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Sardinia, with its quintessential Mediterranean beauty, is mainly loved for swimming, boating, windsurfing, hiking, climbing, and camping, with coastal areas tending to become over populated especially in the warmest month, August.
The inner life of the island away from the tourist spots takes longer to appreciate and requires you to peel away the layers of apparent Italianization. After all, the ancient Nuragic civilization of Sardinia of ca. 1500 BC, whose stone monuments still dot the land, predates even the Etruscan civilization in mainland Italy by several hundred years.
Geology and Geography
Sardinia is the only region in Italy of Hercynian origin; actually, the Southwest is even older (Cambrian). The mineral riches of Sardinia are the consequence of heavy hydrothermalism during the Permo-Triassic. As in the rest of Hercynian Europe, erosion has taken its toll since the orogeny and has reduced elevations considerably. 30 million years ago, the Sardinia-Corsica block started to detach from mainland Spain and tilted toward its present position. The island is both aseismic and non volcanic.
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (24090 sq. km [9300 sq. mi]); only Sicily is larger. The island is dominated by the Gennargentu Range (culminating at Punta La Marmora, 1834 m [6017 ft], highest elevation in Sardinia), along with the Monte Limbara, Monte di Ala', and Monte Rasu ranges (all below 1500 m [4900 ft]); isolated are the Sulcis-Iglesiente hills (1236 m [4055 ft]) of Southwestern Sardinia, once home to a large mining district. Plains are quite rare and reduced in extent, with the exception of the Campidano Plain from Oristano to Cagliari, which divides the main hill system from the Sulcis-Iglesiente, and the Nurra plain in the northwest (between Sassari, Alghero, and Porto Torres), which was once a mining district and quite forested, but is today mostly given to pasture.
Sulcis proper (in the extreme Southwest) was a marshy area where malaria was still present in the 1940's (but eradicated since). Cagliari's neighbourhood is also flat and boggy; exploitation of salt is a major industry there.
Coasts are generally rocky and tall, especially along the Eastern half; large beaches are found however on the North and Northeast (Logudoro and Gallura), the South (from Teulada to Pula) and the Southwest (Sulcis-Iglesiente). Apart from the Strait of Bonifacio (famed for its often rough sea) which divides Corsica from Sardinia, the surrounding sea is quite deep at short distances from the shore.
Population is low (a little more than 1 650 000 inhabitants in 2010), with heavy concentration in the Cagliari (one third of the total population) and Sassari (one fifth) areas; Olbia is the only other town exceeding 50 000 inhabitants. Other centres include Alghero, Nuoro, Oristano, Carbonia and Iglesias. Sardinia, along with the Valle d'Aosta region at the French border, has the lowest density of population in Italy.
Sardinia enjoys, for the most part, a Mediterranean climate. It is, however, heavily influenced by the vicinity of the Gulf of Genoa (barometric low) and the relative proximity of the Atlantic Ocean. Sardinia, being relatively large and hilly, weather is not uniform; in particular the East is drier, but paradoxically it suffers the worst rainstorms: in Autumn 2009, it rained more than 200 mm (8 inches) in a single day in Siniscola. The Western coast is rainy even for modest elevations (for instance Iglesias, elevation 200 m, average annual precipitation 815 mm against 750 mm for London)
Summer is dry with very warm weather and up being common); however, contrary to the islands of Greece for instance, shade and wind are plenty. Autumn is typically can be mild and up for highs till mid-November), but is subject to heavy rainstorms as noted above. Winter is generally mild on plains (cold spells being however not unheard of) but cool to cold at higher elevations. Spring is mild and rainy, but not as autumn. The island is very windy, especially from September to April (northwest winds called locally Maestrale); southeast winds (Scirocco) are frequent during summer and bring invariably hot weather.
Among the largest and most dramatic islands in the Mediterranean, Sardinia has been much praised for its natural beauty. In particular, its dazzling coastline — an interminable series of breathtaking seascapes, featuring windswept dunes, vertical cliffs, deserted coves and inlets. The island’s wild interior is less hyped, but no less spectacular, with a landscape that encompasses jagged limestone peaks, hidden caves, deep ravines and primeval forests.
