Tucked deep into the jagged fjords of Sardinia's north-eastern tip lies some of the most expensive real estate in the Mediterranean, the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast). In high season, three-storey yachts putter around pools shimmering a kaleidoscope of azure hues, oligarchs occupy faux Arabian villas, and trophy wives glide from boutique to boutique. The result is a pseudo-idealised Mediterranean village, the artificiality of which allows scarcely a bougainvillea out of place. This Moorish-kasbah-meets-Mykonos wonderland is the island's most famous attraction. Yet it has almost nothing to do with the rest of Sardinia.
According to Sardinian legend, after God created the Earth, he gathered all the leftover pieces from everywhere else, threw them in the sea and stepped on them to create Sardinia – or, as the Greeks called it, Ichnusa, meaning "footprint". Since then, the island has been walked on by anyone who has ever sailed through the Mediterranean. Invaded in name but never conquered in spirit, Sardinia has managed the clever trick of absorbing a cultural buffet of influences while holding its head high with independent pride.
Lying 178km from the nearest mainland, slightly closer to Tunisia than Italy, no other island is as marooned in the Mediterranean as Sardinia – a fact that has shaped the island's character and brought a history of guests with the changing tides. While the Sardinians, or Sardi, have adopted the Italian tongue of their latest landlords, they cling fiercely to Sardo, their native language, and are recognised as a distinct ethnic group from their mainland counterparts. In effect, Sardinia is a sort of Italian Hawaii. It boasts the Romanesque churches, tile mosaics, medieval castles and fine wines associated with Italy, but also pulsates with an undiscovered and unscripted spirit that the mainland lost long ago.
Foreigners usually find it difficult to move beyond the 2,000km of Mediterranean coastline – and for good reason. The island is ringed by a shimmering shoreline of jaw-dropping beauty. But to limit your visit to the beaches is to miss the essence of an island whose people have traditionally turned their backs to the sea, fearful of those coming to exploit them and, until fairly recently, of the malaria outbreaks that plagued the coastal lagoons. Instead, many Sardinians have long sought refuge in the interior, a landscape of deep chasms, impressive massifs and impenetrable macchia (maquis) brush that nurtures the Sardinians' defiant character and hides the most compelling evidence of their secret history: more than 7,000 nuraghi stone towers and prehistoric villages built by one of the world's most advanced and mysterious Bronze Age societies. The best of these are Santu Antine in Torralba, the Unesco-protected site of Su Nuraxi in Barumini, Losa in Abbasanta and Arrubiu in Orroli, all of which are available to the public without a guide. Italy's least "Italian" region is an enchanting recipe of striking beauty and rugged brawn — one that secluded Sardinia has guarded fiercely until recently.
Eliot Stein is the author of the Footprint Travel Guide to Sardinia. To receive a 50 per cent discount (excl P&P) off any Footprint Italian guidebook, visit footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde11 in the coupon code at checkout. Valid until the end of July. View original article
To read the remainder of this Traveller's Guide, please click to view the online version.