Cagliari is not, at first glance, the loveliest or most alluring of Italian cities. And yet, I cannot manage to leave it. Every junction seems to be an exercise in misdirection, sending me towards a rusty industrial zone, a high-fenced dockside, a ferry I do not wish to board. Finally, in frustration, I discard the map, relent in my long-held road-tripper’s aversion to the easy shortcut of the sat-nav system and type “Cardedu” into my phone. It blinks and thinks as it picks a route through the maze that is the Sardinian capital – and, perhaps, chuckles silently to itself at my stubbornness. I have been going the wrong way.
Of course, my confusion could also be forgivable. After all, Italy’s second biggest island is not the best known of Mediterranean destinations. True, it has its pockets of popularity – the gilded world of wealth that is the Costa Smeralda in the north; the gorgeous south coast, where elegant resorts increasingly keep each other company. But for all this modern glamour, in many other places, this swarthy soldier of the Tyrrhenian Sea belongs to another era. To a defiantly rustic backwardness that could exist in any of the last 10 centuries – goats bleating on hillsides, stone houses crumbling on the peripheries of vaguely cultivated fields, granite bluffs punching the sky. It is this that I am seeking, near Cardedu – a scarcely there town, a third of the way up the east coast. In ordinary times, its remoteness would be relaxation incarnate. In a pandemic year… it sounds like nirvana.
The tarmac ahead certainly appears to appreciate that we are veering away from “civilisation”. For a while, in the south-east corner of the island, the SS125 plays the dual-carriageway game, offering an impersonation of a 21st-century highway as it scythes past Muravera and Villaputzu. But then it seems to lose its purpose. Somewhere south of Tertenia, it gives up, and we are forced down, off, on to its narrower, older predecessor – the new road “continuing” alongside as an idea for the future, all uncompleted concrete supports and phantom bridges, while we wiggle in loops and bends below. After five or so miles, my son Hal, with that gift for small sudden emergencies common to six-year-old children, declares that he feels sick, and I pull to the verge to avoid a hire-car catastrophe.
We wait – he for the nausea to subside, revived by a slice of cake; me, nervously, for any traffic that might come barrelling along too fast and too close. But nothing does. Instead, we are left with the soundtrack of the countryside, a chatter of insects in the bushes, the grumble of a tractor somewhere unseen, the burble of the Rio di Quirra, flowing sparsely over a bed of smoothed rocks as, above us, the Gennargentu massif keeps a watchful eye.
The picture is no different when we finally pull off the SS125, and inch down to the shore at Cardedu. The ridge is especially mighty here; so much so that Perdepera Beach Resort feels as if it has been shoved against the sea – squished into the last metres of available space before the tide takes over. Perhaps it is cowed by its rugged surroundings, for there is a simplicity to it, as if it does not want to intrude. Instead, there is an unpretentious aesthetic that makes itself felt in 170 chalet-cabins in a variety of pastel hues; some yellow, some pink, some aquamarine. Unfussily furnished, they practically hang back from the meandering lanes on which they are set, bougainvillea swarming between them, lizards scuttling on paths that slant towards the core of the complex where a large restaurant overlooks a trio of pools. Swimwear drying on porches says that guests galore lurk behind the doors. But there is a tranquillity to the afternoon that belies their presence.
“People say it’s a long way to come to get here,” says Carol Bates, who leads the Mark Warner team at Perdepera. “But it’s so quiet here – there’s almost no air traffic overhead.”
The British tour operator has been a tenant at the resort since 2012, and takes up 95 of its rooms every year; the rest are booked out by Italian travel agents or domestic tourists.
The result is a sort of unspoken segregation during the daytime, as children peel off into their respective kids’ clubs – skipping to the beach in single file for kayaking sessions, life-vests gaudily fluorescent against the gentle ochre of the tree line; emerging giddily from rainy-day cabins, faces painted into impressions of tigers and lions – as their parents skulk by the pool. But as evening comes, the language barrier breaks down, the two sides of this euro-coin mingling in the open-air restaurant – over buffet fare that acknowledges the cautious tastes of younger diners, while not being so bland as to condemn their elders to a week of culinary boredom. There are vats of pomodoro pasta where no suspicious sprig of green “pollutes” the bright red purity of the tomato sauce, bowls of chips to go with the slabs of lightly grilled chicken, and pizzas conjured from a glowing oven – but also salads of unmistakable freshness, plates of softly pink prosciutto and gleaming globules of mozzarella. That jugs of unremarkable – but wholly drinkable – red and white wine sit on the tables aids the process, and by the time the remaining cream-heavy desserts have been cleared away, it is tricky to tell who’s who in the groups scattered around the pools.
