My Sardinian Adventure—Part 1


Theater Critic

Hyde Park Herald Theater Critic Anne Spiselman shares her experiences from her trip to Italy in this four – part series.

When I told people I was going to Sardinia—Sardegna in Italian—half of them had no idea what or where it was. Explaining that it is the Italian island above Sicily on the map helped; adding that Corsica, which is French, is above it was icing on the cake.

The shape of Sardinia slightly resembles that of Illinois, except for the latter’s straight northern border, and the city I flew into, Olbia, is in roughly the same position as Chicago. It is a little south of the island’s primo tourist area, the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast), a collection of resort towns developed in the early 1960s by the Aga Khan.

But I wasn’t there for the tourist mecca, which wasn’t in full swing in early May anyway, or for the miles and miles of pristine beaches, or even for the thousands of mysterious nuraghi, mostly circular stone edifices built by the prehistoric Nuragic Civilization. My interest in ancient ruins leaned towards those left by more recent occupiers, the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans. And more than that, I wanted to see the cities and towns from Olbia all the way down to the capital of Cagliari in the South, sample the food and wine, and soak up the scenery and culture.

Rather than staying right in Olbia, my traveling companion, Fred, and I rented a car and made the little town of San Pantaleo our home base for the first four nights. It was about a half-hour drive north, partly on winding roads through fairly low mountains, and our HomeAway rental, known as the “Blue House” (because the kitchen cabinetry is blue), was everything the listing promised and more. We did get hopelessly lost looking for it, but our hostess, Joan Matta, came in her car to find us and lead us back. The two-bedroom apartment (60 euros/night) was actually on the ground floor of her family villa, so someone was around if we needed anything. What I liked best were the views of the mountains from the kitchen and one of the bedrooms.

San Pantaleo Blue House view from kitchen window. – Fred Swanson

After unpacking and relaxing a bit, we headed to a recommended San Pantaleo pizza restaurant at about 6 p.m.–only to learn that it didn’t open until 9 p.m. So we assembled a mini feast from local stores including Sardinian flatbread and beer from a little supermercato, a slice of porchetta from the butcher, and local cheeses and house-made cookies from Sa Domu e Farra, a lovely food-and-crafts shop where the owner offered samples of almost everything without even being asked.

The only other time we spent in “downtown” San Pantaleo was a trip to the outdoor Thursday-morning market with stalls that fan out from the piazza in front of the little church to the surrounding streets. Craftsmen filled one street, among them a stone carver and a man who created chess sets and wine holders out of interesting woods. There were lots of purveyors of clothing and accessories, a few of produce (it was early in the season), and one fishmonger. Several stalls featured cheeses and/or salumi (cured meats). Sweets ranged from honeys and homemade jams to torrone, nut-studded nougat that tasted very different from one maker to the next. Wandering around was a great way to spend a couple of hours, even though the market was fairly crowded with locals and visitors.

Torrone sellers at the San Pantaleo market. – Fred Swanson

The previous day was occupied by a pleasant drive through hilly terrain to the pretty town of Santa Teresa di Gallura on the northern tip of the island. You can actually see the southern end of Corsica from the beach, though we didn’t. We did check out the Torre di Longosardo, the Spanish tower. Constructed of granite blocks in the late 1500s to protect against pirates and smugglers, it’s only a little taller than 36 feet and not all that impressive, at least not from a distance (it wasn’t open.)

The Spanish Tower in Santa Teresa di Gallura. – Fred Swanson

Santa Teresa di Gallura’s spacious main square is surrounded by not-very-old buildings full of shops, many billed as “artigianato” and stocked with basketry, cork items, and other crafts. The town, which feels a bit beachy-touristy, also has lots of gelaterias. We tried Onda Gelateria (because it had a wheelchair ramp), and I loved the combo of terrific hazelnut and fondente, dark chocolate enhanced by ginger I think. The same people own La Locanda di Piazza, the wheelchair accessible bed and breakfast next door, and it would be my first choice if I were staying in Santa Teresa di Gallura.

Onda Gelateria in Santa Teresa di Gallura on the Northern tip of the island. – Fred Swanson

But instead we headed east along the coast to Castelsardo, a medieval town that I’d been told was a “must.” Alas, the old part of the city is perched high on a promontory overlooking the sea and was totally inaccessible for me. Fred clambered up many steps to take photos of the Cathedral of Sant’Antonio Abate with its altar by the Master of Castelsardo, but we didn’t get anywhere near the Castello dei Doria, the home of the noble Genoese family and for a time of Eleonora d’Arborea (1347-1404), who married a Doria and was Sardinia’s equivalent of Eleanor of Aquitaine. (More about her in Part 2 of this series.) The castle apparently has a small museum of basket weaving, but we missed that, too, as well as the supposedly charming Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

After driving around the newer parts of town, we stopped for a late lunch at La Trattoria di Maria Giuseppe, an inexpensive place I’d read about that’s known for its wood-fired pizza. The entrance was up a flight of steps, and once we were seated, we learned that they only serve pizza at dinner. Several days later, the host at the next place we were staying told us that no one in Sardinia serves pizza at lunch, but we didn’t find that to be true in the bigger cities. One possible reason for this policy: It gets too hot during the day in summer to fire up the wood-burning ovens.

