May 18, 2014

An informal short guide to visiting Sardinia


Sardinia is another thing. Much wider, much more ordinary, not up-and-down at all, but running away into the distance. Unremarkable ridges of moor-like hills running away, perhaps to a bunch of dramatic peaks on the southwest. This gives a sense of space, which is so lacking in Italy. Lovely space about one, and traveling distances—nothing finished, nothing final. It is like liberty itself.
[D.H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia]
I think these words, which Lawrence wrote almost a century ago, still ring true.
When he visited Sardinia, infrastructures were poor and travellers had to cope with any kind of difficulties. Nowadays, things have totally changed and Sardinia has become a top tourist destination. Yet, I do not understand why many tourists, instead of seeking that sense of freedom Lawrence was talking of, keep overcrowding beaches in the summer months.
Sardinia has much more to offer.

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After writing this post, I realized its title is too pretentious. Maybe I should have named it "a few tips for visiting Sardinia", but I'll leave it as it is, so that it will be a stimulus for extending these notes.

When to go

Avoid peak season, if you can. Most people visit Sardinia in July and August, with the result of finding high prices, crowded beaches, traffic congestions on the coasts and a very hot climate.
It is much better advisable to opt for different periods of time. June and September are perfect for a seaside holiday, however you can enjoy the beaches until October and even later, if you are lucky with the weather and don't mind shorter days.

Caprera (in May)

 
Spring is great for visiting the centre of the Island, for the simple reason that many streams and sources dry up during the summer months and do not come to life again until late autumn.
Winters are mild, especially on the coast, and can be a nice time for excursions in the nature, for taking part in various food festivals, or for enjoying the carnival.

Getting there

Being an island, you can get to Sardinia only by plane or by boat.
There are plenty of flight options to choose from, connecting many European cities with the three Sardinian airports (Cagliari, Alghero and Olbia). The widespread of low-cost airlines, even for domestic flights, has made Sardinia much less isolated.
Fares can range from very cheap to rather expensive, depending on when you intend to travel and on how much in advance you decide to book your flight.

north coast approaching

 
Ferry services privileged northern ports (Olbia, Golfo Aranci and Porto Torres), much closer to the mainland than the southern ones (Arbatax and Cagliari). Crossing overnight is usually the best choice, although there are faster (and cheaper) daytime services during the summer. Routes from Livorno to Golfo Aranci (or Olbia) are more likely to be better sheltered from bad weather.

Ferry tickets are considerably expensive: they virtually doubled in 2010, causing a drop of the arrivals by boat and making Sardinia much less attractive for short stays. A valid alternative can be arriving by plane and hiring a car.

As far as I know, there are no direct flights to the nearby Corsica, however crossing by ferry takes about 1 hour.

Getting around

The culture of preferring the public transport has not spread enough among local population and using buses and trains is often considered as a last resort by most people.
The consequence (or maybe the cause) of this is the fact that Sardinian public transport are generally less developed than in mainland Europe (although the rather efficient city bus service in Cagliari is a mentionable exception).
 
Trains are slow, but there is a diffused network of bus services connecting all cities. Although there are tourists who totally rely on public transport, getting around in this way can end up in wasting a lot of time waiting for connections. In my opinion, the best solution is to rent a car (or a motocycle), or bring your own.

SS. Trinità di Saccargia (Codrongianus)

Driving in Sardinia is as safe (or as unsafe, it depends) as in the rest of Italy.
Sardinia is the only Italian region without motorways, however this doesn't seem to limit the average speed of most drivers. Actually, driving habits are a bit unpredictable and you'll realize quite soon that many people are not so prone to respect the most basic traffic rules. But once you get used to this, you'll find that getting around by car can become easier.

A car GPS can be very useful, but don't rely only on it. Having a look at the map, from time to time, can make a difference in your travel experience, suggesting diversions or providing a bird's eye view of where you are.
 
The bicycle can be a sporty (and risky) alternative for getting around. Unless you are an experienced cyclist, you should better stick to the parks and to very secondary routes.

Where to stay

There is an institutional booklet, published every year, containing a directory of Sardinian hotels, campings and resorts, which reminds me of pre-internet style of organizing a holiday. It is not very useful, in my opinion, because it totally lacks the real information a traveller requires (e.g. is the staff helpful? how good is the breakfast? are the rooms clean? etc.).

I strongly suggest to rely on known travel websites, where you can compare prices, read the reviews written by other users and make all bookings of hotels and B&Bs before leaving home.

For those people going to Sardinia for spending a sedentary holiday at the beach, resorts can be an enjoyable solution, providing all you need and even more. However, staying in a resort is totally different from a real travel experience.

Renting a house in a seaside location can be a cheaper alternative, however you should always check in advance the reliability of the offer (beware of internet scams!). Always write down a contract in advance. You should also pay through a traceable method (check, bank transfer, etc.), in order to counteract the widespread tax evasion and, more important for you, to get a proof in case of dispute.

Campings (except one in the inland, which is the only mountain camping in Sardinia) are located along the coastline, so you should expect to end up in very crowded sites in the peak season. Moreover, prices can be fairly expensive compared with other European destinations.

