Difference between revisions of "Sardinia"
Revision as of 14:41, 19 October 2010
Sardinia, with its quintessential Mediterranean beauty, is mainly loved for swimming, boating, windsurfing, hiking, climbing, and camping, with coastal areas tending to become over touristed especially in the warmest month, August. The inner life of the island away from the tourist spots takes longer to appreciate and requires you to peel away the layers of apparent Italianization. After all, the ancient Nuragic civilization of Sardinia of ca. 1500 BC, whose stone monuments still dot the land, predates even the Etruscan civilization in mainland Italy by several hundred years. The island's key attraction of natural beauty is under considerable threat from the ecological damage from livestock, farming, and mass tourism without adequate infrastructure. It is also affected by negative aspects of the Italian 'way of life' such as an uncontrolled use of strong chemicals and sprays, and the prevalent idea that public land is nobody's land, i.e. everybody’s rubbish tip. In general, there seem to be no public funds available for municipal restoration, conservation, and maintenance projects, and too little public awareness of the need for comprehensive, multilayered environmental protections and conservation efforts. Enjoy it while it lasts!
Geology and Geography
Sardinia is the only region in Italy of Hercynian origin; actually, the Southwest is even older (Cambrian to Ordovician). The mineral riches of Sardinia are the consequence of heavy hydrothermalism during the Permo-Triassic. As in the rest of Hercynian Europe, erosion has taken its toll since the orogeny and has reduced elevations considerably. 30 million years ago, the Sardinia-Corsica block started to detach from mainland Spain and tilted toward its present position; the Sardinian Sea (the stretch of Mediterranean sea between mainland Spain and Sardinia) deepened and the Tyrrhenian Sea (between Sardinia and mainland Italy) formed about 5 million years ago. Sporadic episodes of volcanism occurred during that rotation, which can be seen in the Sant'Antioco island and the Acquafredda volcanic neck near Siliqua, upon which Pisans built a stronghold in the 13th century. The geological history of Sardinia explains its hilly, aseismic, and non volcanic nature.
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (24090 sq. km [9300 sq. mi]); only Sicily is larger. The island is dominated by the Gennargentu Range (culminating at Punta La Marmora, 1834 m [6017 ft], highest elevation in Sardinia), along with the Monte Limbara, Monte di Ala', and Monte Rasu ranges (all below 1500 m [4900 ft]); isolated are the Sulcis-Iglesiente hills (1236 m [4055 ft]) of Southwestern Sardinia, once home to a large mining district. Plains are quite rare and reduced in extent, with the exception of the Campidano Plain from Oristano to Cagliari, which divides the main hill system from the Sulcis-Iglesiente hills. Sulcis proper (in the extreme Southwest) was a marshy area where malaria was still present in the 1940's; while the area is absolutely safe today, it remains somewhat of an exception in Sardinia, with its low coastline and lack of significant elevation. Cagliari's neighbourhood is also flat and boggy; exploitation of salt is a major industry there. The Nurra plain in the Northwest (between Sassari, Alghero, and Porto Torres) was once a mining district and quite forested, but is today mostly given to pastures.
Coasts are generally rocky and tall, especially along the Eastern half; large beaches are found however on the West (Sulcis and Costa Verde), North and Northeast (Costa Smeralda), and the South (Chia). Apart from the Strait of Bonifacio which divides Corsica from Sardinia (a mere 89 m-deep (292 ft) body of water), the surrounding sea is quite deep (quickly diving at -2000 m [-6560 ft] and below) at short distances from the shore.
Population is low (a little more than 1 650 000 inhabitants in 2010), with heavy concentration in the Cagliari (one third of the total population) and Sassari (one fifth) areas; Olbia is the only other town exceeding 50 000 inhabitants. Other centres include Alghero, Nuoro, Oristano, Carbonia and Iglesias. Sardinia, along with the Valle d'Aosta region at the French border, has the lowest density of population in Italy.
