If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the island of Sardinia, a region of southern Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area can be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. Some parts of Sardinia remain undiscovered by tourists, while other sites are favorites of Italian and international jet setters and are priced accordingly. This article presents northern Sardinia. Companion articles present central Sardinia and southern Sardinia.
We’ll start our Sicilian tour in the northwest costal city of Alghero. We head northeast to Sassari and visiting briefly Porto Torres, Stintino, and Castelsardo at different points on Sardinia’s northern coast. Then we head northeast to Santa Teresa di Gallura. We continue more or less in that direction to the island of La Maddalena on the Costa Smeralda. We head back to the mainland and visit Porto Cervo, pass by the resort Golfo Aranci, and end our tour at the port of Olbia.
Alghero, population forty thousand, was founded in the beginning of the Twelfth Century, but the area itself was initially settled at least five thousand years ago. And yet in the nearby countryside malaria was a problem until the 1950s. Its historic center was heavily damaged during World War II. Almost a quarter of the population speaks a sort of Catalan as their native tongue. What’s more, the street signs are in Catalan. In case you don’t know, the Catalan language is related to Spanish and is the language spoken in Barcelona. In fact Alghero’s nickname is Barcelonetta (little Barcelona.)
Many older buildings in Alghero are clearly influenced by Catalan architecture and its neighboring province, Aragon. They include the Sixteenth Century Cathedral of St. Mary, the Fourteenth Century Church of St. Francis, and the Sixteenth Century Palazzo D'Albis. The Museo Diocesano d’Arte Sacra (Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art) is located in the former (Thirteenth Century) Rosario church next to the Cathedral. Besides its collection of religious art the museum hosts a unique collection of Catalan silverware.
Do you like towers? If so, Alghero is a city for you. Make sure to climb the Cathedral’s bell tower for a great view of this city, especially at sunset. You should also see the Torre del Portal Alghero (Tower of the Portal to Alghero) built at the expense of its local Jewish community in the mid-Fourteenth Century. There are several other towers in and around town.
The Grotta di Nettuno (Neptune’s Caves) is an unforgettable geological marvel deep inside the limestone promontory of Capo Caccia. It extends for a mile and a half (two and a half kilometers). The cave is outside town and you will enjoy the view on the way there, whether you hike, go by car, or take a boat tour. The cave complex is an array of caverns, wide passages, clear lakes, deep wells, and narrow tunnels. Visits are by guide only and are subject to cancellation for stormy weather.
Sassari, population over one hundred twenty-five thousand, is Sardinia’s second largest city. In actual area only Rome and Ravenna are bigger. It is an ancient university town. Several Italian political leaders come from Sassari including the former head of the Communist Party and two Presidents of the Republic, one a cousin to that Party leader.
The Duomo St. Nicholas of Bari (Cathedral) originally built in the Thirteenth Century exemplifies multiple styles, Romanesque, Baroque, and Catalan-Gothic. Why not see if you can identify them? Among other churches to tour are the Thirteenth Century Church of Santa Maria di Bètlem, the Twelfth Century Church of St. Peter in Silki, and the Church of the Most Blessed Trinity.
Make sure to visit the Eighteenth-Nineteenth Century Palazzo Ducale (Duke’s Palace), now the Town Hall. Don’t forget the Nineteenth Century Palazzo Giordano, now the headquarters of the Banco di Napoli (Naples Bank). The Seventeenth Century Rosello is still a marble fountain decorated with a dozen lions but no longer serves as an aqueduct.
Sassari is close to Porto Torres and Stintino to the northwest and Castelsardo to the northeast. Porto Torres is known for its Roman ruins including a bridge that is still functional. Stintino, which sits on a narrow promontory jutting into the Gulf of Assinara, is famous for its beaches, especially La Pelosa. Perhaps you can guess from its name that Castelsardo has a castle. Castelsardo is said to have the most interesting Easter procession in all Sardinia with a torchlight parade; the tradition dates back to the Eleventh Century.