In the midst of all this homeliness, the beach feels like the only extravagance. It is one of those arcs of silver-grey that haunts postcards and Instagram feeds, eking out its patch of holiday refinement – parasols and sunloungers – from the hard shards of the landscape around it. Hal and I fall into a habit of ambling down to the waterside at 6pm, when the temperature has been tamed by the sun’s disappearance behind the ridge, and this same rock-filter is casting the scene in a warm amber light.
We play Frisbee barefooted on the sand, skim pebbles into the shallows when the last swimmers have towelled off, and watch ships gliding on the Tyrrhenian surface – the evening ferry heading north-east from Cagliari to Naples, an occasional tanker going the other way into the open Mediterranean.
There is scope, too, for exploration. Beyond the gates of the resort, a trail beckons those craving a dash of exercise into the arms of Monte Arista – the specific chunk of Sardinian cragginess that projects sunset shadows on to Perdepera’s beach. Here, if you wish, is clear evidence that eastern Sardinia lives in some sort of yesterday. Halfway up, a side-trail leads you to a “Domus de Janas” (House of Fairies) – a cluster of chambers that, despite the whimsical name, are the remnants of ancient tombs, chiselled into the granite as long ago as 3400BC. We peer into these pockets of mossy gloom, then continue our progress towards the summit, the soil coming alive with petrichor as a sudden shower hammers down. The last 20 metres require a scramble and a carefulness of step. We are rewarded with a view that stretches far up the coast, the land an olive-brown against the dark blue of the sea – until, to the north, the Supramonte massif swallows the horizon.
This is inspiration to venture out further. If Nuoro – the province that frames much of the Sardinian east coast – does not exactly sell itself as awash with tourist attractions, it has places of interest nonetheless. Plenty of them require a battle with the gradient. On a cloudy Thursday, we push back from our favourite lunch table in a rear corner of the Perdepera restaurant, and force the car to grumble 15 miles north-west, up the slope, into Lanusei. In even a few minutes of wandering, the town shows itself as a picture of everyday life on the island – washing swinging on lines strung between windows, a group of older gentlemen stirring coffees in silence in the Caverna di Bacco café, the church of San Giovanni Bosco holding itself tall on the very edge of the hill. It is almost impossible to look away from the view from its door – the Tyrrhenian agleam with 3pm sparkle, the land plunging enthusiastically to meet it, a viaduct cutting across the middle distance where the Trenino Verde railway calls on Lanusei while making its journey between Mandas (a full 60 miles south-west across the massif) and the waterline.
We will go up again, into Seleni Archaeological Park, where further ancient tombs speak of Sardinian ghosts, huddled in the half-light and rain-drip of the forest. And we will return downward, helter-skeltering along the SS198 into Arbatax, the dot on the map from which ferries slip away in search of Rome’s port companion, Civitavecchia.
Hal’s gaze locks on to Star 1, a gelateria near the harbour wall, where tubs of strawberry, vanilla, passionfruit and hazelnut paint an ice-cream rainbow in the refrigerated cabinets, and a see-saw promises childish fun in the grove of pine trees outside. Directly below us, the Trenino Verde curls to a conclusion at the docks – a pair of its carriages loitering in a siding, in no obvious rush to beat a wearying retreat into the interior. We have reached a literal end of the line. I snap a few photos of the idle rolling stock, then turn back into the café to buy two more scoops of utterly delicious gelato. We are in no hurry either.
How to do it
A seven-night full-board holiday for four at Perdepera Beach Resort, flying from Stansted on Aug 29, costs from £3,968 (020 7361 8880; markwarner.co.uk). Includes return transfers (Cagliari). You will need a hire car if exploring.
