Swept Away in Sardinia
Recommended by Lauren Hefferon
“I studied archaeology and anthropology in college, and I love places with great architecture and culture,” Lauren Hefferon began. “I came to Italy to continue my education. When I was living in Italy, I’d ask the people I’d meet, ‘Where are the great places to ride?’ After I heard about a place, I’d go to a bookstore and look at maps and guidebooks to figure it out. I was committed to riding all the great places I was learning about. When someone mentioned Sardinia, it piqued my interest. The photographs convinced me to go. Sardinia is to Italians as Hawaii is to Americans—an island Shangri-La. I love islands, the idea that you can cycle around or across and get a sense of completion. When I visited in 1992, I was blown away by how gorgeous it was. The roads were fabulous, and the contrast between the coast and the interior was tremendous. At that time, Americans knew little of Sardinia. I felt like people would embrace it, both for fitness riding and for the chance to combine swimming and biking and the opportunity to immerse yourself in an authentic, exotic culture.”
Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (160 miles long and 68 miles wide), located west of the Italian mainland, north of Tunisia and the African continent, and just south of the French island of Corsica. The island is one of Italy’s five autonomous regions with its capital, Cagliari, in the far south. Throughout history, Sardinia has had a variety of courtiers and conquerors, including (but not limited to) the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, and finally, the Italians. The island has been part of Italy since the early 1700s, and though Italian is widely spoken and many aspects of Italian culture have been adopted, Sardinian (an early Romance language dating back two thousand years) is still commonly heard. Sardinia boasts 1,200 miles of coastline along the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean Seas, with myriad white sand beaches and turquoise water that cries out to swimmers. Costa Smeralda (or the “Emerald Coast”) on Sardinia’s northeastern shore appeals to European jet-setters, royals, and other glitterati; it’s a major stop on the Rolex Cup sailing circuit. Inland, you’ll find a much different side of Sardinia of canyons dotted with ancient mountain villages, forests of chestnut and cork trees, and shepherds herding their flocks much as they have for thousands of years.
“The Sardinians have an ancient form of singing,” Lauren added. “It’s a very deep and living culture. All the food is sourced locally. There’s a flat bread that you find around the island that’s baked to be crispy, seasoned with salt and garlic. On the coast, you see mostly fish and other seafood. In the interior, there’s more lamb and fresh produce; roasted pig is a specialty.”
Each day’s ride on Sardinia holds special surprises. Cycling north and west from Alghero to Capo Caccia, you can visit Grotta di Nettuno (Neptune’s Grotto) if you are willing to descend the 656 steps down to the sea caves. Upon arrival you’re treated to an arresting array of stalactites and stalagmites. “I also love the ride south from Alghero to Bosa,” Lauren continued. “It’s a very twisting, winding road along the amazingly blue Mediterranean, with mountains to the left. There’s a more direct route for cars if they’re in a hurry. The scenery reminds me of Route 1 in southern California—except for the lack of cars. There are brilliant rock formations that change at every curve. The coastline around Bosa is home to great bird life; you might come upon a reed warbler or a griffon vulture.”
One of Lauren’s favorite rides climbs from near the center of Sardinia, over Genna Silana pass, and then heads back down to the sea on the island’s east coast. “We start from the village of Oleina, which is known for a style of Grenache wine, Cannonau di Sardegna,” Lauren explained. “There’s a four-star hotel there, Hotel Su Gologone, that’s been run by the same family for generations. It’s right at the foot of Supramonte Mountain. (The nearby village of Mamoiada is known for its ritual of the Mamuthones, which celebrates the passing of winter to spring and dates back to pre-Christian times. Participants don a black sheepskin, nearly seventy pounds of bronze cowbells, and, most famously, a dark wooden mask that’s both eerie and iconic before parading through the streets.) The climb is very gradual, along a zigzagging road carved into the ridge of the mountains. To the right, you’re looking out at the highlands of Supramonte. Below there’s a plunging river gorge. You gain 3,280 feet, but as it’s over 12 miles (19 km), you barely notice. The descent to the coast is perhaps even more dramatic, though not too steep. You come down to sea level over the course of 20 miles (32 km). You put out some energy over the day, but not too much.
“I recall my first visit to Sardinia,” Lauren added. “I met a local guy, and he took me to his home. His mother was so excited to have a visitor from America in her house, she insisted that I try on her wedding gown. It was very traditional garb, with multiple layers of ornate colors and gold work. I even put on makeup, which is not typical for me. Then we had a great feast of roasted suckling pig, ravioli with fresh ricotta, pane carasau (Sardinian flat bread), fresh gnocchi, home made Mirto (a Sardinian after dinner drink), and so much more. On another occasion when I was leading a tour, we did an invigorating ride that ended on the beach. It was so great to get a good workout and then play in the waves of that beautiful water. Afterwards, we took the support van to a town where there was festival in progress. People were promenading in their ceremonial clothing, and we found a spot in a bar to have a drink and take it all in. The interactions with the Sardinians at the end of our cycling days are the icing on the cake. I like to tell the local people we’re cycling through their culture.”