Swinging Sardinia 

Christina Newland

Swinging Sardinia 

As Romazzino re-opens its doors in Porto Cervo, Christina Newland traces the Costa Smeralda’s glamorous history – from the Swinging Sixties to the glittering present.

If you had to capture the spirit of Sardinia’s retro seaside chic in a song, there’s one that readily comes to mind. Folk songwriter Peter Sarstedt’s lissome ode to sixties socialite glamour, ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)’, with its mention of Balmain and suntans and bohemian larks, name-checks a key figure in the pop history of Mediterranean glamour: the Aga Khan.

‘Your name is heard in high places/You know the Aga Khan/He sent you a racehorse for Christmas/And you keep it just for fun’, goes the song. Aga Khan IV – a member of Iranian royalty and current Imam of Nizari Isma'ilis – has long known a thing or two about wealth and glamour. His father, Aly Khan, was briefly married to Rita Hayworth; and he, on the cusp of the 1960s, was the person who first conceived of a modernist hotel getaway on Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda, known as Romazzino .

The young royal first heard of the location when a British banker he knew had gone sailing around Sardinia and had returned to London to regale his friends with tales of the unspoilt and gorgeous region. Inspired to visit, the Aga Khan fell hard for this strip of Sardinian coast. In 1962, with business partners which included Patrick Guinness, heir to the Guinness brewing fortune, he went about purchasing a 35-mile large tract of land to build villas there. Initially, he conceived of it as a private resort and yacht club for the international jet set, and the area, dubbed Porto Cervo, soon filled up. But the Aga Khan was a responsible developer and hotelier. When he decided to embark upon the construction of Romazzino, he did so with the region’s biodiversity and natural rhythms in mind, wanting to be harmonious with the Sardinian landscape.

We owe Romazzino’s conception to Italian architect Michele Busiri Vici, who with his son Giancarlo, signed a jewel of a resort blending with its natural surroundings. With a similar organic principle to architect Antoni Gaudí, the stark white concrete of the hotel seems both apiece with the rocky terrain and stands astride it like a curving, shining bauble. Providing a Sicilian-Sardinian cuisine direct from nearby farms, suckling pig and roasted lamb were popular dishes for 1960s patrons there. Water skiing, skin-diving, and boating were most popular according to a 1969 LIFE Magazine photo story about the area, and the likes of Liz and Dick (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, of course) were known for pulling their yachts into the harbour.

Speaking of the harbour: the 2.5km white-sand beauty nearby, known as Spiaggia del Principe, was rumoured to be the favourite of the Aga Khan himself; but the Costa Smeralda is full of rocky half-moon bays on perfect pools of emerald blue-green Mediterranean Sea. Both a sea-salt-flecked relaxation point and a location to see and be seen, the Romazzino was a crown jewel in Italian holiday resorts, away from the frenzy of the Italian Riviera or the starry island of Capri. Conceived by royalty and designed to please them, it’s no surprise that the hotel harboured the likes of Grace Kelly and Princess Margaret, but this was no prim, fussy locale: Romazzino had a bohemian edge, also welcoming Ringo Starr, who was rumoured to have written his song “Octopus’s Garden” in Sardinia, fellow Beatle George Harrison with Pattie Boyd, his fashion plate wife at the time, as well as raucous comedian Peter Sellers.

Fittingly, in turn, the Romazzino attracted photographers and filmmakers who sought to capture its glory onscreen. Slim Aarons, legendary photographer and socialite anthropologist of sorts, described his modus as capturing “attractive people who were doing attractive things in attractive places.” There was hardly a better place to do so than Costa Smeralda, and Aarons captured stunning shots of assorted sunbathers and glass-like seas in the late sixties. So too did Vogue photographer Henry Clarke, capturing the lithe, sun-browned limbs of model and actor Marisa Berenson sprawled on the Sardinian rocks, often in tiny Pucci mini-dresses and sweeping patterned caftans that look just as wearable in 2024.

In 1970, Italian arthouse director Alberto Sordi would direct a segment of anthology film The Couples at Romazzino, capturing a romantic anniversary dinner gone comically awry. And a few years later, in 1977, the resort would perhaps get its permanent cultural rubber-stamp as a key, glittering destination: scenes from 007 flick The Spy Who Loved Me were shot there, with Roger Moore’s James Bond doing a bit of diving and underwater combat before emerging at the beach – and the resort – of Costa Smeralda.

Now reopening as a Belmond hotel, the Romazzino of today will follow the same glorious emerald coastline that James Bond – and more to the point, the Aga Khan – discovered decades ago. For this storied and glamorous old beauty to reopen its doors this spring is to hear the echoes of previous guests: rock stars and long-haired, kohl-eyed muses, dissolute heiresses and gambling princes. You can imagine Elizabeth Taylor swanning through the lobby in a bell-sleeve dress, or Greta Garbo – yes, even she came to Romazzino – pulling her straps down to check her tan lines. While the world may have moved on from the thrill and hedonism of the sixties, this corner of Northeastern Sardinia may have figured out just how to update it for a modern visitor.


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