I apologise to Vagabonda, as we didn’t return to Sicily this year for our summer holiday. In fact we left it so late, we went to Sardinia on 19th September, for ten days. We hadn’t been there before, and the choice was mainly dictated by the destinations available from our local airport – so we didn’t have to travel all the way to the London airports !
Sardinia is a huge island, two hundred miles off the coast of Italy, in the middle of the Mediterranean. I was not expecting it to be very warm, so was pleasantly surprised that the temperature on our arrival was 30 C (86F) and we spent about four afternoons on the beach and in the crystal clear sea.
We flew direct to Olbia and hired a car on arrival to drive to Santa Teresa di Gallura, in the north of the island. This town has a famous white sands beach called Rena Bianca, and a type of fjord - a 'cala' - with a Marina at the far end, a docking place for some beautiful yachts. Unfortunately, this meant that many of the people who come here are wealthy – and the prices in restaurants and shops reflect this. But, maybe Sardinia is expensive all over ? We felt we had chosen a place far enough from the Costa Smeralda (but not too far from the airport at Olbia ) not to be affected by the Costa Smeralda’s well-heeled clientele !
Our hotel was on the edge of town. It had a swimming pool, despite being only 3 star. The hotel was pleasantly decorated and in an architectural style that blended well with the rest of the town. There were some outside corridors and open spaces where wickerwork divans and tables were set out. I particularly liked the fact that local handicrafts and products had been used to decorate the rooms and public areas, so there were local textiles (special designs in the fabric itself – raised thread work) and ceramics – sweet little pottery lampshade bases with stylised birds on them. The rooms had lemon painted walls and turquoise and cream furnishings. We had the usual twin beds pushed together as a double, plus a divan put-u-up, which we didn’t need, but it made the room feel nicer and was somewhere else for us to sit than on the bed. It also had a special rack to rest a suitcase on… I do wish hotels would provide two of these, the other guest has to grovel in his/her suitcase on the floor. But we were thankful that there was one of these at all ! The rooms were large and airy –we had air conditioning, and a private bathroom with shower and a minibar fridge. They only offered bed and breakfast, which was fine for us, as we like to use the local restaurants. There was a large, airy breakfast room which opened onto the swimming pool area, where there were further tables set out for breakfast. At the start of our stay there was a group of Germans, a whole bus load, and we noticed that they had their evening meal at the hotel. But the hotel wouldn’t add any more clients on for the evening meal. Some nights you get back tired from touring round and would love to 'eat in'. I shall eventually do a hotel review too.
Breakfast was the usual buffet : cakes and cornetti (Italian style croissants) tinned fruit, yoghurt, hardboiled eggs, salame, prosciutto of both sorts, cheeses etc. ; there was a little machine for the coffee, which wasn’t bad, and an assortment of teas. If you wanted a coffee from their bar, it was produced properly with a Gaggia machine (or similar) – but this would have to be paid for separately. It was good to have this available for a bedtime nightcap, on returning from town. There was a large lounge with bar, there was a car park, and a garden with swings and slides for children. The road immediately after the hotel went down to the port, where there were another couple of restaurants and a couple of bars that also did meals. There was a little square there with some shops, but they were all shut as the season was over, but a tobaconnists and an expensive clothing shop were still open.
Opposite the hotel, there was a supermarket with everything you might need. There were other supermarkets further up the road, presumably for those people who were self-catering in the little villas and apartments around. There were some textile and ceramics outlets and the usual boat producers. We visited the supermarket opposite the hotel at the beginning of the holiday – but later found a salumeria/fruttivendolo in town that prepared the rolls for us and their fruit was riper too . I also discovered the Torrone di Gallura – which is without added sugar, just honey, almonds (or walnuts) and egg white. Delicious ! We found a gelateria artigianale in the town, and I indulged in my favourite ice-cream flavours of pistachio and hazelnut. They also serve lovely, fresh spremuta d’arancia – which I ask for with no sugar… obviously there’s natural fruit sugar from the freshly squeezed oranges, but it’s really good. I also tried the ‘seadas’ - a local sweet, consisting of a large ‘raviolo’ filled with sheeps’ cheese, deep fried and drizzled with bitter honey. It was delicious ! But I was careful – and only ate ‘the one’ !