Sardinia is not just a place for sun worshippers and outdoor enthusiasts, it also boasts cultural riches, including numerous Bronze Age towers and a smattering of Roman and Carthaginian ruins, as well as graceful Pisan Romanesque churches and grand Baroque structures. With glitzy harbors, deserted beaches, laid-back cities and a wild unblemished hinterland, Sardinia is a true getaway — a place to leave the stresses and strains of the mainland behind.
Sardinia’s history can be traced back to the pastoral Nuragic people, who inhabited the island from around 1800 B.C. Though little is known about the Nuragic civilisation, traces of their settlements and stone towers still dot the island.
In the centuries that followed, Sardinia saw an influx of raiders and traders. The Phoenician touched down on the island in the 9th century B.C. and were followed by the Carthaginians in the 6th century B.C. Then came the Greeks, followed by the Romans, who managed to conquer nearly all of the island, leaving just one small native independent settlement to eek out an existence in the inhospitable, mountainous central region, which the Romans then called ‘Barbaria’ (now known as Barbagia). When the Romans left in the 5th century, Sardinia found itself vulnerable to piracy and invasion, and most of the inhabitants fled inland to avoid the dangers of coastal living.
The next group to take control of the island was the Pisans, who were succeeded by the Genoans, the Spanish Aragonese and then the Savoyards, who would eventually go on to reunite the Kingdom of Sardinia with the rest of Italy. Following World War II, Sardinia became semi-autonomous and despite fostering the tourism industry, the regional government has managed to curb development and preserve the island’s unique character.
Along with Italian, Sardinians speak one of the dialects of Sardinian (Sardu), considered by many scholars to be one of the most conservative Romance languages; it is not, by any means, an Italian dialect and saying that is often perceived as an insult by local people. However, it should be noted that there are other linguistic minorities as well within the main one, where Sardinian has long disappeared or not very well understood: in Gallura and Sassari they speak Corsican, whose local variety goes by the name of Gallurese (Gadduresu), and a transitional dialect between medieval Tuscan and Sardinian (Sassaresu), in Alghero Catalan (Alguerés), while in San Pietro Island a Ligurian dialect (Tabarchìn) is spoken.
Nowadays, as a direct consequence of the island-wide assimilation policy carried out by the Italian government, Sardinians generally speak Italian with a distinctive accent as their mother tongue, which is taking over the indigenous languages, especially when addressing people they do not know, even if it's other Sardinians they are talking with. Outside of the cities English is not widely spoken, with the exception of maybe the young; you might have better luck with French, especially with 50+ year-old people in the cities, but do not expect anything but Italian (often combined with the Sardinian language or one of the dialects listed above) elsewhere.
Sardinians are generally a quiet and reserved people, especially those from the interior where they are, more than the other islanders, deeply attached to their land and culture; surely they may prove to be different from the archetype of the outgoing and talkative Mediterranean.
The following budget airlines can get you there cheaply: Jet2.com, Ryanair, Easyjet, Airberlin.com, Germanwings.com, and Meridianafly.
There are airports near Cagliari, Olbia, and Alghero.
Cagliari-Elmas Airport (Aeroporto "Mario Mameli" is located in Elmas, approximately 6 km West from central Cagliari. It is situated on the SS130 and is conveniently reached by bus (operated by the publicly-owned ARST from the train station; frequency is every 30 minutes, for a 10-minute trip. The airport is the busiest in Sardinia, the 13th busiest in Italy and the 97th busiest in Europe with 3 333 421 passengers (2009).
Cagliari is served directly by domestic and international flights from Western Europe; the well-connected Milan-Linate (IATA: LIN) and Rome-Fiumicino (IATA: FCO) airports can also serve as intermediate stops to Cagliari.
