Date of visit: June 2022
We travelled here for a wedding in Alghero which had been postponed TWICE (thank you Covid!), but we used the opportunity to actually take our first real foreign holiday in three years—I sort of feel like going to Spain doesn’t count as foreign to us anymore 😉
We decided to see more of Sardinia than just the Alghero, and this was our route:
- Land in Cagliari (which is in the south of the island), take a taxi and spend a couple of days in town
- Come back to the airport with another taxi and pick up a rental car to drive up to the north west of the island (i.e. Alghero)
- Stop in Gergei
- Drive to Alghero, see the city, attend the wedding
- Drive to Oristano, overnight stop there
- UP! EARLY! for driving to the airport!
- Arrive in Cagliari and fly back 🙁
The reason for choosing Gergei and Oristano to stop in was because they were more or less half-way in the journey.
Interesting stuff to look for
With such a short time to visit, we surely missed a lot of interesting things, but here are the bits that caught our eyes (and stomachs) and we do recommend you try out too.
The most popular local grape varieties made into wine here are Cannonau, Vermentino and Carignano, so I deliberately sampled these as much as I could!
Cannonau is another name for what we call Garnacha Tinta in Spanish, and what the French call Grenache. We frequently found the Cannonau wines to be very young with a purple hue and red-fruited in flavour; sometimes too young and underripe, which was not quite pleasant if done wrong (there was a sort of ‘green leaf’ flavour permeating the whole drink).
That said, the wines we had in wine bars did not exhibit the green leaf tinge, so maybe they were more carefully selected.
In general I found it interesting to see how people use Garnacha in different ways from the typical Spanish style!
Vermentino is a white grape variety, and I hadn’t heard of it before a fellow Italian student from WSET mentioned it to me! (It seems to have Italian origin too).
It is made in a variety of styles, but I mostly had the lighter still versions, which were lemony and refreshing, and a sparkling version.
It also seems very popular in Sicily; I saw a bottle of Sicilian Vermentino in M&S the other day, although I haven’t tried it myself (yet?).
These wines went down very well with squid and fish, those fritti misto for which I have a weak spot… but I also suspect they went down even better because we were in the middle of a brutal heatwave in Cagliari, having left the UK when it would barely reach 20ºC if you were lucky.
Carignano is what we call Cariñena in Spanish, and Carignan in French.
In theory these wines can lack “finesse” if the yield is not controlled, but I had the chance to try out a local Carignano which was deeply black-fruited both in colour and flavour. Probably not to be drank on its own, but it worked well with cheese.
(I apparently didn’t take a picture of the Carignano wine).
The most popular beer in Sardinia is Ichnusa, which features one of the multiple versions of the Sardinian flag with four heads (variations include: heads looking or not looking to the mast, with or without blindfolds, etc).
It is a lager style, and it works really well for when it’s hot, which it certainly was almost all the time we were there!
We also found local beers in beer bars, which you should visit if that’s your fancy.
I found it interesting that these beers were poured with all this foam on top; it reminded me to this article I read about banked beers in Teesside (England).
Italians don’t generally order “tap water” (they might think you’re eccentric if you do).
Sparkling water is called “Frizzante” here.
Don’t ask for “acqua con gas” because it was very funny to the waiters (I guess it means “water with flatulence”), and they were having lots of amusement at our literal Spanish translation (in retrospect, we are amused too).
They have a digestive liquor called “mirto” which is made of the “mirto” (myrtle) berries.
It is purple in colour and it has a very distinctive flavour: somewhat medicinal, hints of passion fruit, blackberry.
It will probably be offered to you at some point, but if not, do seek it out.
You can also buy dried berries to try to make the liquor at home too (obviously you’ll need some pre-distilled alcohol to infuse; you could use vodka as it’s fairly neutral… just saying).
Sardinian cuisine isn’t really vegan/vegetarian focused. There’s a lot of meat, fish and cheese in it.
