How to spend a weekend in northeast Sardinia
Wild and windswept, Italy’s second-largest island offers a weekend of active adventures, archaeological sites and some of the finest beaches in the Mediterranean.
Sardinia has a wildness about it. The Italian island’s north-east corner has craggy mountains and granite cliffs, and in the heat of summer its landscape feels dry enough to shatter beneath your feet like pane carasau, a crispy local flatbread. The wind can blow hard, whipping through the corridor between the northern tip of the island and nearby Corsica. And it’s not difficult to find isolation: Sardinia’s population density is just a third of the national average.
All this makes for a special break. The windy bay of Porto Pollo attracts watersports enthusiasts from all over the world, while the Maddalena archipelago offers stunning coastal hikes. And, for all the wildness, there’s culture, history and relaxation to be found here, too. The atmospheric towns of San Pantaleo, La Maddalena and Tempio Pausania are perfect for a drink. The sun shines, the food is good, there are scores of tiny islands and some wonderful beaches. People live for a long time here — Sardinia has the highest percentage of centenarians in the world — and with this quality of life, it’s easy to see why.
Day one: beach life and island-hopping
First things first: this is an island in the Med, so you’ll want to get acquainted with a beach or two, and there’s no shortage of options. If you’re after the spray on your skin and the wind in your hair, make for Porto Pollo, a world-class location for watersports, catering to novices and beginners alike.
For something more sedate, the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) — a 10-mile bump of coastline between the Gulf of Arzachena and the Gulf of Cugnana — has a host of beaches and high-end resorts, from the sandy sweep at Cannigione to the millionaire-magnet of Porto Cervo, with its many luxury yachts. When lunchtime approaches, head to the harbour town of Palau for a bowl of al dente spaghetti with fat mussels and baby tomatoes at Il Ghiottone.
Palau is itself a pretty spot, sitting in a cove between promontories, with a hilltop fortress that can be visited on a guided tour. Palau’s port is where you can join a car ferry (€60 [£51] return, with departures every half an hour) for the 30-minute crossing to the archipelago of La Maddalena. Made up of seven main islands, most uninhabited, the archipelago is a national park.
On alighting at La Maddalena, drive across a bridge to Caprera, where you can spend the afternoon hiking through pine forests, snorkelling in protected coves or just lazing on the beach and enjoying the fabulous sea views. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the famous Italian general, spent the last 26 years of his life on Caprera, and the simple, whitewashed house (Casa di Garibaldi) where he lived and died is now a museum.
As the afternoon fades, drive back to La Maddalena, the archipelago’s ‘capital’. This is the place to rent boats to visit some of the other islands (such as Razzoli, where you might see turtles and seals, or Spargi, the most isolated of all), and its coastal road offers a very scenic drive.
It’s an elegant and vibrant town that deserves time in its own right, however, with pastel-coloured buildings set along quaint streets, and characterful shops selling clothes, jewellery and craftworks with a nautical theme. You’ll find plenty of ice cream parlours, cafes and restaurants, as well as atmospheric bars that are perfect pitstops for a glass of wine or mirto, the local liqueur. This is a place with a pleasant buzz — and you can take your time because ferries back to Palau run through the night.
Day two: history and handicrafts
Start the day with a rummage into Sardinia’s past. Much of the island’s rich archaeology dates to the Nuragic people, who lived here from 1500 BC until Roman occupation in 238 BC. There are 7,000 Nuragic sites in total, ranging from burial sites to mysterious conical towers called nuraghe, whose function isn’t known for sure, but which experts believe were temples, fortifications or rulers’ homes.
You’ll find seven sites at Arzachena (combined ticket €25 [£21] or €7 [£6] per individual site), including an extensive complex of buildings at Nuraghe La Prisgiona, and the Giants’ Tomb of Coddu Vecchiu, where the dead of La Prisgiona were buried. You can even touch the stones, enter the towers and walk in footsteps that ring through the millennia. Go early to avoid the heat of the day.
Four miles to the east is San Pantaleo, a gem of a town surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. At its heart is a square with blossom trees and a honey-stoned church, while the surrounding lanes contain shops selling artisan jewellery and paintings by local artists. There’s a buzzy cafe-bar in the square but it’s pricey, so head for a lunch of pizza or pasta at nearby Ichnos.
After lunch, it’s a 45-minute drive west to the hilly village of Aggius, which is renowned for its weavers. MEOC, the ethnographic museum, includes centuries-old looms, and explains the painstaking process of creating a carpet or wall-hanging decorated with traditional motifs. If you’re after a memento, you can buy one from the nearby workshop of Gabriella Lutzu, who’s been weaving for 35 years.
The town of Tempio Pausania lies just a few minutes away through the hills. Three-quarters of Italy’s cork comes from Sardinia, and the area around Tempio Pausania
— with its vast cork oak forests — is a major centre of production. Many shops in the town sell items made of cork, from purses to keyrings, and you can even see a collection of old cork-making equipment at the Museo Storico delle Machine del Sughero (the Cork Machinery Museum).
