The Italian island of Sardinia is undoubtedly one of the Mediterranean’s most desirable holiday destinations with a number of established resorts along the Costa Smeralda in the north. On a recent trip Robin Nowacki explored the lesser known south of Sardinia – including a small idyllic island until now better known for tuna fishing than tourism – and the capital, Cagliari, which now has direct flights from the UK
Far flung across the Mediterranean Sea from mainland Italy the island of Sardinia boasts hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline mixed with an interior of forests and wild rugged mountains.
Vineyards and olive groves sit alongside ancient castles and even older archaeological sites, attractive bijou hotels and restaurants serve a distinctive and delicious Sardinian cuisine.
A few miles off the south west coast of Sardinia lies a small island called Saint Peter, where the population of the only town, Carloforte, reflect a unique diverse Mediterranean culture, made up of North African, Ligurian, and Sardinian influences.
Early in the 18th century a group of fishermen from the Ligurian coast (between St Remo and Genoa in modern day Italy) were invited by a North African Sultan to help him exploit the rich coral reeds that lay close to the Tunisian coast.
When the coral became exhausted in 1738, these fishermen were allowed to settle on the island of Saint Peter, by Carlo Emanuele III, King of Piedmont and Sardinia, the name Carloforte (Charles Fort) comes from that king’s name.
Today the population speak a variation of an old Ligurian language, different to what is spoken in the rest of the Sardinian, and Ligurian influences are also to be seen in Carloforte’s architecture, and in the town’s narrow alleys – the Caruggi – similar to those found in a Ligurian fishing village.
Since 1738 the sea and in particular the fishing of tuna has been an integral part of the lives of the inhabitants of Saint Peter, generations of skillful tuna fishermen, the tonnarotti, have successfully exploited the schools of tuna as they undertake their annual migration from the Atlantic Ocean in order to breed in the Mediterranean.
Traditionally in May each year in the shallow waters between Saint Peter and the main island of Sardinia the tonnarotti, using a complex pattern of fishing nets, spring an elaborate trap for the tuna culminating in a bloody ritual killing known as La Mattanza – the tuna slaughter.
When this takes place Saint Peter celebrates the ancient traditions and culture surrounding the Mattanza in a tuna festival known as Girotonno,
where tuna and other local food specialties are enjoyed with local wines alongside live music and entertainment.
Until recently the Japanese – crazy for fresh tuna for their Sushi – would fly the largest fish caught during La Mattanza straight to Japan, with some specimens fetching many thousands of Yen on the Tokyo fish markets.
Carloforte tuna products including those canned on the island are sold at a premium throughout Italy and beyond. Sadly the tuna fishing industry here is now in decline and the average size of the fish caught are just a fraction of what they were a decade ago. So now the inhabitants of Carloforte seek to attract tourists to their attractive old town of winding 18th century narrow streets, and the rest of the island of Saint Peter – so peaceful and rich in natural beauty.
Onto the harbour with views across to the mainland, is the charming family run 4* Hotel Hieracon (0039 078 185 4028), offering comfortable accommodation in a period setting, serving wonderful seafood, and excellent local wines.
While recommended for tuna specialties, including the superb lasagna, is the restaurant Osteria della Tonnara at Corso dei Ballalieri 36 (0039 855734). Other local specialties include Cashcà – a variant of North African couscous – steamed semolina mixed with cooked vegetables including artichokes, peas, broad beans and chick peas.
Carloforte can only be reached by ferry departing from Portovesme on the Sardinian coast, and from Calasetta on the neighbouring island of Sant’ Antioco, which is connected by a bridge to Sardinia.
By total contrast to the peace and quiet to be found on the isle of Saint Peter, to the South East of Sardinia is Cagliari, the island’s capital, with a total urban population of nearly 500,000.
Built on hills, into a valley, and onto the sea, Cagliari is a most attractive and elegant city with a medieval core packed with ancient churches, grand old townhouses, and a well preserved Roman amphitheater.
Here typical Sardinian cuisine, including a wonderful antipasti and the unique gourmet ice cream cone filled with fried calamari and prawns, is to be found at Trattoria Sa Piola, situated in an atmospheric medieval cellar. (Tel: Claudio Ara 070 666714). Also for seafood, La Paillote, with a sea view – situated above a private beach at Cala Figheira – about ten minutes’ drive from the City Centre.
ANCIENT NURAGHIC RUINS AND DESIGNER HOTELS
Long before Roman times, between the Bronze Age and around 600BC, the native Nuraghic people of Sardinia built stone settlements throughout the island – some large and very complex in structure – and a series of stone towers – many standing in splendid isolation on hill tops.
Perhaps the most fascinating site of ruins are to be found about a one hour drive north into the interior of Sardinia from Cagliari at Barumi Su Nuraxi, Unesco rated and situated in a beautiful natural setting. (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/833).
Situated in small town, hidden away, about 30 minutes drive from Barumi Su Nuraxi, is the superb, privately owned, 4* Hotel Tarthesh, at Via Parigi 1, Guspini, Medio Campidano, Sardinia.
This resort boasts fabulous rooms situated in a tasteful stone built complex surrounded by lush gardens leading to a beautiful swimming pool featuring natural rocks.
At night in the wine cellar guests enjoy wine tastings and a gourmet antipasti buffet before dining in style.