As a “mostly-vegetarian, frequently vegan, flexitarian” myself, I struggled a bit to find food to eat in the most “traditional” restaurants. There seem to be some “bowl” and “vegan” places in Cagliari and bigger towns, but I didn’t want to eat a “bowl”; I wanted to eat nice Italian food!
I suppose you could concoct a vegetarian menu by selecting multiple starters and a salad (double checking it does not contain fish or similar if you’re aiming for strict veganism).
This aside, some highlights to look for:
Pecorino (and other cheeses)
There’s a lot of animal farming in the island and they consequently have a lot of nice local cheeses which you should try to sample. We had various types of cheese: softer, harder, mature—they were all delicious.
As you can imagine, this being Italy there was a lot of pasta, and there’s nothing as beautiful as learning about regional pasta shapes. We also learned how to MAKE pasta, as we signed up for a class in the Domu Antiga place we stayed in Gergei (more below).
Durum wheat pasta, shaped as irregular little pea sized balls. I had it with roasted vegetables and it was very comforting.
Some people say it’s like big couscous balls but I think this one gets slighlty roasted in the oven before cooking, so it has a nice nuttiness to it.
Dumplings filled with potato, pecorino and mint, and sealed with an elaborate pattern made by repeatedly twisting and pinching the dumpling edge. Diabolical to make, but really tasty.
Malloreddus or “gnocchi sardi”
Durum wheat pasta, hand-shaped as gnocchi.
We made these too! Had them with some nice sauce and cheese. Simple and deliciously comforting.
(Super) market research
Some examples of dry and fresh pasta in supermarkets, because I’m nosy like that:
Sweets and desserts
Seadas (or sebadas)
A deep-fried lard-enriched pastry filled with pecorino and lemon or orange peel, and with a generous serving of honey on top. Dessert typically served in celebrations or it seems in lots of places nowadays.
Interesting combination of sweet and savoury. It seems they could be made with butter, so maybe ask if you’d rather not have lard.
We made these:
And these are seadas/sebadas in a supermarket—they evidently can’t compare to the beauty of the ones WE made, but they certainly made us feel SO SMUG 😏
As an aside, I don’t know in Italian, but the name of “Sebadas” sounds like “fattened” as “sebo” is fat in Spanish. In fact, if you’re trying to make someone fat, you’d be “cebándolo/a”. No idea if they share the same root, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.
There were so many gelaterias around. You should try as many as you can while you slowly walk the city in the afternoons (the passeggiata). It’s the law.
Each gelateria seems to have their own special house flavour(s), so I aimed to try new flavours at each one I visited. We even tried mirto ice cream! (which was a pale purple colour).
I was very curious to try this, given that I grew up eating the Spanish turrón at Christmas.
In comparison, the Sardinian torrone is way, way softer, more like nougat than anything else, as it seems to have more egg white and honey paste than almonds, and they describe it as “morbido” (soft).
Turrón has lots more almonds, it’s pretty much like terrazzo and we often joke that they’re a great way to keep dentists in business.
I am still not sure if it’s a typical thing for Christmas only in Sardinia or if it is available all year round (or for tourists like us?), but we found a market stall selling torrone in the old center of Alghero, in blocks of 250g or 500g.
The classic flavour seems to be just almonds, egg white, honey (I think), and there were other versions with additional flavours such as (you guessed it right) mirto!
The stall is called “L’isola del Torrone” and I love the idea of an island dedicated to torrone. Maybe it’s just what Sardinia is… but it is many more things too!
In comparison, and I suppose also because it has way less almonds, it is considerably cheaper by the kilo than the Spanish one 😛
Pane di Saba
A thing we got from a supermarket because it sounded “bonkers”.
It is like an actually edible version of the British Christmas pudding, as it can last for a lot of months but it has way more nuts than raisins (so it doesn’t feel sickly sweet) 😛
Unless you consult a wiki like I just did, bottarga is “a thing with intensely fishy taste”. If you do research, you find out that it is “a hard dry slab made of the roe pouch of (mostly) grey mullet”—and I was raised in a mountain town so “grey mullet” just means “a fish” to me. More specifically in Sardinia they use “flathead mullet” instead, which also sounds like “a fish” to me.