Anyway, the trattoria had an extensive menu, so we tried the linguine with clams and bottarga (salted, cured, pressed fish roe, usually mullet or tuna) that was grated over the little clams in the shell, and the gnocchi sardi, tiny shell-like pasta with slivers of sausage in a light tomato sauce. Both pastas were perfectly cooked and very good. With a quartino of red wine, a big bottle of water, and the cover (a basket of rolls and Sardinian flat bread), the meal came to about 30 euros, tax and tip included.

The plan for Thursday, following the San Pantaleo market, was to check out Porto Cervo, the commercial hub of the Costa Smeralda. But once we got there, we found that the Monte di Mola Museum, the modern art museum in a pseudo-Spanish-style shopping center that would be at home in Southern California, wasn’t open for the season yet, nor were most of the high-end shops. The town’s highlight for us was the Stella Maris (“Star of the Sea”), a white adobe-looking church with fine views of the harbor built in 1968-1969 under the direction of architect Busiri Vici. It’s supposed to have an original El Greco, but we were captivated by some of the more modern art, such as the white ceramic-tile Stations of the Cross and nautical-themed door carvings.

The church of Stella Maris near the marina in Porto Cervo on the Costa Smeralda. – Fred Swanson

On a whim, we decided to go inland to Arzachena and were glad we did. An archeological treasure trove, it is set up for visitors, and a stop at the tourist information office on the way into town yielded all sorts of maps and brochures. In the central area, streets radiate out from the Piazza Risorgimento to a ring road called Viale Esperalda, making getting around without getting lost fairly easy. Explanatory plaques on numbered buildings were in English as well as Italian; we stepped inside two small churches and the municipal hall, which was built in the 1930s as a school. A few blocks away was the town’s emblem: a gigantic stone monument worn away to look like a mushroom.

The town of Arzachena’s “emblem,” a huge rock worn away to look like a mushroom. – Fred Swanson

Final destination of the day was Palau, known for its beaches and the port with ferries departing for Corsica, Caprera, and other islands. It also boasts a spectacular rock formation, dell’Orso, weathered to resemble a bear. The church of Our Lady of Marie Grazie, very active with children that afternoon, has interesting modern stained glass and carved stone stations of the cross. Strolling around the commercial area, we happened upon Isule Surelle, a little shop specializing in Sardinian products including mirto, a liqueur made from wild myrtle berries, and all sorts of stuff flavored with it, such as salt, coffee, even cereal. The friendly owner offered us tastes of several brands of the mirto, which is fairly sweet with a bit of a bite and a unique flavor.

Friday, May 12, in Olbia itself, turned out to be nearly perfect—though it didn’t begin that way. I thought I’d timed our visit to the annual festival of San Simplicio, but when we got to the basilica and picked up a brochure, I learned that the parade and other big festivities were scheduled for May 15, when we’d be long gone. Still, there was supposed to be a concert in San Simplicio that night, so we decided we’d return. Meanwhile, the basilica built in the 10th and 11th centuries of granite with a little brick trim was an amazingly ancient-feeling building, and underneath the piazza in front of it, in a parking garage of all places, was an excavation site. A section of it had been turned into an evocative little museum tracing stages of the city’s history—Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, medieval—with artifacts arranged in situ.

Olbia San Simplicio excavations. – Fred Swanson

Another part of the story was told at the National Archaeological Museum, a modern building down at the marina. An exhibit of Sardinian costumes graced the two-story main rotunda, and we took a fairly quick tour of the rest. Most fascinating were the rooms devoted to the remains of 24 Roman and medieval ships found in the harbor at the beginning of this century. Otherwise, the use of space was very indulgent compared to most museums, with movable cases of historic objects spread out in the huge rooms.

The most anticipated event of the day for me was meeting Luigi, who’d been an email pal since the days we both freelanced for Airways magazine. As it happened, he’d picked the hotel across the street from the museum as the meeting place, and from there we drove (in his car, thankfully) to one of his favorite restaurants, La Sartoria del Gusto, for lunch. The chef had worked at a starred hotel before opening his own unassuming place, and we shared a delicious seafood antipasto platter—including mussels grown on beds in the harbor, baby octopus, sweet and sour ray, and much more—followed by a trio of fresh house-made pastas, fregola cooked like risotto with baby shrimp, spaghetti chitarra carbonara with seafood instead of bacon, and spaghetti with broccoli, anchovies, and bottarga. A vermentino (local white wine) complemented the seafood extremely well.

The antipasto platter at La Sartoria del Gusto, the lovely little restaurant in Olbia where we had lunch. – Fred Swanson

After lunch, Luigi gave us a driving tour of Olbia and, on impulse, continued on to Golfo Aranci, where we saw beautiful islands in the sea and had the best gelato of the trip (that’s saying a lot!) at Ro Ro. My flavor combo: nero nero (very dark chocolate) and hazelnut, a favorite I confess.

Luigi dropped us back in Olbia near the Church of San Paolo, and we waited for it to open at 5 p.m. (everything closes for lunch from 1p.m. to 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m.), admired the multicolored dome and the frescos inside, and walked around Corso Umberto, the main commercial street, before returning to the marina to pick up our car and driving to Basilica of San Simplicio for the concert. The Olbia Folk Ensemble and three other costumed all-male choirs each sang both religious and popular songs a cappella. The acoustics were ideal, and the whole experience was wonderful—one of those evenings that makes travel so special.

San Simplicio basilica in Olbia, lit up at night for the annual festival. – Fred Swanson