By Andrea Delp
Sardinia is an island in Italy – this is how Wikipedia or similar sites would most likely describe Sardinia. I have spent many months over many years on Sardinia and I promise: Sardinia is anything but just some Italian island.
It has the most ancient cultural heritage in Europe, it is a sense of liberty and freedom and it offers sensational sights as well as a myriad of options on how to spend your time. To me, Sardinia is a story of independent minds, originality and authenticity.
THE REAL SARDINIA – AN INTRODUCTION
If you read travel magazines, you will often find Sardinia included because of its beaches. No question, Sardinia has the most beautiful beaches in Europe and there are more than 100 of them on the Island. North Sardinia is practically one huge swimming pool and the heartland of tourism.
But Sardinia isn’t just the North. If you want to see real Sardinia, head to South Sardinia or to the west coast of the island, and do it away from the peak season if you want to experience the real Sardinia. And there will be no need to worry about temperatures then: Sardinia weather is much more bearable in spring and autumn.
Sardinians don’t feel very Italian and they’re not too in love with the Italian government, either. Sardinia is not really connected to Italy, neither culturally nor geographically, and Sardinia’s political affiliation with Italy is more of a thorn in its side.
Sardinia has an intriguing history, one that befits an island kingdom. It’s strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean caught the eye of many invaders, prompting the building of villages and cities inland and away from danger (although the sea now brings its greatest wealth, tourism).
Populated continually since the Neolithic, Sardinia has fought fiercely for its independence over the centuries but was occupied successively by the Phoenicians and for several centuries, the Romans. The Arabs invaded, and several Italian principalities lent a hand until Sardinia came under the rule of Catalonia. In 1861 the island became part of Italy but is an autonomous region with control over a range of internal services.
Sardinians have their own flag, the Four Moors, of which they are proud and which they bring out on every occasion as a symbol of their independence and liberty.
Liberty is a notion, and it is hard to describe. But in some places in Sardinia it is expressed by certain unique landscapes. Among Sardinia points of interest is the ancient city of Tharros on the West Coast. It is set along a narrow tongue of land, with the ocean below cliffs on both sides, waves rolling in, winds blowing from France and an unbelievably lush environment will help you understand that sense of freedom and originality to which Sardinians relate so well.
INDEPENDENCE UNTIL 900 B.C.
Sardinia is not that close to the European mainland and it is located on a so-called micro plate. Geologically, therefore, it is not part of the European mainland and in fact almost never was. As a result, things developed in a unique way.
For example, the island is rich in obsidian, rare in Europe and similar to glass. The tools made from it were extremely sharp and so ancient Sardinians were able to carve stones and build near-geometrical caves and walls some 6000 years before our time. The caves survive to this day and Sardinians call them “fairy tombs” (Domus de Janas). They are spread all over Sardinia and you will find many street signs hinting at some fairy tomb or other.
Even now scientists are uncertain of their intended use.
Another legacy is that of the “Nuraghi”, buildings and complexes made of boulders and found only on Sardinia. Wherever you go when you visit Sardinia, you’ll find Nuraghi (plural of Nuraghe). Some are larger, some are smaller, and they’re still standing even though they date back to 1600 BC. Like the fairy tombs, no one really knows what they were used for.
SARDINIA THINGS TO DO: WINE AND FOOD EXPERIENCES
A highlight of Sardinia is its wonderful cooking.
Of course you can always go for pizza, but pizza is also something you can eat at home.
Sardinians are wonderful cooks, including the men. Home, food and family are the things that matter most to Sardinians. If you travel to the capital of Sardinia, Cagliari, you won’t find a single shop open between 1 and 4pm. Even if large cruise ships are coming in, Sardinians will head home to eat with their families, which they consider more important. Traffic jams around lunch time are not rare in Cagliari although the rest of the island is mostly rural, and traffic-free.
For an authentic food experience, stay away from obviously touristy places. If you have a car and a mobile, install Google Maps and type in “Ittiturismo” or “Agriturismo” in Sardinia. Ittirurismi are restaurants run by fishermen or cooperatives, and you won’t find fresher seafood at a fairer price. Agriturismi are farms and they usually also run a restaurant that features their own delicious produce.
Your best bet is to hand yourself over to the cook.
Usually you will get a set menu, including water and wine, and enough dishes so that it won’t matter if something isn’t to your taste. Where restaurants serve “dishes of the day”, ask for a “piatto del giorno” (dish of the day). If the restaurants offers a set meal, then simply forget about the menu. Feel comfortable visiting these places solo – Sardinians will be happy to see you and who knows, maybe the other guests will invite your for a homemade wine.
Sardinia has many food specialties but many of them depend on the exact location. Sometimes even a village has its own specialty and that’s the point ⎯ you’ll always be surprised.
There are classics, of course, like seadas, a fried pastry filled with cheese and honey (often served as dessert) or peccorino Sardo, a goat’s cheese that is very different for its counterpart on the mainland. I would always recommend the octopus salad, as well as all kinds of shellfish.