The beaches were beautiful – we found several with fine, white sand – and the water at each of these was warm, shallow and clear. I have never seen clear water where there is sand, in Italy – only where there are rocks and pebbles….but this water was superb. The sand was white, and soft, and the sea was low over many metres and a beautiful green before turning turquoise , then becoming deep enough for swimming and it turned a deep blue. If you stood still in the water, little white fishes the size of ‘whitebait’ would come up and inspect your feet ! The beach we preferred was at Capo Testa, along the causeway. It was a free beach, as most of them in these parts seem to be. So there were no cabins or sunbeds and umbrellas. We changed in the car, when necessary – the sun would dry your costume if you timed your swim right. We brought filled rolls and fruit with us to eat – so that cut the cost of living at a stroke !
After the first four days of heat and sunshine, the wind started up … warm at first, and quite pleasant, but it did mean we didn’t much fancy being on the beach as it would whip up the sand in your face. Then the wind switched direction and arrived with icy blasts and quite a few dark clouds, to the point that we had one day of rain… and the temperature plummeted to 17 C (62.6F) but we seemed to miss most of the showers, because we had chosen to drive inland on a voyage of discovery, and were in the car when it rained ! This, according to the hotel receptionist, is the problem with Sardinia… you will have wonderful weather, and then suddenly the wind starts up and ruins everything. But in the autumn, after a few days of wind, cold and rain at the end of September, then the sun returns and the temperature rises back up to 30C and the beach beckons again !
Our first outing on a windy day was to a village called ‘Luogosanto’ which means ‘holy place’. It had a couple of churches, a town square and a sign that said ‘This town is dedicated to the Madonna’ which seemed very apt. There was a fresh mineral water spring there, called Fonte di La Filetta. We sat in the empty car park, in the rain, looking at the plants and eating our ‘picnic’. We had parked close to the ‘entrance’ to the path down to the spring… leaving only one car space between us and the low perimeter wall. Suddenly a car drew up alongside us, they had a whole car park to chose from and they chose to park right next to us, between us and the perimeter wall ! The driver looked at me and beamed… then got out and beamed at me again…. He was the spitting image of the Italian prime minister – Berlusconi - suntan and all…. I don’t think it was actually him – although he does have a villa on the Costa Smeralda ! Whoever he was, he must have been aware that he was a look – alike for the prime minister ! He and his female companion went off down towards the spring, and when they came back to the car – he was still beaming at me… and his companion had a bunch of wild pink lilies in her hand. When the rain stopped, we walked down the paths through Mediterranean plants (thyme, rosemary, sage… yes, all the culinary herbs !) to the spring itself. I didn’t see one single flower, she must have picked every one ! Is there no law against picking wild flowers in Italy as there is in the UK ? While we were there, a local mother and two teenage children arrived, complete with crates of empty plastic two litre mineral water and Coca Cola bottles, to fill up from the spring. We were really cross we hadn’t thought to keep some of our own empty mineral water bottles to bring here, and from this point on, we carried some around in the back of the car !
The beach at S Teresa (Rena Bianca) itself was really beautiful too – unfortunately even in those days of late September, it was quite crowded. It was the favourite beach locally because not all the visitors had a car to drive around and find the other beaches. The big hotel behind the beach also had groups arriving in coaches, so they would just walk out of the hotel, cross the car park and the road, onto the beach straight ahead of them. We only managed to find a parking space nearby on one afternoon. We were told that all the beaches are run by ‘il comune’. So they were all free. Any hotel / concession was only allowed a small patch of sand for their deckchairs etc. The ‘comune’ also ran the deckchairs and sunshades bit at S.Teresa – so anyone could choose to hire one, or just sit on the free beach without. In order to get to the beach at S Teresa, you had to go down a flight of steps from the road/square with the car park in, it was beneath the road, but I believe there was a slope the other side for disabled access. We don’t like crowds, so we headed out to find the more remote beaches. There were no changing cabins anywhere, and the beaches were ‘free’. You had to wear your swimsuit under your clothes, or change in the car – but your swimsuit soon dried out in the sun. There were the ‘vo cumprà ‘ the African ambulant sellers who walk up and down the beach, they sold everything from sunhats to beach towels and throws for your settee (presumably aiming for those renting villas there !). Their prices reflected those in the shops, and they were all expensive. The sunhat I bought in France in July, for 4 euro 50 cents in a shop, was selling in the souvenir shops at 20 euro ! The ‘vo cumprà’ asked 20 euro too ! So I reckoned I could bargain down at least to half that price. I used the excuse that it was the end of the season, would probably rain tomorrow, and we’d be going home soon… how much use would I get out of it ? And I couldn’t take it home on the plane… so I really didn’t want to spend quite so much. He offered me a hat with a smaller brim - but I didn’t want that, it didn’t shade me enough. I bargained down to 6 euro for the hat I did like, it also had a set of bronze beads round the head part, which would keep the hat firmly on my head in any wind ! He wanted 8 euro at the end. But then he gave up and accepted 6. I enjoyed the bargaining, but I felt quite guilty over the next few days. It was the end of the season and who knows if he’d be able to sell anything else… and how would he live with no money ? But 6 euro was still nearly six pounds for us. What it is to have a conscience and be troubled by it, I do hope he manages to make his way, despite our bargain. I suppose he might not have sold anything that day if I hadn’t bought his hat… or maybe he gave in because he’d already made quite a bit that day ?
