The Complete Guide To: Sardinia

Invaded by Romans, Carthaginians and celebrities, this floating chunk of Italy fizzes with festivals, ancient fortresses and excellent beaches


A FRAGMENT OF ITALY WAY OUT IN THE MEDITERRANEAN?

While Sardinia is a part of Italy, it is very definitely apart from it - geographically, culturally and linguistically. "What there is in Sardinia there is not in Italy; nor is there in Sardinia what there is in Italy." Those were the words of a visiting Jesuit priest, in the 18th century, and they still hold true today. The Mediterranean's second-largest island is marginally closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, while the southern tip of Corsica, which belongs to France, is just 12km across the Strait of Bonifacio.

The letter "x", rarely used in Italian, makes frequent appearances in the many Sardinian dialects, and three out of five inhabitants in the north-west port of Alghero speak a form of Catalan - a throwback to Sardinia's long period under Spanish rule. It's not surprising, therefore, that Sardinians routinely refer to Italy as il Continente, and regard the mainlanders as belonging to a different breed, although greatly improved transport links in recent years have made them feel much less isolated from both Italy and the rest of Europe than they once did.

THE MAIN ATTRACTIONS?

The combination of its peerless Mediterranean climate - freshened by strong sea breezes that can spring from nowhere on the calmest of days - its clear, turquoise waters, and its multitude of white, sandy beaches along 1,900km of coastline, make Sardinia the classic summer holiday destination, attracting backpacker and big spender alike. But it has much more to offer than beach-life. From the mysterious Nuraghic people, whose megalithic towers have survived virtually intact for more than 3,000 years, followed by the Carthaginians and Romans, the Pisans and Spanish, one invading power after another has left its distinctive mark, in bustling towns and remote plains, hilltops and nearby islands. Sardinia's interior mountain region, a sparsely populated wilderness of jagged crags and deep gorges, offers some of the best hiking and caving in Europe, and remains essentially as D H Lawrence found it in 1921: "a savage, dark-bushed, sky-exposed land".

In the west, the island contains an area of near-desert, inhabited by a unique, indigenous breed of wild horse; in the north, a valley of bare granite has been sculpted by wind, sea and time into a landscape resembling the surface of the moon; in the south, its salt lagoons attract a phenomenal volume of birds, breaking their journey between Europe and Africa; and in its capital city, Cagliari, the ancient and modern worlds are pleasingly conjoined along one of the Mediterranean's most eye-catching waterfronts.

Within a relatively small landmass, Sardinia offers a bit of everything.

CAGLIARI: A MATCH FOR THE GREAT ITALIAN CITIES?

This city of less than a quarter of a million people still has some way to go to live down its reputation - mainly promulgated by mainland Italians - of being a provincial backwater, scarred by the Allied bombing of the Second World War and the post-war construction, with minimal landscaping, of giant petrochemical refineries. In parts, it has a neglected air; too many walls and buildings are splattered with graffiti, but Cagliari has many charms to set against its pockets of unsightliness.

The city is built on seven hills, providing numerous lofty promenades and viewpoints. Its surviving bastion wall, two medieval watchtowers and imposing cathedral occupy a superb position overlooking a wide bay, with a shimmering lagoon and a pale blue mountain range in the distance. Below them, leading to the seafront, are elegant 19th-century streets decorated with jacaranda trees, and running alongside the harbour is the magnificent palm-lined promenade of the Via Roma, with swish department stores and cafés shaded by colonnades.

AND CULTURALLY?

Enough to keep you absorbed for an afternoon or two. The key venues are all loftily perched in the Castello district, amid the ancient walls and walkways that gave the medieval city an air of impregnability. The façade of the 13th-century Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral has endured several facelifts, but is worth visiting for its collection of religious artworks and immense, 14th-century stone pulpit.

Also of interest is the Torre di San Pancrazio, one of two soaring, defensive towers built by the Pisans, and the National Archaeological Museum (Piazza Arsenale 1; 00 39 070 684000) - one of four museums in a modern cluster - which contains all you need to know about Sardinia from prehistoric times to the Romans and Etruscans. Since this period embraces the entire Nuraghic period, of which no written record exists, the two floors of delicately worked bronze figures and ceramics are as close as you'll get to a sense of their art, crafts, and what they might have looked like. The museum opens from 9am-8pm every day except Monday; admission €4 (£2.80). English-speaking guides are available, varying their charges according to the size of the group they're showing around.

