The ability to use long haul travel to visit family in China and Australia is a privilege but it is also tiring and takes its toll. At least once a year I get the urge to do something closer to home, to hop on a plane that will get me to my destination in a few hours, no jet-lag to contend with, no lost days of recovering from exhaustion, just a week to unwind, away from it all, to while away the days with long walks, good books, great food and local wines. And when I get into that frame of mind there is one country that lures me like no other – Italy.
Ah Italy, so much variety of culture and food and landscape in such a concentrated land mass; not so much a country as a series of distinctive regions, rather like a China in microcosm the notion of “Italy” and “Italian” being almost as hard to grasp as “China” and “Chinese”.
So as the dog days of August approached and a free week opened up in the schedule it was time to get out the maps and start googling to find where in Italy to explore this year, somewhere we could combine walking in the hills, an Italian sea side resort and living like locals, all in just seven days without a lot of driving in between – Sardinia.
Sardinia – Sardegna – an island with a character all of its own; Italian but remote from the mainland with its own history, personality, landscape and culture. My daughter Claire and I had spent a week there about 10 years ago lounging on the beach at Alghero but the rest of the island was a mystery to me. This time I was drawn towards the Golfo di Orosei in the east where it is possible to book organised walking holidays in the Spring and Autumn but not in the middle of August. It takes a certain kind of Irish daftness to want to hill walk in 35 degree heat.
And so a plan took shape – three nights near the east coast of the island where physical exertion would surely clear our heads, four back in Alghero to relax.
We left behind torrential rain in Dublin early on a Sunday morning, our glorious Irish summer beginning to show the first hints of autumnal chill. Less than three hours later we descended to the island over sea of the deepest cobalt blue to land at Aeroporto di Fertilia, also known as Alghero Airport, just 15 minutes drive away from the city of Alghero in the north west of the island. It is a tiny and efficient airport and, within 30 minutes, we had picked up our rental car and were on the road. Our destination was Hotel Su Gologone, nestled in the foothills of the Supramonte about 25 km from the sea at Cala Gonone.
When I saw the number of cars in the hotel car park on our arrival on Sunday afternoon, I worried for a moment that it wouldn’t be the peaceful hideaway I had hoped for. I needn’t have fretted. It is truly beautiful place with buildings backed into the rock face over several levels linked in a manner that resembles a small Sardinian village. The design creates an atmosphere of quiet intimacy despite the fact that there are 99 rooms in all. Ours was up at the very top and, by luck, was a mini-suite with a separate sitting area and a balcony looking out over the mountains. There are no lifts and walking from the reception area up to our room involved well over 100 steps of stairs – I know. I counted them.
There is a little bar at the main entrance and, from the cosy reception area, steps lead down to the brightly coloured main restaurant which has views out over the swimming pool to the hills beyond. A narrow street passes through a courtyard by an open fireplace where meats are barbecued at all times of the day, whole sides of pork lined up on spits, whole chickens and rabbits. Around the corner under a gazebo, tables are clustered on a wooden deck and, on a buffet table, cold dishes are protected with netted covers that remind me of my granny’s kitchen. The billowing veils of the gazebo are misted with water to keep the space cool while lunch is served during the day.
Steps and pathways, way-marked by hand-painted rocks, wind up to the bedrooms and to other hidden nooks and crannies – the Focacceria where bread is made in the traditional way and the Terrazzo dei Sogni (terrace of dreams) where you can watch the sun set over the hills. There’s a wine cellar – both a cantina and a vineria where you can taste wine – an art and craft shop, an orto (kitchen garden) and la bottega dell’olio where local olive oil can be purchased.
All the more usual hotel facilities such as a gym, Jacuzzi, mini-golf, tennis and spa are available but hidden from view so as not to disturb the village like atmosphere. You could easily come here and not leave the complex for the duration of your stay and I noticed a number of families with young children who seemed to do just that. Around every corner, inside the buildings and out, there are little spaces where you can curl up with a book in a lazy arm chair or on a balcony bench to while away an hour or two with a good book or simply take in the view.
The most striking thing of all about Su Gologone is that it is a living art gallery and museum of Sardinian artefacts. Every corridor and outdoor space is used to reveal some aspect of Sardinian history or art. As a result it is a riot of vibrant Mediterranean colours and feast for the eyes against the backdrop of the brooding Supramonte and the deep blue sky.
The food is very good too featuring one of the best buffet breakfasts I’ve come across in Italy and a simple but tasty menu at night with the emphasis on local affettati, pastas and roasted meats. On most nights there is also an alternative meal in one of the other locations on site – a dinner cooked over the fireplace at the l’angolo dell’arrosto or a selection of local focacce.
