Nature and Art in Sardinia

Sardinia is an island in every sense of the word; its culture is of native origin, it lies a long way from the mainland and it still astonishes the visitor by the violent natural contrasts between its bare, rocky coasts and its gentle rolling inland plateau, and by the variety of cultures found there. The prehistoric period is more a living fact, and has more evidence above ground than in most places, mingling, in a way which is sometimes fascinating, with modern life.

The most notable feature of this is the building fever which has taken the islanders since Sardinia was opened up to tourists, and which has attacked a society still for the most part patriarchal. The original inhabitants had a lively and original taste in building which is found in the famous nuraghs, and were no mean sculptors, as can be seen from the quantity of, local bronzes. The Greek world hardly touched Sardinia, and in the great carve-up of the Mediterranean in classical times it fell under the domination of the Phoenicians, then of the Carthaginians.

Rome then assimilated it and left its mark, more notable here than in many parts of the Italian mainland. It was fought for by Genoa and Pisa during the Middle Ages, while developing autonomous forms of government, such as the a giudicato, unusual among medieval political institutions.

The Aragonese held it until the 18th century, when it became part of the territory of the Kingdom of Sardinia, from which the modern state of Italy grew.

The itinerary:

OLBIA, a pretty seaport town with one of the finest Romanesque churches on the island, San Simplicio (11 th century), elegant and intact in its simple lines, in an isolated position. But our attention is mainly drawn by the astonishing richness of the natural beauty afforded by the views of the jagged coastline which consists of three bays as we go north from Olbia, the Bays of Armed, Marinella and Arzachena. The central stretch of this wonderful landscape of rocks, caves and beaches is the “Emerald Coast”, whose recent tourist development is Sardinia’s strongest holiday attraction today . The road from Arzachena to Palau is a succession of of breath-taking view. among rocky hill and valleys strewn with great boulders of granite which give an unmistakable impression of the prehistory of mankind.

La Maddalena Island - Photo © fredducci
La Maddalena Island – Photo © fredducci

At Palau, take the ferry to the Island of the Maddalena, whence one can reach by motor-road, through a pinewood, the adjoining Island of Caprera, famous as the last home of Garibaldi who died here and was buried near his home, which is now a museum open to the public.

Setting off again from Palau we take the road to Santa Teresa Gallura (25 km. – 16 3/4 mi.) on the northernmost point of Sardinia, within sight of Corsica. At nearby Capo Testa, landing place for ships in the Middle Ages, round columns on the beach remind us that the Romans passed this way. One can spend the night either at Santa Teresa or go inland to Tempio Pausania, the chief town of the Gallura district, in a fine hilly landscape.

The granite of its buildings gives it a certain sober elegance, even through the forms are rustic and tugged. There is a fine Romanesque Oratory with Baroque additions, a Cathedral founded in the 15th century and some of the houses have fine façades.

From Tempio, go down to the River Coghinas (66 m.-206 ft) to climb again to Perfugas, with the fine Aragonese-Gothic church of San Giorgio; in the interior, a fine altar-piece by an early 16th century Sardinian painter; continue west to the turning for Castel Sardo; shortly after haying taken this turning we come to the impressive Pisan Romanesque church of San Pietro delle Immagini (13th cent.) of black and white stone, lust before entering Bulzi. In a splendid landscape, now climb up to Sedini (8.5 km. (5 1/4 mi.) from the turning) with the fine church of Sant’Andrea (1517) in Aragonese style and the picturesque Domus de janas, an ancient tomb complex later transformed into dwellings. Near the town the picturesque ruins of San Nicola de Silanis, Lombard-Benedictine of the 1211, century.

Past Campo di Sedini, a wonderful marine landscape opens up. High up to the right we see the ruins of the Roman Baths of Castel Doria and those of an ancient castle. On the way down we pass the trachylic mass known as The Elephant because of its shape and arrive at Cartel Sardo, a town of Genoese origin, on a promontory with picturesque streets, and a late Gothic Cathedral in which there are some important paintings by local artists. From Castel Sardo, go west towards the coast road, passing Porto di Frigiano, with a Spanish Tower, to arrive at the nearby Nostra Signora de Tergu, now in ruins but once the finest Benedictine monastery in Sardinia (11th cent.). Twenty-one km. (13 mi.) from Castel Sardis is Sorso near which there are several nuraghi. Another 14 km. (8 3/4 mi.) brings us to PORTO TORRES.

