Monday, January 19, 2009

An Idyllic Italian Isle

Sardinia's Costa Smeralda on the east coast may get all the celebrity attention, but I found that bicycling the island's west coast with locally based Dolcevita Bike Tours is the way to experience the real Sardinia. For one week, I pedaled alongside Italians and native English speakers sharing mandatory and frequent espresso stops and picnicking on sheep's milk cheese, prosciutto and cantaloupe, or brochette bread with olive paste. We ventured through some of the most remote and wildest parts of Sardinia, sampling eucalyptus honey, wild boar sausage and wines made from indigenous grapes. Rolling past olive groves, vineyards and Genoese watchtowers perched on promontories, we rested on strikingly white sand beaches and parked our bikes near ancient Roman ruins. Instead of simply visiting one beachside resort after another, traveling with a local company brought us myriad intimate surprises. For example, while biking the Costa Verde with its rocky gorges and uncrowded beaches, we found giant foliage-draped sand dunes that are the highest in all of Europe.

Another day in the hamlet of San Salvatore, once a site of many a spaghetti western, the locals offered us wine that they produced for a much-celebrated religious feast where villagers race barefoot from town to town carrying the saint's statue. In the town of Arbus that's snuggled on a hillside, we met Paolo Pusceddu, the infamous knife maker who presides over the town's Knife Museum. (There we examined his 650-pound folding knife that's considered the world's heaviest.) And, given that Sardinia is dotted with thousands of nuraghi, we had plenty of opportunities to inspect these curious truncated cone-shaped stone structures dating to the Bronze Age.

I always prefer traveling with local groups rather than a U.S.-based company as a way to get a real perspective of the land and its people. And Dolcevita was everything I had hoped for and more. The guides were attentive, always available to answer questions on everything from history to cuisine. The other cyclists, particularly the Italians, were a delight. Not only were they amazing cyclists -- there were more than a few steep hills to climb on this journey that they navigated with aplomb; considering one had raced professionally and three others did regularly high-speed, heavy-duty cycling, I picked up plenty of biking tips -- but they were personable, funny and ever so stylish. In fact, I joked with them that they were the most fashionable cyclists I'd ever traveled with. As one might expect from the Italians, for our seven-day trek, many wore a different bike outfit every day. And, amazingly, everything matched, from the jersey to the tights to the gloves and socks. Overall, an unforgettable adventure with people that will remain my friends.