Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When In Sardinia
Do as the Sardines Do

One of the appeals of coming to Sardinia for us was the opportunity to experience and understand its strangeness, its uniqueness. Like Sicily, Sardinia, at least from afar, seems a place of mystery, a land flying the Italian flag but more than Italian while not quite Italian. A little off center, wild, rough, exotic.
But unlike Sicily, it is also a place of mass tourism, crowded with sun worshipers and beach seekers. Up the coast, along the Costa Smeralda, megayachts are tied up at port and hotel rooms cost upward of €1500 per day (no joke, we started our Sardinia research looking for accommodations in that area and quickly abandoned ship). We eventually settled on the more affordable, less developed south of the island, near Cagliari as our base, but from the moment we checked into our very nice resort (read, not €1500 per night) we knew that if we were going to discover the beating heart of Sardinia, we were going to have to leave our compound and get out among the Sardinians.

It appears that our largely British resort neighbors are mostly satisfied with enjoying the beauty of Sardinia that happens to be bounded by the resort property lines, opting for the full board option, which means taking lunch and dinner in the hotel restaurant, an affair that takes all of a half hour and which is as adventurous as firing up a tv dinner. There are two very nice pools and a sliver of beach as well as beautiful, rambling grounds with wooded areas and lush vegetation. It is a lovely slice of Sardinia, but it is a little Epcot like, the next best thing to being there.

So after a nice buffet breakfast and taking care of a little business we checked with the front desk for suggestions on which beaches to try and where to get a good, authentic meal. A few moments later we are in our tiny Renault Clio heading down the coast road toward Chia.

There really is only one road on this part of the island, the SS195, a two lane "state highway" that runs mostly along the coast, veering inland occasionally to cut through the rocky hills and mountains that seem to erupt from the coast every now and then. For some reason the speed limit on this highway is 50 kilometers per hour, with occasional stretches of 70 kph, which means traffic ambles along at 30-45 mph instead of the customary Italian 100+. So what seems on the map to be a 15 minute drive is a half hour at best. But perhaps this is part of Sardinia's secret.

Our ultimate destination is a beach called Tuelada, we think, a beach described to us by the resort manager when we checked in the day before as one of the 10 best beaches in the world. According to whom, we're not sure, but we're up for the adventure, hoping against hope that we understood the name correctly from him and the front desk manager who sends us along that morning. The directions couldn't be simpler, drive to Chia, which is some unspecified number of kilometers and minutes away, and after that you arrive at Teulada. If that's the name of the beach. We are begining to discover the role faith plays in the life of the average Sardinian.

Our intermediate objective is to find a good restaurant for lunch where we can enjoy some fresh seafood. We are recommended a pizza place instead, but are told the Mirage ristorante will have nice fish. Perhaps it does, but as we stumble upon it just outside of Chia, it is closed. By the way, "just outside of Chia" is a bit of a misnomer, since an actual town does not appear to exist, just a sign saying something along the lines of "Welcome to Chia, City of Tourists." There is another sign, just down the road that says "Thank you for visiting Chia, City of Tourists."

For a tourist mecca, there are surprisingly few visible restaurants here. Perhaps they take a non-traditional form here in Sardinia, like in the tops of trees or in peoples' homes. But we persevere and our patience is amply rewarded when we happen upon the ristorante Crar'e Luna, a wonderful little family run restaurant hidden in a lovely garden. For the next hour and a half we begin to experience Sardinia, seated among real Sardinians and served by the real deal.

Fish, of course, is what one expects when one is on an island (def., a land mass surrounded on all sides by the sea) and fish is the only thing offered on the tiny menu. We opt for a mixed smoked seafood antipasto and order a variety of grilled fish for our main course. The smoked fish is a bit too powerful and exotic for our tastes, the swordfish and tuna being quite nice but overshadowed by the pressed smoked fish roe (overpoweringly salty and requiring us to drink more wine), sliced bottarga (another fish roe delicacy) and some unidentifiable fish that has the saltiness of the roe and a texture that is difficult to pallet. I really think even a cartoon cat would turn away from this stuff.

But our mild disappointment over our selection of the affumicati (there were some more traditional and mainstream antipasto offerings that would have likely brought smiles) was more than offset by the enormous platter of mixed grilled seafood that arrived next. Occupying the center of the platter was an enormous whole squid, charred and looking every bit an enormous squid, right down to the pointy head. Next to him were two calimari, looking like meaty hands cupping a bunch of tentacles. A lovely whole spigola, a plump silver fish, stretched the length of the platter and here and there were some giant shrimp (gamberoni). The entire medely had been scalded on a hot grill, bearing char marks and giving each fish a smoky overtone. The calamari and squid were unparalleled, however, their flesh perfectly tenderized and beautifully sweet. All of this was a far cry from the fixed dinner at the resort the evening before.

After lunch we pressed on to the mythic Teulada, the land beyond Chia. And darn it, if we didn't find it after all. Right where they told us it would be. For the next six hours we lazed under a rented umbrella on rented beach chairs on a beach with the most perfect blue water we have ever seen, sheltered by a rocky island and surrounded by a bay over which a 17th century Spanish tower stands watch. This was not the secluded private beach experience we had imagined, with dozens of Italian families splashing in the surf and kicking balls back and forth, Italian men strutting about in trunks that flaunted their anatomy and women who flaunted theirs by opting out of clothing. But all this seemed to be an authentic and unpretentious Italian experience. It was a totally relaxing, strangely nature communing afternoon, that ended up with a mojito at the beach bar just before the beach closed at 8pm. Just before the car park was locked up for the night we said our goodbyes to the legendary Tuelada, one of the top 10 beaches in the world, and headed back to our resort. I think whoever did the rankings got it right.

Our final task for the day was dinner, which we found down an improbable dirt road just down the highway from our hotel. I don't know how the Ristorante Bacchixeddu stays in business, how anyone would stumble upon it down a non-descript dirt road (there is a sign along the highway announcing a restaurant down the road, but road is so forsaken it is a wonder anyone ever ventures down it). Again our faith was rewarded in the form of a pile of fried seafood (calamari, shrimp and fish), perhaps not as fresh as our lunch, but enjoyable in every respect. We also were able to experience three of the local specialties we had vowed to try while in Sardinia - fregola pasta (a sun roasted couscous type pasta), malloreddus (I simply had to try a pasta whose name sounds like it stinks) and filu e ferru, Sardinia's version of grappa. Satisfied that if we had not discovered Sardinia's beating heart we had at least caressed her bulging belly, we headed back to the resort for a good night's sleep.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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