There were many jewellery shops selling items in coral – mainly bright red coral, but also some pink, and some bright blue material that I didn’t ask about – I wondered if it was white coral tinted blue. It was all supposedly ‘local’ coral. The items were quite expensive, the tiniest ear-rings in rosebud shapes costing 20 euro. I’m not even sure they were carved coral, as one shop owner told me that “to be honest, those rosebuds (that she was selling) are made from ‘coral paste’ – the filings from more expensively carved items which are made into a resin-like paste and moulded into roses”.
On the cold and windy days other people went windsurfing and kite-surfing in the sea, wearing black rubber wetsuits…. Down the road, at Vignola Mare, there was a small group of young people who still insisted on going swimming. The girls were in bikinis, the water rose up like a wall over their heads. We watched the wind-surfing and kite-surfing from the bar on the 'rotonda' – there were two bars there, with glass screens and plastic awnings to protect us from the wind. The day we left, the wind had gone, it was very warm and the temperature reached 27 degrees C (80.6F) again. We found the gentler heat in September more bearable than the usual August roasting, on other holidays. We had the air conditioning on in the hotel room at 23 degreesC (73 F) , until the temperature outside dropped ! Then we switched it off !
Most places by the coast seemed just to be empty holiday homes, but inland, there were ‘real people’ living in the houses. The buildings also protected one from the wind. We visited Aglientu and Tempio Pausania. We also visited a ‘nuraghe’ (ancient conical stone house) they’re bronze age megalithic structures and we went up the steps to the flat roof, where you could see a wonderful panorama of the surrounding countryside. There were two mineral water springs in the area, so we went to see them, and were pleasantly surprised that they’d been ‘done up’ by the locals, gardeners etc. who had landscaped them so that the walk down the paths was pleasant, and they were surrounded by vegetation local to the area, with aromatic plants, wild flowers and the Mediterranean ‘scrub’ bushes.
We went as far as Castelsardo, which is by the sea, down the West coast, where the historic centre is right at the top of a hilltop promontory. After a lunch of spaghetti con le vongole (spaghetti with clams) in a trattoria in the square of the modern town, we headed for the ‘centro storico’. My husband went up first, having found some steep steps – while I waited at the bottom. Eventually, he returned another way and told me I could go up round the outer road, which had a gentler gradient… so I got to the top too, in the end. I deserved that lovely ice-cream later ! The basket making museum was shut, as it was lunchtime, but we saw an old lady sitting on steps outside a house, she waved and beckoned to us – she was making baskets by hand.
We ate lots of fresh fish and seafood (which I adore). We found a neapolitan pizzeria with a wood-fired oven, at S. Teresa. They also did other Neapolitan specialities, including pasta e fagioli all’ischitiello (pasta and beans with mussels) , and we chose the Pizza Margherita –with real buffalo mozzarella.
I worried that the postcards I sent wouldn’t arrive, because the post box outside the tobacconists had no ‘collection times’ on it, and the tobacconist’s was shut, I don’t know if just for lunch, or if until next summer ! But the postcards all did arrive.
