Costa Smeralda If you fly into Olbia, rent a car at the airport. Or take your car on the ferry to Golfo Aranci. Sardinia is a place for drivers: the public transportation is dismal, unreliable and SLOW. However you get to the island, have a car and drive it north, following the frequent signs marked "Costa Smeralda."
Ferries leave for La Maddalena from Piazza del Molo in Palau several times a day, although you may have to wait for a second one in August. One ferry a day leaves from Via Porto in S. Teresa di Gallura, where you can also catch a ferry for Corsica.
A Bit of Liguria in Sardinia
Like the Italian peninsula, Sardinia has been at the crossroads of different cultures and civilizations for more than 3 millennia. Positioned smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, it has been conquered, occupied and colonized by almost everyone, starting from the mysterious people who built the Nuraghe. Next came the Phoenicians, and Punic settlements such as Tharros. With a splash of Arab here and there, the next centuries witnessed various Spanish contingents and then the Italians (Genoese in particular).
Sardinia is an island, but it has its own constellation of satellites, as many and as varied as Sardinia's cultural heritage. In the north, the archipelago of La Maddalena, Caprera, Tavolara and Budelli (famous for its rose-colored beaches) circles the eastern Costa Smeralda like a string of pearls. To the west is isolated Asinara, site of a former federal prison. Further down the southwestern coast are the islands of S. Antioco and S. Pietro. The latter, often known by the name of its principal town, Carloforte, typifies the amalgamation that is Sardinia. It upholds the linguistic tradition of those who originally colonized the area, so that whereas in Alghero you'll hear Spanish inflections, and in Cagliari the local dialect is the closest living expression of ancient Latin to be found in any modern Romance language, on S. Pietro the accent is strictly Ligurian. The pungent smell of pesto, a local specialty, is in the air.
Before coming to S. Pietro, they had settled on Tabarka Island off the coast of Tunisia. Subject to constant pirate raids, they were finally granted the feudal title to San Pietro by Carlo Emanuele III, King of Sardinia and Piedmont. In gratitude, they named the main town after him, and erected a statue which is still standing on the Lungomare (seaside promenade).
Dominated by the belltower of San Carlo, Carloforte is one of the most characteristic fishing villages on the island, with its bastions and defense walls, memories of the ever present pirate threat. Strangely enough, the ramparts have survived only on the inland side of town. Those which faced the sea have been replaced by the enchanting Lungomare.
The hinterland is mountainous and green, abounding with pine groves, junipers and strawberries. The Phoenicians called it Sparrow-Hawk Island, because of the abundance of that and other birds of prey that feed on the flourishing population of hares and other small animals. In recent years, the rose-colored flamingo has chosen the island as one of its refuges. The coastline is spectacular, ranging from the northern beaches of Cala Lunga and Cala Fico, to panoramic Capo Sandalo with its lighthouse, on the western shores, to the rocky cliffs of Mezzaluna and the breathtaking pinnacles called "Le Colonne" (the Columns) in the south. The cliffs and columns are formed of a magnificent rose-colored trachyte common to the island.
S. Pietro Island is a little world apart that's well worth a visit. It is easily reached by a convenient ferry boat that leaves every hour or so and takes 35 minutes from Porto Vesme, a tiny harbor one kilometer south of Portoscuro, on Sardinia's southwest coast. For your return, consider the variation of ferrying to Calasetta, a harbor town on the neighboring island of S. Antioco. Filled with whitewashed homes, this charming town is more Oriental in flavor than most Sardinian villages. From here, a Roman causeway leads back to the mainland.
Some years ago, in Rome, my friend Fiamma was having a run of really bad luck--absolutely nothing was going right. To her it was obvious that someone had put a curse on her by planting a doll or some object in her apartment. The only solution was to call in a witch and have the place exorcised.
At first, I laughed, sure that she was kidding me. But she wasn't. She was dead serious and took immediate steps to hire the best person she could find.
All my exorcism experience being Hollywood-based, I was quite surprised that the witch was an ordinary-looking person who went walking around Fiamma's apartment, searching every nook and cranny--places I never would have dreamed of--for the object that had been used to throw the malocchio (evil eye) on my friend. I had expected at least a bit of chanting or maybe a bubbling witch's brew on the stove containing a toad or a bat's wing. But there was nothing like that. To be honest, I was keenly disappointed that it was so lacking in mystery.
