Closer to the North African coast at Tunisia than the Italian mainland and with a fierce sense of independence, Sardinia (Sardegna) can feel distinctly un-Italian. D.H. Lawrence found it exotically different when he passed through here in 1921 – “lost”, as he put it, “between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere”. The island may seem less remote nowadays – and it’s certainly more accessible, with frequent flights serving Cagliari, Olbia and Alghero – but large tracts remain remarkably untouched by tourism, particularly the interior. The island’s main draw, however, is its dazzling coastline, with some of the cleanest beaches in Italy, which can be packed in peak season (particularly August), when ferries bring in a steady stream of sun-worshippers from what the islanders call il continente, or mainland Italy. The weather is generally warm enough for a swim as early as May, however, and October is bright and sunny – reason enough to avoid the summer crowds.
Although not famed for its cultural riches, the island does hold some surprises, not least the remains of the various civilizations that passed through here. Its central Mediterranean position ensured that it was never left alone for long, and from the Carthaginians onwards the island was ravaged by a succession of invaders, each of them leaving some imprint behind: Roman and Carthaginian ruins, Genoan fortresses and a string of elegant Pisan churches, not to mention some impressive Gothic and Spanish Baroque architecture. Perhaps most striking of all, however, are the remnants of Sardinia’s only significant native culture, known as the nuraghic civilization after the 7000-odd nuraghi (ancient stone towers) that litter the landscape.
On the whole, Sardinia’s smaller centres are the most attractive, but the lively capital, Cagliari – for many the arrival point – shouldn’t be written off. With good accommodation and restaurants, it makes a useful base for exploring the southern third of the island. The other main ferry port is Olbia in the north, little more than a transit town but conveniently close to the pristine beaches of the jagged northern coast. The Costa Smeralda, a few kilometres distant, is Sardinia’s best-known resort area and lives up to its reputation for glitzy opulence.
Both Olbia and Cagliari have airports, as does the vibrant resort of Alghero – a fishing port with a distinctive Catalan flavour in the northwest of the island that retains a friendly, unspoiled air despite its healthy tourist industry. Sardinia’s biggest interior town, Nuoro, makes a useful stopover for visiting some of the remoter mountain areas. Of these, the Gennargentu range, covering the heart of the island, holds the highest peaks and provides rich evidence of the island’s traditional culture, in particular the numerous village festivals.
Of all the phases in Sardinia’s chequered history, the prehistoric Nuraghic era is perhaps the most intriguing. Although little is known about the society, plenty of traces survive, most conspicuous of which are the mysterious, stone-built constructions known as nuraghi, mainly built between 1500 and 500 BC both for defensive purposes and as dwellings, and unique to Sardinia. The Nuraghic culture peaked between the tenth and eighth centuries BC, trading with the Phoenicians, among others, from the eastern Mediterranean. But from the sixth century BC, the more warlike Carthaginians settled on the island, with their capital less than 200km away near present-day Tunis, and their occupation continued gradually until it was challenged by the emergence of Rome. Caught in the middle, the Sards fought on both sides until their decisive defeat by the Romans in 177–6 BC. A core of survivors fled into the impenetrable central and eastern mountains, where they retained their independence in an area called Barbaria by the Romans, known today as the Barbagia.
The most impressive remains left by the Romans can be seen in Cagliari, at nearby Nora, and at Tharros, west of Oristano – all Carthaginian sites later enlarged by Roman settlers – and strong Latin traces still survive in the Sard dialect today. After the Roman withdrawal around the fifth century, the destructive effects of malaria and corsair raids from North Africa prompted the abandonment of the island’s coasts in favour of more secure inland settlements. The numerous coastal watchtowers still surviving testify to the constant threat of piracy and invasion.
In the eleventh century ecclesiastical rights over Sardinia were granted to the rising city-state of Pisa, with its influence mainly concentrated in the south, based in Cagliari, and Pisan churches can be found throughout Sardinia. By the end of the thirteenth century, however, Pisa’s rival Genoa had established itself in the north of the island, with power-bases in Sassari and on the coast. The situation was further complicated in 1297, when Pope Boniface VIII gave James II of Aragon exclusive rights over both Sardinia and Corsica in exchange for surrendering his claims to Sicily. Local resistance to the Aragonese was led by Arborea, the area around present-day Oristano, and championed in particular by Eleanor of Arborea, whose forces succeeded in stemming the Spanish advance. Following her death in 1404, however, Sardinian opposition crumbled, beginning three centuries of Spanish occupation. Traces of Spain’s long dominion survive in Sardinia’s dialects and in the sprinkling of Gothic and Baroque churches and palaces, with Alghero, in particular, still retaining a strong Catalan dialect.
In the wake of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–20), Victor Amadeus, Duke of Savoy, took possession of the island, which became the new Kingdom of Sardinia. Garibaldi embarked on both his major expeditions from his farm on one of Sardinia’s outlying islands, Caprera, and the Kingdom of Sardinia ended with the Unification of Italy in 1861. Since then, Sardinia’s integration into the modern nation-state has not always been easy. Outbreaks of banditry, for example, associated with the Gennargentu mountains in particular, were ruthlessly suppressed, but there was little money available to address the root causes of the problem, nor much interest in doing so. The island benefited from the land reforms of Mussolini, however, which included the harnessing and damming of rivers, the draining of land, and the introduction of agricultural colonies from the mainland.
After World War II, Sardinia was granted semi-autonomous status, and the island was saturated with enough DDT to rid it of malaria forever. Such improvements, together with the increasing revenues from tourism, have helped marginalize local opposition towards the central government, at the same time creating a bolthole for wealthy mainlanders and holiday-makers, including at least two prime ministers – Blair and Berlusconi.