Trailblazing in Sardinia

Hike 30 miles of a wild and dramatic coastline

BY GINA DECAPRIO VERCESI — Fall 2019

 can hear the goats but can’t see them. The hand-forged bells around their necks jangle like wind chimes as they forage the rugged landscape. The gentle sound calms me, but worry persists: If they need four feet to navigate the vertiginous terrain, can I do it on two?

Inching along the narrow ledge, I take deliberate steps and pull myself hand-over-hand along the rope to where my guide Michele Barbiero, a professional mountain guide, waits on terra firma whistling Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

We’re deep into our first day hiking Selvaggio Blu, a 30-mile trail that winds along Sardinia’s Orosei coastline. Unlike the famed Costa Smeralda, with its bobbing superyachts and sun-bronzed glitterati, the Orosei, 60 miles south, is considered Italy’s wildest natural sanctuary, a place you’re more likely to encounter wild boar than Bulgari.

Sardinia is a land of shepherds. Centuries of invaders and malaria drove islanders into the mountains for protection from both. These pastori blazed trails through the rough terrain, and in the late ’80s veteran climbers Mario Verin and Peppino Cicalò uncovered some of those historic coastal pathways with the goal of forging a single route. They christened the trail Selvaggio Blu — Wild Blue — for the tangled forest and turquoise sea that serve as its backdrop.

A plum for outdoor enthusiasts, Selvaggio Blu initially attracted trekkers willing to pack in supplies and camp in caves. Now, thanks to new itineraries curated by Dolomite Mountains, a custom adventure company, intrepid travelers can explore Golfo di Orosei’s dramatic coastline in style, hiking and then overnighting at comfortable inns, savoring local wines and traditional Sardinian cuisine.

“The island has so much to offer,” says Dolomite founder Agustina Lagos Mármol. “I love Sardinia because it’s wild and pristine. You can be away from the crowds and have an incredible, authentic experience.”

My Italian heritage — combined with a passion for the forest and sea — meant Selvaggio Blu offered the ultimate travel trifecta. So, I’ve set out with Lagos Mármol and Barbiero on a four-day adventure that will cover the trail’s highlight reel.

Cliff Scaling

Selvaggio Blu officially starts in the colorful port town of Santa Maria Navarrese, but we choose a trailhead just north of Pedra Longa, a limestone monolith that erupts from the sea. We skim along the coast in a zodiac captained by Mario Muggianu, co-owner of Explorando Supramonte, a local outfitter that ferries sunseekers to the Orosei’s dazzling beaches. The water’s color shifts from deep sapphire to aquamarine to gin clear as we near the shore. Later, exclamations of “Look at that water!” will join a soundtrack that includes bells, birdsong, and the distant hum of boats.

Across the tiny beach where Muggianu leaves us, Punta Giradili looms overhead — at 2,509 feet, the venerable sea cliff is one of the Mediterranean’s most majestic. “That’s where we go today,” says Barbiero, pointing to the enormous outcrop. Which is how I find myself kissing a wall of rock, searching for footholds, and grasping at gnarled juniper branches wedged into the limestone by shepherds who traversed this wild landscape long before me.

“Brava, Gina!” Barbiero says, clapping my shoulder and unbuckling my harness when I reach the top. I exhale deeply and drink in the spectacular panorama. Soaring limestone cliffs tower over the shimmering Mediterranean. Clutches of tiny daisies spring from grassy crevices in the lunar landscape. A hawk known as Falco della Regina sails across the cloudless sky.

“I love the wilderness of this coastline,” Barbiero says as we stare over the sea. “This nature, these mountains. I can never get tired of it.”

The day’s destination is Ovile Bertarelli, a traditional sheepfold tucked in the mountains. Hot and dusty, we emerge from the forest onto a dirt road accompanied by 140 goats returning from a day in the hills themselves. UNESCO recognizes the ovilea self-sustaining agriturismoas a prime example of the region’s pastoral architecture and cultural identity. Silvio Bertarelli and his son Romolo rebuilt the whimsical buildings, with their circular limestone foundations and conical juniper roofs, starting with an old shepherd’s hut.

By the sea in Santa Maria Navarrese, we’d eaten grilled octopus and fresh prawns accompanied by glasses of cold, crisp Vermentino. At the ovile, we tuck into platters of prosciutto, salami, and capicola; delicate culurgiones, potatoes and pecorino in pasta pillows; and the island’s signature spit-roasted suckling pig, Maialetto Sardo. Bertarelli keeps our glasses filled with his robust cannonau, a wine associated with the longevity of the Sardinian people. It must have had some magical properties because my Italian grows more fluent as I imbibe.

Dangling in the Air

In the days that follow, we scramble up rocky hillsides fragrant with swaths of wild rosemary and back to secluded, emerald coves perfect for refreshing swims. We picnic beneath shady olivastra trees on nectarines and pecorino and pane carasau, the crisp Sardinian flatbread that sustained the shepherds during their long forays into the hills. All the while, we’re enveloped in that wild, wild blue.

On our last day, we hike to Grotta del Fico, an enormous sea cave hidden from view for centuries by a giant fig tree. We have to rappel three times when the jagged rock face obstructs the trail — something I’ve never done before — but Barbiero’s guidance coaxes me off the ledge.

“Now we go down,” he says, handing me the harness. “Lean back. I need to feel your weight on the rope always. I will belay you down slowly, slowly.”

I step backward off the cliff, dangling 100 feet in the air. All I can see is the sea — emerald, sapphire, aquamarine — punctuated by bright white boats delivering visitors to the grotto.

Down on the ground, I find myself entering one of those classically cinematic Italian scenes. Franco and Claudio, Muggianu’s partners at Explorando Supramonte, sit around a salt-worn wooden table while their friend Efisio reclines nearby. On the table sit two jugs of cannonau, a large piece of pecorino, a wedge of bread, and a platter of roast pork. We pass the wine and toast our efforts as Barbiero belays down the final drop.

“He loves this,” says Lagos Mármol, pointing out the huge smile on Barbiero’s face. I study the scene — Efisio gesticulating enthusiastically as he speaks, homemade wine on the table, the brilliant blue sea sparkling in the sunshine — and grin. I love it, too.

Details: Dolomite Mountains’ customized excursions along the Selvaggio Blu take place between April and early June and October to mid-November. From $3,900 for a seven-day trip. 866-247-4860; dolomitemountains.com

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