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Sailing to Sardinia

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Photo: Christopher Baker

A Geographic Interlude

Yes, 1.6 million people. More than 200 miles long. Three million sheep. High craggy mountains. Flowing grasslands. It is one of the great ascendant wine-making zones in Europe. The red varietal Cannonau is fruity and delicious. We spend an afternoon at Capichera, a winery near Arzachena that’s famous for its excellent Vermentinos. Sardinia is a repository for strange archaeological ruins called nuraghi—stone formations left over from 4,000-year-old villages. On another afternoon we wander through the stone remnants of houses at Serra Orrios that have stood quiet and dead for thousands of years.

Meanwhile, parts of the island are changing. On the Costa Smeralda, they are redeveloping the town center in Cala di Volpe. In the south, Zaha Hadid has been contracted to design a new art museum in Cagliari, a city that even now is still pretty sleepy. Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, small enough to drive across in half a day, large enough to provide some mystery if that’s what you’re looking for, but you’ll never be far from a beach and a hotel and a tanned Italian enjoying them.

Part Four: Hello Dutch People, We Have Missed You

Places like the Costa Smeralda are mesmerizing and beautiful, but the most mysterious part of the country is the mountainous center, specifically a region called the Barbagia. It is supposed to be weird there, steeped in the traditions of strange, isolated, mountain-dwelling peoples. Lots of goats, even more sheep, spooky old ladies in black, a funny dialect, genetic diseases, that kind of thing.

We dock at the little port town of Cala Gonone, halfway down the eastern flank of the island. It’s a normal town. Sweet, unromantic. Stacked on a steep hill facing the sea. Not built with a sense of its own cuteness or to preserve its precious past. It’s a fishing village where people come to rent a house for a couple weeks, the kind of place where there is usually a Dutch family in a camper stopping by the little tourist office to ask directions. It’s low-key. In a rented car, we climb the death-defying switchbacks on the mountain pass that leads out of town. As we reach the crest and begin to descend, it is the first time we are not looking at the ocean in days.

My sense of the island changes dramatically. It’s a place where you can always see great distances. At the far horizon are the hulking gray mountains of the Barbagia and the high peaks of the Supramonte. In between are farms and grasslands, groves of quiet olive trees spangling their leaves silently in the breeze and sun, cork forests. It’s pretty hard to get lost in Sardinia but well worth trying, which we do for a few hours. We stop for lunch at a humble agriturismo (an inn that is also a working farm) not more than 30 minutes from Cala Gonone called Agriturismo Su Cuile, where they serve a light, maybe 8,000-calorie meal made from produce they grow on their farm: ricotta in several different forms, tomatoes, prosciutto and sausage made from wild boar, ricotta ravioli, braised baby pig, Cannonau wine. All served by a daughter of the large family that owns and runs the place, while some of the younger kids watch Japanese cartoons blaring from a TV, and the farm animals snort and nose around in their pens a few yards beyond the window.

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