Cagliari's partially restored Roman amphitheatre, built into a hillside west of the city centre, stages regular musical and theatrical performances on summer evenings. Even if you don't entirely understand what's going on, the views of the city walls to the east, and the setting sun to the west, will stay long in the memory.

ANY BIG EVENTS?

Hardly a week goes by in Sardinia without one major festival or another. Next weekend, for example, Cagliari comes alive with jazz, poetry, classical music and dance. Many festivals are religious in origin, but others celebrate annual events such as the harvest, or the tuna fish catch on the island of San Pietro.

The most important Festa takes place in Cagliari in early May, commemorating Saint Efisio, Sardinia's patron saint. Efisio, a Roman commander, offended his employers by converting to Christianity, and was beheaded as a suspected traitor in AD303. But the main reason he's venerated is that he's believed to have answered the islanders' prayers to rescue them from the plague in 1652. In almost every year since, a bizarre ceremony has been held by way of giving thanks. On 1 May, people arrive from all quarters dressed in the traditional costumes of their region to accompany the saint's effigy - on foot or horseback - as it's carried in a gilded ox cart through the city to the former Roman capital of Nora, where the execution took place. That evening, Cagliari stages shows and folk music concerts, and three days later another colourful procession returns the effigy to Saint Efisio's church in the capital, and lays it to rest for another year.

Holy Week, leading up to Easter, is one of the busiest periods, while the people of Alghero let their hair down in January to honour - of all things - the sea urchin, a popular local delicacy. Most festivals involve elaborate dressing up, and there are usually singers, dancers, craft and food stalls, providing visitors with a vivid snapshot of how the island used to be.

THE MOST FASHIONABLE RESORTS?

The Costa Smeralda has been one of the premier haunts for Europe's beautiful people on vacation since a consortium led by the Aga Khan developed a 50km strip of the north-east coastline in the 1960s. The densely wooded hills overlooking bays, coves and some outstandingly beautiful beaches that can only be reached by boat, contain some of the most exclusive villas and hotels in the Mediterranean. Silvio Berlusconi owns several properties here, and visiting luminaries have recently included Bill Gates, Roman Abramovich, Rod Stewart and the Blairs. Every property in the resorts of Porto Cervo and Cale di Volpe - their marinas bulging * * with superyachts, their shopping centres with frighteningly expensive boutiques - has to conform to a central design plan intended to harmonise the buildings with the environment, using local granite and limestone finished in subtle pastel tones. Whether the faintly Moroccan style of architecture enhances or blots the landscape is open to question, but what's not in doubt is that the Costa Smeralda's season lasts barely three months, whereupon it reverts to being a remarkably well-manicured but somewhat chilling ghost town. Not far beyond the security gates, there are exquisite beaches at Cannigione and the offshore island of La Maddalena, where the rest of us can afford to stay. An hour's drive to the south, there's another stretch of fine beaches between San Teodoro and Capo Comino.

AND THE NORTH-WEST?

With Ryanair now flying to Sardinia from three UK airports (see below), Alghero has become the main entry point for British visitors. Many of them stay where they are, because this 1,000-year-old port is one of the island's gems. Unlike the Costa Smeralda, Alghero bustles all year round, radiating out from its compact old town of narrow stone streets, alleyways and piazzas, blocked off from the sea by the thick wall of the fortress it once was.

Part of the only hotel in the old town - San Francesco (00 39 079 980 330; www.sanfrancescohotel.com) - is connected to a monastery and church, but the most intriguing aspect of Alghero is that it resembles a tiny piece of northern Spain that has floated across the Mediterranean. Colonised by the Catalans around 1350, it became known as Barceloneta, or "Little Barcelona", and its architecture, dialect and food remain strongly Catalan-flavoured, even though the Spaniards were removed nearly three centuries ago. Language teachers regularly fly over from Spain to hold refresher courses that ensure the dialect remains alive. The town has an excellent beach, and there are further sandy resorts to the north, as well as spectacular cliffs and caves at Capo Caccia, accessible by road or on a three-hour round-trip by boat.

To the south of Alghero, the 45km coast road to Bosa, another attractive town with a medieval centre, is one of Sardinia's great drives. The new road weaves smoothly in and out of an endless succession of promontories and inlets a few hundred feet above sea level, scarcely ever letting the sea escape from view. Lay-bys are provided at the principal viewpoints, which become all the more distracting around sunset.