It is often shaved or grated and sprinkled onto things like pasta to give it that extra umami oomph.
While we were in Sardinia we found bottarga in at least a couple of dishes. Devvers really likes the taste so we got a vacuum packed slab to bring home; now we can bottargaify everything if we wanted to!
Our favourite places
I’ll list the places we liked the most, grouped per town:
Birreria il Merlo parlante
Good selection of beers, space to sit both inside (air conditioned) and outside (no air con, but lots more chances to see interesting characters). That’s where we got the “tanked” beers from! Devvers would have stayed for longer and I bet we would have ended up playing cards with the locals!
This was a very nice wine bar, serving lots of local varieties. Being used to London prices, these looked like a steal! A STEAL!
We also were very positively surprised by the size of the platter we ordered: we thought we had asked for some breads so we wouldn’t be just drinking on an empty, and expected to get a few crostini and maybe olives if we were lucky, and out comes this massive platter where everything was delicious. Yum!
(I guess we’re malaccostumed to London portion sizes and prices)
Fine Sardinian cuisine, very well executed.
A very calm experience!
We got the tasting menu and paired it with the wine tasting for one person (Devvers, who can handle it). I got separate glasses, advised by the waiter who also enjoyed answering all our questions about food and things!
Here’s some delicious pasta, with bottarga:
Many of the dishes made references to wine, such as this one with cannonau sorbet and biscuit “corks”:
Or the sangria flower:
And they brought a cabinet of desserts! I want to have a cabinet like this, with hidden doors and secret drawers too:
La Piccola cafeteria
Found this totally by accident and I loved how the café had a cave at the end. Even the bathrooms seemed to be carved out of rock.
It also seems to be a wine bar, but we just had a couple of mid-morning espressos (espressi?).
Another place we accidentally found and satisfied our needs for food and drink. It’s in a little alleyway leading to the port, and we sat outside, under their canopy.
It was all good as there was a nice breeze going on, but as time passed and the sun came up it started shining over the canopy and I started feeling the heat. Good thing we were almost finishing!
We had some fritti, some pasta, some vermentino. Exactly what we needed 🙂
A sort of gift shop selling traditional Sardinian products.
I don’t normally feature “gift shops” but although this is a bit touristic, it still felt quite genuine and the stuff we got was of good quality. You can get fragola, mirto berries, bottarga, etc, from here.
Bring some Sardinia home with you!
This is a boutique hotel built on the ruins of a former farm or some other agricultural building in Gergei, a small town in the countryside, sort of half-way between Cagliari and Alghero.
It was the highlight of our trip!
The location is really lovely, the aesthetics are very country-core and the treatment did feel so much like we were a little part of their family.
We had a Sardinian cooking lesson with Giulia who in just a few hours taught us how to make pasta, shape it in different ways, concoct different fillings and much more. It was so very interesting! And then we got to eat what we had cooked.
I just wished we had stayed for longer so we could partake in more activities and get more in touch with the mysterious vibe that you can feel in that area of the island (we were there only one night)—reserved, but a powerful current underneath.
We had also been to Su Nuraxi on the way to Gergei—it’s an archeological site for former fortresses called nuraghi in Barumini, a nearby town. If you’re into old things and stones, I highly recommend it!
Another traditional cuisine restaurant, well executed.
We booked quite early and apparently got one of the best tables in the house so we had dinner overlooking the port and with really nice sunset views.
No tasting menu, just à la carte and option to choose a fish from the literal array of options of fresh catch from the day they bring you in a tray:
Prosciutteria Sant Miquel
Great place to have local wine and beers with things to snack on. Really good selection and the service is ultra kind and attentive.
A very nice ice-cream shop. They serve mirto ice cream.
Caffè la piazza
We arrived here quite late for lunch after driving from Alghero, and were tired and thirsty but most places had shut down the kitchen already and it felt like the whole city had gone to bed for the day. Would we be able to get any food or drink? 😨
Fortunately after a bit of searching and asking someone suggested we try this café in the main square, which was literally called… caffè la piazza!
