By Ron Bernthal
You never hear about the island on the nightly news, and it hardly appears in casual conversations about European vacations, or even on top ten lists of favorite places to visit. Most Americans probably could not find it on a map. The Italian island of Sardinia, located in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of southern Italy, is still virgin territory for most American travelers, even as hordes of European tourists crowd its beaches during their traditional summer holiday periods.
Sardinia does pop up occasionally in the U.S. mass media. In 2002 Guy Ritchie directed his wife, Madonna, in the film Swept Away, which bombed at the box office despite the gorgeous shooting location on Sardinia’s beautiful east coast.
Former Tyco executive Dennis Kozlowsky got into big trouble for spending over two million dollars on his wife’s Sardinian birthday party, and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is reported to own at least four homes on the island, and the amount of money being spent on them has reached scandalous proportions.
Although European mass tourism to Sardinia began in the 1970′s, shortly after Prince Aga Khan developed a portion of the island’s Emerald Coast into an upscale, jet-set hideaway, European writers and artists had been coming for decades before that, basking in the Mediterranean sunshine, and enjoying the wine, cheese, olive oil, and locally raised lamb that is found all over the island.
Sardinia is small enough to cover comfortably by car in a few days, yet diverse enough to offer snow covered mountains, rolling green hills dotted with more than 7,000 ancient stone towers, and semi-tropical fishing villages.The writer D.H. Lawrence traveled to Sardinia in the 1920′s, and in his novel, Sea and Sardinia, he wrote that “here is a place that does not belong to our present day world.”
This story will not focus on the deluxe seaside resorts that attract most visitors, but on three agricultural industries that have flourished on the island for thousands of years— cork, wine and olive oil. These three industries, together with sheep farming, give the island its unique character and do provide tourism opportunities in the form of agricultural tours and farm stays.
In the northern part of Sardinia, near the village of Calanjanus, travelers pass through miles of cork forests, dense groves of trees whose trunks are covered, not in the normal hard tree bark, but with soft, brown cork. It is from these natural cork oak forests that over 100 companies in Sardinia extract their product. At the factory of Peppino Molinas & Sons, the largest cork producer on the island, Pierra Cossu shows a visitor the stacks of cork piled outside the plant.
“They take the cork with an ax and special tools to strip it from the tree, and then bring it to the factory, where it is stacked outside,” Cossu says, standing in the warm January sunshine. “The cut cork must remain outside for a minimum of 12 months, before it is brought into the factory for cutting. Each tree is stripped at regular intervals of 10 to 12 years. Thus, each oak can provide no more than 7 harvests for each century of its life. Once inside the factory the cork is inspected for quality, defects, and tree diseases.”
I ask Ms. Cossu what makes a piece of cork suitable for use as a wine stopper, or for industrial use, such as flooring or wall boards. She says that the quality of the cork determines the usage, with higher quality cork going to wineries for wine or Champaign bottles. The cork is boiled after its seasoning outside, and then machines punch holes in the flat cork to produce the wine stoppers. Approximately two million cork bottle stoppers are produced each day at this factory.
A drive from the northern village of Calanjanos to the west coast city of Oristano can take either a few hours, using the fast modern highway that skirts the towns, or a full day, traveling slowly along country roads, through quiet hilltop villages with narrow cobblestone lanes, or down the scenic west coast road, which offers breathtaking views of the sea, and winds through small fishing villages, such as Bosa, where fresh lobster, mullet and tuna are brought into the local fish market every day.
Just outside Oristano, near the village of Cabras, thousands of pink flamingos wade in the shallow lagoons, and nearby vineyards produce some of the best Italian wine in the country. At the Contini Winery, established in 1898, four generations have watched over the grapes during the mild Mediterranean winters and through the hot and windy summers. The result has been a tradition of award winning wines.
“The most famous grape in this area is the Vernaccia variety,’ Paolo Contini explains, as he shows a visitor around the production facility and tasting room. The mistral winds from Spain and France helped spread favorable soil onto Sardinia, which gives the wine from the island a special taste and smell.” The Contini Winery has a small tasting room in Cabras where visitors can sample the product and purchase bottles to take home, and the vineyards are located outside of the village, on rolling hills covered with vines.(www.vinicontini.it )
It is only an hour’s drive from the Contini family winery to the small village of Gergei but, like all short drives in Sardinia, the scenery changes drastically, from the lowlands of the west coast to the foothills of the Monti del Gennargentu. Here, amid the hilly sheep pastures and small villages dominated by old stone churches, are fields of olive trees, and where a company called Argei produces extra virgin and organic extra virgin olive oil from four varieties of olives that grow all around the village.
Olives, and the production of olive oil, has been a tradition in Sardinia since the Phoenicians, and its importance to the island lifestyle cannot be exaggerated. In Sardinia more people live to be 100 years or older than anywhere else in the world, and although some of this longevity can be attributed to the island’s relaxed and healthy lifestyle, you cannot overlook the influence of olive oil in their daily diet, along with, of course, the fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables, the local pecorino cheese, and large does of local red wine.
“In order to produce excellent olive oil, you must of course grow excellent olives, and we have the best olives in the world,” said Sylvia Hernberger, a marketing assistant at Argei. “In Sardinia none of the companies mass produce their olive oil, and although they do ship product to customers in Erope, little Sardinian olive oil finds its way to the supermarket shelves of the United States.”
“Most of it is kept for here, sold in the small village markets and to local restaurant chefs,” Hernberger said. At Argei, it takes about an hour from the initial washing of the olives to when they are smashed under the press, which grinds the olives into an olive paste. The paste is put through a spinning process where the oil is extracted. The oil is then stored in stainless steel containers and left to settle for about a month, during which the oil becomes clear and ready for bottling. The olive harvest begins in earnest sometime in September or October, depending on weather. (www.argei.it)
IF YOU GO…Avoid the summer crowds and winter chill by visiting in spring and fall, when the Mediterranean is still warm, the beaches empty, and olives and grapes are being harvested throughout the island. There are no direct flights to Sardinia from the United States, but numerous European airlines fly to the Sardinian capital of Cagliari, and the airline easyJet offers inexpensive flights from London’s Gatwick Airport to Cagliari and Olbia, the northern coastal resort city. (www.easyjet.com)
Contact: The Italian Government Tourist Office, with offices in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, can provide updated information on attractions and accommodations in Sardinia (www.italiantourism.com ). The Italian tour firm, Agriturist, is a good spot to begin searching for unique “farm holidays” in Sardinia, combining regular tourism activities with visits to agricultural operations and accommodations on island farms (www.agriturist.it/regioni.php ).