Sardinia enjoys for the most part a Mediterranean climate. However, along with Tyrrhenian Italy and Corsica, it is set apart (with respect to Greece for instance) by the vicinity of the very active cyclogenesis centre of the Gulf of Genoa and the relative proximity of the Atlantic Ocean; as a result, months from September to April are generally windy and rainy (much of Western Sardinia sees on average more rain in a year than London or Paris, the summer drought notwithstanding), but precipitation is generally concentrated (5-15 days for each month): entire weeks may remain rain-free. Highlands (especially the Gennargentu area) are somewhat colder, with noticeable snowfall. High winds, especially on the Western coast and the Campidano plain, are common from September to April, with gusts in excess of 100 kph (60 mph).
Because Sardinia is a large island and is mostly hilly, weather is not uniform; in particular, the Western coast is wetter, the Eastern coast is drier. Paradoxically the worst rainstorms almost always occur on the Eastern coast: in Autumn 2009, it rained more than 200 mm (8 inches) in a single day in Siniscola. Plains tend to be colder during the night but warmer during the day than the surrounding hills; some areas (e.g. Siliqua on the Campidano Plain) are regularly foggy in winter.
Summer is dry with hot weather (35 °C [95 °F] and up being extremely common); scarcity of water and strong sun can become health hazards (see Stay Healthy below). However, the air is clean, humidity is low, winds and shade are quite frequent. Autumn is typically very mild (20 °C [68 °F] is reached routinely even at the end of October) and quite rainy, especially in the Western part; beware of heavy rainstorms. Winter is also mild in plains, but cool to cold at higher elevations (above 500 m [1600 ft]); cold spells are however not uncommon even in plains and the combination wind/humidity/cold can be very uncomfortable. Also of notice is the fact that the majority of dwellings in Sardinia (many of them being individual houses owned by their occupants) are built to fight the summer heat and lack central heating systems, having furnaces instead; as a result they are somewhat cold and damp during winters. Of course, modern apartments and hotels have no such inconvenience. Finally, spring is also quite mild and rainy, but rarely shows the excesses of Fall.
Sardinia is home to the old but somewhat mysterious Nuragic civilization (ca 1500 BC); cylindrical towers (called Nuraghi, sing. Nuraghe) dot the Sardinian landscape, and fortified villages can still be found, as in Barumini (Medio Campidano province). The Phoenicians arrived around 1000 BC, founding Cagliari (Karalis, ca 800 BC) and other emporia; Tharros (near Oristano) and Nora (near Pula, Cagliari province) are a must-see for the archeology-minded tourist. Sardinia was contended during the First Punic War between Carthage and Rome, but went finally to the latter. Rome had often trouble with the rebellious locals, but managed quite a large income out of grain and metal mining.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, heavy raiding of the coastal areas by pirates forced the population to the hinterland; Sassari for instance was founded by refugees from Porto Torres. The four Kingdoms (Giudicati of Calaris [Cagliari], Arborea [Oristano], Torres [Sassari] e Gallura [Olbia-Tempio Pausania]) sprang forth during the Middle Ages, but were rapidly colonized (except for the Oristano area) by Pisa and Genoa; in particular the Pisans (the famous Conte Ugolino della Gherardesca of Dante's Inferno and his family) held between 1200 and 1350 the southernmost part of the island, deriving a large income out of the silver mines near Iglesias, which they themselves founded. Spain then seized the whole of Sardinia by the end of the 14th century, and for nearly 400 years the island remained basically out of mainstream European history.
With the rise of the House of Savoy, the constitution of the Sardinia-Piedmont realm was the starting point for the unification of all of Italy. When this was achieved, Sardinia was once again left to its own devices, except for the exploitation of its large mineral resources. Fascism saw important work (in particular the reduction of marshy areas), and in 1948, given the unique socio-political context of the island, Sardinia received the status of autonomous region which it still retains to the present day. With the end of the exploitation of the mines, but with the fast growth of the tourist industry (especially in the Costa Smeralda ["Emerald Coast"] area), Sardinia is slowly converting itself into a popular tourist destination, while traditional cattle-herding (in particular sheep) is still a frequent sight.
Along with standard Italian, Sardinians speak one of the dialects of Sardinian language (similar to Latin, but with some deep Semitic influence). In Alghero they also speak Catalan, while in the San Pietro Island they speak a Genoan dialect. Sardinians generally speak Italian when addressing people they do not know, even other Sardinians, as the four main dialects are rather different. With the exception of touristic areas, English is not widely spoken, even among the young; you might have better luck with French, especially with 50+ year-old people in the larger towns, but do not expect anything but Italian elsewhere.
