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Looking beyond the beaches

A week on an island that's famous for the wrong reasons

semi-overcast 23 °C

As I stand at the back of what appears to be a queue of two hundred people at the easyJet check-in at Gatwick, I ponder just what I know about my intended destination - Sardinia. It's an island (the second largest in the Med) that's an autonomous region of Italy, and has given its name to a fish - though these fish are no longer present in the numbers that earned them their name in the first place. Part of its coastline is the Costa Smeralda, a playground for the rich and famous. Sardinia is also where England's football team was placed for its group matches in the 1990 World Cup Finals, in order that any trouble caused by the hooligan element of the supporters would be easy to contain. These meagre facts are hardly a platform on which to base a week's holiday.

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Fortunately knowledge of the island will be the least of my concerns, as someone else - namely, my sister C - will be worrying about that for me. She has been working in a hotel in the sleepy coastal town of Golfo Aranci for the summer season and this experience, coupled with previous stints on the island as an English teacher and a tour guide, means she has enough local knowledge for us both. My hire car will mean we can even visit some places she has never been to.

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I somehow negotiate easyJet's chaotic check-in system in time to board the plane, and arrive into the sunny but windy climes of Olbia airport a couple of hours later. The short drive to Golfo Aranci gives me time to reacquaint myself with the quirks of Italian roads - the erratic signposting (often right next to an exit so you have only a split second to decide whether you need to turn off), the speed limits that seem to function as minimums rather than maximums, the racing line that locals like to follow, etc. But when I allow my eyes to drift to the scenery, there's a mountainous interior to the island that looks impressive.

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Golfo Aranci has a population of barely a couple of thousand, most of whom seem to have disappeared off for an afternoon kip, so I'm able to drive slowly along the main street without any traffic harassment. I find the turn-off for the hotel, park, and wander into the reception. C is on duty, sporting a sun tan that speaks of a summer on the beach. It's great to see her, and she immediately wangles a short break so that we can have a coffee together on the terrace. Unfortunately the mistral is blowing a gale and we soon retreat to a more sheltered area.

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The main news from her is that the hotel wants her to work for an extra week, meaning that she won't have as much time off with me as she'd originally intended. (This actually turns out to be a good thing for me, as the reduced sightseeing that we do still leaves me knackered, though not so good for her, as her morning shifts start at 7AM). Apart from that, she's looking forward to showing me around the north of the island and introducing me to some of the characters who've been part of her seven months here. I speak no Italian, so can predict much nodding and smiling in my near future, but you never know where you might find a cat-loving female chocolate addict with a liking for Italo disco.

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The majority of the accommodation that I've stayed in over the last few years has been either hostels or guesthouses, so the facilities offered in a 4 star hotel room comfortably exceed my requirements. The stack of towels and shelf of complimentary toiletries seem as grotesquely luxurious as the balcony with a view over a bay of turquoise water. There's no kettle, apparently because the hotel's wiring can't cope with the demands of large groups of English pensioners all fancying a cuppa at the same time - and large groups of English pensioners constitute a good chunk of the current guests. As a relative of a member of staff, the rate I'm getting for this room is very good value indeed, especially as breakfast and dinner are thrown in. It's not how I normally travel, but I can force myself to suck up a week of it.

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C is working mornings for the next couple of days, making it difficult for us to do much as she doesn't finish each day until 3PM. I take the opportunity to amble around Golfo Aranci, which I find to be pleasantly low-key. The town sits under the rocky headland of Capo Figari, with the rounded hump of Figarolo island just offshore. Beyond that lies the limestone massif of Tavolara island. In the late afternoon, the sun brings a flush of pink to the grey faces of all the rocks.

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I supplement my knowledge of the island by reading a guidebook. Sardinia's history has been characterised by repeated invasions, explaining why even now the "real" Sardinia can only be found in the mountainous interior - a region the Romans called Barbaria (now Barbagia) as a backhanded compliment because they were never able to subdue it. Barbagia is the cultural heart of Sardinia and even now is something of a law unto itself (up until the 1960s it was famed for its bandits and kidnappings). With the mountains being the dwelling place of choice for the locals, wild boar, pigs and sheep became the mainstays of Sardinian cuisine, meaning that - strangely for an island - fishing has never been a major source of food here.