Not too long after that, I was telling my friend Luisa, born and bred on Sardinia, how funny it was that Fiamma believed in such things. Luisa was unamused, and told me about the witches of Sardinia.
The filtro di amore (love potion) is what is most sought after, especially by young women. The second most asked-for service is the removal of a malocchio, as was the case with Fiamma. But, Luisa informed me, the Sardinian witch doesn't go searching in the house for the object that caused the curse. Instead, she drops a stone into a glass of salted water.
Another way the witch removes a curse is to have you give her some of your intimate apparel; she makes a chant over it in secret, gives you back the clothing and the curse is removed.
As for Fiamma, her Roman witch never found a doll or any other cursing object, even after returning two or three times to search. Fiamma went to several psychics, but her bad luck and poor health continue to this day and she has finally decided to move to Spain. Good luck, Fiamma, I hope it works!
La Barbagia And Sopramonte: A Hiker's Paradise
Far from the glamorous moorings of the Costa Smeralda, the high mountain plains in the center of the island are a fascinating destination for adventurers. The Barbagia range, which stretches southward from the pleasant city of Nuoro, is the place to go to meet Sardinians. Here you'll find traditional hill towns such as Désulo and Sorgono, many still divided into neighborhoods inhabited by separate clans. The women weave exquisite (and not inexpensive) woolens, fashion interesting wicker trays, bowls and baskets, and bake the local pane carasau in ancient stone ovens. Many of the men are still shepherds who go off for months at a time to move their flocks for better grazing. If you drive through this region (for instance, along routes 129 and 131 from Nuoro to Oristano), be sure to have a good map on board and be prepared to get lost at least once.
When the men of Barbagia go off with their sheep, it is often to the Sopramonte, an imposing wilderness where almost the only signs of human inhabitants are prehistoric rock villages such as the one at Monte Tiscali. What you will find are vast oak forests, the most spectacular canyons in Italy, and rock walls lined with caves that often serve as the shepherds' temporary abodes. Among these silent peaks live some 200 mouflon, a rare type of mountain sheep. Try to come here in spring when you may see some of their young frolicking in the oceans of fragrant wild flowers and herbs that spring to life after the heavy rains of March.
Hiking in this area is for the fairly experienced. Wear heavy shoes and thick socks to protect your ankles from the macchia mediterranea, the thorny herbs and shrubs that beguile you with their divine scent. A recommended four-hour walk starts about halfway between Oliena and Dorgali. On the provincial road, follow signs to Sorgente di Su Cologone, then walk south along the fairly well-marked path, through the Corrojos Valley to Mount Tiscali. Blue signs show you an alternate return route through the Valley of Dolovere di Surtana.
Afterwards, drive on down to Dorgali for a swim in one of the nicest parts of the Sardinian sea, and then pay a visit to the nearby Grotte del Bue Marino, caves inhabited by the island's monk seals, of which only about a dozen survive.
The Grotte del Bue Marino can be visited by boat only. Excursions leave regularly from Dorgali.
How to Get to Sardinia - Two airlines, Air One and Meridiana, fly into Sardinia from various points in Europe. If you prefer to travel by ferry or hydrofoil, Travelling in Sardinia has ferry information. Do not expect to take any type of transportation to or off the island in August without a reservation. And if you're planning to take your car from the mainland, reserve the ferry many months in advance.
Il Trenino Verde: The Best Travel Secret in Sardinia
Everyone raves about Sardinia's unforgettable coastline, but the island also has a hinterland which, although it is less glamorous, is equally magnificent and definitely more mysterious than anything along the shores. A little known and excellent way to view "the other" Sardinia is the so-called trenino verde (literally, little green train). The name was coined by the World Wildlife Foundation because passengers travel through some of the greenest, most sparsely-polpulated parts of the island, light years away from teeming resort areas and more well-known inland points of interest for the eat-and-run crowd.