Olbia Airport (Aeroporto di Olbia-Costa Smeralda is the second busiest airport in Sardinia and the 17th in Italy (1 694 089 passengers in 2009); it is the gateway to the Costa Smeralda and the main hub of Meridiana Fly. It is situated 3 km Southwest from central Olbia and is easily reached by bus (ASPO , every 30 minutes). The airport has slightly less routes than Cagliari, but is nevertheless connected to France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Netherlands.
Alghero-Fertilia Airport (Aeroporto internazionale "Riviera del Corallo" is the third busiest in Sardinia and the 20th busiest in Italy (1.507.016 passengers in 2009). It is situated in Fertilia, 10.5 km Northwest of Alghero; there are buses (Ferrovie della Sardegna ) from Alghero (every hour, 20-minute trip) and Sassari (9/day, 30-minute trip). Alghero-Fertilia is essentially a domestic airport, but is also connected to London and Frankfurt, among others.
There are ferry services to Cagliari (south coast), Porto Torres (north coast), and Olbia, Golfo Aranci and Arbatax (east coast).
Have a look at Ferriesonline or iTraghetti or you can also compare prices on Traghettiper-Sardegna, or the state-owned ferry service Tirreni (year-round service) and the private companies Moby Lines, Sardinia Ferries , Grimaldi , Snav. Daily ferries link Northern Sardinia with Corsica (it is possible to take a day trip to Bonifacio, Corsica) from Santa Teresa di Gallura. Ferry services are also available from Barcelona, Spain to Porto Torres through Grimaldi Lines. They usually run twice a day during the summer and cost 55 EUR for a single one way ticket. Ferry services also available from Trapani, Sicily, to the port in Cagliari, Sardinia.
By car: While it is possible to get around Sardinia by bus and train, doing so may well limit how fast you travel and where you go. If you can choose, amigoautos rent a car. It is well worth the outlay, and it will allow you to visit some of the more remote and enchanting places and areas. You may find many companies offering car hire like Only-Sardinia.com, Aiguarentacar, Hertz, and Avis.
Also know that most petrol stations does not accept credit cards like Visa and Mastercard, only local cards or cash. Consult the article on Italy for general information about speed limits, urban areas, police forces, etc. What follows is specific to Sardinia.
Many roads are narrow and wind through hilly terrain; be careful and do not hesitate to use your car horn to signal your presence: because of the light traffic, oncoming drivers may not expect to encounter other vehicles. Remember that locals know their roads: they can drive faster than you because of that, do not try to race with them! Beware also of domesticated animals (sheep, goat, cows, pigs) crossing roads in large or small units, especially in rural areas.
Engine overheating may happen in summer because of the heat/topography combination; take the usual precautions.
Paving is generally good on the main axes; it may vary for secondary axes and urban areas, but is often in correct conditions. There are local unpaved roads of touristic interest; these can be in any state, especially after heavy rains, so it is better to go there with a sturdy 4-wheel drive car.
Traffic can become heavy during summer in and around touristic areas, in particular on the SS 125, 126, 127, 195, 291.
A roadmap and a GPS tracking unit (handheld ones are also useful for trekking) are recommended: road signs, in particular directions, are somewhat lacking, especially on secondary roads, whereas crossroads are generally well signalled.
Beware of high winds; gusts in excess of 100 kph (60 mph) are common from September to April.
Many villages have installed speed traps and automated cameras at the entrances: these are almost always signalled and fines for speeding are generally heavy. Quite often, you will cross villages with no pavements, and find elderly people there: drive with caution.
By Bus: Regular, cheap buses between the main centres: Cagliari, Sassari, Alghero, Nuoro etc. You may end up changing buses (or trains) in Macomer. Less frequent buses, but worth persevering for the smaller villages. The main bus company is the public-owned and managed one. The buses are not so frequent and always late, if not on the starting point. The timetables can be found on ARST website and Google Maps public transport section has reliable times and connections, but due to the usual delay some connections can be lost.
By Boat: Sailing is one of the best ways to see Sardinia. Most charters offer many options from bareboat to crewed and cabin charter, with various types of boats being available.
