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.
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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 seven-thousand-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 in the northwest of the island, which retains its distinctive Catalan flavour and 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.
Brief history of Sardinia
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 177–176 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.
Seafood and suckling pig – Sardinian cuisine
Sardinian cooking revolves around the freshest of ingredients simply prepared: seafood – especially lobster – is grilled over open fires scented with myrtle and juniper, as is meltingly tender suckling pig. A few wild boar escape the fire long enough to be made into prosciutto di cinghiale, a ham with a strong flavour of game. Being surrounded by sparkling seas, Sardinians also make rich, Spanish-inspired fish stews and produce bottarga, a version of caviar made with mullet eggs. Pasta is substantial here, taking the form of culurgiones (massive ravioli filled with cheese and egg) or malloreddus (saffron-flavoured, gnocchi-like shapes), while cheeses tend to be made from ewe’s milk and are either fresh and herby or pungent and salty – like the famous pecorino sardo. The island is also famous for the quality and variety of its bread, ranging from parchment-thin pane carasau to chunky rustic loaves intended to sustain shepherds on the hills. As in Sicily, there is an abundance of light and airy pastries, frequently flavoured with lemon, almonds or orange-flower water.
Vernaccia is the most famous Sardinian wine: a hefty drink reminiscent of sherry and treated in a similar way – the bone-dry version as an aperitif and the sweet variant as a dessert wine. The standout red is the Cannonau di Sardegna, a heady number much favoured by locals. Among the whites, look out for dry Torbato or the full-flavoured Trebbiano Sardo, both perfect accompaniments to local fish and seafood.
Forty kilometres south of Cagliari, 3km outside the small town of Pula, the ancient remains of Nora constitute one of Sardinia’s most important archeological sites. Founded by the Phoenicians and settled later by Carthaginians and Romans, Nora was abandoned around the third century AD, possibly as a result of a natural disaster. Now partly submerged under the sea, the remains on land include houses, Carthaginian warehouses, a temple, baths with some well-preserved mosaics, and a theatre which hosts summer performances. The rest is rubble, though its waterside position gives it plenty of atmosphere. The archeological museum at Corso Vittorio Emanuele 69 in Pula (closed for renovation at the time of writing) gives background and displays some of the finds.
Beside the site is a lovely sandy bay lapped by crystal-clear water, but packed with day-trippers in season. Behind the beach stands the rather ordinary looking eleventh-century church of Sant’Efísio, site of the martyrdom of Cagliari’s patron saint and the destination of an annual four-day procession from Cagliari on May 1.
Joined to the mainland by a road causeway and bridge, Sant’Antioco is the larger of Sardinia’s southwest islands, measuring about 15km by 10km at its longest and widest. The main town – also called Sant’Antioco – has a sheltered harbour that made this an important base for the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and the Romans, allowing them control over the whole of Sardinia’s southwest coast. The second town, Calasetta, on the island’s northern tip, lies close to some good beaches and is the port for the island of San Pietro.
Visiting Su Nuraxi
If you only see one of Sardinia’s nuraghi (ancient stone dwellings) you should make it the biggest and most famous: Su Nuraxi, between Cagliari and Oristano. The majestic UNESCO-protected complex is a compelling sight, surrounded by the brown hills of the interior, and a good taste of the primitive grandeur of the island’s only indigenous civilization.
Su Nuraxi’s dialect name means simply “the nuragh”, and not only is it the largest Nuraghic complex on the island, but it’s also thought to be the oldest, dating probably from around 1500 BC. Comprising a bulky fortress surrounded by the remains of a village, Su Nuraxi was a palace complex at the very least – possibly even a capital city. The central tower once reached 21m (now shrunk to less than 15m), and its outer defences and inner chambers are connected by passageways and stairs. The whole complex is thought to have been covered with earth by Sards and Carthaginians at the time of the Roman conquest, which may account for its excellent state of preservation: if it weren’t for a torrential rainstorm that washed away the slopes in 1949, the site may never have been revealed at all.
The province of Oristano roughly corresponds to the much older entity of Arborea, the medieval giudicato which championed the Sardinian cause in the struggle against the Spaniards. Then as now, Oristano was the region’s main town, and today it retains more than a hint of medieval atmosphere. The historic centre has a relaxed and elegant feel, and although it is 4km from the sea, the town is attractively surrounded by water, its lagoons and irrigation canals helping to make this a richly productive agricultural zone (the southern lagoon, the Stagno di Santa Giusta, is home to a local colony of Sardinia’s flamingo population). Many people, however, come to Oristano simply to visit the nearby Sinis peninsula, home to the impressive Punic and Roman ruins of Tharros and a string of wild beaches.
