It’s hard to imagine an island of 5 square kilometers becoming a kingdom on the whim of a royal visitor, yet that’s exactly what happened to tiny Tavolara, off the east coast of Sardinia. When King Charles Albert of Sardinia visited Tavolara in 1836, he bestowed independent royal status upon it and decreed that resident shepherd Giuseppe Bertolioni should be king. The King wanted to show his thanks for the sheep that Bertolioni had presented to him in honour of his arrival on the island, thereby creating what was for many years (1836 – 1962) the smallest kingdom in the world.
There isn’t that much information available about Tavolara, should you want to visit, hence this post, which I hope will help any would-be visitors to the island. Monsieur and I visited Tavolara in May of this year, and it was a welcome distraction, yet we’d probably have enjoyed it more had we known more about what is, or rather isn’t there.
The main reason for visiting Tavolara, population a whopping 55, is probably to satisfy the curiosity of why such a place might have a king. The second reason might be to eat at the island’s one restaurant, Da Tonino (they’ll send a boat to pick you up) and a third might be to pay respects to the deceased island royals in the tiny cemetery. It’s also possible that if you work for NATO you may visit the large chunk of the island serving as a NATO base and absolutely off-limits to the likes of us.
There are no cars, bicycles or vehicles on Tavolara (not that we saw, anyway), making us feel a bit silly, having asked if it were possible to take our car across on the ferry. (Admittedly, that was before we saw the ferry.) One walks, as we later found that it’s perfectly easy to circumnavigate the portion of island accessible to non-NATO visitors. Do note that if you decide to visit Tavolara, be sure to bring a picnic with you as there is no shop and when we visited, the restaurant was closed until 1pm, by which time we were ready to head back to Sardinia proper.
Our ’ferry’ was in fact more of a shuttle boat, cram-packed with raucous local kids on a school trip. It was early morning and we’d been led to believe by hotel staff that getting coffee and a couple of breakfast pastries would be possible once we arrived at the island. It wasn’t possible as there is naught but the restaurant, which wouldn’t open for some hours yet. Fortunately, we had water in our packs, but I think you can imagine how hunger might have impacted our view of the island somewhat as my dear husband and I don’t travel too well on empty stomachs, food lovers that we are.
By the time the twenty minute boat ride was over, we’d had enough of smurf-swapping and excited screeching (although talking to the kids in basic Italian made me feel as fluent as Dante Alighieri because they understood everything I said), making away from the children as swiftly as our feet would carry us on the sandy paths. Now we understood why the ticket seller had mentioned the school trip, suggesting we might prefer to wait for a later boat. They were loud, as school groups so often are, but quite well-behaved nonetheless. However, later on, as I rinsed my hands in the ladies’ washroom at the back of the (closed) restaurant, one particularly precocious madam pointed at my slightly peeling shoulder, shook her head and tut-tutted. “Shame,” she said. It felt like being scolded by a grandmother in a ten year-old’s body.
Monsieur and I walked the length of the island’s main highway – a sand-swept walkway busy with determined lines of rather large ants. At various points along the way were information boards about the flora and fauna of the island, which was certainly unspoilt. The northern beaches just off the path were too rocky to lure us in for a dip; once we’d visited the cemetery with its rickety wooden gate and had spotted the yellow-teethed goats that share (and eat) the island, we’d pretty much covered all the options open to us. Heading down to the more sheltered southern beach of sand, we dozed for an hour or so until the next boat could take us back to civilisation and, naturalmente, FOOD. If you’re a botanist or biologist, Tavolara will possibly hold more interest for you; for us, we regretted not knowing to pack a picnic, ‘cos once you’re on the island, you’re on the island and you can’t leave until the next boat, on an inconveniently erratic timetable, arrives. Another time, we’d probably go when the restaurant is open, wiling away our time in the consumption of local dishes and gazing at the unimpeded views of the Sardinian coastline, followed by a lazy siesta on the beach. Alternatively, find out when the Tavolara film festival is on (usually July) to hob nob with Italy’s gliterrati of the cinema whilst watching Italian films and creative shorts capturing the beauty of Tavolara.