We were stopped three times by the police. The first time we had decided to go to Capo Testa but we were stopped immediately after the hotel, and the Carabinieri asked for my husband’s driving licence. It was a little alarming as they were armed with machine guns. Then before reaching Capo Testa we were stopped by the local police who made us turn back because there was a ‘Rally’ on Capo Testa and we could only park up and go on foot. That same evening, the tv news announced that a ‘sindaco’ (mayor) had been killed in Sardinia. Presumably, they were out checking everybody just in case the perpetrators were going round the island or trying to get off at one of the ports. There is a ‘marina’ at S.Teresa, for yachts, and also a port for going across on a ferry to Corsica. But we decided not to go to Corsica for a day trip.
The third time we were stopped by police was when we went for a pizza at the Neapolitan place behind the Caserma dei Carabinieri (police station). We had just got in the car and were about to manoeuvre out of the parking space, when a black car pulled up alongside so we couldn’t move out. We thought it might have been the people living in the next villa – but we hadn’t blocked their drive, so why should they stop us ? Without announcing who he was, the man in the car shouted “ Quanto avete pagato per la pizza ? “ (how much did you pay for the pizza ?) And we just looked at each other ! Why ask us ? The prices are on the menu ! We couldn’t remember, and anyway we’d had much more than just the pizza, and we could only remember the total we’d paid. Then as the man tried to speak English and yelled ‘finance police’ at us - I remembered that we had the VAT receipt. This is one good reason for keeping a VAT receipt – whatever you’ve bought ! The other man jumped out of the car the other side, and ran to the restaurant/pizzeria opposite. The man in the car examined the VAT receipt and gave it back, saying it was fine. His partner returned and headed for my side of the car, while the other yelled out ‘it’s o.k. – it’s the wrong restaurant !!!’…
I thought it was strange that they might be investigating our pizza place, because two of the carabinieri from the caserma had called in for takeaway pizza while we were in there. The pair reminded us of those two, ‘Bodie and Doyle’, from the 70s tv series ‘The Professionals’ !
As a guide, in this area of Sardegna, evening meals consisting of one fish main course (around 18 euro each), two ‘contorni’ – one each of chips and mixed salad, one glass of house wine and one bottle of mineral water, would come to around 57 euro. The usual ‘pane e coperto’ was around 5 euro. The wine around 4 euro a glass ! A bottle for one would have been better value, but then ‘the one’ was the driver and I needed him sober to get me back to the hotel ! Which brings me to the confusing streets and traffic signs in Santa Teresa ! Some of the streets are one way, and some are closed after 9pm (for the passeggiata) so you have to make your way to the top of the town via a confusing grid of one way streets ! The steep hill at the beach end of town, means that as you rise up to the end of the road it disappears from under you and you can’t be sure (even in daylight) if there are steps ahead, or if the road continues ! Stay alert, and watch for the road signs.
There was a 'market' on Thursday mornings, and we enjoyed that too - the food stalls offered so much of so many specialities. The other stalls were mainly of clothing, home textiles and some 'costume jewellery'. I didn't find a cheap sunhat, nor did I find a cheap beach towel - they were all charging between 10 and 20 euro for different sizes of beach towel. Even the market was more expensive than on the mainland. Some of the traders had come over especially from Corsica.
It is a bit sad to visit when a place is out of season, because so many of the shops/restaurants/bars on the beach areas are shut…. And if that what you enjoy – then it’s no longer there ! But we don’t go for the shopping – except for the odd souvenir, that doesn’t have to be the commercially produced ones for that place. In fact, I’ve brought back some nice Italian shower lotion and talcum powder, some torrone, orange flower water (only find it here in the chemists at Easter) and a pink coral pendant, was bought for me for my birthday. I also bought a Camilleri book, and a grammar book (really for secondary school children, but it’s simply written and fine for my adults – they can buy it off the internet) and we bought a couple of items for our children.
We thought we’d have trouble getting home, as Easyjet told us to contact them before leaving our hotel in case there were problems with the Spanish air traffic controllers' strike - but it all went on time, and we flew over French air space instead. So, all in all, we had a good time. I think Sardinia (at least that area) would be a nightmare in August, as it felt crowded enough now ! When we got off the plane in England, we realised just how cold autumn is over here !!!