Northern Sardinia

Monday 26th April 2010, Costa Smeralda, Sardinia
This morning we left Corsica behind and took the short crossing to Sardinia. Even after five years of retirement we still need to pinch ourselves from time to time to make sure we are not dreaming and that we really are still discovering new treasures in Europe.

Back in Corsica this morning we woke to bright sunshine. Our immediate neighbours were a Belgian couple and told us they'd decided to leave their home in Flanders and swan around Corsica for three weeks. We gave them all our maps and guide books to help them on their way and recommended which campsites to use or avoid. After breakfast, having been warned by campers travelling in the opposite direction that Sardinia is expensive, we drove down into Bonifacio to stock up on some essential foodstuffs. At the port the ferry was already boarding when we arrived. There was just time to pop into the office to purchase a ticket before being ushered on board. Having learnt an expensive lesson crossing from Toulon when we naively said we were a small camping car and ended up paying an extra 70 euros for the crossing, this time we said we were a large car which cost us 20 euros less than it otherwise would have done. The crossing takes an hour and you are never out of sight of land. As Corsica fades on the horizon the off shore islands of Sardinia appear. Soon we were docking at SantaTeresa Gallura. It was even a roll-on-roll-off ferry so a less ignominious arrival for Modestine than she'd had in Corsica when she came of the ferry rump first.

SantaTeresa Gallura must surely be the sleepiest little town in Italy. It was lunch time and apart from the restaurants on the main square, nothing moved anywhere and the streets were completely silent. It's very different from Bonifacio with its citadel steeped in history and its spectacular white chalk cliffs. The granite is back, so too is the surrounding maquis with its bright flowers. The town though seems fairly recent. Here the Sardinians are not crowded into dark, crumbling, high flats but are living in their own pleasant houses fronting onto clean pavements with tubs of bright flowers beside doors and on window ledges. Sparkling glimpses of the brilliant blue sea appeared at every corner as we made our way on foot into the heart of the town. Our first impression of Sardinia has therefore been very favourable.

Bonifacio with its Genoese watch tower, Corsica

SantaTeresa Gallura with its Aragonese watch tower, Sardinia

SantaTeresa Gallura, Sardinia

SantaTeresa Gallura, main square,Sardinia

Having strolled around the quiet, clean streets in the warm sunshine we returned to Modestine and found a shady spot by a fountain on the edge of the town for a picnic lunch while deciding what to do next. All the campsites on our lists are on the coast while we are more interested in exploring the interior.

Back in the 1960s the Aga Khan spent 1,000,000,000 dollars developing the north east coast into a playground for the seriously wealthy. It became known as the Costa Smeralda with villas, apartments, yachting marinas and every leisure facility money could buy. It also has some of the most stunning scenery in Europe. Less vertical than Corsica the granite mountains are still impressive with outcrops carved and scoured by the elements just as we have seen in Corsica. There are numerous off-shore islands that can be visited, and the bays and coasts are more open and accessible than we found in Corsica. We have to say we have been very impressed with the area and its development has been well carried out using local materials and labour. Tonight we are staying right in the heart of the Smeralda coastal development with a view and climate that most of us back in England only dream of. Modestine stands beneath a mimosa tree on the beach, just a few yards from the crystal clear sea lapping the soft sand. A wooden jetty for mooring boats leads out into the sea where we have been sitting with our feet dangling in the water while hundreds of tiny, shining fish teem around.

Modestine snoozes beneath the trees while Jill walks the plank, Costa Smeralda, Sardinia

Beside the jetty, Costa Smeralda, Sardinia

View from the beach, Costa Smeralda, Sardinia

We'd forgotten though just how dreadful Italian administration can be. The staff in the campsite office were very pleasant but the red tape accompanying booking-in took nearly an hour as we waited in the queue of Germans and Swiss who were also checking in. Funny how certain sites attract particular nationalities. German is the only language we hear around us. Fellow campers have huge vehicles and are crowded tightly together as they jostle to be the ones with a view of the beach. There was amusement when Modestine turned up but it quickly evaporated when we were directed to a tiny space on the beach, perfect for us but too small for the Teutonic monsters unable to fit beneath the trees. What's more, we can go out tomorrow and drive around the countryside while they cannot easily leave the site!

