Like the fish named after it, Sardinia is slippery and elusive – difficult to catch hold of and pin down. Even D.H. Lawrence gave up trying to understand the place, deciding it was “lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere.”
Positioned in the centre of the western Mediterranean, Sardinia has evolved a perplexingly mixed identity. Its mysterious native civilizations met with wave upon wave of plundering invaders and would-be governors from Lebanon, Tunisia, Spain, and Italy. Add to this jumble of influences the naturally reserved and insular temperament common to islanders everywhere and it’s little wonder the Sardinians have remained a bit of an enigma to the outside world.
Italianized less than 300 years ago, modern-day Sardinia still presents an intriguing diversity of faces. Simple shepherd societies eke out an existence on the wild slopes of its central mountains, while far in the northeast the international yachting élite buzz around the chic resorts of the Costa Smeralda. In the island’s rural stone villages, black-clad matriarchs silently patrol the well-scrubbed doorsteps, while the island’s handful of large towns are bustling with stylish and thoroughly modern Italians.
If Sardinia’s human landscape – past and present – is varied, its physical landscape is even more so. A typical drive might take you from high cliffs overlooking white beaches and electric turquoise water, through vineyards and olive groves sprouting from red-brown soil, to expansive plains baked by the sun to a brittle yellow. Ahead of you lies the island’s continuous chain of low mountains, cloaked in the green fluff of cork tree forests. And if you stop the car at any point and go for a little wander, it won’t be long until you find yourself crunching across the heavily-scented macchia which carpets the land– a tangled undergrowth of myrtle, juniper, heather, rosemary, and strawberry trees.
With such charms, one would expect massive numbers of tourists to have trampled Sardinia to dust long ago. In fact, the crowds are still small, and their coming certainly hasn’t yet generated any bloom in high-rise buildings or billboards or nightclubs. It’s just not that sort of island. The truth is that Sardinia is way off most tourists’ itinerary of Italy. Indeed, even though Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean (after Sicily), many people still have never heard of it. Or if they have, they don’t know it’s part of Italy or couldn’t point to it on a map.
Curious visitors only started finding their way here in the 1960s (with the exception of eccentric adventurers like the aforementioned D.H. Lawrence or Admiral Horatio Nelson, who sailed Sardinia’s coast for 15 months and declared it “the finest island in the Mediterranean” despite never having set foot on it). The earliest holidaymakers arrived in what is still the island’s most attractive and most visited settlement: Alghero, on the northwest coast.
Situated on a rocky headland, surrounded by stout medieval walls punctuated with bastion towers, Alghero looks from afar like the setting for an exotic fairytale. Renaissance domes and Venetian bell towers climb above Moorish and Gothic windows set into buildings painted pale pink and yellow. Inside, the centro storico is an entrancing puzzle of tiny lanes – by day an atmospheric place to wander quietly, at night teeming with an entire population enjoying their passeggiata.
While the highly exclusive Costa Smeralda resorts on the other side of the island can seem like Disney versions of Mediterranean towns, Alghero is refreshingly uncontrived. An ancient settlement with a thriving fishing port easily capable of sustaining the local economy if all the tourists disappeared, Alghero has genuine character. In fact, in true Sardinian style, it has a multiple personality. The flavours here are of Spanish Catalonia and mainland Italy – making Alghero a pocket of exoticism even within Sardinia.
Archaeological finds suggest indigenous islanders were in the Alghero area from about 6000 B.C., but the city’s last thousand years have been entirely determined by outsiders. The Genoans got here first, creating a fortressed stronghold in the 12th century from which they lorded it over the wider Mediterranean. Then a large Spanish fleet sailed ominously into Alghero’s waters in 1353 and picked a fight. And moved Alghero into Catalan hands – for 400 years. Re-christening the town ‘Barcelonetta’, King Pedro IV of Aragon threw the Algherese out of their homes and replaced them with loyal Catalan families. The city flourished as an outpost of Catalonia until a treaty gave all of Sardinia to the Piedmontese in 1718, beginning a slow process of italianization.
Modern-day evidence of Alghero’s Catalan past is everywhere. Throughout the old town, brightly painted tiles decorate house-fronts, paella appears on most restaurant menus, and street names prefer carrer to via and plaça to piazza. Eavesdroppers on the conversations of older residents will be surprised to hear gossip swapped in Catalan Spanish rather than in any of the Sardinian dialects of Italian.
Alghero’s modest cathedral holds a weekly service in Catalan, or Algherese. Hearing the local rendition of “Our Father who art in heaven” gives an idea how different the dialect is from others on the island. A congregation of Sard-speaking Sardinians might reverently say “Babbu nostru chi ses in chelu,” but the Algherese intone “Pare nostro que sés en lo cel.” Mainland Italians find Sard difficult to understand, but the Spanish can easily comprehend Algherese.
As is the case with many of Europe’s more obscure dialects, older generations currently keep Algherese alive, while youngsters turn instead to languages of wider currency – here, standard Italian. Certainly there are enthusiastic twenty and thirty-something locals now learning their native dialect at evening classes, but the very fact that there is the need for such formal instruction points to the dialect’s almost inevitable demise as living speech.