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The original settlers of Sardinia lived in tribes, with interspersed periods of cooperation and squabbling. From about 1000BC, though, outsiders began to visit the island on a regular basis - sometimes for trade, sometimes for settlement, but increasingly to conquer. Over the next three millenia, the island was partly governed by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Pisans, Genoans, Aragonese, Austrians, the House of Savoy, and the Piedmontese, before finally becoming part of a united Italy in the mid-19th century. There are plenty of reminders of these disparate occupiers in Sardinia today, from Phoenician ruins to the use of Catalan in Alghero. It's interesting that Sardinia's flag depicts the heads of four Moors, the Moors having merely raided the island rather than tried to subdue it.

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When C has a run of days off, we begin our explorations in earnest. Though Sardinia is by no means enormous, the winding roads and regular delays by chugging lorries mean that distances take longer to travel than you might expect, so the furthest point south that we reach is only a third of the way to the southern coast. A few more quirks of Italian driving appear. The law here requires you to drive with your lights on all the time, though empirical evidence suggests this is obeyed by only about half of drivers. In towns, there seems to be a crosswalk every twenty metres or so, but it's a foolhardy pedestrian who thinks the traffic will actually stop to let them cross. On the plus side - and possibly as a result of it being the shoulder season - we find free parking everywhere we go, often in large carparks. I also discover that size 11 hiking boots are too big for the space above the clutch pedal in a Renault Twingo, leading to several situations where we can't move off because I can't let the clutch out fully.

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Our first foray is into the Barbagia region, its rugged countryside and traditional outdoor lifestyle perfect for creating the kind of people able to stand up to the Roman Empire. Just outside of the town of Orgosolo, a road sign has been peppered with shotgun bullets - a reminder that this is an area over which the carabinieri have only a tenuous hold. Regardless, the landscape is a picture of rolling green and brown, punctuated by sharp rocky ridges under a blue sky smeared with wispy clouds.

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Apart from its bandit history, Orgosolo is most famous for its collection of murals, dozens of which can be found around the town. First appearing back in the 1970s, the murals depict political events, initially from Italy but later expanding to cover stories from the entire globe. The variety of styles and colours is accompanied by a disapproving tone that gives the town an anti-establishment air entirely in keeping with its bandit past. Comments about American nuclear waste on the island, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Bosnian conflict, world poverty, 9/11, and the Iraq War have all found their expression here in paint. An excerpt from Pablo Neruda's "Ode to the Cat" warns us against trying to overreach ourselves.

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We lunch at an atmospheric restaurant a couple of kilometres outside of Orgosolo. Given the warmth of the day, it's surprisingly cold inside, with even the waitress wearing a tracksuit top. The dining room is centred on a stone fireplace whose chimney is hung with hams, though sadly the fire remains unlit. The room's walls are one framed painting after another.

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There's no menu, simply a fixed-price set of courses taken from traditional Sardinian cuisine, including brain (tempura-style, but I've no idea what animal the brain was from), wild boar, suckling pig, pane frattau (an odd mix of thin bread, cheese, tomato sauce, and egg), and seada (a cheese-stuffed fritter covered in honey). Vegetables are few and far between. By the end, we're both grateful that the waitress had suggested we get one between two, as we're stuffed. (Later in the trip, I'll also try the ravioli-esque culurgiones and gnocchi-like malloreddus.)

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Not far from Orgosolo is another small town, Mamoiada. Mamoiada is home to the Museum of Mediterranean Masks, a small but highly intriguing introduction to the masks and costumes to be found in Sardinia and further afield in the Mediterranean, associated with carnival or pagan festivals from the distant past. The stars of the town's own carnival are the mamuthones, men wearing sheepskins and ugly black wooden masks, and carrying 30kg of bronze bells with bone clappers on their backs. They are guarded by the lasso-wielding issohadores dressed in red and white, who capture any nearby young women who take their fancy. Theories of the origin of these figures include them representing the Sardinians (issohadores) victorious over the Moors (mamuthones) and, more popularly, the triumph of spring (issohadores) over winter (mamuthones). Whatever you choose to believe, the masks and costumes native to Mamoiada and other European countries are fantastic in both senses of the word, and not a little eerie.