Sardinians are generally a quiet and reserved people, especially those of the interior, quite far from the archetype of the outgoing Mediterranean. They are typically more conservative in outlook than the mainland Italians (whom Sardinians call Continentali, continent dwellers).
There are airports near Cagliari, Alghero and Olbia.
There are ferry services to Cagliari (south coast), Porto Torres (north coast), and Olbia, Golfo Aranci and Arbatax (east coast).
While it is possible to get around Sardinia by bus and train, doing so may well limit how fast you travel and where you go. If you can, hire a car. It is well worth the outlay, and it will allow you to visit some of the more remote and enchanting places and areas.
Consult the article on Italy for general information about speed limits, urban areas, police forces, etc. What follows is specific to Sardinia.
There are no toll highways in the island; the main axes are Porto Torres-Sassari-Oristano-Cagliari (Strada Statale [State Road] 131, European denomination E25) and its bifurcation to Nuoro (SS131 d.c.n.), Iglesias-Cagliari (SS130) [the SS130 and SS131 are the only fully 2 x 2-lane roads in Sardinia], the SS125 (Cagliari-Villasimius), SS126 (Sant'Antioco-Carbonia-Iglesias-Guspini-Terralba), SS127 (Olbia-Tempio Pausania-Sassari), SS128 (East-Central Sardinia), SS129 (Orosei-Nuoro-Macomer), SS195 (Cagliari-SS126 through Pula), and the SS291 (Sassari-Alghero). Many other roads are also of great interest for the tourist, such as the SS133 (Tempio Pausania-Palau) or the Chia-Teulada panoramic road.
Many roads are narrow and wind through hilly terrain; be careful and do not hesitate to use your car horn to signal your presence: because of the light traffic, oncoming drivers may not expect to encounter other vehicles. Remember that locals know their roads: they can drive faster than you because of that, do not try to race with them! Beware also of domesticated animals (sheep, goat, cows, pigs) crossing the roads in large or small units, especially in rural areas.
Engine overheating may happen in summer because of the heat/topography combination; take the usual precautions.
Paving is generally good on the main axes; it may vary for secondary axes and urban areas, but is often in correct conditions. There are local unpaved roads of touristic interest; these can be in any state, especially after heavy rains, so it is better to go there with a sturdy 4-wheel drive car.
Traffic can become heavy during summer in and around touristic areas, in particular on the SS 125, 126, 127, 195, 291.
A roadmap and a GPS tracking unit (handheld ones are also useful for trekking) are recommended: road signs, in particular directions, are somewhat lacking, especially on secondary roads.
Beware of high winds; gusts in excess of 100 kph (60 mph) are common from September to April.
Many villages have installed speed traps and automated cameras at the entrances: these are almost always signalled and fines for speeding are generally heavy. Quite often, you will cross villages with no sidewalks, and find elder people there: drive with caution.
Regular, cheap buses between the main centres: Cagliari, Sassari, Alghero, Nuoro etc. You may end up changing buses (or trains) in Macomer. Less frequent buses, but worth persevering for the smaller villages. The main bus company is the public-owned and managed ARST []
Sailing is one of the best way to see Sardinia. Most charters offers many solutions from bareboat to crewed and cabin charter, with all the type of the boats.
Regular trains from the edge of Alghero to Sassari and from Sassari to Cagliari, although buses are usually quicker. Change at Macomer for trains or buses to Nuoro. Less frequent trains on this and other routes. Both Trenitalia and Ferrovie della Sardegna operate trains in the Island.
In the summer period, twice a week, there's a small train that travels from Sassari to Tempio and back. It runs especially for tourists and is highly recommended. The train in called "trenino verde" and you can find info here 
At many places it is possible to rent a bike quite cheaply, for as little as 9 euros per 24 hours. Compared to the scarce local bus connections a bicycle provides great flexibility for local exploration. With high quality roads and great scenery the bike is very pleasant to ride.
There is much to do in Sardinia, but the island will probably appeal more to nature lovers than to clubbers (with the exception of the Costa Smeralda area, one of the 'hot spots' of the Italian show-business jet set).
