Sardegna (Sardinia) is a region with a special, semi-independent status within Italy and the Italian Parliament has also recognized the people who live here as a distinct "popolo". (Only the people of Veneto enjoy a similar distinction). But, Sardegna is distinguished in may other fascinating ways from the rest of Italy, and wholly deserving of its reputation as a unique, compelling and immensely interesting travel destination.
For instance, its earliest peoples, the Nuragi, had settled the island as long ago as 1700 BC. Unlike the Italic tribes who inhabited southern Italy and who were subjugated by Greek colonists, the Nuragia were displaced by Phoenicians who had been expelled from Egypt by the Pharaoh Amasis in about 1540 BC and another group who were expelled by Ramses III in about 1180 BC. The Phoenicians in turn fell into the orbit of the Cartheginians, who were conquered by the Romans in the First Punic War in 238 BC. After the Romans, control over the island fell into a variety of different hands, including that of the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Aragonese, and the French, to mention a few. Every group had its impact on Sardegnese life, architecture, culture and language.
The island, 200 kilometers west of mainland Italy, is also home to several animal and bird species not found elsewhere, and is not home to various species which are plentiful in other parts of Italy.
The waters around Sardegna still teem with fish and shell fish, and its coast is one of the most spectacular in the world, featuring soaring cliffs on some stretches and long dazzling beaches, where the water is crystal clear on others. The better-known coastal areas are Costa Rei (south) and Costa Smeralda (north) while hidden stretches of largely deserted coastline include Cala Gonone on the east coast and Costa Verde (aka the 'Silent Coast') on the west. The Costa Gennargentu is another popular beach and tourist hang-out.
The mountains of the interior are dotted with prickly pear, wild myrtle bushes and pine trees, the mountain valleys checkered with vineyards, olive groves, fields of wheat and pastures for grazing sheep, goats and cattle. They are also pocked with caves, some natural, and some carved as tombs by the early paleolithic peoples.
Gold and silver mining exist on a small scale, and there is a smattering of secondary and tertiary industry, and an emerging "information technology" industry, but the mainstay of the economy is agriculture (grapes, wheat, olives), food production (wine, bread, oil) and tourism.
Travelers can fly to Sardegna via the major airports at both ends of the Island, one in the south at Cagliari (Sardegna's capital city), and one in the north west at Alghero. Or, one can travel by way of ferry, leaving from various Italian ports, and ports from Sicily, Corsica, Spain, and France.
Some ferry's are able to take cars, but rental cars are available on the island. There are no super highways (Autostrade) but the secondary highways (Superstrade) are as good as anywhere on the mainland. The main road swings north from Cagliari to Oristano, then north of Oristano forks, with one branch going to Sassari and Alghero and the other to Olbia. The secondary and local roads, which are recommended if you really want to get off the beaten track, are variable in quality. The going can be slow.
Lots of travelers use the train, which can also be very slow, but one will see wonderful sites that are simply not visible from the roads. The "trenino verde" (little green train) from Cagliari, is recommended to the patient and curious.
If you know a little (or a lot) of standard Italian, you will get by. It has been taught in the area for a few generations. But, be prepared to find some people, particularly in out of the way places, and particularly amongst the old, totally incomprehensible. In reaches of the north, the language is a Corsican dialect. In San Pietro, it is Ligurian. People around Alghero speak Catalan, a Spanish dialect.
Sites to see, apart from the stunning landscape, include necropolises in Alghero, Villaperucio, and Montessu, which is set in a natural amphitheater. There are also stone constructions called "Menhirs" built by the Nurhagi, connected with fertility rites and ancestral worship. They are scattered about, but there is a concentration of them, and some curious tombs, at Goni in Gerrei.
The Sardegnese are said to be among the most devout of all Italians, and so it is not surprising that there are a multitude of churches from all of the post Roman Christian periods, including the present. The Sardegnese also enjoy festivals, and there are many throughout the year, during which the local people don colorful costumes and engage in evocative and emotional ritual, dance and drama.
The cuisine - well, delicious of course. In the port areas, try the seafood risotto which goes down well with a Nuragus white wine. Or try a shard of roast suckling pig (a fiesta dish) with a red Carignano. The pasta sauces are piquante, and the cheeses deeply flavorful.
Go to Sardenga by all means. It's one of the most wonderous places on earth. But, do not go to Sardegna on a whim. Pre-plan. It is a place - a cosmos all its own - that one needs to be prepared for.
Prices are the highest in July and especially August - the Sardegnese know how to pull money from a traveler's pocket! - but summers can be sizzlingly, make that blisteringly, hot, so Sardegna is not only less expensive to visit in the spring and fall, but more comfortable too. Of course, one can visit the island in winter too, but be forewarned, it can be cold (and many hotels are not open or, if they are, not heated except in a perfunctory way). The winter winds, coming from the north and west can howl and rage across entire island.