Tempio Pausania has elegant granite architecture, and there are several historical churches to admire (including the Purgatory Church, built in the 17th century by a local nobleman seeking absolution from the Pope for committing a massacre). For dinner, try Al Vecchio Corso, where there’s a homely vibe and simple Italian food.
Top three island excursions from Sardinia
For nature: Spargi
This island in the Maddalena archipelago has granite coves and dense vegetation. There’s also good diving (including a Roman wreck) and rich birdlife on the islet of Spargiotto. Take the boat from Palau or La Maddalena.
For the beach: Budelli
This tiny isle is home to the striking Spiaggia Rosa, whose pink sands are created by fragments of red coral. In the past, so many tourists collected sand that the hue began to fade; now you have to follow a footpath behind the beach. Take the boat from Palau or La Maddalena.
For history: Tavolara
In the early 1800s, the Bertoleoni family declared this a separate kingdom. The cemetery contains the grave of ‘King Paolo I’. Today it’s a marine reserve popular with divers. Take the ferry from Porto San Paolo.
Top five historical sites in Sardinia
1. Coddu Ecchju
Built to hold the dead of the nearby village of La Prisgiona, the ‘Giants’ Tomb’ of Coddu Ecchju dates as far back as 1800 BC. A series of upright stones with slabs laid across the top form a burial corridor, and a centrepiece stele — a sort of huge headstone — has a small opening where offerings were placed.
2. La Prisgiona
This complex contains the extensive remains of La Prisgiona village, first occupied in 1400 BC. Craftsmen’s huts are set around the nuraghe, a central keep with two towers that probably formed the fortified residence of village leaders.
3. Church of San Simplicio
The 11th-century Church of San Simplicio in Olbia stands on the site of an early-Christian church that was said to mark the spot where the bishop Simplicius was killed with a lance. The granite facade has a bell tower and a triple-mullioned window, while inside, beneath the altar, lie Simplicius’s relics.
4. Olbia Archaeological Museum
The extensive collections of Olbia’s archaeological museum chart the history of this region from prehistoric times to the 20th century. The exhibits feature many finds from craft that sunk around the coast, and include a unique medieval shipwreck.
5. Malchittu Tempietto
This hilltop Nuragic temple at Arzachena was built from boulders around 3,500 years ago. It contains niches and a shelf where offerings were presented to the deities. Ceramic artefacts were discovered in 1964, though broken by the roots of a tree growing through the floor.
Three water sports activities in Sardinia
Sunny, sandy and windy, north-east Sardinia is one of Europe’s watersports capitals. The place to go is Porto Pollo, a huge bay of white sand divided by a narrow spit. Planet Travel can organise everything from accommodation in the area to equipment hire, group or individual lessons (including for children as young as four) or refresher courses.
Windsurfing & SUP
You’ll find a distinct east-west divide at Porto Pollo. The bay’s eastern part sees side-offshore winds and calm water, and as such is popular for windsurfing. If you’re a beginner, rent a wide, super-steady board and arrange a lesson or two. You’ll start on a ‘simulator’ (a board set into the beach itself) and should quickly get the hang of how to steer, tack and jibe. If you’d prefer something even simpler, rent a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), which is perfect for hunting for hidden coves along the coastline.
The western section of Porto Pollo is broader and hit by side-onshore winds, which can make the sea a little choppy, but it’s those swells and ripples that make it such a perfect playground for kitesurfers. Harnessed to kites, adrenaline-junkies use the waves as ramps to launch their boards many metres into the air. If you’re new to it, allow for at least two or three morning lessons to learn how to assemble and control the kite; you’ll be issued with a radio helmet to keep you in contact with an instructor.
Below the surface
There are some excellent snorkelling and dive sites here, and the team from Orca Dive Club in Santa Teresa Gallura can take you to them in their Zodiac. The underwater landscape in this part of Sardinia is one of granite boulders, caves and waving meadows of Neptune grass. You’ll see red anemones and shoals of damselfish darting among banks of mermaid’s wine glass, a sea plant with flowers the shape of cocktail glasses. Keep your eyes peeled for sea stars, mullet, cuttlefish and octopus.
Il Ghiottone. Via Don Occhioni 10, Palau
Ichnos. Via Zara 54, San Pantaleo
Museo Storico delle Machine del Sughero. Via Limbara 9, Tempio Pausania
Al Vecchio Corso. Via Roma 96, Tempio Pausania
Olbia Archaeological Museum. Via Isola Peddone, Olbia
Tempio di Malchittu. Località Malchittu, Arzachena
How to do it
Planet Travel Holidays offers trips to north-east Sardinia. A one-week package, including accommodation near Porto Pollo and instruction for water sports activities, is available from £620 per person, excluding flights. EasyJet flies from Luton, Manchester and Bristol to Olbia.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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