As your car rumbles away from the coast, the hand-painted signs on huts and stone walls become political. "Sardinia is not Italy!" they read in English to remind you that if you open your mind to the differences, you'll find a world like no other world you've ever imagined.
Megalithic stone towers still speckle the countryside. They're called nuraghi and they're ancient. Then there are the "sacred wells" in which you can descend into the underworld, your fingers grazing basalt walls so finely worked you couldn't shove a piece of paper between the perfectly honed stones if you tried. They're even older.
Roman spring-fed baths still function, like those at Fordongianus, north east of Oristano on our map. The site is walled and you'll pay a little to get in and wander around, but they've left a bit of the site unfenced near the road, where locals can direct the waters into jugs to fill their bathtubs with the healing waters back home.
Yes, there are beaches, too, and modern hotels with all the amenities you might imagine--as well as prehistoric tombs called "fairies’ houses" and others called "giant's tombs". For a society that has a foot in its unique past and a toe in the pagan waters, it is also firmly grounded in the modern life.
Planning a vacation that will stretch your imagination way back to the distant past? You're in for a treat.
If you come into Sardinia from mainland ferries, you'll likely land at Olbia, Golfo Aranci, or Cagliari. There are major airports in Alghero and Cagliari.
Sardinia is divided into 8 provinces. The most populous is Cagliari. (See a Sardinia Province Map.) The lines on the map represent train lines (green indicate the tourist train routes). Major superstrada roads mostly parallel the major train lines.
Cagliari is Sardinia's capital and largest city. You'll find sophisticated bars, good restaurants and even fine beaches just out of the city. There is a Ferry port and an Airport, Elmas Airport. Cagliari makes a fine base from which to explore the south of Sardinia. Sites like ancient Nora, a Roman and pre-Roman town on a peninsula near the little town of Pula can be visited by a 40 km drive along the coast. During the season you can see theatrical works in the ancient theater on the site while sea breezes waft over you. Behind the beach you might see the 11th-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 called the Festa di Sant'Ifisio. Yes, you can walk between the two places, even barefoot if you like. Further down the coast is a recommended public beach that sardiniabeaches.com rather likes:
Tuerredda beach (Spiaggia di Tuerredda), located on the headlands of Capo Spartivento, certainly deserves a spot on the top ten list of most beautiful beaches on the southern coast of Sardinia.
Cagliari has some ancient sites as well. The Basilica of San Saturnino is within a walled complex that includes a Paleo-Christan necropolis. The first mention of it comes in the year 600. Getting below Cagliari is the way to see older remnants of the city. The “area archeologica” near the Museo del Tesoro e Area archeologica di Sant’Eulalia is where you want to be. You'll see Roman roads, house floors and even a Roman toilet.
Alghero is a very interesting city in Sardinia's northwest corner. The seaside beauty has changed ownership repeatedly over history, from the Genovese who designed the port to the Aragonese who expelled the locals and populated the city with Catalan colonists. In fact, a dialect of Catalan is still spoken by a small number of locals, and Spanish is widely understood.
The city still retains its laid-back Catalan character, and the new seaside promenade makes strolling a very compelling evening pastime.
South of Alghero is one of Sardinia's prettiest towns, Bosa. It lies happily along both sides of the Temo, Sardinia’s only navigable river. One of the most photographed places in Bosa are the identical and harmonious "Sas Conzas", long ago serving as tanneries. The town is capped by the ruins of a castle built by the Malaspina family around 1112. There is a fabulous view, of course.
The Romanesque church of St. Peter is a short walk out of town. It's from 1062.
Arogosta a Bosa are generally accepted to be the best Spiny Lobsters you'll find in Sardinia.
If you are looking for a place to stay with kitchen and even grocery delivery service in the heart of the city, the highly-rated Sardinia Gallery might be worth checking out.
One of the best trips to take is the coast road from Alghero to Bosa. The drive takes a little over 45 minutes. A short drive inland brings you first to Flussio, a town known for its asphodel baskets, and a little further on to Tinnura, a mural town whose art reflects the Sardinian art of traditional living.
Here you might consider looping back north toward Bonorva, taking in the valle dei nuraghi with its ancient cornerstones the Nuragic complex of Santu Antine and the fascinating necropolis of Sant'Andrea Priu, both shown on the map.
How far in the past are we talking about? The time-line is below.
Heading east out of Bosa brings you to the wildly remote barbagia mountains. The geography was such that bandits on foot could catch the slow-moving trains and rob them. Here is where the traditions have held fast and you can really get an idea of life on the island as it was long ago. Traditional arts and crafts are celebrated in a relatively new festival that goes on all autumn called "Autunno in Barbagia". We stayed in Gavoi, a town we hadn't heard of in the heart of this strange land, and during the festival doors opened to us that we wouldn't have been able to navigate. Buses took us to archaeological sites in the countryside where we had guided walks with experts. The little man who normally made those sought-after Sardinian knives threw his shop open when normally the locals would just knock on his unmarked door when they needed a knife made. (Where to find artisinal knives in Italy)
This is prime festival country, and you'll notice if you hang around long enough that just about everyone owns a traditional costume and perhaps a mask. If you're ready for a little Paganism, you might head to Mamoiada to see the Mask Museum and if you're there in the late fall you might get the opportunity to take part in a celebration of the dark months.
