Photo by Charlotte Bland
My friend Lorenzo describes Sardinia as sperduto. He says this with a sigh and a slight shake of his head, as though it is something sad. I tell him being lost is not always a bad thing. Sperduto means many things, as with so many words the term itself is just the tip of the great iceberg of meaning which lies beneath. It can mean lost, it can mean isolated, it can mean out of the way or forgotten about. Sardinia is, in reality, all of these things. But that is one of the factors which contributes to its magic.
‘Sardinia is a place lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere… never having belonged to anywhere.... as if it had never really had a fate. No fate. Left outside of time and history’.
D.H Lawrence wrote this in 1921, a century ago now, and though much has changed in the world surrounding it, Sardinia remains, in many ways, a world apart. A place forgotten by history and time, yet simultaneously enriched by and imbued with both.
I try to persuade Lorenzo that there are advantages to being lost. The joy of lost things is that they can be found. And once found – though it may take some seeking - they can be enjoyed in a sort of sublime and satisfied secrecy, because you know you are amongst the few who have truly discovered something.
Photo by Matt Russell from Bitter Honey
Similarly moved by Sardinia, like many before and after her (including Anthony Bourdain and George Clooney) Claudia Roden wrote:
‘I don’t know if it is because Sardinians are unbelievably generous and hospitable, and their land is so beautiful, or because their food evokes the simple life or a remote past, or because it is simply so good, but it provokes a strong emotion of the kind you never forget.’
There is something captivating about this island, its emphasis on tradition and stubborn refusal to conform or be categorised; a place Italian yet not Italian, united but divided, a contradiction embodied.
I have been here for 4 years and I have seen so much and yet so little. There is still much to discover, much to see. But, I thought I would at least write up what I have known so far, so it might be of some use to you, and then when you can once again visit you can experience it for yourself, and see my favourite places, swim in my favourite sea, and generally find the unfound that waits for you, almost reluctantly.
Sardinia, an island sperduto, until you find it.
Photo by Matt Russell
N.B: The below are very much personal suggestions based on places I know and love and have found out for myself. My taste leans towards the simple. I have never explored the North where the larger (and undoubtedly fancier) resorts are so please forgive this large gap in my knowledge. I’m not against fanciness on principle (it seems more to be against me...). I’ll keep adding as I discover for myself. If you have things you’d like to add, please do send them to me at email@example.com.
Places to Stay
As I live here I don’t often stay in other places so this list is inevitably brief, but I can wholeheartedly recommend each based on personal experience.
Oristano (mid West) & Surrounds
Photo by Charlotte Bland
My local town, so I have never stayed anywhere here, but a photographer friend came and stayed in the following place and loved it. It overlooks my favourite square and the statue of an important figure in Sardinian history, Eleonora d’Arborea. It is just across from my favourite bar for breakfast (Pasticceria Eleonora – no website or Instagram(!), just an old-fashioned bar with polished marble and a brass umbrella holder in the corner, good coffee, smartly waist-coated staff and fresh pastries baked on site). It is also a stone’s throw from one of my favourite bars for aperitivo, Librid (which is also a bookshop and has a lovely garden with overhanging lemon trees. Just don’t expect regular opening hours).
A tiny and perfect little living museum of a house within easy driving distance of the beautiful beaches around the mid-west coast, including Is Arenas, S’Archittu, Mari Ermi and S’Arena Scoada. This belongs to a friend’s great aunt, and has been kept almost completely untouched. Simple, charming, comfortable and characterful.
The home of the great Luca Vacca himself; chef, host extraordinaire and general Bon Viveur and the reason I moved to Sardinia back in the very beginning. A collection of self-catering apartments with facilities for children, access to local beaches, flamingo watching, an on-site restaurant and bar and large grill (with Luca running about barbecuing, busily chatting and charming you and probably pouring your drinks simultaneously) and plenty of activities (he is offering cheese-making!). Worth a visit for a meal even if not to stay the night. There is likely to be singing, and with any luck I will probably be there too to meet you over a glass or two.