The rituals of Oristano’s flamboyant Sa Sartiglia festival perhaps originated with knights on the Second Crusade, who in the eleventh century may well have imported the trappings of Saracen tournaments to Sardinia. In the period of the Spanish domination, similarly lavish feasts were held for the ruling knights. In time, these celebrations took on a more theatrical aspect and merged with the annual Carnival – the Sa Sartiglia is now a three-day festival ending on Shrove Tuesday. With all the participants masked and costumed, the whole affair exudes a drama unrivalled by Sardinia’s other festivals. The climax of proceedings, in Piazza Eleonora, is the joust after which the festival is named, when mounted contestants attempt to lance a ring, or sartiglia, suspended in the air, charging towards it at full gallop.
Eleonora di Aroborea
Oristano’s finest hour is recalled in the marble statue of Eleonora d’Arborea that presides over the piazza named after her in the old centre. Eleonora was the giudice of the Arborea region from 1384 to 1404 and is the best loved of Sardinia’s medieval rulers, having been the only one who enjoyed any success against the Aragonese invaders. She died from plague in 1404, though her most enduring legacy survived her by several centuries: the formulation of a Code of Laws, which was eventually extended throughout the island. Eleonora’s statue, carved in 1881, shows her bearing the scroll on which the laws were written, while inset panels depict her various victories.
About 20km west of Oristano, the Punic and Roman ruins at Tharros are spread across an isthmus that forms the northern tip of the mouth of the Golfo di Oristano. Now overlooked by a sturdy Spanish watchtower, the site was settled by Phoenicians as early as 800 BC, and consists mostly of Punic and Roman houses arranged on a grid of streets, of which the broad-slabbed Decumanus Maximus is the most impressive. The two solitary Corinthian columns marking the site of a first-century-BC Roman temple are in fact a modern reconstruction. Like Nora, there is much more submerged underwater, the result of subsidence.
Near the site stands the fifth-century church of San Giovanni di Sinis, which vies with Cagliari’s San Saturnino for the title of oldest Christian church in Sardinia.
Some 60km north of Oristano, Bosa presents an appealing picture of pastel houses huddled around a hilltop castle on the banks of the Temo River. Exploring the mazy lanes of its medieval centre is the chief pleasure here, and it makes a pleasant, if sleepy place to hole up for a few days.
Running parallel to the river, Bosa's long main street Corso Vittorio Emanuele cuts through Sa Piana, the lower town, site of the cathedral at the Corso’s eastern end, by the old bridge. From Sa Piana, the cobbled lanes of Sa Costa, or upper town, straggle up the hill towards the castle. For a swim, head to Bosa Marina, 2km west, where a crescent of sandy beach is backed by restaurants and bars.
“There is nothing to see in Nuoro: which to tell the truth, is always a relief. Sights are an irritating bore,” wrote D.H. Lawrence of the town he visited in 1921, though he was impressed by its appearance – “as if at the end of the world, mountains rising sombre behind”. Nuoro’s superb backdrop – beneath the soaring peak of Monte Ortobene and opposite the sheer and stark heights of Monte Corrasi – is still a major part of its appeal. Some absorbing museums and a vibrant old centre bisected by the pedestrianized Corso Garibaldi are added reasons to spend time here.
Evident everywhere are reminders of Nuoro’s distinguished literary and artistic heritage, notably in connection with the locally born Sebastiano Satta (1867–1914), Sardinia’s best-known poet; Grazia Deledda (1871–1936), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926 in recognition of a writing career that chronicled the day-to-day trials and passions of local life; and the modernist sculptor Francesco Ciusa (1883–1949). The town is also home to one of Sardinia's most spectacular festivals, the annual Festa del Redentore (last ten days of Aug), where enthusiastic dancing and singing in dialect culminate in a costumed procession to Monte Ortobene.
Signposted west of town, a lane climbs through the forested slopes of Monte Ortobene to its summit (955m), 8km away, presided over by a bronze statue of the Redeemer. From here there are majestic views over the gorge separating Nuoro from the Supramonte massif, while the woods are perfect for walks, picnics or a dip in the open-air pool at Farcana (summer only). During Nuoro’s Festa del Redentore a procession from town weaves up the mountain.
The interior and the east coast
Though little travelled by tourists, Sardinia’s interior is in many ways the most interesting part of the island, dominated by thick forests and rugged peaks. The local inhabitants have retained a fierce sense of independence and loyalty to their traditions, and this is especially true in the ring of the once almost impenetrable Monti del Gennargentu, centred on the island’s highest peak, La Mármora (1834m). The range forms the core of the Barbagia region, called Barbaria by the Romans who, like their successors, were never able to subdue it, foiled by the guerrilla warfare for which its hidden recesses proved ideal. More recently, the isolation and economic difficulties of the Barbagia’s villages led to widescale emigration and, among those who stayed behind, a wave of sheep-rustling, internecine feuding and the kidnapping of wealthy industrialists or their families that continued until the last decades of the twentieth century. Today, the Barbagia's main appeal is to outdoors enthusiasts, particularly mountain hikers; Oliena’s tourist office for routes and lists of guides.