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Our longest day of travel takes in a loop hitting the west coast in two places. The first stop of the trip is at the Basilica of the Holy Trinity of Saccargia, the high point of Romanesque architecture on the island. It's built of black basalt and white limestone and all the more striking for being situated on a plain. The name "Saccargia" comes from the Sardinian for "spotted cow", with legend saying that this cow used to kneel down whenever it was prayer time - the cow is remembered in four carvings on one of the columns in the porch. Apart from the stunning exterior, inside can be found some well-preserved mediaeval frescos.

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The church was originally built in the 12th century and has been substantially modified since then, but we go back even further in time when we visit the nuraghe of Santu Antine. A nuraghe is a beehive-shaped stone building, of which there are thousands around the island. They date from a Bronze Age civilisation that was eventually wiped out by the Romans. The nuraghe at Santu Antine is the tallest on Sardinia, and its consignment to history can be keenly felt due to the presence of a wind farm on a nearby ridge - the crumbling nuraghe built with nothing more than stone, versus the hi-tech sleekness of the slowly whirring giant turbines.

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We hit the coast at the pretty town of Bosa, whose pastel buildings sit behind a riverside array of palm trees redolent of the French Riviera. Leading away from the river is a maze of cobbled backstreets, affording occasional glimpses of old women making lace in a doorway. Black markings on various houses are a reminder of the massive campaign waged against malaria shortly after the end of World War II. The island's mosquito population was the victim of the largest DDT-based assault ever seen, the outcome of which may have been the elimination of malaria (though not of mosquitos, as my ankles have already told me after a couple of evenings dining al fresco) but with currently unquantifiable environmental effects - to either nature or humans.

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The town is overlooked by a castle that we don't have time to visit, but we do pop in to the rather OTT cathedral and are overwhelmed (not necessarily in a good way) by its late Baroque Piedmontese decor.

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We take the coast road north out of Bosa, stopping several times to admire the scenic coastline's rock formations. C also spots some griffon vultures, of which there are few in Sardinia (though the species is not in danger on a global scale). We reach Alghero late afternoon, a pleasant town whose shops conjure up a surprisingly touristy vibe. The street signs are in both Catalan and Italian, and a minority of the inhabitants speak a variety of Catalan - a legacy of Alghero's long period of Aragonese occupation. We potter along the city walls, buy some ice-cream, and watch a reddening sunset over the jutting promontory of Capo Caccia. It's a long drive home, and back in Golfo Aranci we can barely down a bottle of prosecco before we're both too tired to stay awake.

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C's work schedule is the afternoon shift for the next couple of days, so we only have until lunchtime to play with. The first day, we trundle through the Costa Smeralda, perhaps the most famous part of Sardinia. Before the 1960s, this stretch of coast was wild and uninhabited bar shepherds, but then the Aga Khan assembled a consortium to turn it into a luxurious tourist destination. It's now a string of soulless beachside towns all constructed to specific architectural styles and standards. In season, it's swarming with the kind of money that can afford to blow thousands of dollars per night on a hotel room, and the marinas are veritable showrooms of the best that the luxury yacht industry can provide. However now, out of season, the Cartier stores are shut and none of the remaining yachts look as though they'd be big enough for Roman Abramovich. We pass the Cala di Volpe hotel, off which Diana and Dodi's yacht was moored the day before their life-ending accident in Paris, and the Hotel Romazzino - I can't say that either of them look particularly stunning from the outside. However I'm sure that the rationale behind these places isn't that they are the absolute best of the best, more that they're simply so expensive that the gawpers and rubberneckers are kept out.

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Having said that, the heart of Costa Smeralda - Porto Cervo - has some great examples of the Mediterranean style of architecture. In particular the Church of the Star of the Sea is simple but impressive, its whitewashed exterior shown off by red roof tiles and, in particular, the one blue-tiled cupola. Fittingly for a church in such an opulent area, it houses an El Greco painting - he usually sells for at least six figures at auction.