This charming old villa set in the olive groves has a communal pool, easy access to the beautiful city of Alghero (christened Little Barcelona in homage to its cobbled streets, Catalan heritage and seaside location) and offers both self-contained apartments or bed and breakfast. Breakfast is on the upper story with a view over the olive grove, and there is an adjoining church dedicated to Saint Bonaria, the patron saint of Sardinia. My friend Stefano Vallebona, who runs a company selling Sardinian products in London, stays here nearly every summer and so it is thanks to him that I know if it. He can be found here, if you’re in need of Pane Carasau in London….
A handful of boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts in central Sardinia have formed a group known as Sardinian Secrets, more info about which can be found here:
Each one of these properties is beautifully curated and restored, maintaining ancient heritage and blending it with modern amenities. Set in some of the most traditional and untouched areas of central Sardinia entering these houses (house feels more apt as they feel much more like homes than hotels) is like stepping back in time. A totally different kind of Sardinian tourism experience, but utterly authentic.
Domu Antiga, Gergei
This is where most of my book Bitter Honey, was shot. A traditional Sardinian dwelling (domu means home in Sardo) it is hidden behind a large sky-blue door, from which you enter into a peaceful, grassy courtyard. Run by Samuel Lai and his family, this idyllic little B & B was built as a labour of love, and this love is reflected in every detail, from the food to the furniture.
After inheriting this traditional Sardinian property in the ancient hamlet of Gergei from his grandmother, Samuel and his family set about restoring it slowly and sympathetically, making sure to keep all if its ancient character intact. Each room is a study in detail, containing furniture Samuel salvaged and restored himself, or inherited from his grandmother, as well as antique tapestries and even a trap door.
The food is prepared by Samuel’s mother and sister, who between them produce a medley of delicious cakes and tarts using locally grown fruit, and rustic savoury specialities such as pecorino and potato ravioli and wild boar stew. Breakfast includes homemade yoghurt, home-cured salamis and hams, and Samuel’s homemade sheep’s milk ricotta which he also demonstrates for those willing to learn. The whole place is brimming with wild flowers, all gathered by Samuel’s ex-florist mother, and pale-pink dog roses adorn the grassy courtyard.
Cortis Antigas, Gesturi
Another large door leads into another magical courtyard; rooms are restored with utmost respect and are beautifully simple and with a timeless feel. The food is delicious and the location perfect for those wanting to explore nearby ancient sites such as the Nuraghe at Barumini.
Antica Localita Lunetta, Mandas
As the previous two, the restoration of this ancient dwelling dating back to 1600 is beautiful and sensitive, preserving its ancient charm whilst providing every modern amenity. Entering through a large oak door you find yourself in another beautiful courtyard where breakfast is served amongst the herbs. Situated in the historical centre of Mandas, D.H Lawrence himself stayed here when visiting Sardinia in 1921.
Photo by Charlotte Bland
Mario Cesare, Gergei
If I had to choose just one place from the list, then this would be it. The simplest of all, the most pared down, but for me the most magical, this simple one story dwelling belonged to a local painter, Mario Cesare, who lived here for many years without electricity or any modern amenities. It has been beautifully and sympathetically restored and still contains many of his sketches, as well as a pair of his boots and some of his painting materials. Giulia Lai, the owner and sister of Domu’s Samuel, prepares and lays a magical breakfast overlooking the rolling hills of Gergei in the shade of a fig tree. With just two rooms, a perfect rambling garden lined by lavender and climbing vines and bougainvillaea, this is truly a place you will never want to leave.
Places to See
Off the south coast of Sardinia lies an island called Isola di San Pietro (St Peter’s island). The only town on the island is Carloforte, and you can take an easy ferry here from Cagliari. Carloforte is a beautiful rambling town overlooking the sea, with pale pastel buildings built in Ligurian-style and cobbled streets winding up to a hill viewpoint and big piazzas which fill with children playing football in the early evening. The town was founded in the 18th century by 30 families of coral fisherman who had been previously been living on Tabarka, an island off Tunisia, and once they had exhausted the coral resources here they moved on to nearby San Pietro and founded the commune, which they named after the King of Piedmont-Sardinia Charles Emmanuel III.
