The Costa Smeralda May Be Sardinia’s Playground but Alghero Is Its True Soul

Article by John Mariani  first appeared on Forbes Magazine May 15th 2018 .

View of the promontory of Capo Caccia, Alghero, Sardinia, Italy. Photo by Forbes

When I arrived in Sardinia after a Transatlantic flight to Rome and a connection to Alghero, my first stop was at the fish market for a late morning lunch. It was eleven o’clock, yet the simple stark cement structure was nearly empty, the floors washed down and still wet, the fish stalls cleaned out, leaving only a faint briny smell of the sea.
I turned to one of the locals and, feeling like I was in a Monty Python cheese shop with no cheese, asked where all the seafood had gone. The man shrugged and said, “It was all sold this morning.” The boats had pulled in under the fading stars and their catch was sold soon after daybreak.

An hour before those stalls were full of flapping fins and tails, crawling crabs and claw-waving lobsters, every one now gone. Nothing could better illustrate the kind of fresh bounty that Sardinians have access to six days a week, both in restaurants and at home.

Inside Alghero’s seafood market La Boqueria serves the morning’s catch. Photo by John Mariani

There was a little trattoria called La Boqueria in the corner of the barren market, with signs ticking off the seafood offerings of the day. We ordered, sat down at a crude table, and I feasted on some of the finest fish and crustaceans I’ve ever had—platters of grilled mullet, fried calamari and moray eel, prawns, San Pietro, scungilli, branzino, and much more, all washed down with a Sardinian white wine called Nasco. There was not a strand of pasta anywhere on the menu.

SARDINIA, ALGHERO, SARDEGNA, ITALY – 2017/10/05: Harbor boats. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This was my first trip to Sardinia, the large amoeba-shaped island in the dark blue Tyrrhenian Sea, a land known for its rugged, craggy perimeter and its international playground Costa Smeralda, developed in the ‘60s on the east coast by Prince Karim Aga Khan and now home to some of the most expensive real estate on the globe. Which was reason enough for me to avoid it and visit instead the city of Alghero, which is a far less trafficked but quite beautiful location on the west coast.

Alghero is on the West Coast of the rugged island of Sardinia. Photo by John Mariani

Alghero has always had a raucous history, having been occupied since the 14th century by Spanish troops whom the locals cut to pieces in an uprising, which in turn caused King Peter IV to expel most of natives and, as did the British with Australia, re-populated the town with Catalan convicts and prostitutes.
In 1720 the House of Savoy out of Turin took over Sardinia and it became part of Italy with the Unification in the next century.
Nevertheless, the Catalonian history and influence abides-Catalan had long been the official language, and a quarter of today’s citizens still speak it; the rest speak a local dialect. You see the Catalan influence, too, in the city’s architecture and walled fortifications. Some of its people like to refer to their city as Little Barcelona.
Walking around the city, at a leisurely place, will bring you back where you began in little more than an hour, along the way visiting the newly cleaned and restored Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculata di Alghero in a Catalan Gothic style and along the thick limestone ramparts above the lapping seashore, which, as in most of Europe, is largely rocky, although the beautifully named La Speranza beach is long and wide, with golden sand and wonderful sunsets.

Nuraghe Palmavera interior, near Alghero, Sardinia, Italy. Nuragic civilization, 15th-10th century BC. Forbes

I highly recommend a drive out of town to explore the prehistoric Nuraghe Palmavera stone towers built over centuries in the Bronze and Iron Ages. Spread out over a hillside like squat Stonehenge monuments, the structures give one an idea of just how primitive lodgings were 3,400 years ago–basic areas for cooking, sleeping and worshipping, set far from other tribes and all other civilizations.

Sardinian winemaking has come very far very fast, so a visit to the modern cooperative of 326 growers who comprise Cantina Santa Maria La Palma, just outside Alghero, is a good way to get a quick education. The winery makes a wide variety of labels, from sparkling to red and wine, based on indigenous grapes like Cannonau, Vermentino di Sardegna and Monica di Sardegna. The company’s red wines share the notion that youth, not long aging, has its own charms, depending on the grape. Sardinia, south of France and west of Italy, has a very hot, very dry land, so irrigation of the vineyards is allowed; you taste the flintiness of the soil and the brininess of the surrounding Tyrrhenian Sea. One of the winery’s bottlings, Akènta Sub, is actually lowered into the sea for a while to age.
Founded in 1959, at a time when Sardinian wines had no reputation and little availability outside the island, Cantina Santa Maria La Palma’s vintners realized that by central control of co-operative growers, the wines could be made better and with more consistency, fresher, less prone to oxidation, and at price points that have made them appealing in a global market flooded with bland varietals.

Article by John Mariani first appeared on Forbes Magazine May 15th 2018 .





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