While you can find most major hotel chains in Sardinia, the better way to really enjoy a stay in the island is to find a local hotel. Another often cheaper option that adds many 'out of town' locations is to rent a small cabin in a camping village or a room in an 'agriturismo' farm or rural cottage. Most accommodations are located near the coast, but also internal regions offer great opportunities.
The traditions and habits are very strong. You will not get any pizzas in restaurants before 7PM, furthermore be aware that you will get nothing to eat in restaurants between 4PM and 7PM, besides 'panini' that is usually a cold sandwich with ham and cheese. The exception may be some tourist-oriented restaurants in tourist-oriented places.
Sardinia is part of the Mediterranean area and shares its specific hazards. A few basic precautions are generally enough to stay out of trouble, especially during summer and autumn.
Sardinia is scarcely populated, in particular the interior; help is not always easily found, and there remain large patches of land where mobile-phone coverage is inexistent (e.g. at the bottom of sheltered valleys). Terrain, despite the lack of high elevations, is generally rugged and steep; this, in combination with heat and lack of water, can quickly lead to disaster. Beware!
Summer is everywhere hot, and the sun quite strong; the usual precautions to avoid heatstroke and sunburns apply. From May to September, water scarcity in the country is a serious problem. Always take a lot of water with you (especially so when hiking), even if you plan a short trip; bringing along fresh watery fruit (such as peaches, pears, or plums) is also helpful. While tap water is generally (but not always) safe, it is recommended to buy bottled mineral water; remember that sweating implies loss of water and of mineral salts.
Autumn is generally fine, but can become very unpleasant because of the heavy rainstorms and hilly topography, creating possibilities for land- and mud- slides; always check the weather before planning a trip, even with your car. Winter and spring are generally safer, with pleasantly mild weather (especially during the day) and abundance of water; but remember that to higher elevations corresponds an increasingly colder weather and larger precipitation. Much of Sardinia (especially the Western part) is very windy from September to April; all drivers, and in particular those with campers, must exercise caution.
Some open-sea beaches are notorious for strong underwater currents (in particular on the West coast); beware that warning signs are not always posted. Ask at your hotel or locals. The Mediterranean sea is no lily pond; every year, there are several people killed by drowning in Sardinia, and regularly victims are imprudent persons dragged from the shore by large waves.
Be careful when hiking in old mining districts (Sulcis-Iglesiente, Sarrabus, Nurra); while local authorities have sealed off many dangerous areas, there remain some. Always avoid dark galleries, because they might hide vertical ventilation shafts; do not venture into closed areas (look for the word Pericolo [Danger] or the usual warning signs). If you want to explore mines, go to the local tourist information agencies; they will direct you to organized tours. There have been tales of individuals (mostly ex-mineworkers) running their own private tours; avoid these, as they are illegal and extremely unsafe, because of risks of cave-ins, water infiltration, etc.
Local fauna and flora can be dangerous or source of discomfort. Three examples:
- Ticks (Rhipicephalus sanguineus) carry infectious diseases and are endemic to certain areas: avoid tall grass fields or close prolonged contact with domesticated animals (in particular sheep).
- Lethal mushrooms (among which Amanita phalloides) are found in Sardinia.
- Barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis, Sphyraena sphyraena) abounds in Sardinia; while excellent cooked, it can be dangerous alive.
Consult specialized texts for expert advice.
Sardinia has a very low criminal rate; even kidnapping, which targeted wealthy (and at times not so wealthy) individuals until the mid 1980's has completely disappeared. Some areas of Sardinia (in particular the beautiful Orgosolo area in the Nuoro province) have a longstanding reputation of family feuds; apart from the fact that foreigners were almost never involved in such disputes, these belong now mostly to the past.
Beware that some urban areas (in particular the Sant'Elia district near the football stadium and the Is Mirionis district, both in Cagliari) are unsafe.
Be wary of game hunters during the September-February period; check with locals, hotel employees, and the website of the Sardinian Region  for legal hunting dates. Do not hike in the wilderness during these days! There are protected areas (It. Oasi di protezione della fauna) but even these are regularly raided by poachers, especially during the night.
From April/May to September fires plague Sardinia as the rest of the Mediterranean area; some are spontaneous wildfires, but most are criminal. Observe the usual precautions. It is generally forbidden to start domestic fires in forests. Check with local authorities; Sardinia is an autonomous region and Italian laws might be superseded by local provisions.