Dressed in black sheepskins, men shrouded in black masks, big lipped, mouths wrinkly and distorted, the 12 haggard Mamuthones stoop under the burden of the enormous collection of heavy bells on their backs. They are controlled by an Issohadore, a young man in white with a red scarf. It is time for the old ideas of the old, broken men to give way to new ideas. This is a classic tragicomedy of death and rebirth.
The rest of the story, the traditional costume part, is told in Nuoro, where you can visit the Museo Etnografico Sardo, once called the Museum of Costumes and Sardinian Traditions, one of the island's most important ethnographic museums.
Then there are the mountain towns like Orgosolo. The hard-scrabble life and economic difficulties are reflected in hundreds of murals painted on the walls of rocks and village houses.
To get a real feel for this corner of Sardinia, you must read the novels of Grazia Deledda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926 for her depictions of Sardinian life. In Nuoro you just find Via Grazia Deledda and you can visit a museum dedicated to the author, Native House and Museum of Grazia Deledda. The life of the author is reflected in the novel Cosimo.Compare Prices on Places to Stay in NuoroBarbagia Map and Travel Guide
Santa Lussurgiu is home to one of the most fascinating Ethnographic museums you'll ever come across. Its famous carnival festival is called Sa Carrela ‘e Nanti and like many festivals, it involves horses in pair races in an event that originated from light cavalry exercises. It's a time to hear the particular music of the tenores in the open cantinas around town.
The area round Bauladu on the map has a couple of interesting ancient sites. Fordongianus is the home to a spring-fed Roman bath complex that, despite the buildings being in ruins, still heats the water in the pools. Santa Cristina, right off the SS131 superstrada, is one of the world's great off-ramp experiences. The complex has an amazing "sacred well" as well as a Nuraghe and a Romanesque church that is still in use today as a church of festivals and pilgrimage; there are houses for pilgrims built near the church from the 1700s, still in use for short stays by modern pilgrims. As if that weren't enough, there is a bar overlooking the site and a very good restaurant. Bauladu is run by Italy's youngest mayor who has revitalized the village, which has a number of ancient sites within walking distance of it, now well signposted. If you wish to stay the night and eat a traditional meal, we highly recommend Casa Atza.
Nearby Milis is famous for its oranges, and is worth a short visit.
Oristano is a gateway to the Sinis Peninsula, which is chock full of attractions and things to do. The provincial capital itself is a charming town with a very well preserved historical center. It's home to one of those huge Sardinian carnival festivals called "Sa Sartiglia", which involves lots of pomp and circumstance followed by a medieval competition in which guild members on horses try to skewer a star held on a string between trees in front of the Duomo. It's a fantastic thing to watch, and it's followed by more demonstrations of the extreme sport of horse acrobatics.
If you are interesting in very well situated archaeological sites, don't miss the peninsula's seaside archaeological site Tharros. Phoenicians were said to have founded the city around the 8th century BC. It became Roman and wasn’t abandoned until 1050. Then head for Cabras and see the archaeological museum where the main event is gawking in wonder at the Giants of Mont’e Prama, enormous sculptures found guarding a grave site on Monte Prama.
When you're tired of old things, head up to Is Arutas Beach. It has a unique sand made of small, round quartz grains, ranging in color from pink to light green to white. The restaurant at the beach serves very good seafood.
If the name "Carbonia" seems a bit "made up" it's because it was. Like the town of Fertilia in the north, Carbonia was built by Mussolini order. Why? Well, the answer might lead you to believe that the Italy's alliance with Germany in the war was based on peak coal. The British slowed exports to Italy because coal was running out.
The two low points under the production peak correspond to the two major strikes of the coal miners of 1921 and 1926. But, even without strikes, the British economy was undergoing a major readjustment. Coal was not any more so abundant as before and that had effects on the British coal exports. In turn, that created an energy crisis in Italy. You can see in the data, below how coal imports from Britain had plummeted immediately after the war and how imports from Germany were initially insufficient to compensate the decline. ~ What Fuels Civil War? Energy and the Rise of Fascism
Mussolini tried valiently to compensate, opening ancient mines and building infrastructure for miners. The production wasn't ever enough.
The Serbariu coal mine museum in Carbonia takes you through the history of coal mining in the southwest of Sardinia.
Nearly the entire southwest has, in fact, become he Geomineral Park of Sardinia, a UNESCO project intending to preserve the ancient mines and the ex-mining villages. The villages are being promoted along with the traditional foods of the region.
Archaeological buffs might want to visit a very important punic-roman settlement on the top of the mount Sirai near Carbonia. Monte Sirai features the remains of the town and acropolis, a punic and a phoenician necropolis and a tophet. Not to mention that the view from the top of Monte Sirai is amazing.
