Hiking Italy's Wild Coast

A soft thread of wind purls along the cliff, and for a moment we are relieved. It's a sweltering day on Sardinia, the island 120 miles west of mainland Italy, and two friends, a guide and I are hopping delicately along boulders with edges as sharp as cheese graters. Thousands of feet below, the Mediterranean Sea sparkles.

I had been told this trek was going to be tough, even in cooler weather, and now I see why. The trail is so uneven underfoot it is taking us hours to cover small distances, which grows more frustrating as the day gets hotter. Ah! But a breeze! I balance on a boulder and hold my arms high, letting the wind cool my skin.

"You really get to know what your feet look like on a trip like this," says Dan Patitucci, a friend plodding along with his wife, Janine, a few paces in front of me. 


Dubbed the Selvaggio Blu—or "wild blue" in Italian—this trail is arguably one of Italy's most spectacular backpacking adventures. While plenty of hikes in Europe offer longer distances and higher elevations to overcome, the Selvaggio Blu is unruly with wild pigs and limestone folds deep enough to make even outlaws disappear. 

Few ever see this side of the island. For nearly 40 parched miles, the Wild Blue works its way around the staggeringly gorgeous Orosei Gulf, a ladle of Kool-Aid water and coves scooped from Sardinia's eastern coast. The trail weaves under olive trees, past old stone shepherds' huts, and along dramatic, rocky overhangs thrumming with swallows, and following it is by far the best way—perhaps the only way—to explore this coast. 

"It certainly isn't for everyone," says Marcello Cominetti, a 47-year-old mountain guide who grew up exploring the cliffs as a child on Sardinia. "You don't need to be a climber to do the trail but, sure, it helps." 

That's because hikers must clasp chains and cables bolted into the rock to keep from tumbling. They need harnesses and ropes to rappel hundreds of feet into gullies choked with wild rosemary and thyme. There are few reliable maps. The one guidebook out there, written in Italian, features desperately vague directions like "walk along the cliff," and getting lost is virtually assured. In fact, the terrain here is so rugged that ancient islanders used it to wage insurgent wars against the Romans, Byzantines, Phoenicians and countless other armies that invaded Sardinia's shores. 

"For Italians, Sardinia is synonymous with holidays and people thought we were crazy for wanting to walk in this area for fun," Marcello says. "The shepherds who came back here don't walk for fun."

But walking here can be outrageously fun, and hikers from hardy tweens to fit septuagenarians have braved it. The rewards are utterly spectacular, rivaling world-class coastal hikes, like the Na Pali Coast of Kaua'i. Here you can swim alone in lonely coves, camp in a three-story seaside cave, and amble atop towering cliffs that plunge into the sea.

Today is day one of our four-day trek. Marcello is in no hurry, so we take frequent breaks in the shade of holm oak trees. With a shock of curly brown hair and a frame swollen with muscle, Marcello helped establish portions of the route after two Italian mountaineers began working on it in 1983. Mario Verin, an alpinist from Tuscany, was one of the original trailblazers and says it took him and his friend Peppino Cicalò almost three weeks spread over two years to establish the path. Now, thanks to their work, you can hike it in less than a week.

While Peppino assured me that the original route remains "very impressive," we hired Marcello to show us an easier variation that will take in 20 miles of the most dramatic terrain. With virtually no freshwater along the route, boat owners from the nearby village of Santa Maria Navarrese have agreed to drop packages laden with bottled water, biscotti, and pecorino cheese at secluded coves along the way. Blue dots painted on rocks intermittently help mark the route, though Marcello must still backtrack from time to time to distinguish the trail from goat paths. 

After about six miles and nearly 3,000 vertical feet down steep, loose terrain, we emerge from the shade of Syrian pines into one of the most splendid coves I've ever seen. White limestone walls 40 feet high run parallel out to sea, creating a magnificent natural hallway perhaps 30-feet wide. It surges with green Mediterranean waves that burble over marble-smooth white pebbles. I immediately strip down and ease into the crisp Mediterranean, thankful for what must be one of the planet's best swimming holes.

"In Europe it always seems like someone is in your way," says Dan, who lives part of the year in Italy. His tan legs whisk the water like eggbeaters. "To have this beach to ourselves, to not even see anyone on the trail, you just don't find that here."