We don't normally go for these sort of campsites, which are really holiday villages with everything you may need waiting for you, but while we are here we may as well enjoy the Smeralda experience and the thought of moving on each day and checking in at a different site every night, with triplicate forms to fill in, is more than we can face. So I guess we'll see what there is in the area, take a swim in the sea and laze on the sand reading up about Sardinia before we move on. The site is huge but beautifully laid out on a little headland into the bay. It is shaded by tamarisk, pine and eucalyptus trees. There are tents and holiday homes for hire, each with its own view of the bay and to the islands and bare granite hills beyond.

Tuesday 27th April 2010, Costa Smeralda, Sardinia
We are still here this evening and have thoroughly enjoyed our day wallowing on the sand, taking a walk along the beach, scrambling over the rocks and taking a round walk of eight kilometres to the tiny local town of Cannigiona. On our return I even found the courage to go for a swim though the temperature of the Tyrrhenian Sea quite took my breath away for a few seconds! All along the sandy beach flowers bloom. Generally they are bright pink sea asters, also known as hottentot figs. There are shady patches beneath tamarisk trees, olives and even pines and eucalyptus though these are discouraged as they are not indigenous to the area.

In Cannigiona we bought quiche and water in the supermarket which we ate in the shade beside the church before walking down to the scorching hot harbour area for coffee on the shaded terrace of a bar. Prices in fact are not as bad as we'd expected, much the same as Corsica in fact.

The Bank of Sardinia bankomat machine messed us about, asking for our pin number before refusing to let us have any money. Ever since our bank account was hacked into in Italy a few years ago we've been nervous using ATMs here. There are no other banks in the town so we are running low on funds. Italy is completely anal about every aspect of its security and none of it works anyway. Our request to use the campsite wifi this evening was met with a demand to see our passport! They'd already seen them and noted details when we arrived but it's a different section of the police who want details of who's been using computers. Unfortunately it's vietato (forbidden) that is the most used word in the Italian language.

We've also managed to do some background reading about Sardinia. It's the second largest island in the western Mediterranean (after Sicily). To our surprise, it is exactly the same distance from Italy as it is from Tunisia – 120 miles to each. The days are already getting hotter so, attractive as the idea of taking a ferry from Sardinia's capital, Cagliari, to the North African coast undoubtedly is, we'll probably make for mainland Italy when we move on from Sardinia.

The island is covered with the ancient remains of an early civilisation. There are over 7,000 nuraghi, or conical stone towers scattered across the island. They date from about 1500 to 700 BC. The island has been successively attacked, overthrown and occupied by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines and the Saracens. By the 11th century Pisa and Genoa were fighting for mastery until in 1326 Aragon seized control. Spanish domination lasted until 1714 when the island went to Austria. In 1718 it was ceded to the house of Savoy together with the Piedmont. Thus the Dukes of Savoy became the rulers of the kingdom of Sardinia. Savoy and Piedmont fell to the French during the Revolution until after the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire. Then the Kingdom of Sardinia regained control of much of its territory on the mainland and during the 19th century it expanded to control most of Italy. Sardinia's ruler, Victor Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy, was elected ruler of a united Italy, of which Sardinia formed part, in 1861. In 1948 Sardinia achieved autonomous government, giving it the status and independence that Corsica has always struggled, without success, to achieve.

Agriculture plays an important role in Sardinia's economy. Sheep and goats are the mainstay with wheat, barley, olives, grapes, cork and tobacco. Fishing plays a more minor role. In the past mining has been important though the coal mine, opened by Mussolini down in the south has, as in other European countries, been phased out. Zinc, lead, copper, iron, fluorite and bauxite are still mined. The major industry though is tourism. The island has a resident population of around two million. (Information from Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

Wednesday 28th April 2010, Porto San Paolo, Sardinia
We thoroughly enjoyed our experience on the Costa Smeralda, lounging on the sand of an evening while the sea lapped the shore and we lapped our red wine. We can see how relaxing in the warm sunshine with nothing to do except slip in and out of the sea can become addictive. All our German and Swiss neighbours were happily settled for several more days. However, we are not ones to enjoy sitting around for long and by the time we'd finished breakfast under our blossoming mimosa tree this morning we knew we were ready to leave this tourist paradise behind and seek out something of the real Sardinia.

