Matthew Moore works up an appetite on the spectacular trails of Europe's latest walking hot spot.
One of Europe's great pleasures is walking in the countryside. However, by December the cold has closed the scores of inn-to-inn walks through the hills and mountains of France, Italy and Spain. Yet on the warmer Mediterranean coast it is possible to hike all year, and a self-guided "Saunter in Sardinia" sounds like our pace. Although the walking trail is 70 kilometres long, it's graded easy to moderate.
The Costa Smeralda, or Emerald Coast, on the north-east of Italy's second-biggest island, is a resort area favoured by Europe's well-heeled, but our eight-day sojourn, staying in five local hotels, is on the less developed west coast, where most of the population still farm and fish as they've done for centuries.
To begin we must get to Santu Lussurgiu, a hillside town in the Montiferru mountains that overlook the coast. It's already dark when a bus drops us in town, and there is only one woman in the empty square we can ask for directions. Rather than explain, she bundles us into her car, in a friendly gesture that will be repeated most days, before zipping through a maze of impossibly narrow streets and depositing us outside a huge wooden door.
It opens to a cobblestone courtyard ringed with flowering plants and a huge persimmon tree heavy with orange fruit.
Our host, Lucinella, takes us upstairs to a room so charming and friendly we know instantly that, whatever happens, this trip will be a delight. The house was built early in the 18th century, and the foot-wide floorboards look like they've been there since the start. From our Juliet balcony we can gaze over the courtyard and tiled rooftops that tumble down the hillside.
Downstairs, a converted old cellar is a dining room with space enough between thick stone arches and heavy chestnut beams to seat 50 people. In summer and autumn this place is booked solid but tonight, and every night on our off-season walk, we are the only guests.
Despite that, Lucinella's partner, Roberto, cooks us a feast of local dishes. We start with a glass of young white wine made from vernaccia grape for which the region is famous and then three entrees - a delicious olive pate, an aubergine and smoked mozzarella salad and a plate of salumi — dried lamb prosciutto, sheep and beef salami and local prosciutto. A piece of firm local cheese served on flat Sardinian bread and drizzled with honey follows. Then comes zucchini soup, a plate of gently simmered tomatoes and onions adorned with a soft-poached egg and, finally, a piece of succulent grilled red beef for which the area is famous, served with tarragon mustard, fried potatoes and wild mushrooms.
Roberto learnt to cook at the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan but has become a devotee of the slow-food movement since he moved to Sardinia's laid-back west coast and began applying his skills to the local cuisine. Walking each day gives you an appetite and if the first night is a guide, the food will rival the sights.
Church bells drive us from bed early and we enjoy breakfast of creamy yoghurt made in the village, freshly squeezed orange juice and fig and blackberry jam. Today is a trial walk, a chance to familiarise ourselves with the 35-page book of track notes, maps and instructions that will guide us for the next week. Day one is a 12-kilometre loop climbing 300 metres to a village higher in the mountains before we begin in earnest the following day.
Within minutes it's obvious how easy it is to use the detailed notes. We follow the route from town, and our sauntering pace gets us to the first checkpoint in 17 minutes, as the notes predict. At the 23-minute mark, the left bend in the road appears spot on time, as does a little bridge four minutes later. Our confidence grows.
Where there's a chance of confusion, the notes include photographs of landmarks to explain just where to go. Much of the information is superfluous as the tracks are easy to follow, but so much detail means you always know where you are. As the risk of getting lost evaporates, we simply enjoy the pleasure of walking through isolated pockets of the countryside, where locals are gathering mushrooms and shepherds tend their flocks.
We walk on paths the shepherds have used for centuries, climbing steadily past ancient rock-wall fences. The early-December sun ducks out from behind clouds and keeps the temperature warm enough to walk in shirtsleeves. Occasionally a flock will approach, driven by sheepdogs that bark a lot but never come too close.
It's a 90-minute stroll to reach the village of San Leonardo, famous for its spring water, and we fill our bottles and enjoy a coffee at a little bar, before descending via a different route.
Most days average 12 kilometres to 15 kilometres but our first full day's walk is almost double that, so we rise early to tackle the 22 kilometres. Roberto packs us a lunch and a taxi arrives to drive us to the top of the Montiferru Mountains, where mist and light rain give us a taste of winter. It doesn't last and when the sun burns it off, spectacular views emerge of the coast, 1100 metres below, as we descend through oak forests and olive groves until we reach coastal plain that takes us to the beach at Santa Caterina.
In summer this town hums and although the Mediterranean is still warm enough to swim, travellers have long gone by now. We arrive weary in the late afternoon but recover when, as the only guests, we get the best room in the cliff-top hotel perched beside the ruins of an ancient Spanish watchtower.
From here the track follows the coast, traversing cliff tops and sandy beaches. We pass by one of the largest flocks of flamingoes in Europe; they live quietly in a lagoon picking worms out of mud the locals say gives them their soft-pink colour. Fishermen net mullet and dry their roe in the sun until it's hard and black. They call it bottarga, and grate it on pasta to make a simple dish famous throughout the country.
Sardinia has been settled so long there is no wilderness to walk through, but the countryside is interesting and walking is easy as a taxi arrives each morning to take our bags to the next little hotel and we carry only lunch and rain jackets.
Occasionally the track winds inland, meandering through fields of artichoke plants gleaming silver when their leaves catch their sun.
On our one cold, wet day, the track notes lead us to the remains of the Phoenician city of Tharros, which was Sardinia's most important city in the Punic age from the end of the 6th century BC to 238BC. Its spectacular location on the sea and fascinating ruins that include a "caldarium", a type of solid-stone sauna we wish was still operating, make this a popular site. Today we have it all to ourselves.
That night we dry out in a farm stay, part of Italy's "agriturismo" program, which encourages farms to provide tourist accommodation. The food the farmer's wife cooks is rich in tradition and we feast on spaghetti with a sauce of sea urchins and a whole steamed sea bass cooked with the farm's vernaccia wine, chilli parsley and garlic.
Again, we are the only guests, but that means we are showered with food and attention - not a bad way to holiday.
Getting there Singapore Airlines has a fare to Rome for about $1920 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. You fly to Singapore (about 8hr) and then to Rome (13hr 10min); see singaporeair.com. Alitalia has a fare from Rome to Cagliari for about $300 return, including tax for the 70-minute flight (there are also a number of budget airlines flying to several cities on Sardinia), and there are also a number of ferries from various ports on mainland Italy to several ports in Sardinia. Cagliari's airport bus takes you to Cagliari railway station, where there are regular trains to Oristano. Public buses run six times a day (not Sundays) to Santu Lussurgiu, where the walk starts.
Walking there Britain-based Sherpa Expeditions runs the inn-to-inn walks. They charge about $1117 a person for a shared room, which covers seven nights' accommodation with breakfasts, transfers to the start of the walks on the days when required, and transporting luggage to the inns. Lunches, dinners, coffees and drinks are extra, and you need to allow at least $350 each for the eight days, more if you want to indulge.
More information sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk.