Vacations in Sardinia
One of the two large islands that lie of the western (Mediterranean) coast of Italy, Sardinia is much less explored and far emptier than its southern neighbour Sicily. Marooned between Italy and north Africa, it lies some 200km off the coast of Lazio. At its northern tip it gazes just a few miles across the water to the French island of Corsica. DH Lawrence visited in the early 1920s and found it 'lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere'.
Perhaps the geographical confusion is accentuated by the number of times Sardinia has been invaded over the past two millennia. The island has certainly been inhabited since prehistoric times. You don't have to dig to find this; the evidence is all over Sardinia in the shape of the bizarre nuraghi, conical stone buildings, rather like beehives. They were mainly constructed between 1500BC and 500BC, apparently as defensive structures as well as homes. This ancient culture was at its height around 1000 years before the birth of Christ ... the fact that 700 of the nuraghi survive 3000 years later gives an indication of their power.
But as the civilisations around the Mediterranean gained bigger, faster ships, so islands such as Sardinia became targets for invasion. Around the eighth century BC, the Nuraghi were trading with the Phoenicians, but around 600BC they were invaded by Carthage, who made the short hop from North Africa. The Romans came next of course, and the Sard people were all but wiped out in a bloody campaign in 176BC, when 25,000 islanders were slaughtered.
Now began the tradition of the Sards fleeing to the hills, particularly the area today known as Barbagia, a beautiful and remote mountain region. This also explains the anomaly of Sardinia having beautiful, sandy and accessible beaches, good natural ports, but very little in the way of coastal villages and towns. The coast of Sardinia was too vulnerable to invaders, with Cagliari being the only coastal town of any size. The Sardinian coast is now starting to be developed of course, most notably in the north-eastern corner. This Costa Smeralda is where the moneyed classes choose to holiday. There's plenty more besides to discover on your holiday in Sardinia though.
Sardinia - a mix of cultures
This relentless pattern of invasion has created an interesting mish-mash of influences seen in Sardinian food, wine, culture, architecture and archeology. There are Roman remains at Nora, Cagliari and Tharros. All of these were original Carthaginian settlements expanded and developed by the Romans. After the Romans came the Barbarians who, predictably, left nothing of note. Byzantium invaded in the sixth century BC, with the church of San Saturno in Cagliari an architectural legacy.
Pisa invaded next. You'll see reminders in the Pisan Romanesque churches dotted around the countryside the length and breadth of the island. The defensive towers in Cagliari are another remnant of the Pisan occupation, and were largely a defence against sporadic raids from Muslim north Africa. Pisa gave way to another city state, Genoa, which had its centres in Sassari and the north of the island. Aragon invaded next, winning a bloody war against the islanders, led by Boudicca figure Eleanor of Arborea. In the eighteenth century the island became the centre of the Kingdom of Sardinia, and was subsumed into the unified Italy in 1861. It played its role in this. For once it was Sardinia doing the invading, with Garibaldi (a native of Sardinia) beginning his campaign for unification from the island.
Sardinia - the towns
Cagliari (lodging listings), on the south coast of Sardinia has been the capital of the island since the days of Rome, and it's still Sardinia's biggest town. With echoes of Rome, the town was built on seven hills. The atmospheric heart of Cagliari is in the old Castello (castle) district, which sits atop one of the hills, overlooking the port. And with a working port and fishing boats this is a lively, buzzing town. The old city has narrow lanes to explore, and the city walls are flanked by two Pisan towers, a hangover of the era when Pisa and Genoa fought to control the strategically vital outpost of Sardinia. Like many of those invaders, the novelist DH Lawrence first saw Sardinia from the sea and was much struck. He likened it to Jerusalem, 'strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy'.
Explore also the old city of Oristano, surrounded by lagoons and irrigation canals. There are Punic and Roman digs at nearby Tharros nearby. This is one of the last genuinely untouched stretches of Sardinian coastline, and you head north to the medieval town of Bosa, complete with castle and cathedral and sat on the banks of the Temo River.
Food and drink in Sardinia
The numerous invaders who made life miserable for the Sards all left their mark on the cuisine of course. Sardinian food today is a melange of Phoenician, Carthaginian, Spanish, Byzantine and Italian influences. So the hearty rustic food that is at the heart of the cuisine - wild boar, lamb and kid, spit-roasted pig with myrtle, suckling pig cooked flames scented with myrtle is complemented with aubergines, artichokes, couscous and nougat. Sardinia is famous for its excellent bread and for the pungent, salty percorino sardo cheese. Seafood is often excellent. There is a local version of caviar in bottarga (dried and salted grey mullet eggs, served with celery), dogfish (gattucio di mare), sea urchins and octopus grace the menu.
Sardinia is only now emerging as a serious wine producer. The coastal areas are ideal for raising vines, but of course these were traditionally sparsely populated, with the population fleeing the constant stream of invaders and sheltering in the mountains. As with the food, the wines are a mixture brought from all over the Mediterranean by those invaders. Aragon brought Spanish grapes, today yielding Vermentino whites from Sassari, Carignano in Sulcis, and Giro in Cagliari. There is Vernaccia, a sherry-type wine, the dry version drunk as an aperitif and the sweet as a dessert wine. Torbato, again of Spanish provenance, provides soft, flowery whites. You'll finf Carignano (imported French Carignan is used for barrique-aged reds, and Bovale is a red grape used in many blended wines. There is Grenache (known as Cannonau here) and Muscat on the west of Sardinia. All told, the island now has 19 DOCs.
Holiday in Sardinia ... must sees
The nuraghi - the mysterious prehistoric cone-shaped buildings pepper the island. There are more than 700 of them, with the Nuraghe Su Nuraxi one of the largest and most impressive.
Nora - archaeological site with Roman and Carthaginian remains slowly being uncovered. Much of the original Nora is under the Mediterranean, but baths, a theatre and mosaics have been uncovered.
Cagliari - since the days of Rome the capital of the island of Sardinia. A marvellous confusion of little lanes leading away from the old port. There are Roman remains, including an amphitheatre, a fine cathedral and archaeological museum.
The Barbagia - mountainous inland region where the Sards would take shelter from the endless waves of invaders that beset this island for millennia. A marvellous mix of forested hillsides and meadows and peppered with isolated hamlets.