In summary, and to experience the best of this peaceful place, don’t do as we did and go unprepared; either visit at a time when the restaurant is open or take a picnic. Load up with reading matter or snorkelling gear or something else to entertain you if you’re easily bored and then Tavolara will become a haven of tranquillity to be savoured.
Driving from Cagliari to Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda gives the option of two main routes: one zig-zags you up the island on an efficient, wide autostrada (the SS131); the other snakes precariously around the sheer cliff faces of the east (the SS125). Never again do I want to travel the second way.
At various junctures along this serpentine route signs may be found warning of wandering livestock. They do not lie. We encountered quite a few four-legged friends, most often pondering life in the middle of the road or grazing calmly beside it. Pigs, goats, horned cattle, sheep… all came dangerously close to losing their lives beneath a large Ford people-mover as Monsieur, impatient to reach our hotel, zoomed us around the corners like a Schumacher brother. For much of this journey, I gripped the seat and door handle for dear life, closing my eyes and silently imploring St Christopher to protect us against what I now saw to be our inevitable end: diving down from the road to an untimely death, which, given the desolation of much of the area, I was certain may not be discovered for some weeks. If you’re even a slightly nervous passenger, I certainly do not recommend travelling this way. If you must, be warned: you may need to pop a few dozen valium to get through it.
At one point during the trip, when I felt momentarily calm enough to release my grip on the car and use the camera, I snapped the Three Little Pigs, calmly trotting across the road, impervious to the real threat of slaughter by automobile. A few nights later, as Monsieur devoured a good portion of juicy Sardinian suckling pig, we wondered aloud if it had been a relation.
The food of the island is certainly excellent and now we understand why: they raise happy animals like this example of proper, free-range pork. It was pleasant to see so much of Sardinia’s GDP ambling about her country roads, but once is enough for me. Next time, I’m determined to stick to the autostrada.
Porto Rotondo is a place of fantasy: an artificial port and marina filled with luxe and super-boats. The one below is charming instead of the usual gin palace that’s the size of a house on water.
The sad thing is that these super-vessels only get used for a few weeks each summer. The rest of the time they sit idle, waiting for their pop star/ movie mogul/ politician/ Swiss banker owners to arrive for a bit of show-off time with their loaded friends; a sure case of ‘my boat’s bigger than your boat’. Some, like this one, are real whoppers.
Regardless, Porto Rotondo is a beautiful place to visit, an easy drive from the big Sardinian town of Olbia. Bougainvillaea blooms in all directions, the main pedestrian drag of Via del Molo is paved with fish and shark mosaics, crew in matching polo shirts bustle about preparing yachts for visitors and real Pucci maxi-dresses float casually by in the warm sea breeze. You get the picture. There’s another magnet to the lush sanctuary of Porto Rotondo, though: The Bar-Gelateria Del Molo.
Monsieur and I first found the Del Molo when we visited Sardinia three years ago. We loved their breakfasts so much that we decided to fly our new Lear jet over for lunch. (Okay, okay, I lie. We were there again on holiday and found ourselves in the area…No Lear jets at our disposal. Easyjet works perfectly well for us. )We just wanted something quick and light, but ended up going the whole hog with three courses each. Monsieur kicked off with prosciutto and cantaloupe, the melon perfectly ripe and oozing with juice, the ham deep with flavour. This was no supermarket-shelf ham, but slim cuts with little fat, ever so slightly thicker than parchment.
In the mood for cool, fresh, raw food, I chose the mozzarella and tomato salad. Sprinkled with oregano and fresh basil, I splashed some extra virgin olive oil onto the plate and tucked in. Admittedly, the tomatoes were a tad hard – a couple more days on the vine would have done them no harm, but the mozzarella was superb – rich dairy goodness with a consistency part-way to burrata, it stole the show.
