“This land resembles no other place. Sardinia is something else. Enchanting spaces and distances to travel – nothing finished, nothing definitive. It is like freedom itself.” D H Lawrence – ‘Sea and Sardinia’
Cheap flight tickets are top of a long list of good reasons to travel and when we spotted some reasonably priced return flights to Sardinia with Easyjet it didn’t take long to make a decision to visit the second biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea (just slightly smaller than Sicily) with our occasional travelling companions Mike and Margaret.
Our flight was to the city of Olbia in the North-East of the island so we planned an itinerary that would take us along the length of the north coast and then to the city of Alghero on the west coast and finally a return journey to Olbia across the northern countryside.
We landed around about eight o’clock in the evening so it was already quite dark when we finished the tedious process of signing the hire car paperwork and took possession of the keys to the nearly new black Ford C-Max and gently eased our way out of the airport and into the flow of evening traffic. I was a little apprehensive because after the last bad experience of driving in Italy, in Puglia in the South, I said that I would never do it again because although there is a Highway Code, Il Codici Della Strada very few Italian drivers are familiar with its contents and it is certainly not one of the best-selling books in Italy.
On account of my nervous driving disposition we had arranged to stay quite close to the airport at a hotel in the city and it only took twenty minutes or so to drive the four miles to our destination. The plan was to stay overnight and then move on early the next morning towards the coast.
After parking the car in the safest place I could find (Italians are notoriously bad parkers*) checking into our hotel and approving the accommodation we set off immediately into the city to find somewhere to eat.
Unusually for Kim she approved the very first pizzeria that we came to (she generally rejects the first on the flimsy basis that there will always be something better around the corner) but the rest of us insisted on not being too hasty and looking at the other options. We found a number of suitable places but Kim was determined to have her own way and marched us back to her first choice.
The place was really busy with local diners which is always a good recommendation so we joined a line of people in the crowded doorway and waited. We waited and we waited but no one greeted us or came to the line to ask what we wanted or to explain about waiting times or table availability. Mike, Margaret and myself all ran out of patience after five minutes or so but no one dared say anything because we were all waiting for Kim to buckle under the pressure and be the one to give it up and go find somewhere else.
Eventually she cracked, made the suggestion to go elsewhere and led us back into the street and to an alfresco restaurant at the side of the street where we enjoyed an excellent first meal.
Olbia is one of those unfortunate places that seems to struggle to achieve any positive guide book mentions. Press the ‘things to do’ link on Tripadvisor and I kid you not you get a blank page! Lonely Planet does a little better but still only manages a single sentence of introduction, Dorling Kindersley begrudgingly gives it a paragraph but Rick Steves ignores it all together! It is primarily a transit city with an airport, a railway junction and a ferry terminal all serving the nearby beaches and marinas.
So with very little to recommend it we left the next morning immediately after breakfast in an uninvited rain shower and drove inland heading for the north coast.
We deliberately avoided going directly north to the Emerald Coast because this is a place for millionaires, gliterati and yachting luvvies and has hotel and bar prices some way beyond our modest budget and we set off instead for a mid way point along the coast to a place called Castelsardo.
Just a short distance out of Olbia we drove through the remains of the rain and as the sun came out the roads began to steam as we headed towards mountainous countryside and blue sky. The road climbed a sinuous route as it threaded its way up to the top of the salt and pepper grey hills decorated with woods and trees and verges cloaked in aromatic wild herbs until we reached the hillside village of Aggius where we rather discourteously drove through without stopping.
The road swayed and shimmied some more and the back seat passengers complained continuously but then the countryside opened out into a curious flat plain littered with giant rocks all shaped into unusual sculptures as a result of hundreds of thousands of years of steady erosion. This was the glacial Valle Della Luna where the boulders were left in random piles and shapes by the ice as it retreated at the end of the ice age several million years ago.
As we started to climb out of the valley again we came to a small bar by the side of the road with uninterrupted views across the plain and as we sat and drank mid-morning coffee it was easy to imagine that this could have been a playground for giants in a noisy game of rock marbles.
Coffee break over and out of the mountains we continued now along straighter roads and we were glad of that because it reduced the level of back seat complaints and the totally unjustified criticism of the driver and the navigator in the front.
At around midday we drove into the colourful seaside town of Castelsardo and made our way to the Hotel Riviera where we would be spending the next two nights.
*I am reminded here of the observation of Bill Bryson – “I love the way Italians park… it looks like a parking competition for blind people. Cars are pointed in every direction, half on the pavements and half off, facing in, facing sideways… fitted into spaces so tight that the only way out would be through the sun roof. (Italians) park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.”