Oliena

What to eat and drink

Sardinian cuisine is based on simple ingredients and recipes, mostly inherited from the shepherds' traditions.

Grilled and skewered meat (pork and lamb) reigns in every party dinner, so if you are vegetarian you can be in some trouble. However, you are not going to starve, since you can opt for the many kinds of pasta or dumplings, sheep cheese, bread and traditional cakes.

Grilled fish, such as  mullets, basses, sea breams and eels, is also at the centre of many Sardinian recipes.

The good red wine, which is strong and full-bodied, is particularly appreciated by the locals (and by tourists as well).

Mirto is a very popular liqueur obtained by macerating the myrtle berries and/or leaves in alcohol.
Fil'e ferru (literally "wire") is the Sardinian grappa. It is called abbardente (burning water) in the central areas of Sardinia.

Su Sercone, Supramonte

Safety

Sardinia is generally safe, definitely safer than many other Italian regions (and not even comparable with big Italian towns or with some areas of the southern Italy).
You should just take care of not leaving any valuables in your car.

At the beach, pay attention to the sea conditions. The mistral is the prevalent wind in Sardinia and can create big waves and insidious currents on the western coast. Usually resorts and equipped beaches have bathing attendants or lifeguard services and a flag is shown informing about the bathing conditions. Do not underestimate it.

If you intend to hike, take with you enough water, food and warm clothes and inform somebody about the route you are going to take. Getting lost is easier than you think. It is advisable to rely on a local guide before undertaking some demanding hiking in the centre of the Island. In any case, avoid the summer, owing to the scarcity of water.

Su Gorropu

What to see

Seaside

Beaches are the main tourist attraction of Sardinia and you should expect to find quite a lot of people in the most famous locations, such as Alghero, Costa Smeralda, Chia, Villasimius, Stintino, just to mention a few of them.
Moreover, the most beautiful beaches within a range of 50-60 km from Cagliari, are taken by assault by locals at the weekends.

Less famous (but not less beautiful) seaside locations in the east (Ogliastra) or in the west (Sulcis, Costa Verde, Piscinas, Scivu, Cabras) can provide a much calmer environment for your holiday.
However, there are many other things to see in Sardinia, in addition to the seaside.

Goloritzè
 

Monuments

One of the main reasons to come to Sardinia in spring would be organizing a tour of countryside monuments, such as churches and archeological sites.

Romanesque churches represent an admirable example of harmony between architecture, nature and spirit. There are nearly 70 of them, generally located in the countryside and it's worth dedicating a few days for visiting the most famous ones, such as Trinità di Saccargia, Santa Maria di Uta, Santa Maria del Regno (Ardara), S.Pietro in Zuri, Santa Maria di Tratalias, San Gavino (Porto Torres), etc..

San Pietro del Crocefisso, Bulzi
 
 

Archaeological sites are another great attraction of the Island. Nuraghi are megalithic constructions which were built in the Bronze Age (1800 bc to 800 bc). There are thousands of them and the larger ones (Losa, Arrubiu, su Nuraxi, Sant'Antine, etc.) definitely deserve a visit.

Nuraghe Losa
 
 
The remains of the ancient cities of Nora and Tharros, respectively built by Romans and Phoenicians, also attract a lot of visitors.
Do not not miss the Santa Cristina well, near Paulilatino, which is a magnificent example of prehistoric architecture.

Santa Cristina
 

Celebrations

Sardinia is also famous for its many holy week processions (Iglesias, Castelsardo, Cagliari, Alghero, and many more). They are participated by many faithful people and are very evocative, especially those who are held at night.

Holy Week Procession in Iglesias
 

A few hints to travellers

Sardinia is rather expensive. Food, clothing, furniture are generally cheaper in the mainland Italy.  However, the average tourist will probably not notice this.

Hotels and restaurants can be a bit expensive as well, for the simple reason that many operators have to concentrate in a few months the incomes for getting a living for the full year.
However, a careful planning through the web (or through your smartphone, if you are in place) can help you to save a lot of money.

As well as in other parts of Italy, beware of those few bars, restaurants and B&Bs which try to charge tourists more than local residents. This is not only a crime, but is also highly blamed by locals, because it damages the reputation of an Island which is worldwide renowned for its hospitality.
Travel websites and social networks should help you to identify those who try to put in act these tricks.

Always ask for the receipt (scontrino or ricevuta in Italian) when paying for anything (except a few things like newspapers or vegetables sold along the route).

In July and August you should expect to have to pay a half-day or full-day fee for parking in the most popular seaside locations.
 
In Sardinia very few people speak English and it can be hard asking people to find your way around. So, you’d better try to learn some basic Italian before leaving.

Cagliari, from the St. Pancrazio tower

A few interesting links

  • SardegnaTurismo (www.sardegnaturismo.it) is the official website for the promotion of tourism of the Sardinian Region. It provides many useful informatiom about things to see and to do, as well as an updated calendar of local events.
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All photographs are Copyright of Maurizio Agelli and can be downloaded and used within the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Italy License.

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