What to do if you arrive at Italy’s top island getaway without your luggage? Buy eight bottles of wine, of course.
On the main street of the village of Palau in northern Sardinia, a local butcher carves prosciutto like butter. Coming out from behind the long glass counter of the charcuterie Macelleria da Raffaele, he laughs and hands me the paper-wrapped meat along with a baby pig that had been wedged among the stacks of salami. Its flesh is cold and thick, like some high school biology project, but there’s no blast of formaldehyde. Instead, I’m stung by the wrath of an old woman in the front window who flashes me devil’s horns with both gnarled hands. Sardinians take their cuisine seriously. They get sardonic when winter-white tourists fondle the vittles for photo ops.
My boyfriend Alex and I arrived luggageless in Cagliari on the southern tip of Sardinia. Alitalia Airlines had misplaced our luggage in Rome, and with a vague promise that it would be delivered some time in the next week, there is little to do but carry on. With nothing but our stale travelling clothes and a rented Fiat, we drive four hours north to the tiny hamlet of Porto Pollo, where we had leased an apartment for the week. The comfortable hilltop unit at the Windsurf Village has a full kitchen and jasmine-drenched patio, but its most endearing characteristic ends up being its proximity to an unorthodox sea-view disco that is only open for morning cappuccino and warm croissants. After looking around the peach-tiled flat, we decide to cash in on the airline’s promise to reimburse us for necessities and drive six kilometres east to neighbouring Palau – and soon have eight bottles of cold local white wine, bread and charcuterie, a gold bikini and a pair of pink Speedos crammed into the tiny trunk of the car. Our travel woes are cured.
Most of the roads around Palau lead to the Tyrrhenian Sea, a clear aquamarine bath dotted with buoys and boats and tiny atolls of water-carved granite. The region faces the French island of Corsica and is surrounded by the Maddalena Archipelago, an explosion of inhabited islands accessible by a confusing network of competing car-and-passenger ferries. Though the days of humans sharing their terrain with immortals are long gone, the idioms of northern Sardinia are still shaped by tales of Greek mythology. Folklore attributes the birth of Olbia – 20 kilometres from Palau and the first permanent human settlement on the northeast coast – to a son of Hercules. A more pragmatic theorist would credit the island’s booming obsidian trade to the Neolithic Era and a volcanic coastline well-suited to naval defense. That dramatic coastline still draws sea-borne visitors, but in this century they’re dressed in Armani and arrive on yachts.
Sardinians flock to the island’s northern shores for vacation, and like everywhere else in Italy they’re accompanied by plenty of Germans. Though culture and beauty are ample motivators for the trip, it’s the steady breezes blowing around Porto Pollo that draw an influx of European wind junkies. For the neophyte, windsurfing and kiting lessons are available and guaranteed to have you up and moving within hours. If that’s not your bag, there is a good selection of beach bars to drink at while watching beginners get dragged about.
English as a first language is rare on Sardinia and few restaurant menus cater to non-Italian/German tongues, but it’s not difficult to sort out the main Sardinian specialties: seafood pastas and delicate, arugula-drizzled pizzas. Travellers who come this far to order cheese pizza and Coca-Cola should be spanked and sent home. It would rude not to experience the bounty of the island, specifically the Casu Marzu, a live-larvae-peppered sheep’s milk cheese that goes nicely with red wine and eucalyptus honey. It’s supposedly an aphrodisiac, but when you’re eating it at sunset on the Mediterranean, what isn’t?