Santa Teresa di Gallura, population about five thousand, doubling or tripling during the tourist season. It is only eleven miles (about eighteen kilometers) from the southern tip of Corsica. If you don’t like the beaches near town, you hike for some twenty minutes to Capo Testa where the beach is less crowded, perhaps because it resembles a lunar formation.
La Maddalena, population twelve thousand, is the only inhabited island on the archipelago of Costa Smeralda on the northeast coast of Sardinia in the Straits of Bonifacio. The archipelago includes about 125 miles (200 kilometers) of coastline with many white sand small beaches and the famous Pink Beach on the island of Budelli. Nature is great in this part of the world as befits a National Nature Reserve. This area’s most famous citizen was Guiseppe Garibaldi, the hero of Italian unification. You can visit his house and the cemetery in which he and his family are buried on the nearby Caprera Island. Capra means goat in Italian and also explains the name of the Isle of Capri where today goats are few and far between.
Porto Cervo, population about two thousand off-season, is quite the place to be during the summer. The story has it that more than forty years ago Aga Khan discovered this area when seeking shelter from a storm. He liked the location and decided to develop it into an upscale resort, a favorite of the yachting crowd. Just to refresh your memory Aga Khan’s father, Aly Khan, was engaged to the Hollywood actress Gene Tierney and married Hollywood superstar Rita Hayworth in 1948. They separated in 1951 and divorced in 1953. Perhaps to drown his sorrows he became Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations in 1958.
What do you do if you, like me, don’t have a yacht? Silly boy/girl, just rent one. With the wonders of the Internet it took me no time at all to find a yacht rental agency in Porto Cervo. I simply clicked on the first offering; at this point in my life I am not really in the market for yacht rental or purchase. A forty-nine foot (fifteen meter) four-cabin yacht built in 2006 with a bilingual crew of one costs from 3500 to 5900 Euros per week (don’t forget to add about 40% at today’s exchange rates to convert Euros to Dollars.) As the old saw goes, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford a yacht,” even for a rental.
Olbia, population fifty thousand, was probably settled by the Ancient Greeks. It is now the major city in northeastern Sardinia and the number one point for connecting to the Italian mainland. In addition to its bars and restaurants that justify its name of “Happy Town,” be sure to see the Eleventh Century Basilica San Simplico on the Piazza of the same name. Its columns were recovered from the Roman buildings previously on the site. Olbia is still on the Costa Smeralda, but prices are substantially less than in Porto Cervo only twenty miles (thirty kilometers) away. And it has boats and yachts for rent.
What about food? Believe it or not native Sardinians are not all that big on fish and seafood. Is this because a third of Italian sheep are raised on the island? One Sardinian specialty is roasting large animals in a wood-lined pit. When the fire dies down a bit the charcoal is covered with myrtle branches. The meat then goes in the pit and is covered with more myrtle and herbs. The pit is filled with earth and then a big bonfire is lit. After several hours the meat is ready. If ever you are invited to such a shindig don’t miss it. I’m told that Porceddu (Roast Suckling Pig) is the best meat for such a barbecue.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with la Fabadda (Cabbage and Broad Bean Soup). Then try Porceddu (Roast Suckling Pig). For dessert indulge yourself with Copulettas (Meringues with Marmalade, Honey, and Almonds). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a quick look at Sardinian wine. Sardinia ranks eighth among the 20 Italian regions in acreage devoted to wine grapes and twelfth in total annual wine production. About 57% of its wine production is red or rosé (not very much rosé) leaving 43% for white wine. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. The region produces 19 DOC wines and one DOCG wine, Vermentino di Gallura. About 15% of Sardinian wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation.
Vermentino di Gallura DOCG is produced in northeastern Sardinia from the local white Vermentino grape with up to 5% of other local white grapes. It may be dry or sweet. As you might guess, the Alghero DOC wine is produced near the city of Alghero. It is made in a wide variety of styles from white or red local grapes or from several international grape varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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