Monsieur does enjoy a good club sandwich from time to time. Here’s how the Del Molo does it:
Once more, only the freshest ingredients were used, including the egg mayonnaise, salad and tender chunks of Sardinian chook. Even the bread was toasted to just the right shade of gold, but it was my main that will go down in the Epic book of all-time favourite dishes: tuna carpaccio with artichoke. I’m a carpaccio queen and I swear to the gods of all things culinary that this was the best tuna carpaccio I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat.
I think the trick was in lightly smoking the fish, for there was the vaguest hint of smokiness in the flavour. Sliced paper thin, dotted with fresh tomato salsa and preserved artichokes, all of it posing prettily in that same peppery extra virgin olive oil, each tiny mouthful contained a fishlover’s fireworks. At once fine yet unexpectedly fulsome, I ate slowly, allowing it all to seep into my cheeks so that I could hold the flavour for as long as possible. In the greatest gesture of generosity, I forked a bite’s worth onto Monsieur’s plate, keen to share the experience. It will be a long time before I forget such a wonderful culinary treat.
Our waiter was a proper character – tri-lingual at least, generally displaying his trio of international skills in the same sentence: “Monsieur, your order, per favore,” or “tutto a posto, Missus, oui? C’est bon?”. Cleverly, this covered all the bases. Now he suggested “un’ gelato, ice cream, glace?” It would have been rude not to, although at €10.00 per three scoop sundae, stabbed with a branded wafer and squirt of whipped cream, the cost was excessive in a country where you can buy decent gelato at a euro a scoop. Still, we bore it with a smile, as the lunch had been fantastic, we were looking out at a stunning marine-lover’s vista, and it seemed sad to leave without something sweet on the tongue. The Sicilian cassata ice cream was excellent. Don’t leave Porto Rotondo without trying it. Homemade glacé fruit makes such a difference. NB If you don’t want to fork out €10.00 for a sit-down sundae, you can always opt for the take-away option for about half that.
A clue to the excellence of our Porto Rotondo lunch lay just inside this doorway:
That’s where I spotted a shelf absolutely groaning with well-thumbed, sauce-flecked cook books.
Certainly, this was an expensive visit at around €90.00 for just the two of us, including diet cokes and bottled water but no wine or alcohol, yet for the memory, it was definitely worth it. As for the tuna carpaccio – it’s the stuff my dreams are made of.
Bar-Gelateria Del Molo - Walk all the way down the Via Del Molo until you reach the water. The Del Molo is tucked just around the corner on the right hand side. Local phone number: 0789 34338.
Click here to see my last post about the Del Molo, where I talk about breakfast.
Picture the scene: it’s late morning at Sardinia’s Cagliari Elmas airport. Monsieur and I have been awake since dawn but haven’t had time for breakfast. The low-cost airline has high-cost sandwiches which we avoid, mostly because they already look curled and cardboardy, and the coffee looks like something that might spurt out of a long-disused farmhouse tap. Monsieur and I are not the types to eat for the sake of it so we wave the snacks trolley past. Besides, we figure that abstinence now will soon enough be rewarded when we lunch on some fine Italian food.
As the aircraft doors opened to a rush of warm, Sardinian air, Monsieur and I were raring to go. That morning, we’d left the spring morning chill of Luton to fly into the deep blue hanging above this craggy isle. We decided to forget hotels for now; they’re for sleeping. Our feet had different priorities: they were itching to reach sand and saltwater.
First, we picked up the hire car, which wasn’t the convertible Monsieur had booked - the previous renter had decided to abscond with it for an extra day and there weren’t any others available. We might have been miffed, but for two things: 1. only the most unreasonable of folk wouldn’t get the temptation to Just Stay One More Day - Sardinian weather in May is glorious; and 2. the alternative on offer was a brand new Fiat 500. Personally, I preferred it to the convertible; it had iconic value and would protect me from being flattened by wind and bugs as Monsieur zoomed along the autostrade.