The tracks were laid in 1888 to serve the most isolated areas of the island. They are narrow-gauge, because narrower tracks more easily permit circling even the tightest curve. Today, regular railroad service has integrated some of these narrower tracks into the normal-width railway, but the trenino verde uses the older narrow tracks. Another throwback to the past, and one of the most amusing parts of the trip, are the locomotives. At present there are two, both with coal-driven steam engines. One, a Winthertur, was built in 1894. Both locomotives pull wooden passenger cara that have been completely restored. The seats are also made of wood and are quite picturesque, if not the latest technological achievement in comfort. The engine's huffing and puffing as it forges through hill and dale are part of the journey's charm.
The trenino verde runs every day on fixed routes, but it is also possible to organize more specialized itineraries in collaboration with the railway company. Scheduled routes connect Nuoro and Bosa, Sassari and Alghero, Sassari and Palau and, what is generally considered the best route, Cagliari and Arbatax. This train leaves Cagliari every morning at 6:45 and arrives in Arbatax at 1:31. You have time for a quick lunch, then back on the return train at 2:57. If you decide to spend the night in Arbatax, an afternoon train leaves Cagliari at 1:57 and arrives at 8:24. Of course, you can also travel from Arbatax to Cagliari, but in that case the schedules force you to stay overnight in Cagliari. And don't worry if the trip sounds long: it is so varied and interesting that it passes in an instant. It will seem to pass even more quickly if you bring along a cushion to put on those quaint wooden seats.
As you're wending your way past green plains, golden pastures, lush forests, rugged mountains, crystal-clear lakes, precipitous bridges and breathtaking seacoast, you might imagine you are in the Old West instead of on a Mediterranean island. The trenino verde is a great way to see a part of Sardinia that is just as unforgettable as its celebrated northern coastline.
Le Nuraghe: Sardinia's Unique Archeological Sites
Around 1500 BC, a group of settlers arrived in Sardinia from an as-yet-unknown place and spread rapidly throughout the island, taking with them advanced building techniques, beautiful Hellenic pottery and what appears to be a fairly well-developed religion. Today, 7000 of these megalithic structures survive, and they are unlike any other ruins in the world. The most important complex is Nuraghe Su Nuraxi, in Barumini, centered around a three-story tower built 3500 years ago. Among the best preserved are S. Antine (left), which also has a central three-story tower connected by walkways to three two-story watchtowers, the Nuragic village of Serra Orrios, an unforgettably mystical spot where the abandoned ruins are immersed in an olive grove used mainly by shepherds, and Nora, an extensive village complete with amphitheatre, forum, baths, temple and kasbah.
Most Nuraghe are closed in the afternoon and on Sunday and charge no admission fee. Barumini is reached from Oristano or Cagliari by taking route 131 and turning off on route 197, toward Barumini. The ruins are located alongside the provincial road to Tuili. To find S. Antine, take route 131 from Sassari, exit at Torralba and follow the Carlo Felice road towards Thiesi. There are no signs for the ruins. For Serra Orrios, take route 129 from Nuoro towards Orosei and turn off onto the provincial for Dorgali. Just before you get to Dorgali, signs will show you when to turn left. To get to Nora from Cagliari, take route 195 south to Pula, at the very southern tip of Sardinia. From here, a poorly-marked provincial road leads to the ruins.
Sardinians love their traditions. No matter where you are and what time of year, there is bound to be a colorful celebration just down the road, and even if you don't know how to ask directions, you'll find it by following the rich aroma of roast suckling pig and listening for the echo of the Sardinian bagpipe. Walk into the midst of the exquisitely-garbed crowd and you'll soon receive a warm welcome, along with a plate of unpronounceable delicacies. But watch out: the island's hot, dry climate produces some of Italy's headiest wines! Here are a few of the 2000 local folk festivals.
Calendar of Events in Sardinia
January - One of the most widely celebrated Sardinian holidays is St. Anthony's Day, on January 16 and 17. Perhaps the most spectacular celebration is in Mamoiada, where 12 frightening masks called mamuthones represent the months of the year.
February - This is Carnival month, and you'll find exquisite masks, heavily embroidered costumes, loud music, frenetic dancing and way too much food in towns and cities from one end of the island to the other. The most characteristic Sardinian carnival is held in the towns around Oristano (Paulilatino, Samugheo, Abbasanta, Sedilo, San Vero Milis and especially Santu Lussurgiu). Here the protagonist is the horse, and all the reckless things a human being can do while riding it. Everything culminates on the last Tuesday of Carnival, during the breakneck Palio-like race that rips through the very streets of town (with stops along the way for pick-me-ups of wine and aquavit, offered by local residents).
