeddu, frolicking in the waves, composing ethereal snapshots of pristine landscapes and reminiscing about our journey through the Italian hinterland. A visit to our friend’s aunt, an elegant Zia Maria, saw us appreciate the truly familial experience this trip had become. We had to make the mandatory stops to purchase some ‘cruxioneddu de mindua’ .Also known as ‘culungioneddos de pendula’, these carnival cakes, a specialty, are sweet almond ravioli covered with thin pastry layers and of a pale yellow colour. Also a stash of freezer bags and huge quotas of salsiccia sarda stagionata, Sardi cured sausages, made from lean pork seasoned with herbs garlic chilli cinnamon or fennel seeds, only then were we prepared to call it a day.
The next day was eventful, travelling on all season roads, lined with olive trees and Oleanders blazing in attractive colours, we made our way to nearby Scivu. It’s a spectacular beach surrounded by jagged high cliffs. The sun was relentless and the simmering water made us all yearn for the gelaterias back in Rome.
Fluminimaggiore is also famous for its Grotte di su Mannau, caves with stalagmite and stalactite formations. The cave runs for 8 km, have crystals of aragonite and many underground lakes populated with endemic species of Isopods, most notably Stenasellus nuragicus. In addition to tourism, the cave is interesting also from the archaeological point of view. Found inside were the remains of Nuraghic votive oil lamps and artifacts dating back to Phoenician and Roman times.
Satiated after all our adventures, the highlight of the trip was yet another culinary jaunt. This time to Gian Luca’s culinary heaven, Trattoria del Sol e della Luna. Located conveniently in localita Santa Giusta, Portixeddu, it was a reminder of all things magical in Italian cusine without the accompanying pretensions. Gian prepared a platter of antipasto with an assortment of salame and raspa. The house wine was an exceptional full bodied red. The primo piatto had generous servings of the distinctively yellow malloreddus, a small gnocchi made from durum wheat semolina, salt and water and percorino. Mussels drizzled with locally produced olive oil vanished within minutes. Secondo piatto was porcetta cooked in myrtle. Cooked tender to almost melting, every last bit was savour worthy. Pane carasau or the thin parchment music manuscript like flat breads, also known as carta da musica were prepared in Luca’s signature style with cheese and herbs. The dolce was a simple amaretti tiramisu topped with vanilla gelato.
It was with memories redolent of sweet aromatic myrtle liqueur and the warm, generous Sardegnan hospitality; we made our way to Cagliari Elmas the next morning, conveniently losing our way in the early morning dawn despite an overworked tom tom, perhaps, sub consciously willing it that we stay longer. Sardegna, with all its hidden gems of faraway untouched places and its idyllic quietude touches the heart. We will return once again to its charms.