Of the big European countries Italy is the one that I have explored the most. For a casual visitor, Italy is a wonderful country. The art and the history are top of the world, the food is peerless, the people are friendly and characterful, the language is beautiful. (It is a different story if you decide to live in Italy.) With this appreciation for Italy, I have now been almost to every single province. The only two places missing from my collection were the two islands – Sicily and Sardinia. And so this time it was Sardinia’s turn.
Sardinia is actually quite a large island. Yet it cannot be considered particularly dense in the cultural sense. Although it can boast of traces of one of the oldest European civilisations – the so-called Nuraghi culture – most people come here for a beach holiday. Sardinian beaches are considered the best in Italy. I am not a beach person but I can say with certainty that visiting local beaches without a car is an exercise in futility. Using public transport you get to the beaches that are full of people and consequently lack any charm to speak of. Only in a car would you have a chance to discover a true pristine beauty.
As we don’t drive, our options to travel around Sardinia were trains and buses. This is not a very practical solution, as the public transport is scarce and difficult to plan, but it does get you to the most important points. I will describe the places visited in a logical order (though our actual route was a bit more complicated): Cagliari – Villasimius – Oristano – Sassari – Alghero.
Cagliari (the stress is on the first syllable) is the megapolis of Sardinia, all of 150 thousand people! Several wonderfully charming streets around Piazza Yenna on warm summer nights would be occupied by the locals sitting in street side cafés. An atmosphere of celebration would truly make it feel like a centre of the island. From there you take a steep stairs to get to the old town of Cagliari, located of course on the hill which controls the surroundings. From the top of the Elephant Tower – which guards the town gates – you get a fantastic view of all Cagliari:
The Elephant Tower actually has no walls in its rear side – so you look directly at the old town.
The thick front wall on the other hand can boast of extremely narrow windows.
A graceful cathedral in old Pisan style is located on the old town’s main square. The cathedral is not original – it was restored in 20th century after an earthquake.
The other entrance to the old town – a rather monumental one! Sardinia was formally responsible for the reunification of Italy in 19th century. To be precise, the king of Sardinia was at once also the duke of Savoy as well as the prince of Piedmonte. And so the economic and political centre of Savoy domains lied in Piedmonte. Turin in particular was the capital of the Sardinian kingdom! (I must mention here that Turin is perhaps my favourite city in Italy – it has all of Italy’s charms without the inconvenience of hordes of tourists.) Yet it was Sardinia that gave the Savoy sovereign the coveted title of the king – and the prestige of that title no doubt contributed to his successful reunification campaign.
The history of Sardinia is rather unique. It was controlled by Carthage before Rome defeated it. Bysantium inherited Sardinia after the breakup of the Roman empire and kept its control over the island incredibly long – all the way to 9th century! At the time when Charlemagne reigned in Aachen and went to to be coronated to Rome, Sardinia was still under the Bysantian emperor! And he lost it in an unusual fashion – he was simply cut off from Sardinia when Arabs conquered his other domain, Sicily. Sardinia found itself in a political vacuum and the Bysantian judges-governors of provinces gradually founded heritable principalities, which were called judicates – from the Latin word for “judge”. These judicates – of which initially there were five – persisted for almost 500 years. Sardinia then got into the sphere of interests of various emerging maritime empires that vied for the control of the Mediterranean – Aragon, Genoa and Pisa. They fought wars of conquest for hundreds of years and finally it was Aragon that emerged the winner, after investing incredible resources. Sardinia therefore became part of the Spanish empire. 200 years later as a result of the war of Spanish Succession Sardinia was handed over to the Savoy dukes and the rest is Italian history.
I am describing all this because I find the history of this island endlessly fascinating and also instructive in how the destinies of lands in the Middle Ages could depend essentially on accidents of history. This is not unique to the Middle Ages of course. All our life is an accident.
If we jump another two thousand years back in time, we would see on this island a mysterious Nuraghi civilisation. The ancient inhabitants of Sardinia had built up innumerable strange stone towers – Nuraghi – which give their culture its name. The Nuraghi people did not have writing and so we don’t know for sure why they built these towers. Their function may have been religious, defensive, aristocratic, all or none of it – we just don’t know. It was difficult to reach a Nuraghi monument without a car, so it was in the historical museum in Cagliari where I had to satisfy my curiosity.