Sardinia’s long eastern seaboard is highly developed around the resorts of Siniscola and Posada, but further south it preserves its desolate beauty, virtually untouched apart from a couple of isolated spots around Cala Gonone, and, further down, around the port of Arbatax, in Ogliastra province.
Hikes from Oliena, Dorgali and Cala Gonone
South of Oliena and Dorgali, the Supramonte massif provides lots of opportunities for mountain hikes, which should be accompanied by a guide – lists of available guides are available from the tourist offices at Oliena and Dorgali. The most popular excursion is to the nuraghic village of Tiscali, spectacularly sited within a vast mountaintop cavern; allow 4–6 hours for the return walk from Su Gologone on the Oliena side, or from the Flumineddu River on the Dorgali side (an easier ascent). One of Sardinia’s most dramatic mountain landscapes lies further south, cut through by the Flumineddu Valley and the Gola di Gorropu, one of southern Europe’s deepest canyons. You’ll get some stunning views of the valley from the SS125, running high above it, but you should hook up with a guide to experience it more directly. Even for shorter hikes, you’ll need hardy footwear with a secure grip and ankle support, and preferably some head protection against bumps and falls: the boulders can be extremely slippery, especially when wet.
Along the coast, you can make half- or full-day hikes from Cala Gonone to the beaches at Cala Luna and Cala Sisine. From Cala Sisine, the route wanders inland up the Sisine canyon, as far as the solitary church of San Pietro, from where a track leads down to the village of Baunei. Again, guides are advised for all but the most straightforward coastal routes.
The Gennargentu massif
The central region of the Barbagia holds the Gennargentu chain of mountains – the name means “silver gate”, referring to the snow that covers them every winter. Here, you’ll find the island’s only skiing facilities on Monte Bruncu Spina, Sardinia’s second-highest peak (1829m). In spring and summer, you can explore this and other areas on mountain treks, best undertaken with a guide; the tourist office at Nuoro can supply a list.
Buried within chestnut forests, the isolated villages of the region make useful bases for both skiers and trekkers, for example FONNI, 36km south of Nuoro and at 1000m the island’s highest village. Try to coincide your visit with one of Fonni’s costumed festivals, principally the Madonna dei Mártiri, on the Monday following the first Sunday in June, and on San Giovanni’s day on June 24. Other centres for excursions and to get a flavour of the mountain culture include Tonara, a quiet, traditional village some 30km southwest of Fonni, famed for its chestnuts and torrone (a sticky, sweet nougat confection), and Aritzo, 15km further south.
Boat tours from Cala Gonone
Tickets for a range of boat trips from Cala Gonone to the beaches and deep grottoes that pit the shore are sold at the port. Most famous of the grottoes is the Grotta del Bue Marino, formerly home to a colony of Mediterranean monk seals, or “sea ox”. It’s among Sardinia’s most spectacular caves, a luminescent gallery filled with remarkable natural sculptures, resembling organ pipes, wedding cakes and even human heads – one of them is known as Dante, after a fondly imagined resemblance to the poet. Other sea excursions provide access to various beaches along the coast, the most popular of which are Cala Luna and Cala Sisine – for more solitude, opt for one of the remoter swimming and snorkelling stops.
The largest town in northeastern Sardinia, Olbia is in some ways the least Sardinian of the island's major centres, predominantly modern and usually busy with tourists, many of them bound for one of the Mediterranean’s loveliest stretches of coast, the Costa Smeralda. But there's more to Olbia than its port and airport – it has one of Sardinia's most significant Romanesque churches, a good museum, and a lively selection of bars and restaurants.
The Maddalena islands
The profusion of minor islands off Sardinia’s northeastern coast, more than sixty in all, form part of La Maddalena national park, which can be explored on various boat tours from the mainland or from the archipelago’s only port, La Maddalena, reachable on ferries from Palau (10km up the coast from Cannigione).
The island invites aimless wandering and offers a variety of sandy and rocky beaches in mostly undeveloped coves. The beaches on the northern and western coasts are most attractive, particularly those around the tiny port of Madonetta, 5km west of La Maddalena, and at Cala Lunga, 5km north of town. Attached to the main island by a causeway is neighbouring Caprera, the island on which Garibaldi spent his last years.
Santa Teresa Gallura and around
The road northwest from Arzachena passes a succession of lovely bays, some dramatic rocky coastline and a handful of campsites. Six kilometres west of Palau, the slender isthmus of Porto Pollo is Sardinia’s busiest watersports centre, with ideal conditions for windsurfing and kitesurfing. There are numerous surf schools and rental outfits, while the sheltered, dune-backed beaches will equally appeal to non-surfers.
