Sardinia has been occupied for some 150,000 years.
There is evidence of human settlement in Sardinia from the Old Stone Age — at least 150,000 years ago. A significant population of early agricultural villages evolved in the Neolithic era, around 8000 BCE. Part of its prosperity was due to obsidian, a hard black glassy volcanic rock excellent for making sharp tools and arrow-heads, which was exported throughout the Mediterranean. A religion based on the worship of a mother or fertility goddess was practised, and small images are common finds in Sardinia.
Sardinia flourished in the Bronze Age as copper was found and mined, worked and exported. The population became diverse, including people from the western and eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa. The most remarkable innovation in this era was construction of the first nuraghe, a defensive structure developed in the late 2nd millenium BCE. Nuraghe are circular defensive towers in the form of truncated cones, built of dressed stone, with corbel-vaulted internal chambers. Over 7,000 still exist in Sardinia today.
Tourism is now generating new opportunities, but outside the capital and the many beach resorts, Sardinia retains the air of a pre-industrial relic of an older Europe.
Cagliari, the capital
Sardinia’s capital, Cagliari, stands on Sardinia’s best harbour, with an easily defensible hill above it and a fertile plain stretching behind. The Stampace quarter in the lower town is picturesque and best known for the church dedicated to Cagliari’s patron, Sant’ Efisio. The upper town or Castello is fortified and contains a Pisan tower, a pink Baroque cathedral, and the 18th century university building. Next to the cathedral stands the former viceroy’s palace, while on the highest point stands the second Pisan tower, Torre di San Pancrazio, dating from around 1300. Nearby are the National Archaeological Museum and the Pinacoteca or art gallery. The east end of Cagliari, laid out in the 19th century, is the modern city centre but also contains some of Sardinia’s oldest churches.
Places of interest in Sardinia
- About 60 kilometres north of Cagliari is one of the largest complexes of nuraghe in Sardinia, Su Nuraxi du Barumini. It was buried until 1949 when a Sard archaeologist decided to investigate an ancient well there. Su Nuraxi was later surrounded by four towers and a massive curtain wall, and has a network of narrow passages and stairways. The whole tower is tightly surrounded by a cluster of round stone huts, forming a large village — possibly the Sards’ capital or chief trading centre.
- Nora is Sardinia’s best example of a Roman provincial city, with paved streets over a sewage system, a forum, temples, a theatre, baths, and a medical centre dedicated to the Greek god of healing, Aesclepios.
- The nearby modern village of Pula has an archaeological museum containing the findings of 19th century excavations, including Carthaginian tombstones and Greek vases, as well as Roman and Byzantine items.
- Wild and rocky Capo Spartivento is capped with a lighthouse. Beyond it the south coast is ruggedly beautiful, a succession of limestone cliffs and sandy beaches.
- The Archipelago of La Maddalena is seven small islands and about 40 rocky islets off the northern coast. They were recently declared a national park both for their natural beauty and for the rare flora and fauna which are found there. A small archaeological museum displays a Roman shipwreck of 120 BCE, including its cargo of wine — or at least the amphorae (large ceramic jars). The best way to visit the archipelago is by private boat.
- Set in a spectacular setting at the foot of Monte Ortobene, the village of Nuoro was made the seat of a bishopric in the 18th century but was still tiny when it became a provincial capital in 1927. Its old quarter is a charming maze of lanes and contains the Museum of Sardinian Life and Popular Traditions featuring clothing and jewellery, furniture and tapestries, musical instruments, carnival masks and figures used in traditional festivals.
- The highest peaks of the Barbagia (a mountain area in inner Sardinia) are known as the Gennargentu (‘silver gate’ from the Latin Janua argenti) Mountains, made of granite and shiny schist. Made a National Park against bitter opposition from the villagers, the forest below the silvery peaks includes holm oaks, maple, and dwarf juniper. It is the habitat of golden and Bonelli eagles, royal kites, European vultures, wild cats, boar and mouflon (mountain sheep).
- With a population of 120,000, Sassari is Sardinia’s second largest city and has the air of an independent medieval city. In the late 19th century the city fathers demolished the old Aragonese fortress which had become a symbol of oppression. The town still contains some Catalan gothic palazzi and Baroque churches; the oldest, Santa Maria di Betlem, founded in 1106, is older than the town itself. The cathedral, San Nicola, was rebuilt in the 15th century in the Catalan gothic style, and in the 18th century an exceptionally beautiful Baroque façade was added.
- Alghero, on the west coast, overlooks a great bay with some of Sardinia’s finest beaches, making it a leading tourist centre. It is both beautiful and distinctive — and more Spanish than Sardinian. The town centre contains a 14th century Franciscan church, Catalan gothic palazzi and a 16th century cathedral, but perhaps its finest feature is the surviving portions of the medieval walls, especially the sea walls with their seven towers.
Corsica, a jewel in the Mediterranean sea.
Corsica lies about 150 kilometres south east of the French mainland, 70 kilometres from mainland Italy and 15 kilometres north of Sardinia. It has a high, craggy coastline, and a mountainous interior covered with forest and scrub (called maquis), cut by fertile valleys. Crops flourish in the rich valley soils; grapes, other fruit, vegetables, olives and tobacco are grown, while its forests include cork-oak, chestnut and pine. Sheep graze in the mountains — wool and cheese are important exports — and fishing produces sardines; granite and marble are quarried. The rugged scenery, beaches and colourful villages have made Corsica highly attractive to tourists.
Ajaccio, the capital
Corsica’s largest town has palm trees, cafés and yachts, and looks like a typical French Mediterranean resort, but it’s overlooked by a citadel founded by the Bank of St George in 1492. Since World War II, tourism has become Ajaccio’s most important economic activity, assisted by the fact that it is the birthplace of the most famous Corsican ever — Napoleon.