Carloforte is a lovely place to wander around, and a short drive from some stunning beaches. It is also well worth a visit for its culinary traditions. The Ligurian families who founded the town brought with them their dishes, so local specialities include focaccia, farinata, trofie and a pasta dish called ‘pasta alla carlofortina’ (a recipe for which is in Bitter Honey). This dish consists of pasta served with a sauce made of tuna (Carloforte is famous for its tuna fishing industry too) pesto (a Ligurian inheritance) and sweet baby tomatoes. It’s a delicious and unusual plateful.
The capital of Sardinia and a beautiful town to visit. The old city is up on the peak of the hill with striking views of the bays, harbour and salt flats below. A city I need to explore more in order to tell you about it. Watch this space.
Bosa is one of my favourite towns in Sardinia. It's a town of gelato colours, every house painted in a glorious sunny shade; primrose yellow, raspberry pink, pistachio green, all squeezed in together, each one window wide and with one room per storey. On the river Temo and with a castle perched on the peak of the hill it is postcard perfect and a joy to wander around. Eat local fish, drink local sweet wine Malvasia, walk along the river and meander through the cobbled streets.
Another must-visit, with a distinctly Catalan feel, more narrow cobbled streets and lots of local fish specialities, including Catalan lobster (served cold with red onion, basil and vinegar).
A different side to Sardinia, cool woods with a waterfall and lovely walks and views.
Places to Eat
As is so often the case, much of the best food to be found in Sardinia is in people’s homes, which is why I always recommend Domu Antiga as one of my favourite places to eat, as it is really like eating in someone’s home. Other than that, try to befriend someone who will invite you to eat at home with them (easier than you might think..) or try some of the places below.
Other good places include:
Locanda Da Renzo, Siamaggiore
This is quite smart (the prices reflect this) but undeniably stylish. The restaurant has windows overlooking the pool and gardens and the fresh fish and pasta are both very good. The owner makes and sells his own brand of special Sardinian pasta shapes too, such as Lorighittas.
Sa Bella e Crabrasa, Cabras
A neighbourhood fish restaurant that specialises in bottarga dishes specifically, as it is in Cabras where grey mullet breed.
Sa Nassa, Bosa
A lovely, family-run fish restaurant on the river at Bosa. Anything cooked with the local sweet wine Malvasia is worth a try.
Chiosco Da Marco, Is Arutas
A beach shack at a favourite beach, Is Arutas. One of the most famous beaches of the west coast, Is Arutas is renowned for its glittering quartz sand (which over the years has been pinched by so many there is now a fine for taking any home with you) and turquoise waters. However, as Oristano is not hugely touristy (both a blessing and a curse) there is only one place within a few miles to eat/drink. This place is the Chiosco, a strange, squat building made of dark straw. Expect paper tablecloths, brisk service, plastic plates, sandy feet and lots of noisy people sweating gently in damp swimming costumes. Heaven (or hell, depending on your viewpoint). It tends to change ownership every year (people rent it for the season) but when it’s in the hands of someone good (Marco who owns Sa Bella e Crabrasa, for example) it’s fantastic. Salty-sweet bottarga pate, crisp pane carasau, chargrilled mullet and chips, cold beer. My last meal on this earth, plus screaming children and sandy feet.
Photo by Charlotte Bland
It is a truth not universally acknowledged that it is almost impossible to find bad pizza in Sardinia (perhaps in Italy). At least in my experience that is. I have been into even the most down-at-heel looking pizzerias and eaten exceptional pizza. Always rolled by hand by a pizzaiolo in a flour-dusted white t-shirt and cooked in a genuine wood-fired oven it can cost as little as 5 euro and still be memorable. When I lived in the UK I never would have said I really liked pizza that much. Now I love pizza, and if a week passes when I haven’t eaten it, I feel sad and have to go out immediately and rectify the situation.