PORTO TORRES a harbor of Carthaginian origin, with a fine Roman Bridge, ruins of baths, a 14th century Watch-Sower and the beautiful Pisan-Lombard basilica of San Gavino (11th century) with a magnificent Portal and important Roman Sarcophagus (3dr century) in the interior. Nineteen kilometers from Porto Torres and we are at SASSARI.

Sassari - Photo © new_reads
Sassari – Photo © new_reads

SASSARI provincial capital of medieval origin, with a lively and imaginative Cathedral in Spanish Colonial style with fine Gothic interior (inside, Madonna by 14th century Florentine artist); the Romanesque church of Santa Maria di Betlem with an elegant 13th century fountain in the cloister. The National Museum houses a rich archaeological collection and a Picture Gallery with works by Sardinian and Tuscan Primitives, a Madonna by Bartolomeo Vivarini, another by the Flemish painter Mabuse and some 1711, century canvases including a St. Anne by Stanzione. We now set off again for Alghero, making a long detour in the environs to see some magnificent architecture, the Abbey of the Santissima Trinita (16.5 km. – 10 mi. from Sassari) in a lonely setting full of colour and charm, a wonderful example of the Pisan Romanesque style; in the interior, frescoes by a 13th century painter from Latium.

We now continue to climb as far as Ardara and the elegant Lombard Romanesque church of Santa Maria del Regno, comprising nave and two aisles, plain and solemn with an altarpiece by a late Gothic painter. Running through the hills for 13 km. (8 mi.) we reach State Highway SS 131 which we take to Torralba, after which comes the junction with SS 131 bis; close by are two of the most imposing and famous nuraghi, that of S. Antine and that called Oes (Ox), o fa particularly striking shape. We now take SS 131 bis for Alghero; near the town of Thiesi is Borutta with a fine Pisan Romanesque church, San Pietro di Sorres (12th century). Passing through Ittiri, another 16 km. (10 mi.) brings us to ALGHERO.

ALGHERO, once a stronghold of the Genovese Doria family, then an Aragonese domain; here we shall spend the night. The Catalan Gothic Cathedral stands in a typical medieval setting, with San Fran-cesco (16th century cloister) and Casa Doria; on the sea front rises the round Torre di Sulis, a remnant of the Renaissance fortifications. From Alghero a trip of 13 km. (8 mi.) northwards takes us along a fascinating coastline to Capo Caccia, an extraordinary cliff of pink limestone overlooking the sea, in which opens the unreal, magical Grotto of Neptune, one of the natural wonders of the Mediterranean. Returning to Alghero we now take State Highway SS 292 which rises towards Monteleone (many nuraghi in the neighbourhood) and on through fine hill country to Padria (49 km. – 30 mi.), an ancient town of prehistoric origin, with the church of Santa Giulia, Aragonese Gothic (1520). A short trip of 12 km. (7 1/2 mi.) brings us back on to State Highway SS 131. Just before the road junction is Semestene, where stands the small Romanesque church of San Niccolo di Trullas. Following the state highway for another 17 km. (10 3/4 mi.) we arrive at MACOMER.

MACOMER, where we can spend the night. Half a day might be given up to exploring the hinterland of Macomer; take State Highway 129 to Silanus (10 km. 6 1/4 mi.) famous for its prehistoric architecture (nuraghi) and its medieval buildings such as the pre-Romanesque church of Santa Sarbana and the Romanesque church of San Lorenzo, the two elements blending perfectly: in the far distance, the massif of Monte Gennargentu. Going back to Macomer, we turn south, to reach Abbasanta after 16 km. (10 mi.), near which stands, just outside the town, the Losa Nuraghe, one of the most important on the island. From Abbasanta, a short trip of 5 km. (3 mi.) east through Ghilarza and Zuri with the two churches of San Palmerio and San Pietro brings use to the shores of Lake Omodeo, formed after 1923 by the building of the great dam across the River Tirso. Now returning to the State Highway, we reach Tramatza after a further 21 km. (13 mi.). From here, a detour to the right of 6 km. (3 3/4 mi.) brings us to Mills where stands the little church of San Paolo in the midst of orange groves. Returning to the State Highway we now rapidly reach ORISTANO.