Turning inland we reached the little town of Arzachena. At first it looked unprepossessing but we needed to find a bancomat that worked, so had to stop anyway. That it was market day in Arzachena was a bonus and the square and the old town were busy with shoppers and stallholders. The lyrical Italian banter was charming on the ear even if much of it was incomprehensible. Huge bags of artichokes were being sold. They looked fresh and very spikey with purple-green leaves. They are amongst the earliest to appear and much of Sardinia's crop is flown to mainland Italy for sale. We contented ourselves with a couple of huge sweet oranges, an equally gigantic red pepper and a bunch of fresh radishes. The lot was just 1.80 euros, so everyday living costs for the Sardinians need not be outrageous.

Weekly market, Arzachena, Sardinia

Local cheeses in the market, Arzachena, Sardinia

Artichokes, Arzachena, Sardinia

The older part of the town was charming. Not necessarily particularly old but seeming timeless. Terraces of houses lined the streets. None had gardens, the doors opening straight on to the street. Each one though had troughs and tubs of brightly flowering plants – geraniums and cactuses in the main. Above the town, reached by a wide flight of steps, was the town church. Whitewashed, bare and simple, constructed in the 1930s, it was cool inside, peaceful and dignified without the overpowering decoration found in so many churches in mainland Italy. Indeed, aspidistras beside the altar and a few vases of flowers were almost the sole decoration.

Arzachena seen from the steps of the church, Sardinia

Surrounding the town the countryside consists mainly of towering granite rocks weathered into the usual strange shapes, it is claimed, by ice! Did the ice age reach as far south as here? Certainly we cannot understand at all how the rocks have become so strangely shaped. At Arzachena there is one affectionately known locally as the mushroom.

Mushroom rock, Arzachena, Sardinia

Financially solvent and with rolls to prepare a picnic lunch we drove back down to the coast to Porto Cervo at the very heart of the Costa Smeralda. The entire village was created by the Aga Khan and his consortium of business men, starting in the 1960s, and we have to say, that in their way, they've done a remarkably good job. Using local building styles, materials and techniques they have designed a development of luxury holiday villas, apartments and hotels to complement the yachting marina, also designed by the consortium. Here can be seen the most luxurious and extravagant yachts to be found anywhere on the Mediterranean. The result is a very pleasant, uncluttered, highly attractive complex of individual buildings rendered in complementing colours and styles that rise gently up from the sea amidst the Mediterranean foliage that fills every corner and tumbles in cascades of flowers over the walls and terraces of the pink tiled houses.

Porto Cervo, Sardinia

Porto Cervo, Sardinia

Of course such a place is not for the likes of ordinary individuals. You need to be seriously rich to stay here. So rich that the shopping area is occupied by exclusive restaurants, jewellers and the ultimate in designer wear. Gucchi and Versace each have shops here. A Versache bag sells for 1,500 euros with matching shoes for a further 500 and a rather plastic looking belt for 400!

Ian contemplates buying a new wardrobe, Porto Cervo, Sardinia

Ian decides to mange with the clothes he's got, Porto Cervo Sardinia

We had our picnic on the jetty, watching the boating folk piling into a water taxi to take them round to their yachts in the marina. It was all very pleasant despite knowing none of it was natural and the entire north east coast has been artificially developed to meet the demands of wealthy tourists.

We saw no other people eating on the beach but nor did they appear to be using the expensive restaurants. When we discovered a public toilet we thought the planners had remembered everything! Finding it kept locked is worse than not finding it in the first place! Along with other visitors we were obliged instead to purchase a coffee in a bar in order to use their facilities. We chose the cheapest place, though that looked very chic. It seemed reasonable according to the sign at the door – 1.50 euros for an expresso. We were waved to a little table and two thimbles of the very strongest Italian coffee arrived - far too strong for us to drink. The loos were Turkish – a hole in the ground and a hose pipe and water rather than toilet paper! They were none too clean, the tap on the wash basin wobbled, the soap dispenser was broken and the hand dryer didn't work. To crown it all, when we paid it cost us 5.50 euros because we'd sat down at one of the tables and the advertised price was for standing at the counter! We've now learned an expensive lesson. 1,000,000,000 dollars to design a playground for the wealthy and they can't even provide functioning toilet facilities! How does Versace Girl in her sleek silk dress and tottering Versace shoes manage to cope with just a hole in the ground and nowhere to hang her expensive handbag? We've now renamed the guiding genius of the entire plan the Aga Khant.

