Raj Shah’s drive through Sardinia took him on the road to commitment

Raj and Fiona Shah, next to their Mercedes-Benz. Picture: Andrew Roe
Raj and Fiona Shah, next to their Mercedes-Benz. Picture: Andrew Roe
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A driving holiday in Sardinia is pretty much responsible for the fact that I am now a very happily married man and father of two little boys.

I’d been dating Fiona, a lawyer, for a year and things were getting serious. We had been on holiday together but I decided our next trip, in the summer of 2009, could be the one that cemented the relationship.

We decided on a two-week driving holiday around the southern coast of Sardinia and bought the Rough Guide for inspiration. What really caught our eye was an article on an annual event – the Sardinian Tuna Festival. It sounded amazing. The article described a vibrant four-day celebration of the arrival of the tuna shoals on a tiny Sardinian island, with live music and international chefs cooking up tuna feasts. We are both ardent foodies – we first met in Nonna’s. It sounded perfect. There was no exact date given in the article, but the festival was normally around the time of our trip.

There was little else on the agenda. We both had to be hyper-organised at work and both felt that going with the flow was the best way to relax. Though, truth be told, I did have a secret agenda – I wanted to win Fiona over. I speak several languages, including Italian. Surely that would impress her.

We flew into Cagliari and hired a car, a new Renault Clio, at the airport. But this was my first ever experience of driving abroad and it was scary. We drove to a B&B in the city and I chickened out of driving for a few days. We went by bus. I nervously got back behind the wheel to drive 35 miles to a campsite on the coast at Villasinius. Fiona had never camped before, but I persuaded her it was a great way to get to know the ‘real person’ . Big mistake.

The beach setting was idyllic, but it was so unbearably hot in the tent at night, we couldn’t sleep. And we were plagued by insects. It wasn’t romantic at all.

The next destination was Pula, a coastal town 100km away. The scenery was beautiful as we skirted ocean cliffs, but in the busy city of Cagliara I encountered my first Italian roundabout. In my defence, I was exhausted after sleepless nights in the tent. I approached it nervously, someone clipped the back of my car and we had to pull over. I had wanted to prove my prowess in Italian to Fiona but I hardly could make out what the driver was saying. Then the police arrived, followed by the military police. It was quite a kerfuffle. Finally it was sorted, but as we got back in the Clio we heard a ‘hiss’.

I had never changed a flat tyre before and the instructions, of course, were in Italian. A recovery truck took us back to the airport to change the car. This time, we were given an old, very slow diesel. But the Tuna Festival beckoned so off we set.

Getting to the small, remote island of Isola di San Pietro involved many hours of very slow driving on hairpin bends, and a ferry. Getting there was an accomplishment. But we arrived to discover we were too late. By a month. The date of the event is decided by nature. It happens when the tuna shoals arrive, and they had come early that year.

I look back on that holiday so fondly, though. It did convince us we were right for each other. We moved in together soon after and were engaged within months. I so didn’t impress Fiona with my driving and language skills on that trip, but I think I did prove my ability to keep a smiley face at all times.