By Train: Regular trains from the edge of Alghero to Sassari and from Sassari to Cagliari, although buses are usually quicker. Change at Macomer for trains or buses to Nuoro. Less frequent trains on this and other routes. Both Trenitalia and Ferrovie della Sardegna operate trains in the Island.
Touristic train routes, called "Trenino Verde" cover some of the most stunning rural and mountainous areas: Sassari-Palau, Mandas-Arbatax and Nuoro-Bosa. The routes are garanteed by steam locomotives during the cooler seasons (Autumn-Winter and Spring) and by old diesel trains in the summer.
At many places it is possible to rent a bike quite cheaply, for as little as 9 euros per 24 hours. Compared to the scarce local bus connections a bicycle provides great flexibility for local exploration. With high quality roads and great scenery the bike is very pleasant to ride.
Things To Do
The northern entrance to the Cave of San Giovanni (Domusnovas, Carbonia-Iglesias province), near the end of winter 2008-2009
There is much to do in Sardinia, but the island will probably appeal more to nature lovers than to clubbers (with the exception of the Costa Smeralda area, one of the 'hot spots' of the Italian show-business jet set).
Sailing has become increasingly popular in the last thirty years, in particular in the Costa Smeralda area; the first Italian challenge in the America's Cup hailed from there. There are many ports everywhere, and some places are reachable only by boat. Do not miss this opportunity if you like to sail.
Islands: while not many, the islands are generally of interest; check in particular the Asinara National Park (famous for its Albino Donkeys) and the Maddalena archipelago in the North, the islands of San Pietro (a community of Genoese fishermen) and Sant'Antioco (actually connected to the main land since Roman times) in the South.
Beaches and coasts: the North and Northeast (from Stintino to Budoni) boast many beautiful beaches. The Eastern coast is also very interesting: Cala Gonone, Arbatax, Muravera and Villasimius, to name a few. The deep South (Chia, Pula) is quickly growing as a major tourist attraction. The western coast is of a very different character; large beaches some kilometres long can be found (Porto Pino, Marina di Gonnesa, Marina di Arbus). Of note is Piscinas (Marina di Arbus) with its 60 m-tall sand dunes. Finally, the Alghero area is renowned for its underwater caves and grottoes and attracts many scuba divers.
Hills and 'Mountains': while Sardinia's highest elevation does not reach 2000 m (6500 ft), do not be fooled: terrain is steep, snow falls in winter, and there are four ski resort in the Gennargentu area. Hills are everywhere in Sardinia, from the Northeastern Monte Limbara Range to the Iglesiente area in the Southwest, even at the outskirts of Cagliari.
Advantage is that people (including Sardinians) generally fill the beaches and leave the rest nearly deserted. A popular destination for mountain climbers is the Domusnovas area (close to Iglesias), with its nice vertical walls of limestone. Large caves are accessible (Dorgali, Oliena, Santadi, Domusnovas, Fluminimaggiore, Alghero). There are many hiking trails (though not always well signalled) for beginners and veterans alike.
Horseback Riding: Sardinia has a long tradition of horse riding. The Sardinian Anglo-Arab is a horse breed that was established in Sardinia. Nowadays there are several farms and B&Bs offering horseback riding or horse trekking tours. Riding through woods an along beaches is a very popular tourists attraction.
Monuments and sites: Sardinia has few known monuments but many are well worth visiting. Check in particular Cagliari (Sard. Casteddu, Castle), Oristano, Sassari, Alghero, Olbia, and Nuoro. Nuraghi and Domus de janas (Sard. for witch houses) are found in many places, in particular in Barumini (Su Nuraxi, in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since 1997) and around Alghero. Tharros, Nora, and Monte Sirai (just off Carbonia) are fine examples of the Phoenician/Carthaginian presence.
Roman remains are also found in Sardinia, among which Nora, the Sant'Antioco bridge or the Amphitheatre in Cagliari; the Antas site in Fluminimaggiore is also of interest, even if the present temple is actually a reconstruction of the original. Pisans have left important traces in the South (Cagliari, Iglesias) and the well-preserved Castello di Acquafredda (It. for cold water castle) near Siliqua is worth a visit, as well as the back country.