Up on the hillside, overlooking the marina we found the church for this luxury complex. It too had been built in traditional style with local materials and we found it really delightful. A granite porch offered shade from the bright sunshine. The building was whitewashed and the heavy bronze doors had been sculpted with angels and a stella maris – star of the sea. Inside there is a painting of the Madonna by El Greco, donated to the church by the wife of a Dutch ambassador to somewhere or other.

Marina of Porto Cervo, Sardinia

Stella Maris church, Porto Cervo, Sardinia

Decorative bronze doors, Porto Cervo, Sardinia

Leaving this very unreal beautiful world to the very unreal beautiful people we continued down the coast, pausing at the Golfo Aranci and Olbia where we stopped at the port to pick up a ferry timetable ready for when we eventually decide to leave Sardinia. It was now late afternoon and we needed to press on to the next campsite so we decided to leave Olbia for later when we return this way. So now we are on a very pleasant campsite sheltered by eucalyptus trees from the heat of the day. This evening actually, it has turned quite chilly. Having settled Modestine and got the electricity working we walked down to the sea and the white sandy beach. There are surrounding bare granite hills here but none that compare in scale or grandeur with the island just off shore! This mass of bare rock, known as Tavolara, rises over 565 metres with sheer sides. It is five kilometres long but little more than one wide! At first glance it made a similar impact as suddenly seeing the rock of Gibraltar looming above us.

Island of Tavolara, Sardinia

Thursday 29th April 2010, Alghero, Sardinia
This evening we are utterly exhausted by the heat of the day and are seriously thinking of not continuing right down to the south of the island. We are now camped on the west coast near the ancient Catalan town of Alghero. Apparently Catalan is still spoken there and street signs are in both Italian and Catalan. We'll explore it tomorrow. We can see it a short walk along the beach from the campsite and it looks to be an interesting place. We are expecting to be here for a few days as we also hope to take the train in to Sassari, Sardinia's second city. I drove round its ring road this afternoon and have no desire to drive into the centre in this heat.

Temperatures seem to have rocketed today. It may just be that the interior of Sardinia is warmer than the coast but it's still hot this evening and we are right on the beach again, this time on the other side of the island. Neither of us can bear hot weather and in this paradise of spring flowers we are both afflicted with hay fever. I know we sound a couple of wimps, as indeed we are, but just when life should be perfect and we are surrounded with an unbelievably pretty landscape, our eyes itch madly and our noses are permanently buried in hankies.

Sardinia is really quite different from Corsica. Here the landscape has been tamed, the maquis is under control, there are meadows and pasture land. Cattle and sheep browse the rich grassland in the wide, rolling valleys, the granite hills seen always at a distance. None of this would be possible in Corsica which is far more rugged and vertical with narrow ravines and sheer cliffs dropping to tiny coves and inaccessible beaches. Here there are miles of white sandy beaches, while inland, in this western part of Sardinia, there are many volcanic hills. They provide much of the stone used for local building materials.

We have been stunned by the beauty of the wild flowers as we have passed through the interior of Sardinia. Many are meadow flowers – poppies, buttercups and wild roses as well as huge, pale yellow dandelions and daisies. We've passed through extensive shady forests of cork oak, the bark removed. It now waits ten years to recover before it can be stripped again. We stopped beside a reservoir for a picnic lunch. It was not the experience we'd hoped for. The sun beat down mercilessly and there was not a patch of shade. We feel burned and frazzled.

Avoiding the main routes we pottered through little villages of a few houses followed winding roads through delightful countryside. Sometimes the roads would simply peter out and we'd continue along a rough dirt track until the tarmac reappeared. It would be good to explore more of the interior of the island but there are no campsites there. Tourists, it seems, are only allowed to visit the edges, which, pleasant as they may be, are rather boring after a while. There is very little of cultural interest to enjoy at most of these seaside resorts.

