Escaping the Crowds – Sardinia, Italy
Most travelers going to Italy, especially if coming on a Europe-in-30-days visit of the most important (and, alas, most touristy) attractions, often only stop in three cities: Rome, Florence and Venice (or as the Italians call them Roma, Firenze and Venezia). These are, no doubt about it, three important centers of Italian art and architecture, as well as style, food, culture and entertainment, making them a real must-see for everyone who has never been to Italy.
However, because they are so popular all-year-long, tourists, especially if on a tight budget and with little time, are sometimes left wondering what the big deal about these cities was all about. Long lines at museums, numerous rip-offs and tourist-traps, big crowds and organized tours, and often no availability at hotels or hostels. Especially if you've already been to these cities, Italy has a lot more to offer, but not only in other re-known sites such as the Chianti hills of Tuscany, the charming Amalfi coast, the leaning tower of Pisa or the remains of the ancient city of Pompei. If you are thinking that going there will spare you running into crowds, think again, because those too are another yearlong attraction.
As a rule, it's hard to not run into crowds if traveling in Italy – it is a small and populous country as it is. And tourism, being the biggest revenue source of Italy, means that every year millions of people invade all its cities and sites. Almost all – the island of Sardinia, perhaps, is a rare exception.
The first thing that pops into most people's mind when I mention Sardinia is a sardine. Surely enough, you can eat sardines in Sardinia (mostly out of a can, though, with a touch of extra virgin olive oil), but that's not where this place takes its name. It is an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, west of the Italian peninsula, which, historically, has had a very different past than mainland Italy.
It's unsure where the name comes from, but throughout the island you can find remains of the numerous populations that either simply set-up a port on the coast or totally colonized the island: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Pisans, Spanish… Some locals might still see even today's mainland Italians as colonizers. And, whoever came, also went away leaving behind a rich patrimony of arts and architecture, from pre-historic warriors that built mysterious towers and cities resembling fortresses of the Middle Ages (called "nuraghi") to endless marble Romanic churches, from numerous observation towers on high cliffs on the coast to Roman theatres and aqueducts.
The second thing that people think of when referring to Sardinia is the beach. Being an island, there is plenty to choose from if you like sunbathing or swimming in crystal-clear blue water. But this is perhaps a reason to avoid some areas, most notoriously the Northeastern "Costa Smeralda" (Emerald Coast), in the months of July and August, when crowds of Italians flock there and fight over a few square meters of sand to lay down their towel. The climate is warm from April to late October, so I'd suggest going to the beach in late spring or early autumn when the heat is bearable and even prices are down. And, although the Northern part of the island and pockets of the South are showing signs of real estate development, the beauty of the numerous remaining unspoiled beaches will surprise you. It's easy to understand why the locals have nothing to envy to the Caribbean or other popular beach destinations. Some beaches, like Chia in the South, stretch for miles, with high dunes of thin white sand and wind-carved rock formations, where the only sounds you hear are those of the waves of its warm sea of many varieties of green and blue.
Sardinia is not only beaches. The most common mistake for most visitors is to only reach their final beach destination where their rental summerhouse or hotel is, and to never explore the rest of the island. This is good news for those of you that want to go away from the crowds of holiday-goers. But if you have time to travel, and want to discover astounding places, you will be surprised by the variety of scenery and activities.
The island is home to many forests of the Mediterranean "macchia", a term that refers to a wide range of evergreen plants and trees that look like accidental spots and stains of landscape (macchia = stain). Especially the central massif of Gennargentu, home to a National Park, reaching barely 2000 meters, is home to many species of native plants and wildlife. But you don't need to venture to the mountains to see wildlife: even close to the capital, Cagliari, you can easily watch colonies of pink flamingos that have established permanent residence in the swampy areas.
Summers are very dry, and all the weeds that once were green and flowering turn yellow. The best months to enjoy the countryside are from October to May, when the rains give birth to fresh grass, and the island's short but numerous streams and rivers start flowing again. Springtime is by far the best time to visit, since you can then count on a mild climate for both enjoying the beach and the countryside.
Sardinia is also beautiful for its inhabitants, the "Sardi", who take great pride of their culture. Throughout the year, there are many festivals and fairs celebrating old traditions and customs, some religious and some pagan, often coinciding with the harvest and production of local products and delicacies, such as wine or honey. Every town and village has its culinary tradition in the form of weirdly shaped breads, sweets, pastas, lobster, roasted pork, and other kinds of fish and meat. The coastal cities, and especially Cagliari, are obviously the best places if you like fish. And Cagliari, with its millenary history, is also home to most cultural and sporting events. You can visit museums and art galleries, listen to classical music and opera, watch football and windsurf, or simply stroll along the old shopping district to watch people go by.
There are endless activities to keep a person of any age busy. I personally recommend renting a car, since it's always the best way to get around the island and explore its busy cities and rustic and rugged environment. You can also rent a boat and explore the numerous small beaches, some of them only accessible by the sea. Just keep in mind that driving a boat often requires a license depending on its size. And if riding long-distances is not on your agenda, renting a bicycle or a motorcycle is a better option, especially for parking and traffic jams.
As to accommodation, the most obvious solution is a hotel, but I find it dull and boring. Other than the alternative campsite, it's proving to be very popular what the Italians call "agriturismo", a sort of a bed & breakfast where the guests get to enjoy living in farmhouses, eating local produce and even taking part in cooking classes or other farming activities. The web is a good way to find these accommodations, and most sites are bilingual. Tourist offices and travel agencies are instead a good place to get information on suggested itineraries, local activities and guided tours.
Reaching Sardinia can be done by plane or ferry. If you are on a budget, the best option is to take an overnight ferry from the mainland. The company, Tirrenia, has frequent service from various ports, and even some fast ferries. The advantage about taking a ferry is that you can take your car along from the peninsula.
If time is more pressing on your schedule (and if you're under 26), taking the plane is the best option. There are connections from many cities in Italy to three airports: Cagliari in the South, and Olbia and Alghero in the North. Most flights leave out of Milan and Rome, with Rome having a connection to Cagliari almost every hour.
If you're coming from another European country, the only scheduled flights to Sardinia are out of London to Alghero, with RyanAir. There are other seasonal flights with other airlines, as well as charter flights. But in the case of charter flights, it's often hard to find out when and where from they depart. The best way is to search the web or enquire at travel agencies in Sardinia who usually know about incoming flights.
I hope you will enjoy your visit to Sardinia. The English novelist D.H. Lawrence, after spending 9 days in the island in 1921, referred to the island as the place to have "escaped the net of European civilization", "not a bit like the rest of Italy". He would be happy to find out that things have luckily not changed much!