Refreshed, we snooze in the sun before making camp under an ambling oak tree at Portu Quau, an inlet that's a five-minute walk from the cove. The first resupply box sits perched on a rock by the water, filled with tonight's simple feast of tomato-sauce pasta with thin, crispy bread that I drape with salami. We sit nibbling on olives and drinking beer, then fall asleep to the patter of raindrops bursting on the forest canopy overhead.

In the morning, Marcello whips up instant cappuccinos, and we're walking by 9am. Today is even hotter, topping 90 degrees with a now cloudless sky, but Marcello has a plan. "For me, the Selvaggio Blu is very beautiful, but sometimes it is not logical," he says. "Sometimes it is best to turn inland instead of fighting your way up and down ravines." 

By midday, the trail drops through heather and oleander before pouring into Cala Goloritzè, a tiny beach at the base of a pleasant ravine. High above, a needle of black limestone punctures the sky and two rock climbers who came by boat cling to its face. Cliffs hundreds of feet high surround the beach and Marcello reaches deep into a crevice with a small cup to find water. "A shepherd showed me this," he says, handing me the cup now a quarter full. I take a sip. It tastes fresh and earthy, like how a mountain stream smells. 

We swim and snooze most of the afternoon until the sun slips behind the cliffs and the weather turns cool enough to hike again. While the true Selvaggio Blu continues north past a series of panoramic vistas, we opt to leave the trail for a 3,000 vertical foot hike up to the cliff rim, where we hit a dirt road that eventually leads to a gorgeous but basic inn run by the local commune. With the heat beating us down, we agree that a cold beer and meal of suckling pig with apricots doesn't sound so bad. Before long, we've convinced ourselves that staying the night isn't cheating.

Our decadence seems deserved on the third day, the most technically challenging part of the trip. We fuel up on fresh ricotta drizzled with honey and drink as much water as we can before heading back out. Today is hotter yet, and the thermometer on my watch reads 101 degrees by noon. (Spring and fall are by far the best times to hike). After wandering for about an hour, the trail ends dramatically at a cliff, and Marcello begins anchoring a rope to a tree.

"Time for some fun," he says. I put on my harness and tie into the rope, and Marcello passes the rope through a friction device to lower me gently off the cliff. One hundred fifty feet of air dangles beneath my shoes. To my left, white boats pull their wake through the Orosei Gulf. Swallows buzz in every direction. As I dangle in free space, Marcello whistles Pink Floyd's "Learning to Fly." 

We do this routine three more times throughout the day, each time dropping off cliffs that cut across the trail with no way around them but an airy rappel. We climb small but exposed rock faces, holding onto chains bolted in place. Eventually, we work our way down to yet another beach, this one with a natural rock arch out in the water that we take turns jumping from.

While we have seen no one on the trail, the scene on this beach, called Biriola, is shocking. Every half hour or so, boats from Santa Maria Navarrese in the south and Cala Gonona in the north charge into the cove, skewer the sand with their gangplanks, and disgorge dozens of sunbathers in a display of clichéd but charming Italian chaos. Kids splash in the water while dads strut around in Speedos. One fair-skinned lady in a blue bikini burns her ample belly so horrifically it looks like a bloody roast. It's hard to believe that only hours earlier, deep in the wilderness, we watched a wild goat give birth before our eyes.

Before long, however, the boats come and whisk everyone away and we are alone again, just the four of us on a quiet beach. Tomorrow we'll hike a few short hours to Cala Sisine, a broad lick of white sand whose isolated bar is popular with tourists. There, we can hop a boat for the 45-minute ride back to our hotel in Santa Maria Navarrese.

But that third night out is, for me, the highlight of the trip. We leave Biriola and work our way through a tight forest, then down a scree field toward the water. "Here it is!" Marcello shouts, and we follow him around a corner to find a yawning cave, its walls a slick brown. I am speechless. With three levels, the grotto has a choice of "rooms," each one about 60 feet over the water with 180-degree views looking directly over the sea. Stalactites cling to the ceiling and a soft breeze buffets the walls. I have camped all over the world—on top of a 21,000-foot peak in Nepal, on deserted islands in the Philippines, deep on the Mongolian steppe—and nothing can compare to the uniqueness of this spot. 

We spread sleeping bags and pads across the middle floor, the largest one, and open our last supply box, which is filled with a bottle of Cannonau wine, more olives and cans of tuna fish. I lie on my back and watch dusk inject a purple ink across the sky. Soon the sea is shimmering with moonbeams. This reward seems almost unfair, a payoff far too beautiful and memorable for whatever hardship it took to get here. But then the mosquitoes come out, and we suffer a little more.