If you like extraordinary tastes, don’t forget to try sweet bakery products on Sardinia. Dolci are just too good to be true and you can buy them in a pasticceria.
BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN SARDINIA: EVEN MORE UNIQUENESS
Sardinia is famous for its beaches.
While some of the best beaches in Sardinia are along the north coast, they are also touristy and crowded during the high season.
For some quieter beaches, try Arutas and Mari Ermi near the city of Oristano. You’ll find a large beach with lovely hiking trails which are largely considered safe for women on their own. In reality, there is no real sand here and the beach is made of small quartz stones, like grains of rice. This phenomenon is absolutely unique and it makes the beach look almost white. Off-peak season you are sometimes on your own around here.
If you prefer steep cliffs and rugged mountains, the area around Torre dei Corsari, Buggeru and Fontanamare are perfect place for a stay. In March, April, October or early November you’ll enjoy nature at its purest. But a word of warning: you really need to be comfortable with silence and solitude. Portixeddu and Fontanamare are two of the less-visited beaches on Sardinia despite being among the most beautiful. In the low season the only people you’ll meet here are local fishermen ⎯ the region is simply too far from the main Sardinia attractions.
And if you’re doing your own cooking, make sure you ask the fishermen heading back from the sea about their fresh catch.
The coastline offers more than 100 beaches, so it is never a problem to find one. It pays to just drive along the coast with a rental car – you will discover the best places in Sardinia just by letting yourself drift along the routes.
SARDINIA: AUTHENTIC LIFESTYLE
Cagliari, Sardinia’s, is a fair-sized and lively city along Sardinia’s southern coast that has an authentic feel. It is filled with individual shops, mostly offering local products, many restaurants and lots of archaeological sites or museums.
Other towns like Dorgali, Lanusei, Santu Lussurgiu, Macomer or Sassari are also authentic and not particularly influenced by tourism, as are the inland villages .
If you are expecting opulent baroque grandiosity, Sardinia is not the place.
Alghero, Porto Cervo, Villasimius, Porto Torres, Bosa or Santa Teresa di Gallura and Palau are more touristy. Even so, mass tourism isn’t much of an issue around Sardinia. The island remains a wonderful place for women seeking nature, silence, culture, a little bit of city life, water sports or boats, mountain biking, hiking or climbing, historic sites as well as outstanding food experiences.
In other words, Sardinia is a destination for explorers, and there is much to explore, especially for solo women.
TRAVEL SAFETY IN SARDINIA
Women traveling on their own are quite safe in Sardinia. The men are restrained, and tend to be shy with strangers.
If you’re in a small inland village, they might look at you strangely while trying to hide it, but you won’t be harmed – you’ll just be the object of curiosity. The moment you begin talking to people they’ll be friendly and next thing they’ll invite you for a drink and tell you about their lives, where to go or how to find the best boat rental.
I have traveled to Sardinia often and stayed many months. I clearly look foreign (I am blonde) and I have never been bothered. Not once. It is the same with stealing. Cities like Rome are filled with theft and petty crime but Sardinia is surprisingly quiet. I’ve even forgotten to close the car windows or lock the doors for several hours and nothing ever happened. This is not a recommendation, of course – but it reflects a different mindset than on the continent.
The one thing you do need to be careful about is fire. During the summer season (mostly in July, August and September) Sardinia burns. It happens every year. If you see a fire, take it seriously and stay away from it. Never try to start an open fire yourself, either on the beach or anywhere else. It is strictly forbidden – for a good reason.
LANGUAGE AND HOW TO GET TO KNOW PEOPLE
Not many Sardinians speak English, so you might find it a good idea to learn some Italian. Otherwise, you’ll have to ask around to find to find an English speaker. When you live locally or take local transport, you often will not be treated like a tourist and will probably get to know people. That said, public transport on Sardinia isn’t great and won’t take you everywhere so your best bet to see the island’s most beautiful spots is to rent a car.
If you’d like to get to know people, take a cooking class. Or book a room in an agriturismo (a room on a farm), where you’ll be somewhat integrated into the family. A language course might also be also interesting – there is a language school in Cagliari. Several sailing schools are offer their services, one of them around the beautiful La Maddalena nature reserve. In larger places like Palau, Cagliari, Alghero or Cala Gonone boats offer smaller tours with 10 to 15 people, a convivial atmosphere in which to have a chat or meet a few people.
If none of these interest you, ask around for festivities, like the carnival of Mamoiada. Whenever you come across someone, just say “Hello” and maybe ask them who they are and what they are doing. Since Sardinians love their island so much, there’s a good chance you’ll end up on an orange plantation or somewhere interesting people want to show you – this is where you’ll find the real Sardinia.
Andrea Delp’s website, Sardinia Inside, is filled with information about destinations, arrival and accommodation, internet access or food and markets. If you have questions about Sardinia, want to contact Sardinians or other fans of Sardinia, join Andrea’s Sardinia Facebook group.
— Originally published on 04 June 2018