Sardinia's breathtaking natural wonders and rich cultural heritage
The islanders have an old saying that describes their often difficult relationship with the sea: "Furat chie venit da-e su mare" – "Those who come across the sea, come to steal". Sardinia has attracted invaders throughout its history. Again and again over the centuries, this small island in the western Mediterranean was conquered and occupied by foreign armies - Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Pisans, Genoese, Aragonese and Italians. For many years, the lives of the island people were marked by exploitative social structures, poverty, hunger and deprivation, with the result that they were disadvantaged in many areas of life.
We still do not know who were the first people to live on Sardinia or where they came from. Thanks to archaeological finds dating back up to 450,000 years, experts have been able to trace the island's history back to the early Stone Age. Many other archaeological sites, some quite mysterious, have been uncovered from the Phoenician, Carthago-Roman, early Christian, Romanesque and Spanish periods, revealing a very creative and productive heritage. It was during the transition from the Copper Age to the Bronze Age that the Nuraghic culture developed on Sardinia. Even today, experts regard this civilisation as one of the greatest early historical island cultures in the Mediterranean region. Their symbol was the nuraghe. The Nuraghic period lasted from 1800 B.C. up to 238 B.C., when the island was conquered by the Romans. Other sites of great archaeological value on the island include the early Christian Domus de Janas (burial chambers), the Giants' Graves, the anthropomorphic menhirs and menhir statues, the Well Temples and ancient classical temples, hot springs, amphitheatres, country villas and medieval churches.
Nuraghi – Sardinia's mysterious towers
Nuraghi are huge domed circular towers made of stone blocks weighing as much as several tons. The towers contained one or more round chambers built on top of each other with small niches. They date back to the second millennium B.C. and are one of the island's most important symbols. The nuraghi towers, of which so far around 7,000 have been discovered, were constructed without using mortar and enclosed on the inside in the form of a corbelled vault. Some nuraghi have the appearance of a small village with additional towers, walls and stone huts. Some of the most famous nuraghi are the Nuraghe Losa near Abbasanta and the nuraghi complex Su Nuraxi near Barumini, which was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1997. It is also worth visiting the nuraghe Palmavera near Alghero, the nuraghe Santu Antine near Torralba, Su Mulinu near Villanovafranca and the nuraghe Arrubiu near Orroli. "Tiscali", a nuraghe settlement located in a sinkhole on the mountain of the same name near Oliena, is also extremely interesting.
The Sardinian flag
The origins of Sardinia's own regional flag are shrouded in legend, although attempts have been made to provide a historical foundation. The flag is made up of four Moors' heads wearing headbands and a red cross. It is fairly certain that the cross of St. George stands for the liberation of the island from the Saracens, as it was also the symbol of the crusaders whose aim was to free the Holy Land from the Arabs. According to one of many theories, the flag was awarded to the island by the pope in 1015. Another attempt to explain its origins suggests that the flag goes back to the royal house of Aragon and originally symbolised the four Spanish battles for liberation from the occupying Moors. When they later annexed Sardinia, the Spaniards brought their flag with them to the island. During the Middle Ages, it was then adopted by the islanders who reinterpreted it to become a symbol for the four Sardinian judicial republics. In most earlier versions of the flag, the Moors are shown wearing blindfolds. Today, the flag is intended to symbolise the Sardinian independence movement. The Moors are shown wearing a headband rather than a blindfold as a sign of liberation and emancipation. In its present form, the Sardinian flag has been in use since 1999.
On Sardinia, you can find a festival for almost every day of the year. There is hardly a village and certainly not a single town without its wonderful processions, exciting horse races, fireworks and food festivals to celebrate its patron saint, important dates in the church year or the changing seasons. The festivities are nearly always dominated by ancient customs, music, dancing, horses and delicious Sardinian food. It is also common for festivals to continue over several days of magnificent celebrations. For an insight into the sheer variety of Sardinian culture, it is worth visiting the carnival celebrations in Mamoiada (Sant’Antonio Abate) and Oristano (Sa Sartiglia), the costume parade in honour of Sant’Efisio in Cagliari and the ceremonial Easter procession Lunissanti in Castelsardo. The famous Cortes Apertas are held in the autumn in the interior of the island. As well as displays of craftsmanship by local artisans, visitors can sample typical regional delicacies in many towns. Sardinia's culinary prowess does not stop there, however, as you can see at the honey nougat festival in Tonara or the peach festival in San Sperate.
The first murals were painted in the late 1960s in the mountain village of Orgosolo. The walls of this once-infamous bandit village are decorated with over 150 murals depicting the fight against fascism, capitalism, war, the arms race, hunger and apartheid. In 1968, the idea was taken up by the sculptor Pinuccio Sciola who recruited local people and artists from all over the world to help him whitewash the walls of the "museum village" of San Sperate north of the island's capital Cagliari and then paint them with a variety of subjects. The project is still in progress to this day.