British citizens may visit Italy without self-isolating on return (gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/italy). Tourists heading to Sardinia must register their trip in advance (sus.regione.sardegna.it/sus/covid19/regimbarco/init?lang=en).
Giants on the mountain
The idea of eastern Sardinia as an other-world from a different era gains more ground if you drive seven further miles inland from Lanusei, into the Seleni forest – which spreads its branches across a granite plateau at an elevation of 3,207ft (978m). Here, among the torsos of oak and chestnut trees, are resounding echoes of the Nuragic civilisation – the ancient people who inhabited Sardinia prior to Rome's conquest of the island (in 238BC).
Here, the Seleni Parco Archeologico (tombedeigiganti.it) protects the remains of a village which thrived between 1600BC and 800BC, and was probably called Gennaccili. Considering its age, the site is thrillingly well preserved. There are lingering foundations of the roundhouses in which these Bronze Age citizens lived, but the most striking facets of the complex are five “Giant's Tombs”, which still sing of burial rites and reverence for the dead. Each is a circular construction of placed, cut stones, pierced by a central trough, some 10 metres long. Medieval superstition came to believe that this space was filled by a single giant (hence the name), when, in fact, each grave probably held up to 160 bodies.
The beaches in Sardinia are among the finest in the world and, with more than 620 miles of coastline, there’s no shortage of spectacular places to pitch up, whether surrounded by archaeological ruins, looming granite cliffs or the local macchia – all lapped by impossibly limpid turquoise sea. Here are five of the best.
South of Olbia are some of Sardinia’s most famous mountains, and the Gennargentu massif makes an incredible backdrop to the bay of Cala Luna. It’s possible to make a two-hour hike along trails to this secluded little beach, but most take a boat from the nearby ports of Cala Gonone, Santa Maria Navarrese and Arbatax. There are plenty of caves to explore if you tire of the turquoise sea, and a further 40-minute scenic trek brings you to the famous Grotta del Bue Marino. The wild charm of the bay was the setting for the 1974 Italian cult movie Swept Away by Lina Wertmuller.
An hour from Alghero, the town of Stintino is a delight in itself, located between the two picturesque harbours of Porto Mannu and Porto Minori. But just beyond the town, via a series of wooden walkways, you will find one of Sardinia’s most enticing beaches, La Pelosa. With white sands and that lovely turquoise sea, it’s a well-frequented destination, so continue on to the wild and unspoilt Capo Falcone at the end of the peninsula. The beach is overlooked by a Spanish watchtower and has views across to the island of Asinara. Stintino’s Museo della Tonnara tells the story of the town’s tuna-fishing industry, and there are plenty of restaurants serving the fish.
On the western coast, an hour’s drive north of Cagliari, lies the medieval city of Oristano, and the nearby Sinis peninsula, which stretches over 26,000 hectares. The marine-protected site (pictured left) has everything: flat white beaches, pine woods, salt pans, lagoons for snorkelling, fossil-laden cliffs and a north-westerly mistral wind that’s ideal for kitesurfing and windsurfing all year round. There are even opportunities for whale-watching, and a chance to visit the nearby Phoenician ruins of Tharros.
Spiaggia Poltu Di Li Cogghj
Also known as Principe Beach, after Prince Aga Khan, who considered it to be the most beautiful in the Costa Smeralda, Spiaggia Poltu Di Li Cogghj is not easy to reach, involving a 10-minute walk down a rough path (don’t wear flip-flops). But it’s well worth the effort: a fine sand beach, surrounded by granite rocks and Mediterranean macchia, faces crystal clear blue sea. There are no restaurants or bars, so bring a packed lunch and plenty of water.
Visible well before you arrive, thanks to its 12th-century hilltop Castello della Fava (Bean Castle), the medieval village of Posada is a delightful maze of little streets and cafés. But it’s biggest claim to fame is its beaches: San Giovanni and nearby Su Tiriarzu, Iscraios, Due Pini and Orvile have all received the Cinque Vele Legambiente in recognition of the protected status of the surrounding flora and fauna. You can also travel down the Rio Posada river in a canoe to admire the stunning population of pink flamingos.
By Jan Fuscoe