Sardegna - or Sardinia as it's known in English - is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily. It lies approximately 120 miles west of the Italian mainland (broadly opposite Lazio) and about the same distance north of Tunisia. Although it has Corsica only about eight miles to the north, this other island is of course French, leaving Sardegna a long way from the rest of Italy. The next piece of land to the west is the Spanish island of Menorca, roughly 275 miles away. Click here to see a Google map of Sardinia's position and to get an idea of its size (approximately 130 miles long by 70 miles wide - about seven times bigger than Mallorca).
Humans have inhabited Sardegna for over 500 thousand years and during that time many waves of invaders have left their mark. These include the Romans, of course, as well as Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Vandals, Arabs and Spaniards. In the Bronze Age, the Nuragic civilisation established itself on the island and lasted for several centuries. The characteristic building of that time, the nuraghe, was a large, stone, conical tower looking a bit like a beehive. It is not known exactly what these structures were used for but more than seven thousand of them are still standing.
Much of Sardegna, particularly inland, remains remote and wild. By contrast, the Costa Smeralda in the north-east is renowned as a playground for the rich and glamorous. This is an island with something for everyone - and yet, with surprisingly few tourists.
Language in Sardegna
Sardegna is a fascinating place linguistically. A variety of different dialects are spoken across the island, depending on the cultural heritage of the town or village in question (in other words, which nationality imposed its language after settling there). As is the case with most dialects these days, it's mostly the older people who speak what can collectively be called Sardinian; younger people all naturally speak standard Italian. For you as a visitor, you may sometimes find it hard to understand what the natives are saying to each other but, if you speak Italian, you will have no trouble at all communicating in Sardegna.
What to see and do in Sardegna
Enjoy the mountains
After centuries of erosion by wind and weather, the mountains in Sardegna are not particularly high but they are geologically fascinating. Sardinian rocks are some of the oldest in Europe, dating back possibly 500 million years.
The highest peaks, where you can ski in the winter, are in the Gennargentu range in the centre-east of the island. This area is protected by a national park and in the other seasons you can walk, bicycle and enjoy looking out for wild sheep, deer, falcons, golden eagles and rare butterflies.
The Monte Limbara chain, in the northeast of Sardegna, is good for hiking, trekking and climbing - as are the Monte Albo and the Supramonte ranges on the east coast. However, this is rough, untamed territory, so it's useful to do some research in advance about where the best routes are, in case you get stuck.
To make the most out of a trip to the mountains and countryside of Sardegna, it's handy to have a reliable book such as Sardinia (Landscapes) to give you the information you need but also to suggest places you might otherwise not think of exploring.
Enjoy the sea
The sea and the beaches around Sardegna are among the most glorious in the world. Because the island's authorities have been careful to prevent developers from creating high-rise concrete jungles of tourist resorts, the Sardinian coastline remains pretty well unspoilt. The water is clean, clear and lovely for swimming but there are lots of other things you can do as well, including windsurfing, kayaking and exploring the many caves and grottoes in the cliffs along the shore.
Since the 1960s, the Costa Smeralda, the Emerald Coast, has attracted rich visitors. If you can afford it and you're into yachting, golfing and/or posing, this is a beautiful area to relax in. It's peaceful and it's safe, though it does feel slightly artificial.
The north-west coast between Alghero and Stintino has some fabulous white sandy beaches. The south coast, around Pula and Chia, also has wonderful sand dunes and crystal-clear sea. The south of the island is less developed and commercialised than the north, though it is the central west and east coasts that are the least visited.
If you're heading for a Sardinian beach, even out of the very high season, please be careful to wear a high-factor sunblock. Because the island is quite windy, it can be easy to forget how strong the sun's rays are and what damage they can do to insufficiently protected skin. I've been to Sardegna twice and greatly enjoyed it, though both times my trip was spoilt by my getting horribly burnt. This has never happened to me anywhere else and I put it down to the wind fooling me into thinking it wasn't that hot.
Explore the cities and towns
Cagliari, Sardegna's capital, is an ancient and cultured city, with a lot of historical sights to see and also a cool, modern aspect to it. The harbour, rebuilt after heavy Allied bombing during the Second World War, is once again the island's principal port.
Sassari, the second largest city, is inland and hence has a different feeling. Its elegant architecture and art collections make for a civilised day out from a beach holiday.
Alghero is a thriving fishing port with an atmospheric old centre. Having been invaded by the Spanish in the mid fourteenth century and ruled by them for several hundred years, the town retains a strong Catalan influence, revealed in the architecture, the food and the language.
Visit a nuraghi complex
If you're interested to find out more about these amazing examples of prehistoric architecture, there are several good places around Sardegna where you can explore them. The most important is considered to be the one at Barumini, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Eating and drinking in Sardegna
Historically, Sardinians were shepherds rather than fishermen. The sea, whence all the marauders came, represented danger and the natives turned inland, making their lives in the mountains rather than on the coast. The tradition of raising livestock is still strong today: mutton, lamb and pork are the main meats but you'll also find goat, chicken, rabbit, wild boar, thrush and quail on the menu. Spit-roasting is a local speciality.
In recent decades, Sardinians have been safe to turn the fact that they live on an island to their advantage and start fishing. These days, you'll find fantastic seafood in abundance: lobster, mussels, prawns, octopus, tuna, bream, mullet, sea bass... and, of course, sardines.
Pasta and pizza are as popular in Sardegna as anywhere in Italy. The regional pasta is called malloreddus, a bit more solid than other types and reminiscent of gnocchi.
While the climate in Sardegna is not conducive to the easy growing of vegetables, it is good for wheat, which is made into an interesting variety of breads.
It's also good for vines. Sardinian red wine is traditionally strong and robust, to match the flavours of roast meat and game. The dry whites are served very cold, going beautifully with fish. Although wine production in Sardegna is being scaled down, in order to concentrate on quality, there is still a wide range of local wines, both dry and sweet, for you to enjoy.
Recommended reading from Sardegna
For more information about Sardegna...
Buy a guide book for travelling around Sardegna.
Check out these websites:
SardegnaTurismo (in English)
MondoSardegna (in English)
Sardegna.com (in English)