The travel guides and postcards will have you believe that Sardinia (off the west coast of mainland Italy) is all about the beaches.
Pristine turquoise blue and emerald green still waters definitely do await, but there’s a lot more to this island than the post cards give credit.
We’d planned a ten-day cycling adventure, basing ourselves just south of the iconic Smeralda coast, aquatic playground of the (very, very) rich. Unlike our epic eight-day journey through the European Alps last year, this time we were basing ourselves in the one location and rolling out and back each day. Also unlike our trip in the Alps, this time we had come largely unprepared and very unplanned…
Two from our group were using their own bikes, whilst the other two were hiring from a company closer to the island’s capital, Cagliari. Last year we’d spent months training, and arrived in the Alps almost the fittest we’d ever been. Wow what a difference a year makes –this time around our small bunch was dogged with either bad health from the southern hemisphere’s winter, inadequate training, or a combination of both. Worth mentioning so you can gage the type of riding we did!
So cutting to the chase – what’s it like to organise a riding adventure in Sardina?
Every local we chatted with explained that it had been a pretty sub-standard summer (in fact most of Europe has complained as such). Down in Sardinia, it took much longer than necessary for the heat to kick in. Going by annual averages, we’d deliberately planned our trip in early September. As it turned out, we arrived smack bang in the heat. Still – I’d be recommending either late spring or the very start of September, as theoretically the heat shouldn’t be overwhelming and (importantly) a lot of the businesses are open for summer trading. That said there is a super refreshing breeze that comes off the water, making the temperature seem less than it really is. We tended to hug the coast line, or not too far from it, for most of our rides but when we did venture inland we definitely felt the Mercury rise.
Riders from Down Under will find a lot of the road surfaces here in Sardinia pretty eyebrow raising.
This is an island that (in parts) looks and feels like it’s in a perpetual state of abandonment. Incomplete houses stand with ‘for sale’ signs, older buildings are crumbling, and there’s just an air of neglect in certain places.
The roads are no exception.
Venture along the Costa Smeralda, the touristic jewel in Sardinia’s crown, and it’s another matter. But by and large the majority of roads on which we travelled really could have done with some local council TLC. At best there’s the occasional pot hole and crack; at worse there is decaying bitumen, gaping cracks and we even went over one concrete bridge that was actually sealed from cars given it was just shy of falling down.
So Sardinia might not be a rich island, but it's still definitely a beauty.
Don't worry - this is an example of a particularly bad road!
All and all traffic is pretty good, especially if you come from road riding in Australia, where you’d be used to generous doses of hostility and aggression.
Here you’ll get a slight honk of the horn which in most cases seems to be more of a ‘I’m about to pass you, so just be mindful of that’ message.
Closer to the bigger towns and you can experience a bit of impatience but by and large, motorists are an accepting bunch. Don’t hold your breath for a cycling lane and expect narrow roads a lot of the time, which in actual fact makes the motorists’ patience even more impressive.
We stuck largely to the east coast, the north coast, and parts of inland between the two. There is a great mix of flats and hilly terrain but there’s also no end of really great climbs. Just out of Siniscola, for example, is about a ten km ascent of around 6 per cent the whole time; easy enough to settle in and soak up the absolutely stunning beach vistas and surrounding rocky hills. Up in the north around the super luxe Porto Cervo, and you’ve got more interval sessions to deal with – sharp, quick climbs that will make your workout an honest one!
We mentioned the incredibly stunning coastal scenery… Add to that rocky outcrops, cactus bushes everywhere (and full of prickly pears when we visited), olive groves, cork tree plantations and you’ve got an island that keeps things really interesting!
The disappointment is the lack of respect for the local environment. No matter where we went, rubbish is discarded on road sides like bins were never invented. Littering can rain on a rider’s parade so be mindful of that if you're planning a trip.
Food and Drink
Far out – where to start? We had a few favourite restaurants that we just had to keep coming back to, as they were so damn good. A stone’s throw from the beach, specialising in local seafood and regional pasta dishes as well as the famous Sardinian grill… Wow, wow, wow. Coffee is under two Euros, everywhere seems to offer fresh orange juice; it’s a foody’s paradise. Let’s not get started on the wine! From supermarkets to specialty stores you will find great quality Sardinian wine for the sort of prices that would have you think you’re buying DIY rocket fuel back home. European countries love to excel in a regional spirit, and Sardinia is no exception – they do a mean Mirto that will send you off to a sound sleep!
We were particularly unlucky with our selection of bike hire companies. They delivered two ‘premium’ bikes that we all felt were pretty sub-par, along with a bag of goodies such as pumps, lights etc that – if opened and removed from packaging – would be charged to us. It was up to us to sort out any mechanical problems that occurred – and they did. So - learning from our mistakes here's what I would suggest:
- Check your bike thoroughly before taking property of it. This includes checking features not necessarily in the contract. EG – we gave the green light to everything listed in our hire contract, but the gears on my bike ended up creating problems for us, and these were never part of the original checklist.
- Ensure the hire company can provide bike mechanical support if you think you might need it. By this I simply mean confirmation of a nearby outlet that can help you should something more serious than a flat occur.
- Agree on the type and quality of the bike before it is delivered (unless you are going to pick it up yourself). We got a surprise when ours arrived – their version of top range didn’t at all translate to our definition of high quality.
- Pack your own helmet and shoes if you can (ensure their pedals work with your cleats) but also throw in a hand pump, puncture repair kit etc if you know that your bike hire company won’t be providing them (and don’t forget spare tubes).
Got your attention? Ha – apparently this hasn’t happened for some time. That said as soon as the Italian in our bunch confirmed she was coming on tour, her mother warned her to avoid the central parts of the island, where visitors have been known to be kidnapped and held for ransom. That’s probably not covered in your standard travel insurance – ha! But like I said, it's not something that seems to happen all that often these days. Still - it makes for a good cycling conversation!
What else is on the cards?
When you’re not riding, there’s plenty of options including snorkelling, diving, sailing, lounging on the sand, people watching in beach bars, eating like a king, running or walking through the rocky hills, checking out how the rich and famous holiday and more. You won’t be short of things to do during your down time.
All in all Sardinia is a great place to visit and ride around and I’d recommend it!