ORISTANO (51 km. – 32 mi. from Macomer). It has some fine 16th century house fronts, a medieval Tower, a Cathedral of the high Middle Ages rebuilt in the 18th century. Spending the night at Oristano we set off south the next morning. We pass the church of Santa Giusta, one of the finest examples of Sardinian Romanesque, on a high knoll. We are now running through the pleasant plain of Campidano.

At a turning 16 km. (10 mi.) from Oristano we leave State Highway 126 on the right and continue along SS 131; after Uras we begin to climb slowly among hills and nuraghi: after 14 km. we arrive at Sardara with the fine little Romanesque Gothic church of San Gregorio. At Sanluri (10 km. – 6 1/4 mi. from Sardara) we turn right on the State Highway SS 197 which brings us to Guspini (24 km. – 15 mi.) at the foot of Monte Arcuentu. We now take SS 126 and after 4.5 km. (2 3/4 mi.) we are at Arbus; the road now runs along the edge of the plateau with fine views over the sea.

We pass Fluminimaggiore and enter on a fine run through rocky gorges and valleys covered with olives, almond-trees and ilexes, to arrive at IGLESIAS.

IGLESIAS (52 km. – 32 1/2 mi, from Guspini). This is a town of medieval origin with some fine churches, the Cathedral of 1288, the Gothic San Francesco and Santa Maria di Valverde (13th cent.) with a beautiful facade. We spend the night at Iglesias and set out again, leaving the mining town of Carbonia on our left to reach San Giovanni Suergiu (30 km. – 18 3/4 mi. from Iglesias); here we go on to the nearby Island of Sant’Antioco over a Roman Bridge to arrive at Calasetta, a picturesque little town of Oriental appearance overlooking the sea (20 km. – 12 1/2 mi.); before us is the Island of San Pietro.

One may lunch in one of the rustic restaurants of the district before returning to San Giovanni Suergiu where we take once more to State Highway SS 126. After 2 km. there is a turning leading to Tratalias with the austere Lombard-Pisan church of Santa Maria of 1213. Continuing along SS 126 we go round the southernmost tip of the island with Capes Teulada and Spartivento (the ” Windsplitter “) and return towards Cagliari. Between Giba and Teulada there are a number of nuraghi, while to the right of Pula (71 km. – 44 1/2 mi. from San Giovanni Suergiu) we can see the ruins of the Roman theatre of the ancient city of Nora, first Carthaginian and then Roman. From here, another 29 km. (18 mi.) brings us to CAGLIARI.

CAGLIARI, once a Carthaginian port, then an important Roman city, fought for by Pisa and Genoa in the Middle Ages, falling under the rule of the Aragonese in the 14th century. We shall devote a day of our journey to the city. The most ancient and interesting part stands on the hill between the modern streets of Via Mannu and Via Regina Elena. Let us begin by visiting the Umberto I Terrace, like a spur over the city and harbour, vrithin sight of the ruined walls of the Castle. Narrow streets lead us towards the Cathedral, Romanesque but with a recently rebuilt facade.

There are two superb works of art in the interior, the pulpit, carved by Maestro Guglielmo between 1159 and 1162 for the Cathedral of Pisa, and which the Tuscan city gave to Cagliari, and the Altar-piece by the Fleming Gerard David which a Spanish soldier left here in a fit of remorse, having looted it in during the Sack of Rome (1527). Through Via Martini Lo Piazza Indipendenza where stands the Archaeological Museum, the most important on the island, with a wealth of bronze statuettes (over 400) of the Nuraghic age of the 8th-5th centuries BC and of Punic, Greek and Roman sculpture.

