Big-booted Italy and its volcanic little brother Sicily are firmly in the spotlight for travelling Europhiles, but what about the other island? Sardinia, as close to Tunisia as to mainland Italy and nearly grazing the French island of Corsica, is fiercely distinct and wildly colourful. This region of Italy is moored in the bluest waters of the Mediterranean. It boasts superb diving spots and a host of Roman ruins, as well as some of the most memorable cuisine in southern Europe.
‘Sardegna no est Italia!’, screams the graffiti, and you shouldn’t underestimate how distinct Sardinia is from the mainland. With African-tinged flavours, a language all its own and a very peculiar take on cheese, Sardinia may be part of Italy, but ignore its independent spirit at your peril.
Well-heeled visitors will make a beeline for the glassy waters of the Costa Smeralda, but this unique island has more to offer than its achingly beautiful seas. These three enchanting coastal towns form a worthy roadtrip from the island’s northwest to its southern coast.
Alghero: relics, shopping and the bluest of grottoes
This fine oceanside town offers clearer waters than its name (from the Italian for seaweed, ‘alga’) suggests. Alghero has sun-baked streets, medieval archways and is a stone’s throw from fine sandy beaches, making it a magnet for Italian tourists. Shop in the boutiques along Via Roma, be dazzled by displays of red coral jewellery, and tread cobblestoned streets to admire the Gothic details of Cattedrale di Santa Maria. Reward your efforts with a mouth-scaldingly fresh pizza or saffron-tinged seafood risotto in one of the Old Town's bustling eateries.
For culture, the Museo Diocesano d'Arte Sacra near the cathedral is austere but splendid, and harbours some ghoulish relics. The dainty skulls of the innocents slaughtered by Herod are neatly displayed in ornate cases, and stunning silverwork entombs a fragment of the 'True Cross'.
But it’s the natural sights nearby that really put Alghero on the map. The Grotta di Nettuno at Capo Caccia is a blindingly blue excursion that’s easy to do from Alghero (about 45 minutes by car). Road signs from Alghero will point you towards a tiny car park, from which you descend (carefully) down a craggy staircase to the caves. Those with no head for heights (or no wheels) can take a boat ride from Alghero right into the mouth of the grotto during the summer months. Guided tours of the Grotta di Nettuno lead you through a goblin kingdom of eerie rock formations: boulders ballooning out of the water, dripping stalactites and winding caves.
Oristano: battle-torn history and matchless cuisine
A couple of hours’ drive south of Alghero and you’ll discover the historic gem of Oristano. It may look serene, but time has bestowed a bloody heritage of vicious Saracen attacks on this coastal town. And that quiet confidence is born of centuries vying for power against other Sardinian kingdoms.
The town today is all understated loveliness, with azure waters and pastel-coloured waterfront houses. Wander to the remains of the old city at the Torre di Mariano II in Piazza Roma, and stroll through quiet streets to a statue of the island’s heroine, Eleanora d'Arborea, on the piazza named after her. This formidable noblewoman composed a heavyweight body of laws that held fast for hundreds of years after her death in the early 15th century.
Uncovering the history behind this feisty city works up a serious appetite, and you can’t leave town without trying Oristano palate-pleasers like bottarga antipasti (cured fish roe) and gnocchi served with spinach, eggs and cream. And treat your tastebuds by washing it down with the famous local wine, Vernaccia di Oristano.
But one Sardinian delicacy is such an acquired taste that you’ll be relieved to know it’s hard to find outside the black market. Whiffy Sardinian sheep’s cheese casu marzu is so ripe it’s crawling with maggots. The squirmy vermin are eaten along with the cheese, and connoisseurs swear the maggots can leap six inches towards your face. We can’t be sure whether it’s the chewy addition of maggots or the eye-watering odour of the cheese that enhances its reputed aphrodisiac properties. Oh, amore is a mysterious thing...
Cagliari: Roman ruins on the Gulf of Angels
Take your full belly further south to Cagliari, an easy 90-minute drive or about an hour by train. This slick but scenic city is nestled in the Golfo degli Angeli, the curved bay nestled in Sardinia's southernmost edge.
Cagliari has a far more cosmopolitan feel than its northerly neighbours. Shady shopping arcades and trendy dining enclaves are the norm along Via Roma and Largo Carlo Felice, yet the Castello district remains unspoiled and Roman ruins (including an amphitheatre) are dotted throughout the city.
If shopping doesn’t sap your strength, test your thigh muscles by ascending to Cagliari’s crowning glory, the Bastione Saint Remy. After situating yourself with soaring views of the city, head down into the Castello district - a maze of medieval alleys - to admire the imposing facade of the 13th-century Cagliari cathedral. Clutch your neck thoughtfully as you learn about the beheaded martyr St Ephisius when you stroll to the nearby Chiesa di Sant'Efisio.
After days of dusty sightseeing, your final stop is the sea. Recuperate in the waters of Poetto beach and dream deeply on its white dunes.
Anita Isalska is a travel writer and editor specialising in Europe, food and off-the-beaten-track travel. Follow her on Twitter @lunarsynthesis.