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A Whistle-Stop Tour of Sardinia

Published: Wed 15 Aug 2012 at 10:59

Updated: Wed 15 Aug 2012 at 11:10

This blast-from-the-past island, second largest in the Med after Sicily, is a simple, rustic land with a long sea-faring history where ancient traditions have survived throughout the centuries.

Fly into Olbia in the north of the island. This is Sardinia’s major port and the gateway to the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast). In the 1960s, the Aga Khan transformed this region into an ultra-chic paradise for his wealthy pals by buying up several thousand hectares of coastline from the locals and transforming it for the luxury holiday market. This glamorous stretch of pink granite shoreline is scalloped by inlets fringed by talcum powder beaches and is where the rich and famous flock to top up their tans.

Sophisticated Porto Cervo, the region’s capital, is chocka with designer shops, bustling restaurants and cafés. Even if your wallet won’t lend itself to splashing out on designer goods, you can spend time people-watching over a cappuccino in the Piazzetta before having a stroll around the marina ogling the yachts.

The rugged province of Nuoro with its town of the same name, is in the rocky heart of Sardinia. It is somewhere that rewards curiosity – the locals still speak Sardo for one thing –and provides spectacular hiking. Here among the island’s highest mountains, deepest valleys and forests inhabited by boar and roamed by wild horses, life carries on as it has done for centuries though, fortunately, they put a stop to their kidnapping habit some time ago! You will find plenty of local craftwork for sale here including handmade leather goods, tapestries and ceramics.

Head further south and hop on the vintage steam Trenino Verde (Little Green Train) from Arbatax in the Ogliastra area of eastern Sardinia to Mandas in central Sardinia. The name was coined by the World Wildlife Foundation because it travels through some of the greenest, most sparsely populated parts of the island. It puffs and rattles its way through wildly dramatic landscapes honeycombed with grottoes and gorges and passes remote mountain areas including the Gennargentu range, snow-capped for much of the year. This museum in motion, one of the world's great small railways, uses the same coaches and locomotives it did a century ago.

Head south to the bustling port of Cagliari, Sardinia’s capital since Roman times and Sardinia’s largest city. Castello is the historic heart of the city, awash with architectural gems including an amphitheatre dating back to the days of the Roman Empire. Poetto Beach just east of town is well worth a visit too. Consider travelling via Barumini to visit the nearby archaeological site of Su Nuraxi. This immense 13th-century fortress comprising cone-shaped beehive-shaped towers is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Go back north to the small town of Alghero on the west coast. Walled, gated, untroubled by the centuries that have passed, this fishing port remains relatively free of package holiday crowds. Uniquely this is a town of Spanish origin on Italian territory. Aragon conquered it in the 14th century and it became part of the Kingdom of Aragon. In its tangle of ideal-for-getting-lost-in cobbled lanes with washing fluttering high above, soaring flamboyant churches, colourful piazzas and cosmopolitan shops wait to be discovered, while back-street bars and lively restaurants retain that relaxed Mediterranean buzz. Sardinia’s most famous

winery, Sella & Mosca, is well placed for anyone making the trip to Alghero as it lies 10 km outside town. Nightlife is so low key as to be almost non-existent but it makes sense to take a tip from the locals, buy an ice cream from a gelateria and join the passeggiata or evening promenade.

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