When teaching 14-16 year-olds (a difficult age) one of the first things I always ask them is the name of their favourite pizzeria, because it is bound to get them talking. Pizza is a hot topic, even amongst sultry teens, and a great way to kick off heated discussion. My own list has thus been enriched by their recommendations. It’s useful to know that there are two main styles of Italian pizza, Neopolitan and Roman. Roman tends to have a thin, crisp crust (often oil is added to the dough) and Neopolitan a deep and soft sourdough crust. The Sardinians also lay claim to a unique ‘Sardinian-style’ pizza which is made with semola (used more often in Sardinian cooking than soft flour) and also a recipe I have come across from the mother of a Sardinian friend added lard to the dough too, which sounds to me like it would be delicious, but is sure to horrify some.
The most unpromising-looking one of them all, and yet also my favourite. I have written at great length about it here.
This is one of the more modern pizzerias in Oristano, and uses a Neopolitan style base (thicker sourdough). The toppings are creative and various, and the prices relatively high for Oristano. Some Sardinian purists hate it, including my favourite pizza-eating friend Simona. I think it’s nice for a change and I like the one with walnut pesto.
Il Sole Mio
My once local Neopolitan pizzeria, this is run by an ex-pat Neopolitan and his sister. He throws the dough and she leans on the counter and punches numbers into an antique till using a biro which for the rest of the day resides in her immaculate hairdo. She has an excellent line in saucy winks and local gossip. They do a seasonal special of fiore di zucca and taleggio which I love, or figs and gorgonzola in late summer.
Another modern pizzeria which offers numerous different bases and all kinds of toppings. The ambience leaves little to be desired with modern plastic tables and chairs, strip lighting and a TV blaring out MTV in the corner, but the pizza is good and inventive.
An old favourite. My friend Charlotte, the photographer of my second book, said this was one of the best pizzas she’d ever had. There is something about the quantity of cheese versus the thickness of the crust which is Goldilocks perfect. Totally unpretentious, toothpicks on the table, the tiny-but-talented pizzaiolo is somewhat of a local legend and this place, though off-the-beaten-track, is always busy. The space itself is simple and effective and the pizza extremely reasonably priced. Simona approves.
By the side of the road on the way to San Giovanni, this large hotel/restaurant/disco makes a very good specialist pizza. Again Neopolitan in style and with a choice of unusual toppings. In the summer you can sit outside on the terrace which is nice.
Very much Sardinian in style, the base here is semola-heavy, thin and crisp and the toppings fairly classic. A firm favourite for staunch traditionalists and a relaxed atmosphere. You are almost guaranteed to see someone you know.
Pizzeria Griglieria da Francesco, San Leonardo
Set in the woods of this little town this is a great pizzeria where you can eat outside. This wet and woody interior part of Sardinia is a distinct contrast to the dry and flat plains of the west coast, and lovely to visit for a breath of fresh hilltop air.
An Oristano institution, for better or worse. I hear mixed reviews, the pizza is loved by some and hated by others, but it’s a nice space and offers other traditional fare. Expect young Oristano couples aplenty.
The best position of any restaurant I know of, this is built right out into the beach with a stunning view of the skyline and is the perfect spot to watch the sunset over S’Archittu. The food is classic and simple; grilled seafood, steak and chips, spaghetti with clams. It gets very busy during the summer and waiters fly around in oddly incongruous Hawaiian shirts, but it’s well worth a visit.
Like the previous place, but just around the corner, this boasts stunning seaside views and offers the usual fare. The pizza is good, but I haven’t tried anything else.
Places to Swim
Sardinia is famous for its coastline and the waters surrounding the island puts the green English sea of my childhood somewhat to shame (I will, however, always love the English seaside). Though the most azure waters are to be found at the busiest beaches (which I generally avoid in high summer) there are plenty of secluded spots where you can ‘fare bagno’ (do a bath…) all year round, and for my English temperature gauge the water never gets too cold. I try to swim at least once a week whenever I can, though this year Covid has put pay to my movements. Next year I will try to keep my resolution. Meanwhile here are some of my favourite swimming spots (bear in mind my criteria are: not too crowded, clear water, easy entry and exit)
This beach near Oristano gets very little press, perhaps because it is littered with banks of silvery weed which puts people off. The weed is dry and harmless and makes a soft bedding perfect for kids to run around in, and for dogs too (this is Bechamel’s favourite beach, she spends hours rolling in the weed). The water is perfect and easily accessed and gets deep fast. There is a view of the surrounding peninsula and a few fishing boats scattered around but otherwise you will almost certainly have the whole place to yourselves (unless its late July/August). I am inordinately fond of this beach, and behind it is a brown, blue and pinkish lake where flamingos fish for pink shrimp silently.
