I’m at the Convent of San Giuseppe, devouring a sinfully delicious meal, candlelight flickering upon castle-like marble and stone and beams. This is Sardinia, Italy, and today is my 50th birthday. It’s a luminous starry night in late April, and smells of simmering seafood, fresh bread, wine, garlic, and juniper mingle as a woman outside the open convent door twists dough into traditional ceremonial ornaments before an open fire.
The Convent was constructed on the site of a Roman settlement, and the ghosts of those who’ve gone before seem to linger in the air. The meal is wickedly divine, and I’m thinking that it just doesn’t get any better than this, but then the waiter brings a surprise: tall candles sparkling on a fresh-from-the-oven pear cake. I make a wish (as if it hasn’t already come true!), and blow out all of the candles with one big puff. I eat every bite of the cake, and then polish off the meal with limoncello: a lemon liqueur made right here in Sardinia. Not a bad way to celebrate half a hundred years of life: in Italy, in Sardinia, in the ancient capital city of Cagliari.
One of Italy’s best secrets, the island of Sardinia has not yet been discovered by the hordes of tourists swarming Rome. A superb side trip or a delightful destination, this magical place is one of peace and purity. An easy flight (Meridiana is one of several budget airlines that can get you there) from Rome, travelers can choose to land either at the south’s Cagliari-Elmas Airport or the Olbia-Costa Smeralda Airport of the north. The most known part of Sardinia (Sardegna to the Italians) is Costa Smeralda: the Emerald Coast of the island’s northeast. Glittering with lavish luxury yachts and opulent private villas, Costa Smeralda is one of the most renowned high-end destinations of the world. This Mediterranean mystique has drawn international jet-setters and celebrities like Rob Lowe, Courtney Cox, and Bruce Willis. “Putin even has a house here,” a local cheese maker stated.
In Costa Smeralda, there is not only the enchantment of white sand and gleaming green sea, jagged rocks and cliffs and archaeological sites and pink flamingos, but there is also Pevero: considered to be one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world. Surrounded by rocks, lakes, and trees of juniper and myrtle, Pevero is not only a golf course; it’s an experience. And another wonderful experience to be had in Costa Smeralda is that of polo. And here, this prestigious sport isn’t just for rich people. Families and other travelers can enter the grandstands at the Costa Smeralda Polo Club and watch the match free-of-charge. I sat in the Sardinian sunshine, watching gorgeous horses gallop across the greenest of fields. “Is this Paradise?” asks a visitor sitting beside me.
Sardinia, one of the most culturally diverse areas in Italy, as it is home to a unique music. Launeddas, a type of three-reed cane that has achieved international attention, originated and is still played in Sardinia. Here, too, can be found the art of polyphonic singing: a guttural form that dates back thousands of years. I don’t know how they do it, but I do know that it’s a sound that goes straight to the soul and stirs up the heart.
Sitting in the bleachers at the Sant’Efisio parade, I watched a celebration that takes place each year on May 1st. For three and a half centuries, this Festival of Cagliari has been happening with great fanfare. Of religious and folklore origin, the festival’s highlight is a colorful parade. More than 5000 costumed villagers join the procession of ox-drawn wooden carts decorated with flowers, fruits, vegetables, and wheat. Bells ring and marchers play the three-reed launeddas as rose petals cover the streets. Bystanders munch on torrone, an Italian nougat candy concoction of honey, whipped egg whites, vanilla, and almonds or walnuts. I chew on the ancient sweet, wave at the paraders, inhale deeply of the rose petals. All is well with the world . . . Or at least, with Sardegna.
I had lunch at the Caffe degli Spiriti, a charming eatery located on the Bastione di Sam Remy with a panoramic view over the town. The meal begins with bread: the delicious bread of Sardegna.
The bread here is a bread not to be found elsewhere. Boasting of tradition and craftsmanship, the flat pane carasau bread is a crunchy variety made of durum wheat, seed corn, baking power, and water. Baked thin inside a brick oven, the warm bread is sometimes dressed with olive oil and salt.
Not only is the bread of Sardinia amazing, but so is the seafood. The seafood and the cheese and the bread and the wine. The tomatoes and the olives and the honey and the wild boar. Mama Mia! The food alone is worth the trip to Sardinia, not to mention all of the other wonders of this mystic island. Finishing this meal, I’m once again sustained for the day. Heading outside to the hammock swing, I kicked back and relaxed, closing my eyes and listening to the chirp of excited birds. These birds are happy. I know just how they feel.
