There is an ancient Sardinian proverb — Furat chie venit dae su mare — it means: “He who comes from the sea comes to fly”. Waves of occupation – by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Byzantines and Romans – instilled a culture of fierce independence. Over the centuries, those who lived near the coast escaped inland, where the mountains offered protection from sea invaders. There, a pastoral heritage takes root and flourishes, and Sardinia becomes a land of shepherds.
I had come from the sea on a Zodiac from the colorful port town of Santa Maria Navarrese, on the coast of Orosei in eastern Sardinia. But unlike those ancient marauders, I had no plan for conquest. My goal was to walk in the footsteps of shepherds who spent centuries blazing trails through this landscape. The Orosei bears little resemblance to the Costa Smeralda, the posh seaside playground just a 90-minute drive north. Surrounded by the rugged Supramonte massif to the west and the shimmering Tyrrhenian Sea to the east, this lesser-known region has become a destination for hikers from all over the world.
The route I would follow was first mapped in 1987 by Tuscan mountaineer Mario Verin and his Sardinian friend Peppino Cicalò, who traced and connected ancient shepherd tracks. The two spent over a year bushwhacking along this turquoise coast and named the new trail Selvaggio Blu – Wild Blue. For many years the route attracted almost exclusively seasoned climbers who were content to set out armed only with water, food and camping gear. But in 2018, Dolomite Mountains, a bespoke outfitter specializing in hiking, biking and skiing vacations, launched a series of guided trips that make hiking accessible to enthusiasts like me.
“That’s where we’re going today,” said my guide, an expert mountaineer named Michele Barbiero, pointing to the 2,461-foot cliff known as Punta Giràdili. From the Zodiac, I took off my boots and socks and waded through the crystal clear shallow water to a small crescent beach at Baia di Fòrrola. Craning my neck, I gazed at the massive outcrop and wondered how he expected us to climb it.
Once on the trail, I heard the soft clucking of hand-forged bells in the bushes, evidence of grazing goats – a rustic refrain that would accompany us for the rest of our hike. Thick maquis shrubs dotted with oleander, prickly pear and yellow broom covered the otherwise arid terrain. Gnarled junipers, their limbs sculpted and smoothed by centuries of wind and rain, clung to the ends of the path.
Occasionally steep rock faces and steep overhangs impeded our progress. To pass, we relied on ropes, harnesses and iscale ‘e fustes — juniper branch ladders placed by shepherds who needed to follow their flocks in hard-to-reach places. “Shepherds know their goats by the bells,” Barbiero told me. “If an animal gets lost, it follows the sound.”
After several hours, we ended the day in the mountains at Ovile Bertarelli, a sustainable agriturismo run by Silvio Bertarelli and his family. The scene was rustic, but the cold Ichnusa beers and bowls of olives brought by Silvio’s wife, Vicenza, were welcome luxuries after our hours on the rugged trail. I heard Silvio calling his milking goats with a “hey, hey, hey” as I explored the farm buildings. With their circular limestone exteriors and funnel-shaped roofs made of silver juniper branches, they looked like something out of a Tolkien novel.
When Silvio had finished milking, I sat down on a stone wall and watched him carve a piece of wood su camu, a tool used by Sardinian shepherds for centuries. Small wooden spindles are put in the mouths of kids to help with weaning. “At the end of spring, all the milk on the property is used to make cheese,” explained Silvio’s son, Romolo. The kids, once weaned, move on to hay and pasture.
As we chatted, Vicenza returned with more olives, small glasses filled with homemade Cannonau wine and a basket of carasau shutter, thin sheets of crusty bread which are a Sardinian staple. Inside the main house, a suckling pig – the island’s legendary maialetto sardo – roasted over the fire, soon to be the main event of a feast that included bowls of tangy ricotta, platters of homemade prosciutto and the exquisite Vicenza culurgiones – tiny packets of fresh pasta stuffed with potatoes, pecorino and mint. Whenever Romolo brought something to the table, his father would point to the earthenware jug of wine with a smile, announcing “It’s a buco nella caraffa!”(there’s a hole in the pitcher!), and Romolo filled it again and again with the succulent Cannonau, which local tradition attributes to the longevity of the Sardinian people.
Although I could have had a ride back to Santa Maria Navarrese – the home base of Selvaggio Blu’s adventures – I opted to spend the night in one of Ovile’s cabins. In keeping with the setting, the experience was more like camping, but even in a sleeping bag on the ground, I rested well. The next morning, Vicenza spread out some fruit and shutter carasau with cups of espresso and fresh ricotta drizzled with chestnut honey.
Fortified like a Sardinian shepherd, Barbiero and I set off with Romolo for the short trip to the trailhead. Over the next few days we scaled slippery ridges with loose limestone rocks and weaved our way through shady groves of carob trees, holm oaks and myrtles. We dropped into gaping fjords to swim in glistening jade coves and abseiled 100 feet down the side of a cliff to Grotta del Fico, a gigantic sea cave named after the fig tree that once hid its hall.
At the end of our trip, we toasted our efforts at Su Gologone, a luxurious boutique hotel in the lush foothills of Supramonte. I joined the artist Giovanna Palimodde, the dynamic co-owner of Su Gologone, for a dinner in what she calls the Cour du Roi. Named after his father, Giuseppe “Peppeddu” Palimodde, who opened the hotel in 1967, the patio is used for weekly banquets that showcase local culture and cuisine. Heavy wooden tables with trays of antipasto filled the space. Under the colonnades, the women cooked endless rounds of shutter carasau in wood-fired ovens while the hotel’s chef spits suckling pigs over a blazing hearth. “It’s the most authentic part of Sardinia,” Palimodde said, passing me a plate of pecorino. “Our traditions have survived because we are in the countryside. Outside influences could not reach us here.”
As if to illustrate his point, a quartet entered the courtyard and began to sing. The sound was unlike anything I had ever heard – a haunting, poetic polyphony called Cantu a tenòre. The four men, representing a sheep, a cow, the wind and a solitary shepherd, stood in a tight circle and sang in harmony. Their songs told stories of nature, loneliness and hard work – the main ingredients of a shepherd’s life and the main ingredients of a journey along the Selvaggio Blu.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the title Take this path.