Italy

Around the region

According to Sardinian legend, after God created the Earth, He gathered all the leftover pieces from everywhere else, threw them in the sea and stepped on them to create Sardinia or, as the Greeks called it, Ichnusa, meaning ‘footprint’. Since then, the island has been walked on by anyone who has ever sailed through the Mediterranean. Invaded in name but never conquered in spirit, Sardinia has managed the clever trick of absorbing a cultural buffet of influences while holding its head high with a resolutely independent pride.

Lying 178 km from the nearest mainland, slightly closer to Tunisia than Italy, no other island is as marooned in the Mediterranean as Sardinia; a fact that has shaped the island’s unique character. Although the Sardinians, or Sardi, have adopted the Italian tongue of their latest landlords, they cling fiercely to their native language, Sardo, and are recognized as a distinct ethnic group from their mainland countrymen, who drop anchor in droves each summer to splash around the island’s beaches. Sardinia boasts the Romanesque churches, mosaics, medieval castles and fine wines associated with Italy but also pulsates with an unsullied and unscripted spirit that the mainland lost long ago.

From the Phoenicians to the Romans to tourists today, foreigners have usually found it difficult to move beyond Sardinia’s coasts, and for good reason. The island is ringed by a shimmering shoreline of jaw-dropping beauty. But to limit your visit to the beaches is to miss the essence of an island whose people have traditionally turned their backs to the sea, fearful of those coming to exploit them and, until fairly recently, of the malaria outbreaks that plagued the coastal lagoons. Instead, many Sardinians have long sought refuge in the island’s interior, a landscape of deep chasms, impressive massifs and impenetrable macchia (maquis) brush that nurtures the Sardi’s defiant character and hides the most compelling evidence of their secret history: more than 7,000 nuraghi (stone towers) built by one of the world’s most advanced and mysterious Bronze Age societies.

Cagliari & the south

Sardinia’s capital, Cagliari, makes a natural starting point for a tour of the island. Refreshed by a laid-back breeze from Sardinia’s southern gulf, the island’s largest city combines a fascinating look back to the island’s past with a dynamic modern social scene. Three historic districts shelter the city’s steep medieval heart, the Castello, where a warren of tight cobblestone alleyways lead to Sardinia’s most important museum with its displays of miniature bronzetti statues made by the island’s inspired Bronze Age artisans. Outside, admire the Pisans’ architectural ingenuity from the top of the Bastione or head out to the city’s beach, Poetto.

Away from the capital, Sardinia’s southern third is a mosaic of contrasting landscapes draped in prickly pears, wheat fields and colourful oleanders. To the east, the lonely Gerrei region hides under the seven peaks of the Sette Fratelli park and is one of Sardinia’s most secluded pockets as well as the source of fine pecorino cheese. Nearby, the Sarrabus produces Sardinia’s best citrus crop and endures its highest temperatures from which the turquoise waters of the Costa Rei provide welcome respite. North of Cagliari, you’ll find the Su Nuraxi and Arrubiu nuraghi in the dusty plains of the central Campidano. Their ancient stones make the ninth-century BC Phoenician settlement of Nora to the south seem young in contrast. To the west, the island of Sant’Antioco has a proud Punic past, and the island of San Pietro retains its Ligurian heritage with Genoese recipes and a blood-thirsty tuna-catching festival. Don’t leave the south without visiting the Spanish-accented town of Iglesias and the surrounding abandoned mines and ghost towns of the Iglesiente.

Oristano & the west

The town of Oristano lends its name to Sardinia’s smallest province, nestled in the island’s western corner. The region lets its hair down for a string of daredevil horseback acrobatics in Sedilo and Santu Lussurgiu that will leave you gasping in amazement. On the coast, the Sinis Peninsula is a watery oasis, where over 10,000 pink flamingos winter on Europe’s largest lagoon between September and June. The peninsula is still guarded by the evocative Punic-Roman city of Tharros and is famed for its bottarga (mullet roe). Quartz beaches pave the way north to Bosa, a beautiful medieval town in a fairytale setting, while the Montiferru mountain to the west yields Seneghe’s artichoke-flavoured olive oil, San Vero Milis’ novello wines and the region’s prized bue rosso steaks.

Nuoro & Ogliastra

To the east, the provinces of Nuoro and Ogliastra tuck their towns in to the craggy nooks and crevices of the Supramonte and Gennargentu mountain ranges, which shield them from too much outside attention. The tall massifs serve as a bastion, protecting some of Sardinia’s ancient rites and traditions, which modernity has yet to sweep away. You can see examples of native costumes in the ethnographic museum in Nuoro. Elsewhere, Orgosolo is Sardinia’s bandit capital, famous for harbouring and hiding outlaws in its mountainous folds; now it is equally known for the abstract murals on its cinderblock walls. Sardinia’s two best hiking routes will take you deep into the island’s interior: up to the mystifying settlement of Tiscali buried inside a mountainous sinkhole, and into the depths of Gola Gorroppu, Europe’s deepest ravine. If you only have one day to stretch out on Sardinia’s shores, take a boat trip along the Golfo di Orosei.

The Gallura

The northeast is best known as the location of the world-famous Costa Smeralda, known as the Costa Rubata (stolen coast) by locals. Developed by Arabs with Mediterranean panache, there’s hardly anything Sardinian about this 55-km stretch of coast between Liscia Ruja and Poltu Cuatu, but it remains fabulous nonetheless. Pop Cristal with Russian oligarchs at Club Billionaire and tan next to football stars along the coast’s kaleidoscope of shimmering beaches.

Elsewhere, nature has carved Gallura’s coastline with deep, dramatic bays and sculpted its granite into supple, wind-whipped natural art. Nowhere is this more evident than around Santa Teresa, where spring erupts in a palette of wild flowers, and around the La Maddalena Archipelago, a national park of seven uninhabited islands with universal appeal.

Sassari & the northwest //Long before the Costa Smeralda was developed, the northwestern province of Sassari was the Italians’ favourite Sardinian destination. It has all the trappings of the medieval mainland: a proud provincial capital, Sassari, with a corkscrew cobblestone centre and crumbling walls; the citadel of Castelsardo spilling over a rocky bluff, and a string of Romanesque churches frozen in time in the golden wheat fields of the Logudoro. But the region also possesses some curious cultural relics that could only be found in Sardinia. There’s romantic Alghero, a piece of Iberia that sailed over to its seaside setting in Sardinia with the Catalan-Aragonese in the 13th century; Monte d’Accodi, a bewildering Neolithic monument resembling a Mesopotamian ziggurat, and Santu Antine, Sardinia’s Sistine Chapel of Nuraghic engineering.

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