The mountains, the plains, the rivers, the coast, the sea. This place has it all. It also has numerous archaeological sites, including my favorite: Nora. Founded around 700 B.C., Nora is on the southwest part of the island. Evoking images of people long gone, the site is an incredible testament to hard work and craftsmanship that endures the ravages of time, weather, and civilization. Framed by the seascape, Nora includes the ruins of mosaic-floored buildings, thermal baths, the Forum, a temple, and a theatre, actually still used during summer months.
Nora’s story stretches back 3000 years, and this place was once inhabited by the Nuraghi culture. Nuraghi is a term used to describe not only the long-ago dwellers of these ruins, but it’s also the word used to describe the more than 7000 well-preserved stone towers dotting the landscape of Sardinia. The first settlers of Sardinia started piecing together their fortress homes – the nuraghi – around 1500 B.C. These stone buildings – mini castles of sorts – are centered around a main tower or fortress, and are testaments of preservation. Also found on the island are the intriguing “tombs of the giants:” monolithic burial chambers. Here, in Sardinia, a place where flowers grow from stone, it’s possible to connect with the past as in nowhere else.
I visited OmuAxiu, a farmhouse/museum located in Orroli. This house has been in the family – the same family – since the 1500s. OmuAxiu is the home of the family, and it’s also the home of a restaurant and museum. Upstairs is an embroidery museum, with delicate linens and other heirlooms. Downstairs is the museum of farming tools. The restaurant is located inside a spacious room once used for grinding cereals. The meal here is amazing, and the family dishes up dinner in traditional 19th century costumes. Everything served here has been grown here, on this land, by this family.
The day I visited is the birthday of the family matriarch, and she’s 79. She looks at least twenty years younger. Sardinia is known for the longevity of its residents, with more people over 100, proportionately, on this island than anywhere else in the world. Some attribute the longevity of Sardinian people to the no-stress lifestyle, the food, the air, the water, the wine, the exercise of living off the land. It’s all that and a mysterious something else, and I can see why these Sardinian centenarians smile.
Later, I visited the Argiolas wine cellar, surrounded by wooden barrels made of French oak: shelves and shelves – more than 1800 bottles – of the wine that’s made headlines not only in Italy but internationally. Started in 1918 by Francesco Argiolas, the family tradition continues with Francesco’s grandchildren now working in the business. Francesco, 101 years old, is a delight. Attributing his long life to having a glass of Argiolas wine every day, this wide-eyed gentleman in a jaunty cap squeezes my hand with a firm grip indicating years and years of hard work, passion, and persistence. He speaks in Italian, translated by his granddaughter Valentina. “My grandfather wants to know if you’ve heard of his wines in America,” she says. Using only indigenous grapes, Argiolas exports 10 wines to the United States. This family business also makes olive oil, pooling their skills into a single passion that unites them: to bring to the world the sun-kissed flavors and scents of Sardinia.
Traveling to spot high over the Lanaitto Valley, in the mountains, I had lunch with a goat-herder named Giovanni. He was 67 years old, and has lived here, alone, for over 50 years.
The dirt road up is snaking and narrow, navigable by four-wheel drive Jeeps owned by a company called Barbagia Insolita. It was one of the Jeeps that brought me here, to this place that feels as if it’s on top of the world. In the forest below, white fluff snows from the trees, showering visitors with a constant spring flower storm. Here, at the top, is Giovanni, roasting a suckling pig on a spit inside his hut.
Giovanni has given each of his 70 goats a name, and they run to him when called. He milks the goats, making cheese in animal bladders hanging from the hut’s ceiling. Giovanni also harvests honey, and makes olive oil. In his shepherd’s hut built of stone and branches, Giavanni makes sausage of wild boar, and the fresh mozzarella he serves with bread. Giovanni is not a gregarious man, but his crinkle-lined eyes are full of wisdom and peace. Here, on top of this mountain, he is at home. Giovanni serves lunch on chestnut plates, beneath a bamboo ceiling, with the smells of sizzling pig wafting through the air. His friend, another goat-herder from the other side of the mountain, has joined him today. The friend speaks English, and I ask him about the tiny T.V. in Giovanni’s solar-paneled hut. “What’s his favorite program?” I ask, and the friend translates the question to Giovanni. “He says that he doesn’t have much time to watch, but he does love to watch the news each night.”
I looked around the small mountain house in which Giovanni has made his life. There’s a small bed with a painting hung over it, a table with an oilcloth, a refrigerator, and two chairs: one for Giovanni and one for the rare visitor. “Is he happy here?” I asked, and Giovanni’s friend relays the question. No words are necessary, as the light in Giovanni’s eyes affirms what I already know: Giovanni is happy here, content and satisfied and perfectly at peace, at the top of this mountain, here for 50 years and hopefully for the next 50.
I know just how he feels.