We sped away from the airport, past mud flats studded with the pale pink of flamingo, to the southern Sardinian coast. There, the road led us to a small town near the beach – formed of clusters of small, stuccoed buildings radiating out from a modern piazza. Everything testified to sensitive yet sensible town-planning, the shops and eateries all freshly painted in the sort of ice cream pastels that made me long for a gelato to drip down my hand. For that, however, I would have to wait a little longer.
On opening the doors of our little ‘bambino’, the heat rushed at us like a blast from the oven. It was more than just warm – you could easily have fried a couple of eggs in less than a minute on the scorching asphalt street. Feeling the sting of the sun on our winter-bleached skin, we sought out somewhere shady to lunch, settling on a buffet restaurant called Su Nuraghe. The restaurant is named after the strange megalithic buildings (nuraghe) that look like stone beehives, marking the Sardinian landscape and now quite the unofficial symbol of Sardinia itself. We found a table in the shade, then ventured inside to order. The interior was cool and practical -sparkling laminate floor, glass and chrome counters, simple tables and chairs. There were no grubby fingernails here.
We ordered lots of good, sparkling Sardinian water and plates of seafood salad to start.
Mussels and crabsticks made an appearance in this simple dish, but fortunately for this lover of octopodes, there was a surfeit of eight-legged sea creature before me. I do so relish the cool, fresh flesh of an octopus, served in the merest drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice.
Next came plates of one of Italy’s simplest seaside pasta dishes – spaghetti tossed with olive oil and fresh sea urchin. The precious orange roe had a delightfully slippery texture and tasted like Neptune’s version of marshmallow – capturing all at once the taste of sea air on the tongue and combining it with a unique, briney sweetness. This was exactly the sort of food Monsieur and I had anticipated. Our morning’s patience had certainly been rewarded.
Before heading off to the beach, we stopped at a gelateria for a refreshing treat. I was interested to note the existence of soya milk-based gelato on their menu, which is a boon for anyone with lactose intolerance! Tempted though I was to taste-test it, today I stuck to my favourite flavours: cocco, stracciatella e banana. I’ll never be size zero at this rate and, in this world of superficiality, I admit that such a thing doesn’t even approach making it onto my bucket list. Truth be told, I’m probably not the norm in this respect. I’d much rather meet my Maker with a stomachful of flavour and the memory of a good old slap-up lunch than arrive at the Pearly Gates regretting the fact that diet coke and a lettuce leaf (hold the dressing) had been my death row meal. As Fellini once put it: “Life is a combination of magic and pasta,” and if you could add the freshest seafood salad and quality gelato to that combination, you’d have a lunch that I’d be happy to enjoy as my last.
In early May, the Sardinian summer season is slowly kicking off. The atmosphere’s halcyon, the sky cerulean, the waters clear and flowers exploding with colour everywhere you look, yet the tourist hordes have yet to land. It’s paradise.
One typically fine morning, Monsieur and I drove to Porto Rotondo, a village with impressive marina just south of the Emerald Coast in Sardinia’s north-west. It’s by no means ancient; farmers and fisherman inhabited the locale until prominent architect, Luigi Vietti arrived to design the village in the 1960s. He and his team of developers set to work, building hotels and apartments, boutiques and moorings and all the amenities a wealthy holidaymaker might demand. Love him or hate him, Silvio Berlusconi likes it here; he has a holiday home on the cliffs above the town. (If you’re into a bit of Silvio-spotting, I’ve heard it’s the one with several carabinieri cars permanently parked at the gate.)
Porto Rotondo is a curious place. It has a slick, artificial feel to it, with the tangible yet conflicting element of deep relaxation. The people don’t walk, they amble, whilst smiling in a slow, easy way. The streets are cobbled and inlaid with modern mosaic patterns, the church of San Lorenzo (patron saint of cooks) resembles an overturned hull and there’s a granite amphitheatre for the entertainment of culture vultures. The marina is a tribute to luxury pleasure boats, filled with every type of exclusive vessel imaginable, from fat, white gin palaces to wood-panelled speed boats and tall, classic schooners. Boat brokers are two-a-penny here and you can see why. There’s plenty of business to be had.
