Untamed indulgence: Julie Burchill is seduced by Sardinia
Beautiful? Enigmatic? A test of your (almost) vegetarian principles? Sardinia is all these things, say Julie Burchill
Saturday 16 July 2011
The start to my Sardinia trip was not an auspicious one; having consumed two champagne breakfasts before 11am, I left my make-up bag on the plane after the drink-and-you'll-miss-it two-hour flight. I can imagine all you super-smart, let's-be-AVing-you Indy readers looking well sneery at that, but for a blue-collar Beryl Cook character made flesh who's been staggering around dumb with lipgloss and blinded by kohl since the age of 12, it was quite a culture shock. Also, NIGELLA GAVE ME THAT MAKE UP BAG! Black sequins! I cursed, as I reflected how my one legit source of dropping Nigella's name – "Ooo, that's pretty!" "Yes, Nigella gave it to me" – was now quite possibly the property of some heedless trolley dolly.
But within 30 minutes of landing we were splashing about in the beautiful, colour-changing pool at the Hotel Relais Villa del Golfo and Spa resort in Cannigione, on the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) overlooking the bay of Arzachena, without a care in the world.
The Villa del Golfo is a tiny bit rustic, and at home even a whiff of rustic bread would be enough to send me cross-eyed with rage – we are an urban island, and only ocean-going ponces pretend otherwise; the sort of saps who can only have an orgasm on Cath Kidston bed linen. But in this almost viciously verdant setting, leavened by the sophistication of a library, a bridge room and an American Bar, the golden threads of the wall tapestries shimmering in the glow from the granite fireplace, suddenly it all made sense. It must be the sensuality of the Mediterranean that makes gorgeous a mode of decoration that in rainy old England just seems ditsy, mumsy and clumsily executed. That's the thing about rustic charm, I find – if it don't fit, don't force it!
Sardinia's brand of rustic charm is the opposite of the dread Kidstonia, thank the Lord. Looking out from the lushness of the pool over the sunset beauty of the bay, this place lets you know from the get-go that it can be as wild as you want it to be – not as in Girls Gone Wild, but as in untamed. Here, in the place DH Lawrence described as "outside the circuit of civilisation", many shepherds speak Latin and some breezes blow in from Africa, and the landscape is scattered with Neolithic monuments.
Even the flag is scary-beautiful: four blindfolded heads, called "Four Moors" and thought to represent captured pirates, similar to the flag of Sardinia's neighbour, Corsica, which is just an hour away by sea. I don't know Corsica well, but they appear to have much in common; wild terrain, beautiful beaches and extreme pride worn like a national costume. Replacing some silly make-up was now the last thing on my mind; seeing as much as I could of this amazing island – we were only there for three nights – was all I could think of. And our tour started just a few steps from the bar, in the hotel's Il Miraluna restaurant.
I'll admit that the food side of things was where I thought that Sardinia's wildness might be a problem. Since I was a teenager I have been struggling ineffectually to be a vegetarian, and over the years I have succeeded in cutting those animals which I find beautiful – pigs, lambs, ducks – out of my diet. Paradoxically, I don't eat animals who I consider ugly either – no turkey! This leaves me in the admittedly morally ludicrous position of eating only animals I find moderately attractive – cows, chickens and fish. (Reading this back, it's actually the first time I have considered the possibility that I may be actually insane.)
So imagine my dismay on finding out that we were heading for a region of Sardinia – Gallura – which boasts such regional specialities as PIGLET ON A SPIT and KEBAB OF LAMB ENTRAILS! And imagine my joyous relief on seeing what actually awaited us. The menu note that "our chef proposes a selection of Italian and international cuisine, revised in Sardinian style" hardly begins to describe the scenic tour through the empire of the senses which was about to transpire.
There are two reasons I have spent more than three decades failing at vegetarianism; one, no willpower and two, MEAT SHOULDN'T TASTE SO NICE! That's the thing about a really great cheeseburger; the dead bit doesn't taste dead, it tastes more alive than the bits that never lived or died. Almost anyone can make meat taste nice – come on, its meat! – but to my mind the test of a great chef is making a meat-free, not meatless (it's the difference in attitude between being child-free and childless) menu look like there's absolutely nothing missing.
