Rocky Sardinia--The Italian Stallion
May 15, 2006
David Rich 1200 Words
Rocky Sardinia—The Italian Stallion
I emailed friends from Sardinia and they wrote back, where the heck is that? Easy questions are not a problem. Sardinia is Italy; an up-ended rectangular island the size of New Hampshire, hosting almost two million people, two hundred miles long by a hundred miles wide (300 kilometers by 160 kilometers), tagged by dozens of bitsy islands, and several not so little. Tavolara, a bitsy island, sat off the patio of our rented villa, which is any-sized house in Italy, and ours wasn't that sprawling. But Tavolara dominated our view for three weeks, 564 meters (1800 feet) high and eight kilometers (five miles) long, in half profile looking like a giant loch ness monster up-thrust and dripping from the sea.
Sardinia is the largest island in the Med after Sicily, a hundred twenty miles (190 kilometers, or six hours) by frequent ferries from Rome's port city of Civitavecchia, or half a dozen other Italian ports. Thus Sardinia is frothy cappuccinos, creamy gelato, women dressed to the nines, impudent drivers and sunshine galore.
But mostly Sardinia is rocks, from its rugged coastline and ancient nuraghi, 7000 towers dotting the countryside, to native stone houses quaintly populating remote hill-towns. Nuraghi pepper the island, towering cones from sixty-five to seventy-five feet (twenty to twenty-three meters) high, built of huge basalt blocks chopped from extinct volcanoes, thrown together from about 1500 BCE without a speck of grout. Most cones are hollow, with a stone staircase winding from the inside to the top for views to delight. Here sentries marched guard, to find little delight while spotting invading Phoenicians (first recorded settlers, at about 800 BCE), Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans in 238 BCE for seven hundred years of brutal occupation, Vandals, Romans again, Byzantines, Saracens, Pisa and Genoa (in the 11th century), the house of Aragon until 1326, Spain until 1708, Austria, the house of Savoy, and finally France until the collapse of the Napoleonic empire. Then Sardinia finally became Italian.
Sardinia's most extensive nuraghic village, with eighty ruins, sprawls near Dorgali, a ubiquitous hill-town. However, most than by 7000 stacks of rocks, visitors will be enthralled with the magical coves and fishing ports everywhere on Sardinia's often vertiginous knife's edge. One of the most isolated fishing villages is also near Dorgali, accessible by a tunnel cut through solid granite to drop through three miles (five kilometers) of hairpin curves, landing in cutesy Cala Gonone. A few kilometers south of Cala Gonone, the road dead-ends at steps leading a hundred vertical meters (325 feet) to a sheltered cove with crystalline water shading from pale aquamarine, like floating on air, to turquoise, and way out, a deep-blue sea. But you can skip the tunnel and onerous hairpin curves because this vivid rainbow of colors lurks along Sardinia's entire jagged coastline of some two thousand kilometers (1250 miles).
Modest folks these Sardinians, each area trumpeting its piece of coastline as the most spectacular, from the Costa Smeralda in the northeast, south to the Gulf of Orosei off Cala Gonone, to the Golf of Oristano on the east coast, and the rugged country stretching from Bosa to Alghero in the northwest. These gorgeous parts are complemented by hill-towns topped with ancient castles, most glowering over the water's edge.
My exploration began with striking Castelsardo on the north coast, ancient castle perched on a high promontory with a towering cathedral on vertical cliffs above the azure sea, tower in the foreground, pastel houses cascading down the hillside, and the entire scene reflected off the tranquil waters of the Castelsardo yacht harbor. As I parked on the harbor's edge, fluffy clouds roiled above the old fortress and I clicked away, over the bows of turquoise and orange fishing boats. No photographer could ask for more.
But more there is, starting with Alghero, a hoity toity old town in the northwest, jammed with designer fashions behind meter-thick walls, fronting the obligatory rocky coast with crystalline waters and cascades of pink flowering succulents covering entire hillsides. As I parked by the old walls, a coterie of Harley couples roared up, a club from Verona complete with smoking jackets and men brandishing meerschaum pipes, spiffy Italian bikers all, particularly the women in designer jeans. Watch out Sturgis, if the boys and girls from Verona decide to eruditely cruise South Dakota.
Hidden across the bay from Alghero is Neptune's Grotto, a prime tourist attraction. Four hour tours by boat are $18, to a labyrinth of eerily lit stalactites and stalagmites backlit by colorful lights, the entrance an ever-deepening blue as far as the eye can see, bordered by underwater rocks of red and gold.
Bosa sits forty-five kilometers (thirty miles) south of Alghero, and is similar to Castelsardo, except, like a miniature Florence, a river runs through it, providing reflections rivaling those in Castelsardo; pastel houses tumbling down the hillside below an ancient castle accessed by cobblestone streets. In addition, Bosa offers a half moon beach two kilometers (a whole mile) from town, fronted by a huge tower reflecting in a turquoise lagoon stretching along an ellipse of weathered granite. Gorgeous Bosa provides two photogenic locations for the price of driving to one, the cost of which in Europe is astronomical. A gallon of gasoline in Sardinia, and indeed all over Europe, is over seven dollars. So America, enjoy your cheap fuel, half the price of anywhere in Europe.
Don't miss the highly atmospheric, narrow, winding, and hilly streets of Cagliari, the capital on the south coast, lined with cappuccino hang-outs and pastry joints, overhung by balconies, populated with hip university kids, and chock-full of kitschy cathedrals. A few kilometers south of Cagliari sits the ancient Punic-Roman site of Nora, five Romanesque columns amongst extensive ruins on a picturesque peninsula similar to the strikingly photogenic location of the slightly smaller Punic-Roman ruins at Tharros, where two lone column stand like sentries on the east coast. But the most striking antiquities are the old Pisa-era Cathedrals in the countryside, ascending stories of columns arched in grey and white, the best of which is San Trunita di Sarrargia, twenty-five kilometers (fifteen miles) south of Castelsardo.
If you have the chance, go to any small Sardinian town during its annual festival, which all feature antics of horsemanship, gaily embroidered costumes, non-unison singing, and sprightly dancing, often accompanied by a triple clarinet called the launeddas. The fancy festival horses may justify calling Sardinia the Italian Stallion. However, during weeks wandering the countryside, I saw few stallions and thousands of sheep. But rocky Sardinia is still a don't-miss, though perhaps more appropriately monikered, the Italian sheep.
When you go: You can fly to Rome, often directly, from anywhere in the world. Half a dozen ferries leave daily from Rome's port of Civitavecchia to Sardinia for about $75 a seat. Similarly, cheap flights on www.Easyjet.com will get you to Sardinia, from $75 a person out of London. Once you get to Sardinia, if you can stay awhile, it's most economical to rent an apartment or a villa/house for one or more weeks. Even the rattiest hotel costs $100 a night and up, while apartments and villas go for half that on a weekly basis. See www.ownersdirect.co.uk/Italy-Sardenia-1bed.htm, or Google apartments Sardinia. Dozens of agencies will magically appear at your fingertips. Car rentals are reasonable by the week, from about $200 for mid-sized vehicles. See www.rent.it, www.easyterra.com or Google rental car Sardinia.