In the Pictures Gallery are collections of works by Spanish and Sardinian painters. Along Via Buon Cammino we go down to the majestic Roman Amphitheatre, carved out of the side of the mountain. And from here, through the paths of the Botanical Gardens, we can mach the elegant Baroque church of San Michele from which, through Via Sassari, we reach the Palazzo Comunale, rebuilt in Aragonese style since the war (tapestries and paintings inside). In the lower part of the city the ruins of San Domenico, destroyed by bombing in the last war, are still to be seen; part of the Aragonese Gothic Cloister remains.

Nuraghi Nuradeo Sardinia - Photo Arheo
Nuraghi Nuradeo Sardinia – Photo Arheo

We now go to the extreme southeastern tip of the island; leaving Cagliari we pass Quartu Sant’Elena (fine altar-piece in the Parish Church) and take the coast road through fine landscapes and luxuriant orange groves to Villasimius (45 km. – 28 mi. from Cagliari) on Cape Carbonara from which we climb to Cape delta Marina (important nuraghi near here). We pass Castiadas to arrive at San Priamo (27 km. – 17 mi. from Villasimius) and follow State Highway SS 125 to the River Flumendosa (10 km. – 6 1/4 mi.) and Muravera. Here we strike inland following the course of the Flumendosa to Ballao (32 km. – 20 mi. from Muravera) from which 28 km. (17 1/2 mi.) of picturesque road bring us to Sant’Andrea Frius and after a further 16 km. (10 mi.) to Dolianova with the 13th century church of San Pantaleone, the most noteworthy Romanesque monument in Southern Sardinia; close to Dolianova is Serdiana with interesting rural architecture.

We now return (20 km. – 12 1/2 mi.) to Cagliari, from which we set out the next morning for Monastir (21 km. – 13 mi. from Cagliari) a pleasant town of Oriental appearance. Then comes Nuraminis, a picturesque country place with a fine 16th century Cathedral.

At the turning to Carter (40 km. – 25 mi.) take State Highway SS 197 through Saaluri and Villamar (important altarpiece in church) to Barumini with remains of a Nuraghic village and the Su Nuraxi Nuraghe, perhaps the most architecturally important in Sardinia. There are other fine nuraghi near Nuragus (70 km. 43 1/4 mi. from Cagliari).

We are now on a lonely mountain road (the peaks of Monte Gennargentu begin to appear to our right, facing us) and we go through Laconi rising on to the plateau at Pranu Guttutorgiu to redescend at Meana, Atzara, with a fine Gothic Parish church in the midst of vineyards and orchards and finally SORGONO.

SORGONO where we may spend the night. There is a fine Baroque church in the town and in the environs the splendid late Gothic church of San Mauro di Sorgono with an elegant rose-window in the facade. The next day we continue north; after 8 km. (5 mi.) we leave Tonara, at the foot of Monte Gennargentu, to our right and climb to Ovodda (20 km. – 12 1/2 mi.) from Sorgono, passing the little church of San Pietro at a height of 800 meters (2604 ft.); at 30 km. (18 3/4 mi.) from Sorgono we leave the road to Fonni on the right to reach Gavoi with its church of San Gavino (16th century) and keep on along the lonely mountain road through Orant to descend at 61 km. (38 mi.) from Sorgono on to State Highway SS 129, turning right to reach NUORO.

NUORO after 15 km. (9 1/2mi.) . Here we spend the night. Before leaving we should take a trip of 54 km. (33 3/4 mi.) through the mountains to see the rugged and picturesque little towns of Marmoiada, Orgosolo and Oliena bringing us at the end of the morning to State Highway SS 129 which after 36 km. (233/4 mi.) through La Traversa and Galtelli brings is to OROSEI.

OROSEI with a fine church of Oriental appearance. From Orosci 92 km. (57 1/2 mi.) of beautiful coast road bring us to Olbia, where we started from. To follow this route comfortably, between eight and ten days will be required.

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