Summer is ending on Sardinia. The Italian football team went home ages ago to train. Gwyneth, Liz and Brad have left too, and so have the tribes of photographers who pursue them round Porto Cervo. Without paparazzi, glitterati and footerati the north of Sardinia is suddenly much quieter.

But Porto, with its seasonal influx of expensively famous faces, is a curiosity on Sardinia, the island that D H Lawrence considered "something between Europe and Africa but belonging to neither". Ever since the Aga Khan decided to build an exclusive resort here in 1962, Sardinia has found itself on the international circuit. The whole of the Costa Smeralda is a millionaire's paradise of unobtrusive architecture, €20 (£14) lemonades, white-sand beaches and aquamarine bays. It's all beautifully done but it's about as Sardinian as Liz Hurley, or indeed Rod Stewart (another regular at Porto).

I've decided to spend my time here far from the thalassotherapy, the designer shopping malls and the shiny white yachts, taking the ferry that plies between the mainland and Isola Maddalena, a proud, ancient island that has no truck with these parvenus.

Maddalena is the centre of an archipelago so close to the north coast of Sardinia that the old Danish ferries that make the crossing hardly have time to get up soot before they're dropping anchor again. It's a national park of granite extrusions rearing up from the sea bed. One, Santo Stefano, has long been an American naval base which the Sardinians regard as their punishment for Italy having picked the wrong side in the Second World War. The other inhabited island, Caprera, is linked to Maddalena by a causeway and was, until relatively recently, owned by the Garibaldi family.

But Maddalena is my favourite. Agincourt sound between Maddalena and Sardinia was where Nelson resupplied his ships during the two-year campaign before Trafalgar. In fact, it was here that the admiral heard that the French fleet had escaped from Toulon. When he left, he presented the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena with a silver cross and two candlesticks in gratitude, much to the annoyance of his crew who thought the gift smacked of Popery.

I know all this because I'm looking at the silver plate now. It's kept in a tiny museum at the back of the church on Via Baron Manno. And Nelson's letter to the Reverend Superior of the Church is there, too, signed "Nelson & Bronte". The admiral was proud to use the dukedom that had been conferred on him after he crushed a populist uprising in Naples.

The church of Santa Maria has only recently caught on to the fact that it has historical artefacts on its hands. For €3 (£2.20) I can buy a colour facsimile of Nelson's letter. It's worth it for the address alone "Victory Oct, 18th; 1804".

The people of La Maddalena, the island's capital, take Nelson in their stride. They have a reputation for aloofness, even eccentricity, and they certainly aren't easily impressed. In 1943, Benito Mussolini spent 20 days in captivity here in Villa Webber, just to the west of La Maddalena. He could be seen, pacing up and down on the balcony of this crumbling Victorian palazzo, built by a wealthy English milliner, but no one turned out to watch. The priest who took his confession, Don Capula, was said to have kept a record of everything that Il Duce had to say, but when the don died his heir presented this unique document to the church unread.

The only person who seems to have impressed the Maddalenes is Giuseppe Garibaldi, but then he impressed most people. The grizzled old revolutionary came to the island of Maddalena in 1855 and bought a farmhouse on neighbouring Caprera. When his daughter, Clelia, was born, he planted a marine pine in commemoration which is still there today and when an English friend sent him one of the first prefabricated corrugated iron buildings, he had it assembled as guest quarters.

Given the cynicism with which Italians regard their politicians nowadays (Silvio Berlusconi has four villas at Porto Cervo), it's touching to find how enormously popular the shrine to Garibaldi is on Caprera. I drive over the causeway at 10am and even in September find the narrow avenue to Garibaldi's house clogged with oversized buses having Italianate showdowns. None of the drivers, all in Mafia-style sunglasses, give an inch, which leaves the hordes quitting Garibaldi's Casa Bianca blocked by those trying to gain access.

Outside the ticket office, long queues have formed. A few days ago, "Compendio Garabaldino" was closed by a sudden strike. Today it's open again and all Sardinia has come for its Garibaldi fix.