Bosa is of interest for its medieval urbanism; Burgos (Castle of Goceano) is also worth a visit. Some fine churches are found in the island, from the early Christian times to the Baroque period, in the aforementioned cities but also in Porto Torres and Iglesias (Spanish for church). Examples of industrial architecture can also be found in and around Cagliari, in Porto Torres, and in the Sulcis-Iglesiente area, where organized tours can be booked to visit mines, for instance the Buggerru mines with galleries just above the sea.
Finally, several museums dedicated to Sardinia are of interest; the Museo sardo di antropologia ed etnografia and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Cagliari, and the Museo etnografico sardo in Nuoro are important starting places.
Folklore: Sardinia has strong traditions which are expressed also through costumes and celebrations. Quite often, even small centres have local celebrations where people dress in rich traditional costumes. However, it is simpler to go to the major venues as there is a considerable afflux from all over Sardinia.
Some of the list includes: Sant'Efisio (Cagliari, 1 May, actually lasts several days), Sagra del Redentore (Nuoro, last Sunday of August), Cavalcata sarda (Sassari, penultimate Sunday of May, horse parade and races), Faradda di li candareri (Sassari, 14 August), Sa Sartiglia (Oristano, Carnival period, horse races), and everywhere the celebrations during Carnival and the Holy Week.
The traditions and habits are very strong. You will not get any pizzas in restaurants before 7PM, furthermore be aware that you will get nothing to eat in restaurants between 4PM and 7PM, besides 'panini' that is usually a cold sandwich with ham and cheese. The exception may be some tourist-oriented restaurants in tourist-oriented places. Try the Culurgiones. They are similar to Ravioli (made with typical pasta of Ogliastra) with a filling of potatoes, 'Pecorino' cheese (sheep's milk cheese, see below), egg, onion, mint and garlic - available in many Sardinian restaurants.
Malloreddus are a type of gnocchi that are served al dente with a tomato, meat or cheese sauce. There are a number of Pizzerias serving fresh, stone oven baked authentic style pizzas as well as pasta dishes. Porcheddu is a local specialty of inner Sardinia, it's a young pig roasted in a special manner over a wood fire with an aromatic local shrub called mirto. The pig is frequently basted.
Sausages are of many types, for instance the Salsiccia di cinghiale (wild boar sausage). Stufato di capretto is a rich casserole made from kid goat, artichokes, wine and also egg.
Try the Mediterranean fish (pesce azzurro). Look for a fish market in any small coast town and buy early in the morning, cook and eat: it's simply fantastic barbecued. The Bottarga (the dried roe of tuna [Bottarga di tonno] in Carloforte or of flathead mullet [Bottarga di muggine] elsewhere) is rather expensive but quite good.
Many locally-produced vegetables and fruit are very tasty, as they are grown in small farms and are mostly organic; vendors along the roads are a frequent sight. Apart from the usual assortment of typical Mediterranean products (such as eggplants, bell peppers, orange, grapes, etc) you will also find among others wild asparagus, figs, water-melons, and nuts (hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, almonds). Spices (such as thyme, rosemary, fennel) are found in abundance in the country.
Pecorino cheese (It. Pecora, sheep) is found everywhere with all degrees of ripeness from fresh to seasoned (the latter being stronger in taste). Sale of Casu marzu (Sard. for rotten cheese) is forbidden; but its production is perfectly legal and it may be found with the help of locals. As usual with this kind of product, precautions must be taken; it is highly recommended to eat it with trusted locals. Goat cheese can also be found.
A Seada (pl. Seadas or Sebadas), typical of Barbagia, is a dessert similar to Ravioli. It comprises of a characteristic filling of fresh cheese and lemon rind, and melts when Seada is cooked. It must be fried and served with honey.