March - As in the rest of Italy, the Monday after Easter is more important than our Good Friday. The people of Castelsardo celebrate with a procession that begins at dawn. All day long the men parade through town, their faces hidden beneath white monks' hoods, while choirs sing chants as ancient as Christianity itself. At sunset the darkening sky is suddenly brightened by hundreds of torches held aloft by the local women, and then everyone retires to enjoy a meal whose menu has been unchanged for centuries.
April - On Easter morning, be at the church of San Francesco in Oliena to watch two very distinct processions, one carrying a statue of Christ and the other carrying the Virgin Mary. The two long lines of solemn costumed men thread their way through town on separate routes, while residents line the streets to cheer or hang out of windows to shoot blanks high into the air. Afterwards, everyone wolfs down plenty of sevàdas, washed down with the local wine, il Nepente.
May - In Cagliari, the first of May is dedicated to St. Efis. If you can only witness one Sardinian festival this might be the one to choose, because hundreds of celebrants come from all over the island wearing their local costumes, walking, on horseback, in carts and carriages, to fulfill a vow made to the saint three centuries ago. Not surprisingly, the boisterous parade ends with a gigantic banquet, where a highlight is Cagliari's renowned seafood.
June - Carloforte, located on tiny San Pietro island, was originally settled by North Africans who came by way of Liguria, with the result that its foods, customs, costumes, even its dialect are unique. So is its local festival, dedicated to St. Peter: in the morning the local men, a majority of whom are fishermen, sail out to sea and perform la mattanza, a macabre "tuna round-up" practiced by many Sicilians. Afterwards, the streets and squares of town come alive with music and dancing late into the night, and appetites are satisfied by more tuna specialties than you ever imagined could exist.
July - How many places are left in the world where men risk their lives each year to commemorate Emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius in 312 AD? Sedilo is one of them. Here, for three days straight, the famed local horsemen participate in a wild race around the Sanctuary of "Santu Antine." There is no prize for the winner, only the satisfaction of being best at something most sedilesi dream of from the time they are old enough to dream. At sundown everyone gathers to taste the tender roasts that have been rotating all day on hundreds of spits.
August - If you're in Sassari in August, you may be awakened from your afternoon nap by tambourines and piccolos, heralding the procession with which, for four centuries, the sassaresi have thanked the Madonna for saving them from a deadly plague. At the head of the parade are nine 30-foot candelabra, bedecked with flowers, ribbons, banners and bows, all of which are pulled off at sunset in front of the S. Maria di Betlem church. The food of the day is snails, mountains of them served to one and all at Porta S. Antonio. By the way, in Sassari the most prized snails, the big ones, are smothered in ashes and slow-roasted in their shells.
September - Cabras is the most exciting town in Sardinia on the first Sunday of September, when local youths run the "Race of the Saracens," an ageold re-enactment. Seems that centuries ago a few heroes managed to save a venerated statue of Christ from defilement by invading North Africans. Today, you'll see 800 men wearing short white tunics run barefoot for 6 miles, ending up on a carpet of flowers strewn by their adoring fans before the paleo-Christian church of San Salvatore.
October - Deep in the mysterious heart of the island, the town of Aritzo is surrounded by lush chestnut groves. According to local legend, these generous forests were created in an instant by Saint Efisio, who then charged the locals with educating the rest of us about their wonderful fruits. During the last week in October, the whole town bakes and roasts them into every possible form and offers them to anyone who comes to their celebration.
November - November 1 is the day of the Dead, and in Nuoro many families still prepare a feast with places set at the table for their dearly departed. The custom is to cook far more than the family can eat, then to share the meal with less fortunate neighbors. And everyone takes time out to participate in the holy procession to the Madonna delle Grazie sanctuary, where choirs from surrounding villages sing hymns and local politicians offer candlesticks to the bishop.
December - Santa Lucia is a beloved local saint, and her festival is celebrated in many towns. The town of Nurachi Tempio invites everyone to share in their feast.