He was born in a grand mansion now called the Maison Bonaparte. After the family vacated it hurriedly in 1793 it suffered many vicissitudes until it was acquired by the French government in 1923 and made into a museum of the Bonaparte family.
Highlights of Ajaccio
- The Palais Fesch was the home of Napoleon’s step-uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, who became a noted art collector, picking up bargains in the wake of the French army’s looting of Italy, Holland and Germany. The Cardinal bequeathed much of his collection — which includes works by Titian, Botticelli and Poussin — to Ajaccio, housed in what is now the Palais Fesch Musee des Beaux Arts.
- Built on a narrow peninsula at Corsica’s southernmost point, Bonifacio’s upper town rises superbly above sheer cliffs, surrounded by immense fortifications. The sole entrance to the upper town from the port is protected by eight gates and a drawbridge.
- Founded in the 5th century BCE by Greeks from Syracuse, Porto-Vecchio disappeared in the Dark Ages due to pirates and malaria, but was re-founded by the Bank of St George in 1540. It’s sited on a magnificent harbour in the southeast part of the island and is now a crowded port and holiday resort, especially popular with Italians. The old town high above the port is still enclosed in its Genoese walls.
- Sartene was formed in the 10th century when villagers congregated in a safer place to escape from Arab raids. Often a refuge for bandits, Sartene was also notorious for vendettas until the mid-19th century. In the main square is the 16th century Hotel de Ville, formerly the palace of the Genoese governors. Behind it lies the old Santa Anna quarter, a web of alleys and steep steps, with a jumble of dark stone houses and noblemen’s mansions evoking medieval Corsica.
- Propriano, on the Golfe de Valinco, was used by Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. The small town was subject to Pisa and later the Genoese, but its vulnerability to pirate raids led Propriano to decline into a fishing village. It revived in the 19th century as a ferry and commercial port, and more recently as a tourist destination, its attractions being beautiful beaches, good sailing and diving sites.
- Filitosa is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe. It was occupied by Neolithic farmers from 6000 BCE, but it was invaders around 3500-3000 BCE who created the first menhirs. When the torreens (towerbuilders) conquered Filitosa in about 1300 BCE, they destroyed most of the menhirs by incorporating them into the walls around the three towers they built here. The archaeological site, discovered only in 1948, consists of a number of groups of menhirs and other structures.
- The coast of the Golfe de Porto is one of Corsica’s most famous landscapes, and a UNESCO World Heritage listed nature reserve. It occupies the Scandola peninsula, an impressive, porphyritic rock mass. The vegetation is an outstanding example of scrubland. Seagulls, cormorants and sea eagles can be found there. The clear waters, with their islets and inaccessible caves, host a rich marine life.
- High on the island’s central spine, just north of its geographic centre, Corte has been the capital of Corsica on three occasions. Corte was centre-stage in the War of Independence, Corsica’s constitution was proclaimed here, and in 1765 Pasquale Paoli founded the island’s only university. In the heart of the old town is Place Paoli, with a 19th century statue of the hero. From here historic Rue Scholastica leads to Place Gaffori, with another statue, and Paoli’s house which still bears bullet holes from the siege of 1750. The 16th century Palazzu Nazionale is nearby. One tower from Vincentello d’Istria’s citadel survives. The rest was adapted as a fortress barracks, housing the French Foreign Legion 1962-1983, and is now the Museum of Corsica.
- Calvi was originally a Roman port. The Bank of St George enlarged the citadel and in the 1550s it twice survived sieges by the French who were allied with the Turks. In the 1960s, Calvi was discovered by some of the European elite and it became an alternative to the Riviera, possessing not only a spectacular beach but also a night-club belonging to an exiled Russian prince. With its yacht marina on the bay and snow-capped mountains in the background, it now flourishes as a holiday resort. The citadel’s ramparts and three mighty bastions loom over the harbour; inside is the Genoese governor’s palace, now an army barracks; and the cathedral of St John the Baptist, rebuilt in 1570 in the Renaissance style.
- Bastia was the capital of the island under the Genoese. It is less concerned with tourism than elsewhere, and still retains a very Italian flavour. The Vieux Port (old port) is perhaps the most atmospheric part of town, now a backwater but lively at night. The Citadelle, or Terra Nova, has been beautifully restored and contains the Palais des Gouverneurs, part of which contains the Corsican Museum of Ethnography and History, including the ancient Genoese dungeons of the palace.
- A picturesque road follows the coast around the narrow mountainous peninsula of Cap Corse, pointing like a finger towards Italy. It boasts spectacular cliff scenery, weathered watchtowers guarding its coves and fishing villages, a few vineyards and maquis covering the hillsides.
- Saint-Florent was originally a Roman and Byzantine town, and is named for Florent, a bishop exiled here by the Vandals. He was a holy and revered pastor, and a local cult developed around his grave, which, despite the theft of his relics to Treviso a few centuries later, continued. Its outstanding monument is the Pisan Romanesque cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, isolated in a field just outside the little town. Built around 1140 of honey-coloured limestone, the basilica has wonderfully carved capitals and an elegant harmonious interior. The citadel, built in 1439, is the only large round tower in Corsica. It was reduced to ruins by British bombardment in 1794, but has recently been restored.
- The little harbour of L’Ile Rousse, flanked by red porphyry rocks, has three sandy beaches and the mildest winters in Corsica, ensuring it has flourished as a holiday resort. With its plane trees and palms along the promenade, covered market and restaurants, and games of boules in the square, it resembles the French Riviera. Just behind the little town are three charming old villages in the olive groves, with Romanesque and Baroque churches and ruined castles.