When I remember our visits to Porto Rotondo, it’s the perfect breakfasts that come to mind. Monsieur and I discovered a quiet, traditional eatery overlooking a quiet section of the marina, and there we’d sit of a morning, the tranquillity seeping into our souls.
The owners of the Bar-Gelateria del Molo have proudly hung the date of its establishment above the doorway: 1950. They’re evidently proud to have been here before Signor Vietti; quite possibly they fed and watered him as the village grew into a pleasure port. Our breakfasts there were simple – perfect shots of Italian espresso, hot and creamy with a proper Continental kick, tall, cool glasses of freshly-squeezed orange juice and soft, buttery croissants to start the day. At €10.00 a head for this simple breakfast, you might argue that it’s not great value, but Monsieur and I would disagree. The location is unbeatable, the staff welcoming, the views spectacular. The memory makes my heart slow in the most calming of ways.
Endearingly, outside the Bar-Gelateria del Molo is parked a tiny Italian delivery buggy of bright buffed red. In a wink to days of yore, there’s a wicker basket strapped to the back. I hope it’s tasked with carrying picnics to seaward-bound gin palaces, for it would be a complete waste to stay at home and order delivery food in Porto Rotondo, when you could so easily wander down to this refreshingly unpretentious bar with the perfect view. The del Molo certainly provides the quintessential Italian breakfast of quality, but I imagine it’s equally glorious for a cocktail at sunset, or a wicked lick of stracciatella on a hot afternoon.
Sitting here in the grey of January in London, the simple act of recalling breakfasts at the Bar-Gelateria del Molo warms me through. If that isn’t a glowing reference for an eatery, I don’t know what is. So, promise me, please, that if you find yourself in Sardinia one early May, you’ll make your way to Porto Rotondo and, even if it’s just the once, you owe it to yourself to breakfast by the marina. For the oft-harassed escapee from the hamster wheel of the Western World, this is a tonic not to be missed.
Sardinia is an island of secrets and quiet beauty, the most precious delights of which are likely to be tucked away from tour bus routes. Driving into the island’s hinterland on a warm May day, Monsieur and I rounded a bend on a country highway to discover one such unexpected treasure: the painted village of Tinnura.
Tinnura’s church lies behind these painted walls,
the priest and members of his congregation immortalised for all to see.
I wondered who this chap with traditional flat cap was:
What tales would he tell us in his mountain dialect?
Are these flowers of gratitude for an answered prayer? Or perhaps this member of Tinnura’s faithful has volunteered her flower arranging skills to the parish.
Even the pedestrian crossing adds colour to this quiet little town, made all the more quiet by the heat of mid-afternoon. Apart from the rare few souls we spotted venturing beyond the shade of their shuttered interiors into the cauldron-like streets, the only population we saw in Tinnura were painted into its walls.
The painter’s brush does not limit its work to celebrating the townsfolk of Tinnura alone; their animals also feature. Here a pair of horses ready themselves for a trot out of their frame and onto the street.
On the side of a house a short walk from the main street, we see the ominous masked faces of players in an ancient Sardinian rite that some say dates back to prehistory. The matador-like man or isohadore looks all set to lasso a friend or woman in the invisible carnival crowd, taking his chosen one prisoner with a rope of plaited reeds. Meanwhile, the mamuthones in hook-nosed masks and shaggy sheepskin cloaks, are the fruit of a union between fire and moon, bearing the weight of cumbersome cow bells on their backs.
No masked beings from the underworld here, though. Life goes on in these walls, simple, daily life. These women are practising the art of basket weaving.
And this trio kneads, shapes and bakes loaves of bread to feed the Tinnurese – an apt scene for Tinnura’s Bread Street or Via del Pane.