This is exactly what Il Miraluna's chef, Susy Farina, does. We started with an asparagus pudding, sharp as a knife and soft as a sigh; eating asparagus in England just feels like a prelude to a fetish, but here... like the song says, "O sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you!" The tagliatelle with mussels and clams and the dory fillet were made with pescatoria so fresh that I wouldn't have been all that surprised if they'd stood up and sung a chorus of "Under The Sea" from The Little Mermaid. I felt momentarily sad that they would never get to do this, but was massively cheered up by the bitter chocolate pie with orange sauce. Susy Farina came out to take a bow, and I felt like requesting her shoe, and some champagne to drink out of it, as those pervy old stage door Johnnies did with particularly brilliant ballerinas. But I merely mumbled drunken superlatives instead.
The next day was bright and sunny and we could have punished some poor horses by riding them along one of the breathtaking trails that take in the Capo d'Orso, lighthouses, fortresses and beaches (there are two-hour trail rides for beginners, trekking at sundown for the saddle-sure and ponies for kiddies). But it's hard to drink on horseback, so we happily trotted down to the marina and boarded the hotel yacht BonAria.
I don't mind admitting I'm a bit kinky for boats. I have the opposite of seasickness, and basically no matter how rough I feel on dry land, I perk up the minute I get on board – this goes for anything from a Crazy Sofa to a cruise liner. So I knew I'd have a good time, but I had no idea HOW good. My travelling companion Miss Petrovic and I were about to embark not just upon a boat, but also upon one of the most memorable days of our lives, thanks to the crew – the smokin' Aussie, Captain Andy, and his elegant American mate, Mari.
In my experience the one dodgy thing about getting on a boat is that if the company turns out to be crap, you're screwed. How lucky, then, that Andrew and Mari were two of the funniest, most fascinating people it's ever been my privilege to meet. As we talked, laughed and even sang our way around the amazing beauty of the Emerald Coast, which could double for the Maldives on a good day, eight hours went by in a blur of chillout mix-tapes, white wine, pasta salads and pineapple as we sailed around the Maddalena Archipelago. We saw everything from Garibaldi's house to the place where James Bond drove the amphibious car up on to the beach in The Spy Who Loved Me. Who says history can't be fun?
On our final day we grabbed a cab to the mind-blowingly beautiful and brilliant restaurant Madai Restaurant (also a café, lounge and winery) in nearby Arzachena. They say that if you can remember the Sixties, you weren't there – and that's what Madai is like, such a blur of pure bliss that I would mistrust anyone who could actually describe what they ate there. The chef, Elio Sironi, came here from the Bulgari Hotel in Milan and the simple symphony he played on our palates was world-class.
Thinking about the food in Sardinia, I had a sudden insight. Why WAS Naomi Campbell in SUCH a permanently hideous temper back in the day? A woman with her looks and wealth? IT WAS BECAUSE SHE SPENT SO MUCH TIME IN SARDINIA (with then-beau Flavio Briatore, who spends much of his time swanking around the Costa Smeralda) AND WASN'T ALLOWED TO EAT! That's gotta make ANYONE angry – or "hangry", as the models have it.
On paper, I could have had a rotten time in Sardinia. It was early in the season and very little was open – certainly not the International White Trash malls and bars I am developing a tragic weakness for as I get older. It rained for one whole day, hard, and we were only there for three. I don't ever want to see a piglet on a spit as long as I live. But I really can imagine going back every year, for decades – it was that good.
Some places, though beautiful, one mentally ticks off as one checks out; done that, onto the next one. Sardinia isn't like that. In travel writing, "enigmatic" is the word that comes up time after time (as opposed to the flamboyant, emotional image of Italia in general) and I totally get it now. The smell of Sardinia, the macchia, a combination of myrtle, pine, juniper just coming into flower at the end of April, is as vivid yet as elusive as the island itself. I have the feeling that you could never really get to know Sardinia. But you could have a brilliant time trying.
Travel essentials: Sardinia
* The writer travelled with Sardinian Places (0845 330 2050; sardinianplaces.co.uk), which offers seven nights at the Relais Villa del Golfo and Spa, Cannigione, from £1,131 per person. The price includes accommodation in a deluxe sea-view room with breakfast, return easyJet flights from Gatwick to Olbia and transfers. Sardinian Places offers a selection of villas, apartments and hotels across the island.
* Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.uk
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