Nelson’s island idyll: Craggy coves, rich vistas and a history to rival Rome – no wonder our great sea lord was so enamoured of Sardinia
- Teresa Levonian Cole visited the Italian island, which is popular with the likes of the Clooneys and Elton John
- She gave the enclave of Costa Smeralda a swerve and headed for the ‘unspoilt wilderness’ of Gallura
- In Aggius, she visited the Museum of Banditry – it details the island’s lawlessness from 16th to 19th century
Standing beneath the belly of the bear, I’m gazing out to sea. In the gloaming, the amethyst hills of the Maddalena islands rise from the glassy waters.
For 15 months in this peaceful setting, Nelson’s fleet lay in wait for the French navy, which the admiral would ultimately meet at Trafalgar. His single eye would have spied the rock where I am standing — a landmark first recorded by the proto-geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd Century AD.
Bear Rock gives Capo d’Orso (Cape Bear) its name. This massive hunk of granite, sculpted into zoomorphic form by the erosive action of salt water spray and wind, stands at 400ft and is typical of the dramatic landscape of Gallura.
Sensational scenery: In a letter to the Admiralty, Lord Nelson called Sardinia ‘the finest island in the Mediterranean’. Pictured is Capo Caccia
This region of north-east Sardinia is renowned for its grey and pinkish rocks, which sprout both inland and on the coast, worn either into similarly sculptural shapes (known as tafoni) or moulded into smooth curves that make perfect natural armchairs on the beach.
When asked, ‘Why Sardinia?’, I point to this landscape and to the crystalline waters that — with strict anti-pollution laws in place — are surely among the purest in the Mediterranean.
Add to this the pervasive fragrance of the macchia, that ubiquitous scrubland of juniper, myrtle, lavender, wild olive, thyme and more (perfect ingredients for gin, as it happens) and you are as close to sensory bliss as it gets.
While celebrities such as the Clooneys, Elton John and Abbey Clancy prefer Costa Smeralda — the once-glamorous enclave created by the Aga Khan in the 1960s and now owned by Qatari investors — I give it a wide berth, preferring Gallura’s wilderness: unspoilt and virtually unchanged since my first visit 25 years ago.
Well before the dreaded pandemic, I stay at the delightful, family-owned Capo d’Orso hotel, the terraces of which excel at Negroni o’clock, and whose rooms afford views of spectacular sunrises.
The Galluran coast is frayed with tiny beaches and each morning I stroll the narrow coastal path from my hotel, meeting only the occasional tortoise, to bathe in a secluded cove, the only sounds those of the ripples in my wake. Surrounded by nature’s heady perfumes, intoxication begins at dawn.
Hire a car and you’ll find Gallura yields her secrets slowly in this rugged terrain — a ‘precipitous and craggily involved land threaded through and through with roads,’ as D. H. Lawrence wrote on his visit in 1921. We reach the pretty hilltop town of Aggius — designated a Borgo Autentico d’Italia for its authentic stone houses and labyrinthine cobbled lanes — venturing en route through forests of cork oak, their lower trunks red and peeling. Along the way, cows and goats dot a landscape divided by dry-stone walls, the tinkle of their handmade bells an ever-present soundtrack.
The Galluran coast, pictured, is frayed with tiny beaches, says Teresa. She adds that Gallura’s wilderness is ‘unspoilt and virtually unchanged since my first visit 25 years ago’
Aggius was once famed for its carpet-weaving but today, just six women still practise the craft. I meet one of them, tending a small shop selling local produce — olive oil, pecorino cheese, cork souvenirs, the rare, bitter honey made from the arbutus tree, and hand-woven bath mats.
‘You must try the local drink,’ she insists, pouring cups of sour-sweet myrtle liqueur as the clock strikes 11am. ‘And you should visit our Museum of Banditry.’
The only museum of its kind, it details the tough conditions that led to the lawlessness which reigned in these lands from the 16th to the 19th centuries — and which inspired the famous folk tale of Il Muto di Gallura, about a murderous, love-lorn deaf-mute. ‘It is being made into a film,’ says my guide proudly, ‘and I’m in charge of the locations.’
My guide is Paoluccio, location scout and former fireman, who drives a fire engine- red Land Rover with abandon. We bounce offroad to see one of the mysterious Bronze Age Giants’ Tombs, of which there are more than 300 dotted around Sardinia.
Like the Nuraghe — unexplained conical stone towers surrounded by round dwellings — these structures date from the so-called Nuragic civilization, some 4,000 years ago. This tomb, Pascaredda, is in the middle of an overgrown nowhere, reached via a path lined with blackberry bushes, wild pear and plum, its 20 monolithic stele (slabs) shaped in a semicircle around a ceremonial entrance.
The old town on Maddalena, the main island in the eponymous archipelago and the only officially inhabited one
Hotel Capo D’Orso Thalasso & Spa (hotelcapodorso.com) from £160pp per night, half-board. Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2288, kirkerholidays.com) offers tailor-made holidays to Sardinia including flights and private transfers/car hire, from £698 pp for a three-night holiday.
Behind, there extends a long stone-covered burial mound. ‘Up to 200 skeletons have been found in a single grave,’ explains Paoluccio. ‘From above, the overall shape is of a uterus, while the entrance, facing the rising sun, is also symbolic of rebirth.’
It’s hot among these ancient stones and the sea beckons.
From Palau, we take a 20-minute ferry ride to Maddalena, the main island in the eponymous archipelago and the only officially inhabited one, then cross the bridge to Caprera — Goat Island.
A walker’s paradise, it has trails leading through forests where wild boar lurk, up to fortifications and down to pristine beaches.
Garibaldi, Italy’s national hero and a key figure in the unification of his country, fell in love with Caprera — and ended up buying the entire island.
From 1855, he spent the last 26 years of his life here with his family, indulging his passion for agriculture while entertaining statesmen in his ranch-style ‘White House’.
A visit to the property, full of memorabilia and personal effects — Garibaldi’s copper bathtub remains in the stables, where it was placed among his horses, for warmth — is a highlight not to be missed.
Nature, history, culture — Sardinia has it all. ‘The finest island in the Mediterranean,’ Lord Nelson called it, in a letter to the Admiralty. And although he may have had more strategic considerations in mind, one would be tempted to agree.
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