Some 15km further west, Santa Teresa Gallura is Sardinia’s northernmost port. The town gets extremely lively in summer, with a buzzing nightlife, but the main draw is the beaches, many enjoying superb views over to Corsica, just 11km away. There’s one stretch of sand right at the edge of town, but some of the finest beaches on the whole island are a short bus-ride away, with Punta Falcone and La Marmorata to the east, and Capo Testa, with its wind-sculpted granite rock formations, 3km west of Santa Teresa.
On Sardinia’s north coast, 70km southwest from Santa Teresa di Gallura, Castelsardo lies picturesquely draped over a promontory overlooking the Golfo dell’Asinara. The town was the Sardinian power base of the Genoan Doria family for nearly 250 years, and the historic centre preserves a pungent medieval flavour, crowned by a castle that now holds a museum of basketwork. This local speciality, combined with the town’s photogenic setting, has helped to transform Castelsardo into a fully fledged holiday resort, with numerous hotels, restaurants and handicrafts shops.
Sardinia’s second city, Sassari combines an insular, traditional feel, as embodied in its well-preserved old quarter, with a forward-looking, confident air that is most evident in its modern centre. Here, leading off from the grandiose Piazza Italia, the café-lined Via Roma holds the city’s principal sight, the Museo Sanna, displaying some of the island’s most important archeological finds.
Brief history of Sassari
While Cagliari was Pisa’s base of operations in Sardinia during the Middle Ages, Sassari was the Genoan capital, ruled by the Doria family, whose power reached throughout the Mediterranean. Under the Aragonese it became an important centre of Spanish hegemony, and the Spanish stamp is still strong, not least in its churches. In the sixteenth century the Jesuits founded Sardinia’s first university here, which continues to excel in the spheres of law, medicine and politics.
One of Sardinia’s showiest festivals – La Cavalcata– takes place in Sassari on the penultimate Sunday of May, the highlight of a month of cultural activities. Originally staged for the benefit of visiting Spanish kings or other dignitaries, it attracts hundreds of richly costumed participants from villages throughout the province and beyond. The festival is divided into three stages: the morning features a horseback parade and a display of the embroidered and decorated costumes unique to each village, after which there is a show of stirring horsemanship at the local racecourse. The day ends with traditional songs and dances back in Piazza Italia.
Stintino and around
The coast north of Sassari is lined with beaches, the most alluring of them lying around the port and resort of Stintino, on Sardinia’s northwestern tip. Until recently nothing more than a remote jumble of fishermen’s cottages jammed between two narrow harbours, Stintino remains a small, laidback village for most of the year, but is transformed into a busy holiday centre in the tourist season. With no beaches to speak of in the resort itself, most of the sunning and swimming takes place to either side – 4km south at the beach of Le Saline or the same distance north at La Pelosa – though most of the area’s bars, restaurants and reasonably priced accommodation lie in Stintino.
Some 4km up the road from Stintino a clutter of tourist villages backs the otherwise idyllic promontory of La Pelosa, location of one of Sardinia’s most deluxe beaches. With its fine sand, turquoise water and views out to the isles of Piana and Asinara, it can get horribly crowded in the peak tourist season, but nothing can spoil its setting.
Trips to Asinara
Previously a prison island, the elongated offshore isle of Asinara is now a national park and nature reserve. Boat trips leave Stintino daily between Easter and October at around 9.30am, returning at 5/6pm. Book tickets at least one day before from the kiosks by the port or an agency in town such as La Nassa, Via Tonnara 35.
Alghero, 40km southwest of Sassari, is one of Sardinia’s most charming towns, and one of its busiest resorts. The predominant flavour here is Catalan, owing to a wholesale Hispanicization that followed the overthrow of the Doria family by Pedro IV of Aragon in 1354, a process so thorough that it became known as “Barcelonetta”. The traces are still strong in the old town today, with its flamboyant churches and narrow cobbled lanes named in both Italian and Catalan, all sheltered within a stout girdle of walls that now hold bars and restaurants – a fine venue for watching the sunset.
One of the best excursions from Alghero is to Neptune’s Grotto (daily: April & Oct 10am–6pm; May–Sept 9am–8pm; Nov–March 10am–4pm; last tour 1hr before closing), a dramatically lit marine cave with stalagmites and stalactites. Boat trips to the grotto leave from Alghero’s port between March and October. Before buying tickets, check with the operator that you’ll be able to visit the grotto on that day, as you can’t enter if the sea is too rough – and if the winds are up, be prepared for a choppy ride (40min). Alternatively, local buses depart from the Alghero’s Giardini Pubblici (1–3 daily), leaving you at the top of a long and steep flight of steps that corkscrews down to the cave mouth.