It would have been tempting not to venture out for the three days we spent there but I had come with hill-walking on my mind so on Monday we headed for the coast twenty five minutes drive away past the beautiful man-made Lago Del Cedrino, via switchback roads, the hill-top town of Dorgali and a tunnel bored through the mountain to Cala Gonone. We parked up the hill at the southern end of Cala Gonone and walked a few kilometres up the road to Cala Fuili to pick up the walking trail that took us up and down steep paths, clambering over rocks at times, high into the hills above the crystalline waters of Golfo di Orosei and eventually down to Cala Luna, a crescent shaped beach of the whitest sand that is otherwise only accessible by sea.
A word of warning – this walk is described in the guide at the hotel as “percorso facile” – an easy walk. If you have wonky knees like me it is not all that easy! You need to set out in walking boots and, on a hot day, bring at least two litres of water. I was glad I had brought my trekking sticks but still managed to acquire a few scratches and bruises en route. It took us a good bit longer than the two hours suggested but the effort is worth it for the views, the exhilaration and the bliss of arriving to a cold drink at the little bar down on the beach at Cala Luna. We took a ferry back to Cala Gonone in the late afternoon sunshine to get a different perspective on the coast line and retraced our steps along the beach to pick up our car.
On our third day we decided to stay closer to the hotel and take a break from driving. Just 400m down the road from the hotel there is a lovely, peaceful spot, “La Sorgente” – the source of the river Su Gologone which has been dammed to form the lake at Cedrino. It is a mystical place of deep, crystal clear waters the depth of which is not yet known although it has been explored to 138 metres. From there, trekking trails lead off into the hills around and a guide to these is available from the little bar and souvenir shop at the source. We took a fairly easy but steep stretch up hill to get views over the river and the lake before returning to laze by the pool.
On that, our third and last night, we had dinner in Agriturismo Guttidhai a few kilometers down the road – a simple, rustic set menu of tasty local “cucina tipica” which offers a good value alternative to dining at the hotel every evening.
One word of advice on getting to that part of the island from the airport at Alghero – I allowed Google Maps to choose a route and it got us there in two hours and twenty minutes by climbing high into the mountains and descending, via hairpin bends, through the little towns of Bottida and Esporlatu and on via Nuoro and Oliena to our destination. This gave us a great sense of the rugged and sparsely populated highlands of northern Sardina but it was not the most relaxing start to the holiday. On the return journey to Alghero we took the SS129 across to Macomer and then headed north on the SS131. This route, which hugs the valleys and follows one of the European “E” routes used by road hauliers was less scenic but made for an easier drive while taking about the same length of time.
Although I am sure there are great Agriturismo options in the area of Golfo di Orosei, Hotel Su Gologone is a real find. The staff are welcoming, friendly and very helpful. The only minor downside is that wi-fi is limited to the reception area and requires a (free) code from reception that lasts for a maximum of two hours on a single device. The fact that wifi only works near reception adds to the feeling of getting away from it all but the need to get a code each time is a minor irritant which could probably be avoided with the installation of a few good routers. The mobile phone signal in this mountainous area is also weak.
The area around the hotel is a hill-walker’s dream. The hotel management have organised nine different excursions in the area, some by jeep, some on foot, which can be arranged once at least four guests are interested. But experienced trekkers will have no problem making their own plans from options of varying levels of difficulty and duration. The locals boast that “summer” lasts for seven months in Sardinia, from April to October. It would be lovely to go there for a long weekend in late Spring or early Autumn and use it as a base for several long walks in the area.
Post Script and a heartfelt thank you
On the day of our tough walk from Cala Gonone to Cala Luna we had one of those panicky moments that can sometimes happen if you head out into the hills not properly prepared for the terrain and weather. After two hours of walking, we had descended a steep track in the forest only to find we were climbing again, away from the coast with the sea diminishing in the distance. For a few minutes we thought we had missed markers on the path and gone astray. We were too far into the walk to go all the way back to the start and we were nearly out of water. Calling mountain rescue began to seem like a good if embarrassing option. We began to re-trace our steps to see if we could get our bearings.
As luck would have it, within a few minutes, we encountered a cheerful young French couple, fit as fiddles who were bouncing along the path in sneakers and confident that it was correct because they had spotted a marker that we had missed. We communicated through my very rusty French and their almost non-existent Italian. As we let them go on ahead of us, Derry called after them to ask if they had any spare water. The girl insisted on giving us a nearly full ¼ litre bottle of water and, with a friendly gallic shrug indicating that she could share her partner’s half empty bottle, bounded on her way. Thus spared from dehydration and more confident of our direction we resumed our walk to discover that the next hill we crested would bring us within sight of Cala Luna and a final scramble down to the sea.
We never did find the couple, on the beach or ferry at Cala Luna, to thank them properly. So if they or a friend should ever stumble on this blog post I want them to know that their random act of kindness made the day of two weary walkers and we won’t forget them. Merci beaucoups.