Ogliastra's coastline is carved with caves
Sardinia's Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast)
is THE place to be, and has been for the last half a century from the time when this remote piece of a relatively unknown island was developed by the Aga Khan. Its sparkling waters, luxury resorts, and exclusive locales attract VIPs from all over the world, and the turquoise water lapping the pristine beaches offer an ideal way to spend a week (or month) of relaxation. But the rest of this region – Italy's other large island besides Sicily – is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered by those who venture out of the glitzy bubble that engulfs the Emerald Coast
. Here travelers are exposed to a culture that is like no other in Italy; an opportunity to travel back in time to experience the untouched natural wonders and a proud people
steeped in rich and colorful history.
The land that is Sardinia sprung from the Mediterranean Sea millions of years ago, a result of ancient volcanic activity that has long since been dormant. The surrounding sea is a crystalline turquoise blue, clearer even than the water that lures visitors to the Caribbean islands. In fact, viewing Sardinia's natural landscape is like watching the Caribbean in HD: the colors are brighter, the mountains stand taller and the uncontaminated sea beckons just a little more seductively.
The island's history is also more profound, tracing back over 3,500 years
Ruins from a Nuragic village near Dorgali
to the time of the Nuragic civilization, a mysterious people who built the hallmark tall towers called nuraghi
that stood 20-30 meters high near their designated villages. Many of the nuraghi
, village huts, ceremonial buildings, and tombs are available for guided tours. Others have slowly disappeared and, much like the marble of Rome's Colosseum
, the building materials have been reused for the purposes of subsequent generations and can still be seen today in farm fences and the round shepherd's huts that are traditional to the region.
"The people of Sardinia are like the juniper tree which grows throughout the island," a local artist once said, "withstanding hardship to the point that the trunk is twisted, but captivatingly beautiful because of it." Although the island is roughly the same size as Sicily, its 1.5 million inhabitants are few in comparison to Sicily's 5 million. The people are truly men and women of the land, living in small communities that have resisted thousands of years of invasions from the Phoenicians, Byzantines, Romans, Genoese, Spanish, French and ultimately the Italians. This history shaped where and how the people lived: instead of living on the seacoast, many people chose to live inland, protected by the rocky barriers of the mountains. This choice resulted in the development of a culture of shepherds, not fishermen, that has carried on until the present day.
Prosciutto, panada (tarts filled with ricotta), and pecorino cheese
Many Sardinian farming communities still work in the same way that their ancestors have for decades, producing spectacular cheeses, pork products, and wine to offer lovers of enogastromony an experience unlike any other on the continent. Some farms, called agriturismi
, also open their doors to visitors, following the kilometro zerophilosophy
that decrees that the products eaten at the farm are produced by the farm itself: local honeys flavored with different herbs and flowers, wines made from indigenous Cannonau grapes, homemade cured meats and sausages, and especially cheese.
Mostly made from sheep's milk, the cheese offered by agriturismi includes fresh pecorino, seasonedpecorino, fresh ricotta made the day of consumption and the more seasoned ricotta salata that is hard enough to be grated. An abundance of cheese is integrated into Sardinian recipes and the way they are eaten: pasta is often tossed in a light, cheese-based sauce and ravioli are stuffed with local cheeses, while antipasti are sprinkled with fresh pecorino and the typical dessert of the region is a simple spoonful ofricotta drizzled with local honey.
Dorgali province is only 4 miles from the sea
Most people in Sardinia are bilingual. As a part of the Republic of Italy, they speak the standard Italian taught in school and heard on television, but the region itself recognizes five other languages as having official status: Sardinian, Sassarese, Gallurese, Algherese and Tabarchino
. Analysis of these languages reveals the long history of foreign invasions and former contacts with other world communities such as the Algherese spoken in the northwest, which greatly resembles Spain's Catalan. Within each speech community of these five recognized languages, there are also dialects, local costumes, and unique traditions, and natives can pinpoint where another Sardinian is from within a few seconds of conversation.
In addition to the immensely rich cultural aspects of the region, Sardinia's natural beauty is one that rarely exists in the over-developed, over-populated world of today. Mountains run to touch the water and the vertical cliffs that spring from the sea are dotted with caverns and caves, many explorable only by boat or hiking
. Most hotels located on the sandy beaches offer excursions for guests, ranging from long hikes through mountainous terrain to bicycle, train
or Jeep excursions ending in breathtaking panoramas and kayaking or boat rides along the cavernous coast.
Sardinia's infrastructure promoting a green, natural tourism has strengthened and grown ever more efficient in the last few years. Only a short plane ride from Rome, this is an island where one can experience the rich culture of a distinctive Italian people whose harmony with nature is longstanding and compelling.