The language choice of the town’s young reflects the other influence suffusing Alghero. When it’s not busy being Catalan, the town feels rather more like mainland Italy than anywhere else in Sardinia, and it’s often been likened to Sorrento or San Remo. Like their mainland compatriots, the Algherese enthusiastically live the dolce vita. Sardinians are traditionally typified by a quiet dignity and seriousness, but the Algherese are intent on enjoying themselves. They wear all the latest fashions, adore the evening passeggiata, and religiously take the daily siesta so as not to miss a minute of nighttime fun.
It is true, however, that Alghero maintains a relative tranquility appropriate to the island. Elsewhere in Italy, such an arrangement of tightly-packed medieval lanes might resound with exuberant calls from balconies to those down below – “Paolo! Come stai?” Here the ancient lanes are quiet except for the occasional buzz of a passing moped. Washing hangs in lazy garlands amongst the Spanish arches bridging the streets. And high above the rooftops, glimpsed unexpectedly at the end of lanes, coloured domes and towers are thrown against a backdrop of blue sky.
Surely the most eye-catching of these domes is the majolica-tiled cupola of San Michele church. Arranged in a pattern of multicoloured diamonds, the tiles give the dome a striking snakeskin texture. Down on street level, San Michele’s flaking façade doesn’t encourage further inspection and admirers of ecclesiastical architecture would be better off visiting Alghero’s cathedral or the 15th Century church of San Francesco, which boasts a Gothic campanile, medieval side-chapels and a Renaissance ceiling. The cathedral – leisurely constructed over 200 years – is similarly mixed in its architecture. Baroque side-chapels sprout outwards from medieval central pillars. Outside, four fluted Neoclassical columns dominate the grandiose white façade.
In the hot still air of a quiet afternoon, nothing is lovelier than to slip into the cool interior of these sanctuaries or just to sit on their marble steps and watch the unhurried street life pass by. Nightfall, however, draws the eye and mind decidedly elsewhere. Alghero is transformed by night into a buzzing and intensely social place. All of the town spills out onto the narrow stone streets and, like a cork caught in the tide, it is impossible not to bob along in this happy mass perambulation. The lanes lead you into one tiny piazza after another, each fizzing with cafés and bars. People stream out of gelaterie clutching monstrous cones stuffed with fruit and frilled with cream. Shop windows full of locally-made coral jewellery flare a salmon-coloured glow onto the pavement. And every fourth or fifth doorway seems to be a restaurant full of diners.
Excellent food is one thing that proves modern-day Sardinia to be a part of Italy, and, like the mainland, most Sardinian towns have their local specialities. As you’d expect, the Algherese are hugely skilled with seafood, and they make particularly avid use of lobster and bottarga. Bottarga, for anyone unlucky enough not to have encountered it, is a cunning manipulation of mullet or tuna eggs. These are shaped into blocks, dried, hardened and then grated over pasta with olive oil or served as antipasti with prawns, sea truffle, or thin slices of raw fish mixed with slivers of pecorino cheese. All this seafood is washed down very well with one of the excellent white wines produced along Alghero’s coast (or one of the excellent reds, and hang tradition!).
The taste that Alghero leaves in your mouth is nothing if not unique. The precise flavour born out of its fusion of historical influences is found nowhere else. The same can most emphatically be said of Sardinia as a whole, of course. If a single symbol had to be chosen to sum up this still little-unknown and inscrutable island, perhaps the one most useful would be that which stamps itself indelibly into the memory of most visitors – the nuraghe.
Resembling giant sandcastles whose tops have been kicked off by beach vandals, more than 7,000 of these truncated conic towers rise from Sardinian hilltops, open plains, and coastal headlands. Built by an advanced and mysterious civilization known only as ‘the nuraghic people’, these prehistoric stone structures are unique to Sardinia. And nobody knows what they were built for. You can’t travel far on the island without suddenly catching sight of one - either larger-than-life and brightly sunlit as you swing round a bend in the road, or distant and silhouetted on an outcrop far across the evening water. Whatever the setting, the distinctive outline presents a powerful symbol of Sardinia’s mystery and uniqueness, linking the island’s obscure ancient past forever with its colourful present.
HOTEL VILLA LAS TRONAS
Lungomare Valencia 24
+30 079 981044
A castle on a rocky promontory, Alghero's most romantic hotel was once a holiday home for Italian royalty. The centro storico is within walking distance.
Via Machin 2
+39 079 980330
Formerly a convent attached to San Francesco church, this quiet place with its medieval cloister is the only hotel inside the old town itself. Excellent value for money, it is frequently full, so book well in advance.
Piazza Duomo 6
Set on the city walls overlooking the port, this elegant cafe is perfect for an afternoon's lounging.
Bastinoi Marco Polo 7
+39 079 977254
Serving excellent seafood, this restaurant on the city walls has outdoor tables with sea views.
Piazza Sulis 3
+39 079 979584
This justifiably crowded eatery in the old town centre offers some of the very best in la cucina algherese.
Via Arduino 45
+39 079 982098
Here the emphasis is on meat rather than seafood. Try porcheddu al mirto - spit-roasted piglet with myrtle.
Via Maiorca 57
+30 079 976772
This tiny establishment specializes in Catalan dishes. Try several at the same time in the inexpensive set five-course option.