The house is a museum - but a well-stocked one. There are numerous portraits of the great man, looking remarkably like fellow nationalist Giuseppe Verdi. I also get to see his matrimonial bed, his death bed and his wheelchairs. There's even the iron cage that he had placed over his leg - riddled with arthritis and gun shot wounds - so that the sheets didn't stop him sleeping. Custodians stand in every room. They tell you nothing, just make sure you take no pictures, ask no questions and don't steal the famous Red Shirt (yes, it is there).

I suppose this low-roofed farmhouse is a shrine to everything that makes Italy feel good about itself - the story of a man of the people who had a vision and fulfilled it leaving Italy united by generous, rather than fascistic, principles.

His tomb is impressive, too, a rough hewn piece of local granite with Garibaldi written on the lid. Two huge iron rings were fixed on top so it could be lowered into place and they're still there today. Garibaldi had wanted to be cremated in his garden on Caprera. Church and state wanted him buried in Rome. This stone coffin was a temporary measure until the issue was resolved. As it never was, the garden has become the final resting place of the great patriot. Three of his children and one of his wives are buried alongside.

On my way back to the ferry, I drive past a notorious house, the squat double-fronted bungalow of an Englishman called Collins who arrived on the archipelago having heard that Nelson had recommended the British Navy buy these useful islands from the King of Piedmont. Collins set about acquiring Caprera by subtle means in the hope of selling it on to the navy at a profit. Unfortunately, he came up against Garibaldi who had arrived about the same time and decided he also wanted Caprera. The two men had many run-ins, at one point Garibaldi suggested a duel. It's unclear what exactly happened to Mr Collins in the end. According to my guide book, "Garibaldi was given the rest of the island by an English friend." I'm not surprised if Collins just gave up. No one bested Garibaldi.

As I return to the harbour at La Maddalena, I'm unsurprised to notice a memorial to Garibaldi on the quayside. He is the one person the Maddalenes honour in this way. As far as they're concerned Porto Cervo can keep Naomi and Rod, they've got Giuseppe.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The author travelled as a guest of Holiday Options (0870 4208372; www.holidayoptions.co.uk), which offers seven nights in Porto Cervo from £729 on a half-board basis. Price includes return flights and transfers.

Saremar (00 39 0789 737 660; www.saremar.it) operates a ferry service from Palau to La Maddelena with fares starting from €1.70 (£1.20).

Further information

Italian State Tourist Board (0207-408 1254; www.enit.it).

STAR ATTRACTIONS: FIVE MORE ITALIAN ISLANDS TO VISIT

Pantelleria

Madonna, Sting and Julia Roberts are just a few of the A-list stars who have made the journey to this remote volcanic island. Set closer to Africa than Sicily, its exotic Moorish heritage is still evident. And the island is dotted with mysterious sesi funerary monuments believed to date from the Bronze Age. But most striking are the numerous ancient cubic stone houses with domed ceilings called "dammusi", which have been snapped up as summer houses by the likes of fashion guru Giorgio Armani.

Capri

At the height of summer you will find the narrow streets of Capri town choked with tourists. They come for good reason; this is a beautiful island with some breathtaking views over the Tyrrhenian Sea (right). Gwyneth Paltrow (inset) is among the celebrated visitors but Capri's main crowd-puller is the Blue Grotto, a naturally illuminated cavern that turns the sea sapphire blue.

Stromboli

A black cone soaring out of the sea, topped by an ominous, smoking crater, Stromboli is a dramatic sight. One of a string of islands that make up the Aeolian archipelago off the north-east coast of Sicily, it's best viewed at night from afar when its tip glows in the dark. The island's rugged scenery of lava rock formations and coves has won it plenty of fans over the years. Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman began their love affair while filming there in the 1940s. More recently the fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have bought themselves a house on the island.

Ponza

An hour's ferry ride from Anzio on the Lazio coast, Ponza is a popular weekend retreat for well-heeled Romans. The picturesque main town arcs around a bay, but the island's true delight is its jagged coastline and the smaller outlying islands dotted with quiet bays.

Elba

Best known as the place of Napoleon's first exile, this island's rugged terrain is criss-crossed by pathways that run the length and breadth of the island. For the best views, take the cable-car ride to the summit of t he island's highest peak, Monte Capanne.

Soo-Li Yong

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