Berchidda is a hilltop town visible from the main route across the island. We turned off to see what our guidebook said was a typical inland town. It was rather like Arzachena which we visited yesterday. It too had a market today though smaller and with less bustle. The atmosphere was very relaxed with the old men all sitting outside the bars and cafes while the women did the shopping and chatting around the market stalls. As we were passing the church on the square a lady came out and stopped us to say we should go in to see the 16th century altar. The building looked very uninspiring from outside so we were pleasantly surprised to find the interior had several notable paintings and painted wooden statues as well as the impressive baroque altar piece. As we were leaving another lady caught my arm and dragged me off to see the bier in which they carry their statue of Christ through the streets at Easter. Normally he hangs on his cross but has detachable arms so that he can be removed and laid on the gold painted bed with its white silk covers to be carried round the town on Good Friday. We said we were English and didn't really speak Italian. She beamed, squeezed our arms and dragged us off to see the rest of the treasures, including statues of St. Sebastian and Sta. Lucia, both patrons of the town. We were rather astonished at how much we think we understood of what she told us. If only we had more opportunity to speak directly with people we'd really start to understand it. Ian is really good and always tries to use it. I just get confused between Spanish and Italian. Having given us a tour of the church our friendly guide told us what a wonderful person the present pope is, patted our arms again in farewell and went back to her prayers.

Our journey also took in several stunning 11th and 12th century renaissance Pisan churches, scattered in the countryside, just back from the road across the island. Their charm is their simplicity, each standing in isolation amidst the green fields and open countryside. We visited three of them. The first, Nostra Signora di Castro stood on a prominent site overlooking the Lago Coghinas, one of the largest reservoirs in Sardinia. The little church was peacefully set in a walled enclosure which also contained houses used in the past by pilgrims. It is in 12th century Lombard style and had a charmingly rustic painted altar at the east end of its simple interior. The name Castro relates to a Roman castrum or fort near the site, reflecting the long continuity of occupation enjoyed by so many of these now abandoned places.

Nostra Signora di Castro, Sardinia

Nostra Signora di Castro, Sardinia

Interior of Nostra Signora di Castro, Sardinia

The next church, Sant'Antioco di Bisarcio, was more ornate, although the facade never seems to have been completed. It was started in the 11th century and shows Pisan and French influence and once served as the Cathedral of the diocese of Bisarco, a place which is now deserted.

Sant'Antioco di Bisarcio, Sardinia

Sant'Antioco di Bisarcio, Sardinia

The third is generally recognised as the finest Romanesque church in northern Sardinia and, like the Pisan inspired church of San Michele de Murato in Corsica which we visited recently, Santissima Trinità di Saccargia used alternating courses of black basalt and white limestone. The west front had two blind arcades, enlivened with inset coloured stones and the capitals of the porch included figures of cows, reflecting the claimed derivation of the name sa acca argia, the dappled cow. The interior contains some of the only Romanesque frescoes in Sardinia, including scenes from the passion of Christ. The original church was acquired in 1112 by an order of monks who set about adding the apse, the porch and the campanile, but of their extensive monastic buildings only a few broken arcades remain.

Santissima Trinità di Saccargia, Sardinia

Romanesque frescoes, Santissima Trinità di Saccargia, Sardinia

Remains of cloisters, Santissima Trinità di Saccargia, Sardinia

Once we reached the west coast we found the campsite and checked in. It is right on the beach but we have managed to find somewhere shady beneath tamarisk trees. Most people seem to prefer the sun! After cold drinks, some shade and a cold wash we felt better and wandered off to explore the campsite. It's rather strange. Sinks, showers, washbasins, mirrors, foot baths, washing up facilities are all there. The only things lacking are walls and ceilings! It's all unisex but at least the loos have walls – and proper loos which makes an agreeable change. We've seen so many weird campsites now that we can take this in our stride.

Unisex sanitary facilities showing showers, wash basins and foot baths. Toilets in the back ground. Alghero, Sardinia