THE WORDLESS ANCIENTS

There's a saying in Sardinia that roughly translates as "A modern builder guarantees his work for five years: the Nuraghic builder guaranteed his for 5,000." They haven't lasted quite that long yet, but some of the 7,000 conical basalt structures to be found in every corner of the island have been standing since 1800BC, and show no sign of collapsing despite their being constructed without mortar or any kind of binding agent between the dry stones.

Adding to their mystique is that the people who built the nuraghi left no written records, so almost nothing is known about their way of life, or what happened to them. The Nuraghic fortresses open to modern-day visitors were so reliable that successive invaders - Phoenicians, Romans and Byzantines - extended the structures for their own use and built settlements around them. The largest surviving complex is at Barumini, in south western Sardinia, where the three-storey HQ is ringed by towers and a rampart, but exploring it in high season, when the car park is overflowing with tourist coaches, can leave you uncomfortably short of elbow room. It helps if you have your own transport, because there are numerous smaller, but equally well preserved examples in unconsidered corners throughout the island.

At Nuraghe Losa, lying in splendid isolation within sight of the main road (SS131) about 30km north-east of Oristano, a winding stone stairway gives access to two of the original three storeys of a 3,400-year-old fortress and several ancillary buildings dotted around the site.

Buy an entry ticket (€3.50/£2.50) at the adjoining café or the site's small museum, which opens between 9am and sunset, and let your imagination roam undisturbed. Further information is available at www.nuraghelosa.net.

IS IT EASY TO REACH FROM THE UK?

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) has three flights a week from Gatwick to Cagliari, but only between May and October. Also, in summer, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies daily from Luton to Cagliari and Olbia, the gateway to the glitzy resorts of the Costa Smeralda. Olbia is also served on Sundays from Gatwick by Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www.meridiana.it). Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) has year-round services to Alghero, in the north-west of the island, from Stansted (twice daily in summer; daily in winter), East Midlands and Liverpool (three or four times a week from both). The tour operator Holiday Options (08704 208 386; www.holidayoptions.co.uk) offers flight-only deals to Cagliari from Gatwick and Manchester from May to October.

CAN I COMBINE SARDINIA WITH CORSICA?

The ports of Santa Teresa on the northern tip of Sardinia and Bonifacio in southern Corsica are only 50 minutes apart by car ferry, with up to eight daily departures in each direction. The return fare for a family of four in a small car is around €50 (£35).

Some tour operators offer combination holidays and excursions between the two islands, with overnight stopovers. Just Sardinia (01202 484 858; www.justsardinia.co.uk) is one of these, offering a selection of hotels in Corsica from £63 per person per night. The same company's basic one-week fly-drive packages start at £663 per person.

EEL PIE, FIREWATER AND THE SARDINIAN SECRET OF LONG LIFE

As in so many things, it's Italian - with a twist. Instead of bread, some restaurants offer as a starter su pani carasau: a crisp, wafer-thin starter not dissimilar to an Indian poppadum, and taken with salt and olive oil. Among the dishes unique to the island is malloredus, a small, grooved pasta flavoured with saffron and served with tomato sauce and cheese. Many of the local cheeses are made from sheep's milk - there are more than three million sheep in an island of 1.7 million people - and cheese features in the traditional dessert, sebadas, filling a pastry which is then smothered in honey to balance the savoury with the sweet. Panadas is a round pie filled with meat, vegetables or eels, while in the coastal areas much of the fish is barbecued.

Sardinian wines, mainly produced from vines pruned back to avoid wind damage, are rich and hearty. The best reds are generally derived from the local cannonau grape; for whites, which have an amber hue, look out for Vermentino and Vernaccia. Some of these wines are made by the traditional method of allowing the grapes to ferment for three to four weeks, producing a chemical reaction that's said to stave off heart disease, and explains why the inhabitants of Sardinia's rural areas have the highest life expectancy in the world. An old wives' tale? No one's produced a more convincing explanation of why, if you live in the central province of Nuoro, your chances of living to 100 are more than three times the Western average.

The island's legendary firewater, distilled from the winemaking leftovers, is known as su fil'e ferru - "rod of iron" - which has nothing to do with its head-splitting strength. It's named after the practice of sticking a piece of wire in the soil to mark its hiding place.

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