There are numerous types of Sardinian bread and pastries, with specialties such as Carasau (a type of thin crispy bread), sponge biscuits and almond pastries. What distinguishes Sardinian pastry is the use of pig lard for fat and honey for sugar. The torrone (Sardinian version of nougat), with honey instead of sugar, and almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts (all locally produced); the torrone capital of Sardinia is Tonara (Nuoro province): just going there is worth your time.
Ichnusa is the most common beer in Sardinia. Sardinia boasts the highest consumption of beer per capita in Italy, 60 liters per person per year, almost double the national average. Cannonau is a famous red wine, it gets the highest levels of polyphenols of any wine in the world. Monica di Sardegna is a lighter, more accessible red wine.
Mirto is an alcoholic drink that's a local speciality. It is made of wine spirit flavoured with the berries of mirto, a local shrub. Fil'e ferru is another alcoholic local speciality. Its name means "iron wire" because in the 19th century it was clandestinely distilled and hidden in small holes covered with soil. Only a small iron wire came out from the soil, to remember where the bottles were hidden. Vernaccia di Oristano is a high alcoholic wine produced in Oristano zone. It's a special wine to drink with pastry. Vermentino di Sardegna is light wine with a strong minerally taste.
Things to Consider
A few basic precautions are generally enough to stay out of trouble, especially during summer and autumn.
Sardinia is sparsely populated, in particular the interior; help is not always easily found, and there remain large patches of land where mobile-phone coverage is non-existent (e.g. at the bottom of sheltered valleys). Terrain, despite the lack of high elevations, is generally rugged and steep; this, in combination with heat and lack of water, can quickly lead to disaster. Beware!
Summer is generally hot and the sun quite strong; the usual precautions to avoid heatstroke and sunburns apply.
Always take a lot of water with you (especially so when hiking), even if you plan a short trip; bringing along fresh watery fruit (such as peaches) is also helpful. While tap water is generally (but not always) safe, it is recommended to buy bottled mineral water; remember that sweating implies loss of water and of mineral salts.
Sardinia unlike Sicily and mainland of Italy is not earthquake prone.
Autumn is generally fine, but can become very unpleasant because of the heavy rainstorms and hilly topography, creating possibilities for land- and mud- slides; always check the weather before planning a trip, even with your car. Winter and spring are generally safer, with pleasantly mild weather (especially during the day) and abundance of water; but remember that to higher elevations corresponds an increasingly colder weather and larger precipitation. Much of Sardinia (especially the Western part) is very windy from September to April; all drivers, and in particular those with campers, must exercise caution.
Some open-sea beaches are notorious for strong underwater currents (in particular on the West coast); beware that warning signs are not always posted. Ask at your hotel or locals.
Be careful when hiking in old mining districts (Sulcis-Iglesiente, Sarrabus, Nurra); while local authorities have sealed off many dangerous areas, there remain some. Always avoid dark galleries, because they might hide vertical ventilation shafts; do not venture into closed areas (look for the word Pericolo [Danger] or the usual warning signs).
If you want to explore mines, go to the local tourist information agencies; they will direct you to organized tours. There have been tales of individuals (mostly ex-mineworkers) running their own private tours; avoid these, as they are illegal and extremely unsafe, because of risks of cave-ins, water infiltration, etc.
Local fauna and flora can be dangerous or source of discomfort. For example:
- Ticks (Rhipicephalus sanguineus) carry infectious diseases and are endemic to certain areas: avoid tall grass fields or close prolonged contact with domesticated animals (in particular sheep).
- Lethal mushrooms (among which Amanita phalloides) are found in the island.
- Barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis, Sphyraena sphyraena) abounds in Sardinia; while excellent cooked, it can be dangerous alive.
From May to September, fires plague Sardinia as the rest of the Mediterranean area; some are spontaneous wildfires, but most are due to negligent behavior (accidental ignition of fires). Observe the usual precautions. It is generally forbidden to start domestic fires in forests. Check with local authorities; Sardinia is an autonomous region and Italian laws might be superseded by local provisions.