We had one of their salads, “with everything in it”. So they added a bit of each ingredient to it. Terribly blurry picture aside, this was such a nice salad (specially after we had had quite rich food the days before!).
Gelateria Numero Uno
I don’t know about you but if I want to have ice cream I’d rather it be from THE BEST! Not sure if it was THE BEST, but I really enjoyed that there was a little desk bell to call if there was no one available to serve. It was like a hotel front-desk, but for ice cream.
And the flavours were delicious! A really good farewell gelato.
Skål – Pizzeria al taglio
Later on the day we got some slices of pizza from this place for an early dinner.
I wasn’t expecting much… but they turned out to be delicious! The dough was perfectly developed and flavourful (they said they use a slow long fermentation which would explain), and the toppings were so good too: fresh, tasty, the right amount of savoury.
On Italian, English, Sardo, Algherese
Learn some basic Italian: not only it is a sign of courtesy, but also in places outside of Cagliari it might be the fastest way to communicate your intentions.
Though: everyone speaks super fast Italian here. It took us a while to get into this superspeedy Italian.
Almost everyone in Cagliari can communicate in English, but it definitely sets a better tone if you start conversations by greeting in Italian. Don’t be also surprised if people switch to English even if you speak decent Italian! We heard multiple times that they wanted to practice their English skills.
I personally use Duolingo to refresh my Italian, and just try to speak more musically than I would in Spanish. I might be cheating a lot because I also speak Catalan which is quite close to Italian, but I can’t do anything about that!
Likewise, there were a bunch of words and constructions that I couldn’t quite recognise as Italian because they were either a very local dialect or just straight out of Sardinian language (Sardo). We just asked, when confused. For example, rather than referring to a “bicchiere” (for a glass of wine) they talked about a “calice”, which is the first time I hear being used to refer to a glass in Italian! (A cáliz in Spanish is a chalice, i.e. what the priest uses to drink wine from during mass, so I was confused that we were mixing religion with pleasure at a wine bar!)
Regarding Algherese/Catalan, there were multiple signs in Algherese in Alghero, but I asked as many people as I could in Alghero and I did not find any speaker of Algherese other than the relatives at the wedding who I already knew. So don’t expect to be able to find your way around if you only speak Catalan.
On roads and driving
We did not find the general behaviour of other drivers as atrocious and outrageous as Italian drivers fame told us to expect. Instead, what we found is that the roads themselves were quite challenging.
I was expecting the “Super Strada” to be like the Spanish “Autovías” which are about 2 to 3 lane highways but without tolls. They actually were not that well maintained, often had bumps and holes, were way narrower than you expected, and we encountered a huge number of building works along the way (specially towards the north, near Sassari).
The other big problem we encountered is the signage; or the lack thereof. You often were not given a lot of warning before you had to reduce speed or leave round-abouts (if there was one). I suppose if you’re a local you don’t need these, but for drivers who are unfamiliar with the area, it was very confusing! You’ll need to be quite swift at manouvering (specially if you have a car with manual gears, like us).
Also, road markings were really something special. Often contradictory, at places non-existant or mostly worn out. Again, confusing!
On the way back we decided to take “lesser roads” from Alghero before joining the Super Strada rather than going to Sassari and down. We ended up in actually quite rural roads and even on some roads which looked like they had been a construction site just the day before and abandoned for the week-end, half-way finished. We (slowly) drove over roads without tarmac, and even roads with tarmac which hadn’t been rolled flat yet! It was like driving over some sort of viscous gravel.
We also found a very low point on the road from Oristano to Cagliari Elmas Airport. It was so cold that a pocket of fog had accumulated for kilometers, and we had no visibility past a few meters. I even had to use the windsweepers to remove the condensation on the windshield—I was so impressed this could happen in June!
It was a good holiday!
Overall, we felt that we only scratched the surface of Sardinia and in particular would like to visit the centre of the island more. It feels like a place that takes time to give up its secrets! Hopefully sometime we can visit again.