Craftwork and souvenirs
Sardinia has a long tradition of craftwork, an important economic activity on the island. You will find hand-woven carpets, wall decorations, bed covers, curtains and towels made of cotton or wool in traditional colours with elegant patterns handed down over many years or reinterpretations of symbols and designs from the nuraghe period. Planargia, Sinnai and Castelsardo are home to traditional basket workers using asphodel, rushes and dwarf palm. Other favourites are everyday items made of cork, ceramic with traditional and neo-Sardinian patterns and filet work from Bosa. Dorgali, Bosa and Cagliari have established a reputation for intricate filigree gold jewellery, while Alghero is famous for sumptuous coral work. Among the other popular items made by local artisans are the typical Sardinian shepherd's knife, serving spoons and sideboard plates as well as wooden carnival masks. Handcrafted gifts and souvenirs can be found all over the island, and many artisans sell their products directly to the public.
Sardinia has numerous museums. First and foremost, it boasts a rich collection of archaeological finds at the island's largest museum, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Cagliari, closely followed by the Museo Sanna in Sassari and the Antiquarium Arborense in Oristano. There is also space for the island's more recent past. The industrial museums in Sulcis and Medio Campidano are devoted to the history of mining in Sardinia, and in Cagliari there are two museums that examine the development of railways on the island. Some of the most important ethnological exhibits are the costume museum in Nuoro and the mask museum in Mamoiada. A number of museums are dedicated to famous historical and more recent characters. These include the Casa di Gramsci in Ghilarza, a museum in honour of the Nobel prize-winner for literature Grazia Deledda in Nuoro and the last residence of the Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi on Caprera. Touring exhibitions can be found at several cultural centres in Cagliari, the Sa Corona Arrubia museum in Villanovaforru and the MAN in Nuoro. For a more unusual experience, it is well worth a visit to San Sperate near Cagliari. The entire village is one large open-air museum with a great variety of art and culture. Museums are closed all over the island on Mondays.
Sardinia has a long tradition of polyphonic vocal music. The cantigos are performed by men and are written for three or four voices. The words and tunes are handed down by oral tradition. They are composed according to a strict format and deal with everyday situations. There are many who believe that the cantigos evolved from Gregorian chant, although as yet there is no scientific evidence to confirm this theory. To mark the many religious festivals on the island, polyphonic choirs usually perform songs based on religious themes. Some of the best-known exponents of Sardinian vocal music are the groups Cuncordu e Tenores de Orosei, Tenores Remundu e Cocu de Bitti and the Coro di Neoneli. Sardinia also has its own traditional musical instruments including the Launeddas and Solittos (woodwind instruments), the Tumbarineddu (drum) and the Organittu (accordion). One well-known band that plays a fusion of Sardinian sounds and pop music is the ethno-pop group Janas. Sardinia is an absolute must for jazz fans, too. One of Europe's most important jazz festivals is organised every year in Berchidda by the famous Sardinian jazz trumpeter Paolo Fresu.
The Sardinian language
Although Italian is now the dominant language for everyday use and in the media, almost all the islanders speak Sardinian. Italian and Sardinian are often used side by side or even mixed together. Sardinian is an independent romance language with a great many variants, a very ancient language with a clear Latin base and pre-Indoeuropean, Semitic and Arabic words. There are five main dialects - Nuorese, Sassarese, Gallurese, Logudorese and Campidanese - although even these can vary from one village to the next. In terms of its vocabulary and pronunciation, Sardinian is closer to Latin and Spanish than to Italian. There is no standard form of written Sardinian. Only a few places on the island have the name of the town or village written in two languages. The island even has its own minority languages. In Alghero, a Spanish bridgehead for many years, many of the inhabitants still speak Catalan. Tabarchino, the dialect of migrants from Liguria, is spoken on the island of San Pietro in south-west Sardinia and in the small nearby town of Calasetta.
In den 1950s, the only places on the island set up for tourism were Alghero in the north-west and Cagliari in the south. In the 1960s, an international investment group headed by the Ishmaelite prince Karim Aga Khan created an exclusive resort on the Costa Smeralda in the north-east with yachting marinas and luxury hotels. In the decades that followed, this area saw the development of numerous comfortable hotel complexes and smaller hotels. Today's visitors have a much wider choice of accommodation, with everything from agriturismos, bed & breakfasts and apartment hotels to campsites and holiday homes. The tourism industry did not develop on Sardinia until quite late, so the island has not been marred by the widespread construction of huge hotel complexes or by mass tourism. As a result, especially compared to other Mediterranean islands such as Majorca, Ibiza and Crete, Sardinia remains a more exclusive and relatively expensive destination. The majority of the island's tourists come from the Italian mainland, followed by a much smaller proportion of German-speaking visitors who make up the second biggest group of holidaymakers.
Symbols of the island
Sardinia's most famous symbol, the nuraghe, can be found all over the island. Around 7,000 of these gigantic stone towers have been preserved. Another symbol of the island, the Roccia dell' Orso, can be seen near Palau on the Capo D'Orso in the north-east. The enormous, bear-shaped granite rock towers over the cape like a silent guardian. Flamingos, too, known by the locals as Sa Genti Arrubia, the red people, are also emblematic of Sardinia. Until just a few years ago, the birds mostly came to spend the winter on the island. Today, more and more flamingos are rearing their young in Sardinia's lagoons. From April through to May, the high plateau of Gennargentu is strewn with the pink flowers of the wild peony (Peonia Corallina). There are many myths surrounding this symbol of the island. According to legend, Apollo used the peony to heal the wounds of his fellow gods injured during the Trojan War.