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Before we head back, C wants one last stop at Baja Sardinia due to the limpid blue of the bay's waters, but unfortunately we reach it at about lunchtime, and the angle of the sun does us no favours.

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The following day sees us heading to Porto Rotondo, another haunt of the rich. Along the way, we make a detour to a small church on a ridge overlooking the road. An old man sits outside making charms - the first person I've seen doing this, yet in the most out-of-the-way church I've yet been to. Inside are depictions of the Madonna and child, including some with African and Japanese features.

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Porto Rotondo is even emptier than Porto Cervo had been, and the owner of one of the few open cafes says that the season is only three months long. Nearby is a beach named after Shirley Bassey, who supposedly was one of its first sunbathers - we find the stretch of sand matching the map, but there's no sign to indicate any association with a Welsh female singer.

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Back in Golfo Aranci, C suggests that we lunch at La Cortice, a restaurant run by a government body (Ittiturismo) that aims to help fishermen with diversifying their income. She knows the staff there (who bizarrely all seem to have karate black belts) as well as the fishermen whose catch is served up on the menu. I have a massive dish of squid linguini, in which the squid actually looks like squid rather than the weird rings that tend to be served in the UK. It tastes excellent, only spoiled by the thought running through my mind that the (very) low carb diet I follow at home is being torn asunder.

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In fact, overall on this holiday I do a reasonable job of enjoying Sardinian food without completely stuffing myself. Similarly, the drunken benders that I normally associate with family meet-ups are absent - there's only one night of what I would call substantial drinking, but even that totals barely a bottle of prosecco each and finishes at only 2:30AM. There's the added bonus that we see a family of wild boar rummaging in the garbage as we're walking home through the deserted streets.

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Our last full day of sightseeing takes place in the best weather we've had all week. The Maddalena archipelago is our destination, just off the northeast tip of Sardinia. We take a car ferry from Palau, and C points out a rock formation called The Bear on a hill above the town as we leave harbour.

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We disembark at La Maddalena town on La Maddalena island in the Maddalena archipelago - no scope for confusion there. We immediately leave via a causeway to the island of Caprera, to visit the Garibaldi museum. The museum is in the house that Garibaldi retired to after he had played his part in unifying Italy. I must confess to knowing little about the man before this trip, apart from his famous army of Redshirts and the biscuit that inherited his name, and the tour that the museum obliges you to take is only available in Italian. Fortunately C translates for me and throws in some facts of her own. Besides his role in the unification of Italy, he had also previously dabbled in various conflicts in South America. He left one of his wives before they'd even exited their wedding chapel, when she confessed that she was pregnant with another man's child - quite a harsh judgement from someone who was something of a philanderer himself. And apparently the source for his army's red shirts was Aysgarth woollen mill in Wensleydale.

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We return to La Maddalena island and complete a circuit of its many bays and viewpoints. Rock formations keep watch over a sea that, if not quite up to tropical paradise standard (at least not at this time of day/year), is invitingly clear, its blues and greens pulsating gently in the rippling water. The beaches are all most appealing, even to a non-beachy person like myself, though I suspect some of that is because there just aren't that many people around to spoil the landscape. From the northern end of the island, it's easy to see the white cliffs of Bonifacio in Corsica, maybe a dozen kilometres away in a different country. We watch sailing boats slapping by, the afternoon sun giving them a sea of sparkles on which to float.

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Sadly that's the last piece of sightseeing we have time for, as the day is drawing to a close and my flight to London leaves the next morning. Sardinia has been a big surprise to me, offering considerably more than the top-end beach holidays that it's famous for. I found most enjoyment in the island's traditional culture, in particular the murals and scary costumes of the Barbagia region, but was also taken by the black and white Basilica of the Holy Trinity of Saccargia. I could imagine many more lazy days succumbing to the colourful charms of Bosa. Frankly, the Costa Smeralda is an anomaly in Sardinia.

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With the majority of the island unvisited on this trip, I can see myself coming back for more.

Posted by mohn 24.10.2010 09:26 Archived in Italy

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