But in Tinnura it’s not a case of all work and no play makes Giovanni a dull boy. Oh, no, the Tinnurese tap their feet to the songs of their friend, the accordion player, as one wicked reveller stumbles off with the wine.
This man plays the pipe, not just one but three at at a time.
Here we see that even the painted ladies of Tinnura have shadows.
Behind these folk busying themselves with the day’s chores, an ancient nuraghe sits on a hillside.
If you’re peckish, why not visit Tinnura’s baker? Rest assured, his loaves are never stale.
From this angle, the Wine Thief looks set to trip over the curb, spilling his liquid loot all over unlucky passers by..
This pair of monochrome images look like photos from an agricultural history book. See how they tilled the land?
With a living population of 268, Tinnura’s numbers are swelled by its painted people. Monsieur and I were only there for a fraction of an hour, yet this Sardinian surprise will stay in my visual archive for ever.
It’s official: I need a waterproof camera. When Monsieur and I were caught in a Sicilian deluge in the little town of Trapani, I couldn’t help myself; I kept on snapping. Even in the grey of the downpour, shooting Trapani’s buildings was worth getting a little wet. Or so I thought. Meanwhile, Monsieur’s camera stayed safe in a dry pocket. Ah, such wisdom.
Everything seemed fine until we got back to the hotel that evening. I tried to take a shot of our room, only the LCD screen on my trusty little Canon Powershot SD870 IS started to act up. First it went pink, then dark, bit by bit, kind of like those black spots that appear before your eyes just before you pass out. Then there was nothing. The lens was open but no one was home. The screen showed nada. Oh, hell.
Taking my camera to hospital was definitely in order, but we wouldn’t be able to do that until we got to Taormina the following evening. And that evening would be New Year’s Eve, so I was likely to be without the ability to photograph anything until the New Year rolled round, IF I could even find a photographics shop that was open over the holidays. Monsieur scolded me. “You shouldn’t have used it in the rain. It’s probably got water in it and that’s going to take a while to dry out.” Bummer.
Periodically, I’d get the camera out and try, try, try to get some sort of image on the screen. Sometimes I was rewarded for my efforts, but everything would appear tinged with a strange purply pink before going dark after a mere few minutes of action. Still, some of the shots turned out quite interesting, so I kept them. Here are some shots of Sicily through rose-tinted lenses.
This was our room, with Amityville lampshade, at the moment when I realised that something was wrong.
In Taormina, things seemed to return to normal, for a moment or two. Then suddenly, THIS:
Miraculously, a photographics shop was open in Taormina on New Year’s Day. I trotted into the shop, offending camera in hand, and in my best Italian explained that it wasn’t working. To demonstrate, I pulled it out of its case and turned it on. Wouldn’t you know it? The screen showed a perfect image, no pink anywhere. What a stupid ‘Inglese’ I was. As I left the shop I could still hear the three assistants laughing at my error. Hrmph.
And so, for the next day or so, the camera behaved just as it should, but on the drive back to Palermo, it had a relapse. As we stopped to photograph Etna, all was going well:
But minutes later The Canon and I were once more tainted in our outlook:
It seemed we were into apocalyptic-style photography now.
By the time we got home, the camera was perfectly happy once more, doing precisely as it was told at all times, so I put its pink episodes down to internal damp and a change in air temperature around Etna.
And so, months and much use later, Monsieur and I sat in the sun on our first day in Sardinia. I took out my camera, turned it on and BOOM it went all pink on me again. Perhaps it’s something about these Italian isles that makes it blush so. This time it only lasted for a minute or two before behaving perfectly for the entire trip. I guess it must have been disturbed by the in-flight air pressure. What a delicate little thing my camera is. Lesson learned: never, but never should I use my Canon to take photos in the rain.
(I’m considering my next digital camera as this one is going to die soon. Its LCD screen is growing a big black hole. My previous powershot was bulky and needed batteries but had one of those little turn around screens on the back so when you weren’t using it, you could close it up against damage. Any recommendations you have for the next Epicurienne camera would be most welcome!)