A 12-hour road trip across Sardinia
Some places take time to sink into your bones, while others give you immediate feedback: A split second of smell, temperature, light and sensation can give you a strong vibe on a new area, as if you were sizing up character, not setting. Which goes to show that you can develop a strong impression about a place in a lot less time than you might expect, like I did during a 12-hour road trip across the Italian island of Sardinia through the province of Nuoro and the cities of Bosa and Alghero. And once that mental recording is engraved it can stick with you indefinitely, resurfacing in the strangest locations for the most mysterious reasons. (Read further, and you’ll see what I mean.)
After a weekend spent frolicking in the idyllic Gulf of Orosei, we headed west to catch a Ryanair flight out of the Alghero airport. The star of the show was definitely the interior heartland region, but the western coast cities are also distinctive (which might explain why they’ve been conquered repeatedly throughout the ages).
The deep interior region of Nuoro
The Sardinian interior is gloriously unexploited. Even in August, tourists are rare in Nuoro and the snapshots of true small-town life are plentiful. It’s the kind of place that makes stepping into almost any local establishment of any hillside town (like Oliena or Dorgali) wildly interesting. Lonely Planet baited me by describing women draped in black shawls; I didn’t see any (was the hundred-degree heat to blame?), but I if I had, they would have fit right in with the surroundings.
Brutal mountain ridges strike through dusty plains spotted with green brush. It reminded me of Israel, particularly the area surrounding Jerusalem and the scene of so many biblical reenactments. Meanwhile, Ben was getting flashbacks of Central Texas! Both are arid climates where the mercury skyrockets in August, so perhaps the comparisons aren’t too far off despite the 7,000-mile margin of error.
Sardinia weather is similar to most Mediterranean islands, and dry summers are a given in a place that averages 300 days of sun per year. In Spain, they say anything that manages to live in those conditions will be strong and intense. Herbs are more flavorful; grapes produce robust, spicy wine; even men are more manly. (Check out the Spanish cult classic Jamon Jamon, which launched the careers of Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, for a kitschy take on this beloved wives’ tale.) It was on my mind as I drank deep red Cannonau (Grenache, purportedly originating in Sardinia), ate sundried tomatoes that puckered my mouth with their concentrated flavor, inhaled the scent of rosemary on the warm air, and gazed over the majesty of the chisled landscape.
Bosa is a startling burst of tutti frutti nestled in a valley by the sea. Descending on route SS129bis, you’ll have a great overhead view backed by a medieval castle, which predated the city’s Aragon and Spanish rule but post-dated prehistoric, Phoenician and Carthaginian settlers; invading Saracens; and Roman, Byzantine and Arab rule. Plus a lot of commercial and cultural sway from the Genoans and Pisans. It seems safe to say that Bosa has been considered a pretty nice place to live.
We were here for just a brief gelato stop and look around, but long enough to feel the smorgasbord history. Except for the colors, the city looks North African from a distance, with planar angles confronting the harsh sun and palm trees. The red-tiled roofs would be right at home in southern Spain. Get closer, and its stone buildings and wrought iron balconies suddenly seem more Barcelona than anything, albeit an LSD-enhanced Barcelona washed in ochre, sandstone, sunflower and periwinkle. Step into the historic district, and the cobbled streets and Venetian Gothic architectural details will have you wondering if you’re not further north in Italy. It’s confusing, to say the least, maybe even disorienting, but it’s unique. And unique is what Ben and I like best.
The medieval walled city makes a strong visual impression once you round the final, twisty bend on the coast highway from Bosa. Inside, the thick walls and narrow, hilly lanes are everything you might imagine of a seaside fortress town.
And yes, you are still in Italy, despite so many locals around you speaking Catalan. Alghero has remained loyal to Aragonese cultural roots, not just with language but with food. The Spanish paella, called fideua and made with shellfish and thin pasta instead of rice in Catalunya, is alive and well here in the form of fregola. Small pellets of semolina pasta are the starchy base in this dish, and boy do they soak up that seafood stock for a flavorful mouthful. Accompany this masterpiece with the Sardinian specialties of sheep’s cheese and olive oil, and a crisp-but-fruity Vermentino (white) or even a light red — because yes, in the Mediterranean, a fish-red pairing is same old, same old. Just make sure to save room for crema catalana, a custard dessert similar to but lighter than creme brulee.
*Tip: In Italy, a “light” red refers to a lower (natural) alcohol content. Luckily, the less-robust wines tend to also be slightly lower in alcohol, so you’re usually safe. “Important” wines are those with the highest alcohol contents. You’ve got to smile at that one!
Have you been someplace that made a near-instant impression on you? Or someplace that seemed strikingly familiar because of someplace else you’ve visited? We’d love to hear about it!
Sardinia is an Italian island located west of the mainland, a neighbor of both Corsica and (more remotely) Sicily. You can reach it by ferry into several ports or by air into Cagliari, Olbia or Alghero.
- Two things expected but not seen in Sicily or Sardinia: PDAs or topless sunbathers. What’s up with that, Italy? #travel
- The Bosa-Alghero road hugs cliffs to the sea: views for miles. Can even pick up Spanish radio. Def worth a detour #travel Sardinia
- Bosa, founded by Phoenecians, is a candy-colored river town with a medieval center, castle and its own Ponte Vecchio.
- We just passed a sign for a town called Benetutti. I’d like to meet the person who named it.
- We finally found sunscreen over spf 10! Guess it’s not popular with vacationing Italians (the brownest white people I’ve seen)
- Although Ben says it reminds him of Central Texas
- Road-tripping across Sardinia. Countryside reminds me of Israel – it’s that Mediterranean climate, I guess. #travel
- It’s August: the city bursts with tourists – Italian tourists, who rent a flat for a few weeks. It’s a totally dif peak into Italian life
- The world is truly flat: an American girl (me) just bought Indian-made pants from an Egyptian vendor in Italy…
- In Alghero, Trattoria al Refettorio gets a thumbs up. It’s the kind of place you hope to find in a touristy historic center but rarely do.
- Next course: tagliatelle with prawns and courgette flowers and Alghero-style paella (fat cous cous instead of rice).
- Dinner in historic old town tonight. On the menu: prosecco w fried anemones and roast cheese (my husband’s idea of heaven).
- Buona sera from Sardenya! Back in the land of big fat happy vowel sounds!
- The Treasures of Alghero are in the Museum of Sacred Art in Sardinia (vinoconvistablog.wordpress.com)
- The Spectacular Sea-Caves of Neptune’s Grotto in Alghero Sardinia (vinoconvistablog.wordpress.com)