Halfway between Su Pallosu and Sa Mesa Longa is a little outcrop of rocks and a small island. Off these rocks are some deep pools, one in particular, which makes for good swimming.
Sa Mesa Longa
This is a wide yellow sandy beach which is popular with surfers but less so with tourists. The water is shallow for a while before deepening, and there are a few rocky outcrops to navigate, but otherwise it’s a beautiful spot to swim. There is one kiosk which serves food and drink though I’ve never seen it open. Probably safest to bring a picnic. The walk from Su Pallosu across this beach and around the peninsula to Putzu Idu is spectacular and offers magnificent views and secluded bays for swimming, as well as clumps of wild rosemary which in spring blooms in violet clusters.
Probably my favourite beach, if pressed to choose one. Though very close to the other more touristy ones, Maimoni for some reason gets forgotten about. There is a stick arch which leads to a beautiful white, sandy beach where the sea gets deep quickly and is without weed/rocks. If you go out of season at sunset, it is truly spectacular and you will not see a soul.
The definition of ‘off-the-beaten-track, this bay just outside Bosa is reachable only by driving down a dusty track and then descending a steep path. I went there with my brother last year for the first time, and we watched amusedly as a middle-aged couple tried to navigate the steep path with deckchair, umbrella and picnic. The husband went on ahead tutting and shaking his head, leaving his wife (who was wearing deeply impractical sandals) worrying, wailing and weaving back and forth at the top, so my advice is – take strong shoes and a backpack. Otherwise this bay is beautiful, surrounded by pale white cliffs it is an almost lunar landscape, and you can easily climb into deep and clear water. Perhaps leave the umbrella at home.
Porto Alabe and Private Bays Nearby
The beach near Bosa is a new discovery, and I visited off season so I can’t vouch for how it would be in August, but there is a path which leads around the cliff and from which you can climb down into little secluded bays. I did so, and came across an unsuspecting naked man having a lovely time by himself.
Lo Scoglio di Genovesi
Again a lunar-like landscape and a little bay which can only be reached by foot, round the corner from S’Archittu. You can jump from the cliff into deep and clear water, but it’s not necessarily a place you’d want to stay for hours to sunbathe.
Named after the natural arc in the rockface this is an extraordinary point on the west coast and one of my favourite places. On summer evenings people gather to watch the sun setting through the arc, and there are a couple of bars nearby (as well as the fore-mentioned restaurants) where you can do the same. The beach itself is relatively small and a little pebbly, but the water is lovely. You can walk out and jump from the top of the arch which is a must, and for Ferragosto last year my brother and I woke up at dawn and did just that. The little hamlet itself is characterful and offers lots of apartments for rent at reasonable rates. It fills with locals during the summer evenings and has a lovely atmosphere.
Walking in Sardinia
There are lots of great walks and hikes you can do on the island. The peninsula at San Giovanni is a favourite (and local) as is the stretch of coast from Su Pallosu to Putzu Idu. Otherwise I can highly recommend Tony Sodde, who runs Walking in Sardinia. I walked with him along the coast of Baunei last autumn, and he is brilliantly knowledgeable and passionate. He also offers you homemade cake and apple juice at the end of the tour which is, of course, enough to win me over. His website is coming...
Other Places of Interest
If you are staying at Domu Antiga/Mario Cesare then this beautiful vineyard is just up the road and well worth a visit. The wine is matured in beautiful terracotta urns originally from Georgia, and the Cannonau, a full-bodied red typical of Sardinia, is especially good.
I took a friend here as an AirBnB experience for their birthday. It was a lovely day out and this beautiful vineyard near Iglesias is well worth a visit. The owner makes wine for pleasure rather than profit, and is full of stories and wisdom. He also feeds you some of the best Civraxiu (a locally made traditional Sardinian sourdough with wheat he grows himself) and local pecorino that I have ever had. Worth visiting for these alone, with or without wine.