Can mining, a long, dark railway tunnel, and the end of the line for the coal railway be combined with dunes, beaches and a romantic retreat. Why, in Sardinia, yes! The is the land of surprises, and if you take a room at the Hotel Le Dune Piscinas you are in for a romantic vacation on the shifting dunes by the deep blue sea. The location is marked on the map as "Le Dune".
This is where the coal from the major mine of Montevecchio came to be loaded onto boats to be shipped to the mainland. The railway tunnel led to the warehouse which has now been crafted into the Hotel Le Dune Piscinas. The best time to visit is June through September.
West of Carbonia are two notable islands, Sant’Antioco and San Pietro. San Pietro is a land of craggy cliffs and secluded coves. It has but a single town, but an important one, Carloforte. Angela Corrias writes a great guide to the islands, and includes the interesting town:
Walk around its ancient walls, peek at the architecture and be surprised by the incredible similarities with Genoa and the towns of Liguria’s coast. From the streets to the food to the language, here everything will remind you of Genoa. It all dates back to the 16th century when fishermen and traders from Genoa left their initial settlement in Tunisia and founded Carloforte in San Pietro Island and Calasetta in Sant’Antioco. -- Where to go in Sardinia in summer? How about gorgeous San Pietro Island and Sant’Antioco?
Another thing you'll find here is an ancient tradition of harvesting bisso from the giant fan mussel to make Sea Silk. You can learn about it through the little Museo del Bisso di Chiara Vigo. Sharon Sanders tells the tale expertly in Silk from the Sea in Sardinia:
Diving to harvest the filaments without harming the bivalve, cleaning, processing, and spinning the filaments– all of this Vigo learned from her grandmother, Maria Maddalena Rosina Mereu, who received the knowledge from previous generations of women in her family. As she speaks, Vigo combs a clump of bisso to clean the bits of sea debris then she meticulously pulls the clean filaments away from the clump.
You can even contibute to see this tradition alive.
And then there's the food; it's different because the history of the island is different and evolving:
The food is very similar to that of the Liguria region (where Genoa is located) but mixes components and recipes from northern Africa, for example, cascás, is a variation of the African cuscus (but made solely with vegetables that are cooked separately), and many dishes belonging to the Genoese tradition have undergone various modifications and additions, that of tuna especially, as this fish is one of the features of Carloforte. For over a hundred years in fact, the famous “mattanza dei tonni” in which tunas are fished and killed, takes place here the very first days of June. It has become a major event with a variety of initiatives including the “World Tuna Cuisine Competition”. The mattanza in itself , though a fascinating fishing “documentary”, is not a sight for all, but the other events and the fresh tuna in all its cooking variations are absolutely unmissable. Another speciality one must try is the “ceciata” a very tasty sort of focaccia (but not really..) made with chick pea flour, olive oil and water and bright yellow in colour..an absolutely delicious quick snack to relish whilst waiting for a lovely supper, also originating from the Genoa (and Pisan) culinary tradition -- Islands in an island..Sant’Antioco and San Pietro
The name "nuraghe" derives from the word "nur" meaning "hollow heap." The earliest form of nuraghi were corridor nuraghi, and from the outside resembled a pile of rock, but the insides had been removed to make a habitation area.
There are around 7000 Nuraghe on the island of Sardinia. Most are stone towers or complexes of many stone towers topped with a corbeled dome (a rounded dome made by stacking rocks in circular courses, each course becoming smaller as it inches inward, until it all comes together at the top). There usually are interior staircases and niches. Here is a picture of the nuraghe at Santa Cristina:And below is a drawing of the interior on the ground level.
"Sardinia isn't Italy" certainly applies to the food of the island. Here are some things to try that are unique in Sardinia.
Culurgiones are a stuffed pasta the looks like a chinese dumpling you'd consume at a dim sum lunch. The pasta is stuffed with a cheese, potato and mint combo, and is usually served simply dressed with olive oil and pecorino cheese.
Maialetto or Maialino Sardo: suckling pig roasted with myrtle leaves.
There are two outstanding restaurants in Sardinia that serve Culurgiones and Maialino Sardo, one is the vaunted Su Gologone and the other I recently discovered is in the northwest, near Porto Terres called Tenuto Li Lioni. The link to Li Lioni includes a video of how Culurgiones are made.
Pani Frattau: whole sheets of pane carasau, the island's thin and crisp flatbread, are stacked, dipped in broth and made like lasagna with tomato sauce with a poached egg on top.
Grilled eel: One of my favorite festival foods, eel grilled over a wood fire and served in a paper cone are one of Sardinia's great treats. Really.
Panadas: If you are looking for a quick snack or some take-out, try these oven baked pies of meat, fish or vegetables found all over the island.
Fregola: a type of semolina pasta rolled into balls and toasted, are often found with seafood sauces as in fregola with clams.
Cannonau Di Sardegna is a DOC red that is the most famous of Sardinian wines, based on the Grenache grape. In the sandy and warm Sulcis region you'll find Carignano.
Bosa produces a world-renowned Malvasia di Bosa.
Vernaccia di Oristano is very good with shellfish. Vermentino di Gallura, the island's DOC white wine, has hints of green apple, citrus fruit and pear, and is also good with seafood.