One more key monument of Nuraghi civilisation – the so-called Tomb of the Giants, a huge funeral construction, of which there are several in different places in Sardinia. Fascinating structures built about the same time as the series of the mysterious Neolithic structures in the British Isles. All of them are contemporaries of the Pyramids.
And the third component of Nuraghi civilisation’s archaeologic inheritance. These are the giant statues of Nuraghi warriors and priests – found broken into pieces and carefully assembled by modern scientists.
Sardinia is of course incredibly picturesque. As the bus climbs hilltops and dives down the steep roads, you can’t help but hold your breath in wonder. The road from Cagliari to Villasimius:
Villasimius is a small resort in South East of Sardinia. It is quite expensive and feels relatively exclusive, although nothing like the really exclusive resorts located in North East, in the so-called Costa Esmeralda. The famous Berlusconi villa which used to produce various compromising photos of politicians is located right there. We skipped that place.
The countryside near Villasimius as you walk down the path to the beach:
All beaches look the same (except in Rio). But still the one in Villasimius:
A couple of photos from Oristano, a small and pleasant town in the centre of Sardinia. Historically Oristano was the capital of iudicate of Arborea, which at one point was close to conquering all of Sardinia, before being defeated in a decisive battle by the Aragonese. To this day the queen of Arborea Eleonor is considered a local heroine in the mold of Joan of Arc. She led the struggle against Aragon and indeed only after her death was Arborea defeated. Her statue graces the main square of Oristano.
I skip another small and pleasant town, Sassari, and we arrive in Alghero. This is perhaps the most remarkable place of all the island, thanks to its medieval exotic spirit and its sunset promenade.
Alghero has preserved the most Aragonese traits in Sardinia, apparently some of its inhabitants still speak Catalan as their first language. Lonely Planet even promises menus in Catalan in restaurants – but we never came across such. It is true though that Barcelona is right next door from here – indeed this is where I headed next.
The sunset hour. Alghero faces West, and so every evening the setting sun kisses its long promenade full of people and restaurants.
From the practical point of view, the public transport solution to get to Villasimius is the regular bus. A train is heading North from Cagliari – first to Oristano, then at some point the line divides into two – one branch goes to Olbia, the other to Sassari and on to Porto Torres. Sassari is then connected to Alghero by another train run by a separate private company.
As I was planning the trip to Sardinia, I read some blog entries about other people’s trips there. Some people would describe how it was their eighth visit to Sardinia. Frankly I find this beyond puzzling. Even after spending ten days here I felt pretty bored. The island is very beautiful but it feels like a sleepy province where nothing ever happened and nothing ever will. Of course if you need to take a calm break from crazy working life, this might the place. No point expecting mind blowing tourist attractions though.
But there are exceptions to every rule. The most remarkable place in Sardinia is the so-called Neptune Grotto. It is located close to Alghero on the tip of a rugged peninsula called Capo Caccia. The entrance to the Grotto is at the sea level, but the bus brings you to a stop located several hundred metres above sea level. The bus stop is connected to the Grotto by an incredible staircase about 600 steps long. Breathtaking views as you walk down are half the fun of visiting the Grotto.
Looking towards Alghero from the final bus stop on Capo Caccia:
The view to the other side – and the famous steep staircase.
You can reach the Grotto by a boat – but I’ve no idea why anyone would do that! Well, if you have no strength to descend – or rather climb – the long staircase, this might be the solution.
The Grotto itself. A fantastic spectacle.
The Grotto is gigantic. It is like a haunted kingdom created by an crazy magician deep underground.
On this photo you can appreciate this madness in relation to human scale.
The Grotto was not known in antiquity. It was discovered by local fishermen somewhere in 17th-18th centuries.
Afterwards all kinds of nobles as well as the Sardinian king were brought here for excursions. (The first kings of Sardinia actually never set their foot on the island.)
I was really impressed by this subterranean kingdom. If ever you go to Sardinia, don’t even think of missing it!
My next post will be about Sardinia’s gastronomic treasures.