I have been buying olive oil from here for a few years now, and it is delicious. You can buy from their shop here, and they do a painted terracotta bottle of oil which is lovely as a gift or token to take home from Sardinia.
Paninos to Eat
Paninos are a great art here, and something I have come to relish. One of the best places I have ever known to eat panini is Focacceria Milese in Alghero. They make a signature panino with anchovies, pancetta, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, onion and vinegar which has won itself a cult following. The first time I went we drove for 2 hours (on a relatively small island this is a very long trip) just to eat this panini, and I can testify that it was worth it. They have a selection of other fillings too, and the place overlooks the harbour.
Spritz with a View
Another lovely Alghero spot, this beach bar is built right into the rocks. It attracts lots of young, glamorous and suspiciously good-looking people, and you can rent loungers and drink spritz all day long if so inclined. The view is spectacular, and the spritz good and strong. Perfect tan mandatory.
I am shamefully ignorant about wine. But, I know what I like. There are some absolutely delicious crisp and almondy Vermentinos from Gallura and I love the rich reds Cannonau, Carignano, Nepente and Monica di Sardinia. Sweet Malvasia from Bosa is very good, as is Vernaccia from Oristano which is similar to sherry in method and flavour profile. I will endeavour to become more knowledgeable about Sardinian wine for all our sake’s. Watch this space.
Along with Aru, Olianas and S’Anatzu listed below, a local friend Marco makes wonderful wine and can be found here:
Food to Try
Cured grey mullet roe, this is a speciality of the region near where I live. Known as Sardinian caviar it has a sweet, rich and salty flavour and is delicious sliced and eaten with pane carasau or pasta. Another common way of serving it is in a salad with sliced celery or artichokes, or liberally sprinkled over spaghetti alle vongole.
A thin, crisp bread made from semola and water and cooked in round discs in wood-fired ovens, this is also known as Carta di Musica. It is utterly addictive and delicious and is served with every meal. When bathed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt it is known as ‘Pane Guttiau’. You can buy packs of this to take home as gifts. It is more addictive than crisps, and I love crisps.
Most of the Pecorino eaten all over the world comes from Sardinia. The island’s strong shepherding tradition means that sheep’s cheeses of all kinds are made here, and there are numerous types to try. Three of the most famous are Pecorino Sardo, Fiore Sardo and Pecorino Romano (which is also made in Lazio). Fiore Sardo has a dark rind and a strong, almost smoky flavour. Pecorino Sardo is golden in colour, creamier and slightly sweet, like parmesan. Pecorino Romano is paler in colour, saltier and crumblier. There are numerous other cheeses to try, and many people still make cheese at home; it is not unusual to be sold some homemade cheese from the back of a white van by a local aficionado.
A by-product of the cheese-making process and thus found in abundance all over the island. The fresh stuff is a million miles away from the supermarket tubs and well worth seeking out. Ricotta can be made from cow or sheep’s milk and is a delicious product. It can be eaten either savoury or sweet and is incredibly versatile.
Sardinia produces some delicious olive oils, mostly from the Bosana olive variety which makes up over 50% of the olives/oil produced on the island. The oil has a lovely, green, bittersweet flavour reminiscent of the local artichokes.
Mussels, squid, octopus, clams, crabs, limpets, sea snails, cuttlefish, mullet, bream and bass as well as local rock lobster are all not to be missed. Boiled octopus with potatoes, grilled cuttlefish, pasta with clams and bottarga and grilled mullet are amongst the local specialities.
Pork is highly appreciated here, especially suckling roast pig which is Sardinia’s national dish. Beef is rarer, roast or boiled mutton or goat more common inland, and all kinds of cured meats are to be found too, including a type of sheep prosciutto. Chicken is eaten occasionally, as is veal and rabbit, but the predominant meats tend to be pork or lamb.
A fortified wine specific to the area in which I live, around Oristano. Vernaccia is made in a similar way to sherry, and drunk in a similar way too, as an aperitivo or digestivo, often with a homemade amaretti biscuit. it is very good in cooking too, in place of white wine, and pairs particularly well with seafood dishes.
A great and family-made Vernaccia can be found here: