Clarence on Vacay: Oliena, Sardinia

After an amazing few days in Bonifacio, we settled aboard a Moby Ferry to Sardinia after one final round of beignets de Brocciu (sob). To give credit where credit is due, the Sardinia portion of our trip was inspired by our friends S and H, who spent a week in Sardinia this past winter and raved about their time there. I probably couldn’t have found Sardinia on a map two months ago. But we really liked the idea of spending some time in a rural area, especially since our car-free life in Paris leaves us pretty limited to urban spaces. While not renting a car in Corsica was possible (though unadvisable), we were told that we must rent a car in Sardinia if we expected to see anything properly. While there is a national train and bus system, the schedule is apparently entirely arbitrary and impossible to plan a short-term vacation around. So we booked a Fiat Panda Emotion with Eurocar and planned to pick it up at the Olbia airport, which didn’t look too far on the map from Santa Teresa di Gallura, where the only ferry from Corsica drops off.

We quickly realized, however, that not too far was actually about an hour bus ride, a bus we had no idea how to find upon being spit out on dry land. We arrived in Santa Teresa di Gallura during the middle of pennichella, that is, the long afternoon naptime where all the stores shut down and everyone retreats to their houses during the heat of the day.  It might have as well been a ghost town. We wandered around with our rolling suitcases like jackasses until a kindly young man who drove a taxi helped us work out the bus schedule to Olbia (the schedules posted at the bus stop were from the late 90s.) B then proved himself a gallant traveling companion by locating the only bar in town open in the afternoon, where we were able to get (cue the heavenly choir) Aperol Spritzes accompanied by the always-gratis apertivo snacks that make me want to be an Italian. Schnockered, we finally boarded a bus, rode to Olbia, and picked up our sweet little Panda.

Observing the northern coastal area, B quickly declared that Sardinia wasn’t nearly as mountainous as Corsica.  As we drove inland towards our destination of Oliena, it became increasingly clear that this was a bit of a premature declaration. Coastal shrubbery quickly gave way to craggy peaks and our chatter gave way to excited gasps about how beautiful the scenery was.  Oliena, which is nestled at the base of the Gennargentu mountains, was positively breathtaking as we drove in (so breathtaking, in fact, that we forgot to take pictures).  We followed the signs to our lodgings, the amusingly named Cooperativa Enis (Monte Maccione) up one of the steepest, switchback-filled roads I’ve ever encountered.  And I grew up in the mountains in Colorado, people. We arrived at a heavenly mountain retreat with amazing views of the valley, a well-stocked bar and restaurant, and easy-access to incredible hiking trails.

All was not jolly, however.  B had run out of cigarettes on the ferry, so he was now without nicotine for 6 hours or so and nursing the mother of all headaches.  We quickly left our room and to head back down the mountain to hit a tabacchi in town before they closed. As we attempted to pull out of the Coop Enis (hee hee) parking lot, we discovered that our car wouldn’t go into reverse. An older Italian couple emerged from the hotel to see two testy and pissed-off Americans hissing at one another as we attempted to push the car out of the parking space in neutral. Aghast, the Italian gentleman got in our car and patiently explained that European cars require that you pull up a little ring on the stick shift to shift into reverse. Crisis averted. Let me just say that this is the first, but not the last time, our little Panda managed to confound two people in doctoral programs.

After getting B a smoke, we explored Oliena a little bit, much to the amusement of the locals who were in the process of setting up for a regional music celebration that evening. B and I are blond enough that we might as well have strapped large signs to our chests that read TOURISTS while we were in Sardinia. Every town we visited seemed to be populated entirely by old men who sit in cafes and along the main plaza all day long. Our arrival in town (or my arrival in town, B might argue) was usually the biggest event of the day, especially if I was (gasp) the one doing the driving. Oliena, a very traditional town where older women still wear the traditional dress of a long black skirt and a cornflower blue blouse, was no exception. We wandered into what appeared to be one of the only bars in town and ordered Sardinian beers, only to be given Heinekens while the guys at nearby tables guzzled Ichnusa (the one and only Sardinian beer) and gawked at me.  But despite being outsiders in a town that obviously only ever encountered Italian tourists, everyone was incredibly nice.

S and H—as well as Anthony Bourdain and every other travel food writer under the sun—had raved about the Sardinian agritourismos: small farms that offer up locally-grown regional specialties and simple accommodations.  We had made reservations at one such agritourismo, the Azienda Agrituristica Guthiddai (S.P. Nuoro Dorgali Bivio Su Gologne) for dinner. We arrived to a virtually empty dining room and a staff that seemed eager to set us up for the evening.  We settled in to our table and murmured some nonsense to one another about the menu or how much this thing was going to cost us. Water was brought out, as was a jug of the house rosso made with local Cannonau grapes. It quickly became clear that we were just along for one hell of a ride.

First up was the pane carasau, a crisp flatbread that is the basis of much of Sardinian cooking. It was drizzled lightly with the Guthiddai’s own olive oil, made from olive trees we could see out the window. Like greedy Americans faced with a bottomless basket of chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant, we ate way too much of this before our meal.

Next up was the antipasti, which included a charcuterie plate (salsiccia, regional ham, pancetta, and coppa), bitter olives, fresh ricotta with mint and olive oil, a sautéed eggplant aromatic with garlic, sautéed mushrooms, tripe sausage with fresh peas, and blackbird with stewed tomatoes. I don’t think I can even convey to you our growing delight with each dish.  Moaning in gustatory ecstasy, we polished each plate clean. I was completely full after our (eight course) antipasti.

But then it time for the pasta.  First, an enormous platter of gnochetti in a Pecorino cheese sauce.  This is my Ur-macaroni and cheese. When our lovely server Pamela removed the platter, I believe I was scraping the cheese residue from it with my fingernails like a feral animal.

At this point, we were starting to be uncomfortably full.  In an eating lull, I dementedly reasoned that pasta course must be over and that the meat course is never much in Italy. Wrong, wrong, wrong. We were only halfway through the pasta:

When Pamela brought out this masterpiece, both B and I gasped with joy. Malloreddus are a Sardinian pasta made by hand, here served with the dreamiest sausage red sauce that you can imagine. We unbuttoned our pants and got to work.

Predictably, the carne course was not just one, but two different dishes:  steaks drizzled in balsamic and a braised lamb dish that caused B to scratch out his previous characterization of his meal in Sartène as his Ur-lamb. There are no photos, because I couldn’t even move at this point. I was drenched in sweat and trembling from the idea of eating one more bite of anything. Not only was this the most beautiful food I had ever eaten, but I couldn’t bear the the idea of disappointing our increasingly charming Pamela with our failure to finish the plates. But there was no polishing off that carne. We were goners. Pamela cleared away our meat platters with a look of sadness on her face. I almost cried.

B wandered off to smoke and puke in the bushes Roman-style and Pamela and I had a rather lovely exchange despite the fact that I speak no Italian and she spoke no English. B returned, however, and she and I were fast friends. Dessert was a purplish semifredo drizzled with myrto wine – light and refreshing enough that we both managed to get it down. Pamela seemed dismayed that we didn’t want to stay and keep drinking – she had a variety of different Sardinian digestivi she wanted us to try.  The damage for a thirteen course meal with all the local booze we could drink: sixty-eight euros. Our jaws fell through the floor. We emerged from the best meal of our trip into a night sky filled with stars and a valley full of wild dogs howling at the moon. Sardinia wasn’t looking too shabby from where we were standing.

Next stop:  The beach to end all beaches.

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