Sardinia's secrets

Find tradition and timeless scenery away from the Italian island’s glitzy north


Think of Sardinia, and the first place that comes to mind will probably be Costa Smeralda, famed for its glam and glitz. But with plenty of other beautiful beaches, sparkling seas, wild forests and historic towns to discover, Sardinia is somewhere that rewards exploring further.

And it might surprise many visitors to learn that there was once a thriving Jewish community in Sardinia, including at the capital Cagliari in the south of the island.

Today, it’s easy to stroll around the compact town on foot, with many of its ancient buildings carefully restored after being severely bombed in the Second World War.

Sadly, little evidence of its Jewish heritage has survived after the community’s expulsion from the city in 1492. The city’s synagogue was converted into the Basilica di Santa Croce, and while you can still visit this, no trace of its former purpose remains.

Only the name of the sector, “Ghetto degli Ebrei”, recollects the former Jewish presence from the mid-1200s to 1400s, when this part of the town was allotted as the Jewish quarter. Few Jews remain on the island today.

Cagliari itself is still an attractive place to explore, especially the hilltop Castello, the medieval walled Old Town overlooking the modern city. Home to one of Italy’s oldest universities, it’s far from simply a museum to former times, with private houses still inside the walls.

Wander into the reception area of the architecture faculty with its ancient plant-filled courtyard — the day I visited, students were celebrating their final exams, wearing crowns of leaves and being showered with confetti — before relaxing with a drink on one of the nice café terraces.

Other highlights include the two Pisan-built towers, the Torre dell’Elefante (so called because of the elephant that adorns it), originally built in 1307 and later used as a prison. Severed heads would be left outside during the time of Spanish occupation as a warning to others.

“Once you went into this prison, you never left,” my guide Valeria tells me darkly.

Today, it’s tempting to stay for the views. Climb to the top of both this tower and the Torre di San Pancrazio on the other side of the fortified area to look out over the city, its many domed churches and streets lined with beautiful purple jacaranda trees.

The 13th-century Cattedrale di Santa Maria has been added to and changed so many times over the centuries it is architecturally fascinating — the only original part remaining is the rectangular belltower.

A makeover in the 17th century added bright baroque frescoes and décor, before a Pisan-Romanesque façade followed in the 1930s. It also includes a crypt beneath the altar containing the relics of 179 martyrs.

Cagliari isn’t the only place to dive into history on Sardinia though. The island’s Jewish heritage stretches back over two millennia to the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when 4,000 Jews were exiled to the island from Rome. Even then, the ancient city of Nora had been thriving for hundreds of years.

Just under an hour’s drive south of the capital, Nora dates from back to the 8th century BCE, and is believed to have been the first city built on the island. Established by the Phoenicians, a Semitic people who spoke a language similar to Hebrew, it was conquered by the Romans in 238 BCE. Its population had swelled to 8,000 by the first century CE.

A storm in the late 19th century revealed an ancient cemetery here, but most of the site was not rediscovered until the 1950s, with excavations continuing to this day.

As well as a small Roman theatre, you can also clearly see the sites of several bath houses, complete with ovens to heat the water, pillars somewhat reminiscent of a kind of Roman Battersea Power Station, the remains of a temple and several surprisingly well preserved mosaics.

Some of the city remains underwater and snorkelling tours are available to explore. There is a pretty beach and beach bar just a few hundred metres away — a welcome chance to cool off after the tour. As there is no shade on the site, during the hotter months it’s best visited in the early morning.

For an escape from the heat of the towns and beaches in summer, head up into the hills. In a vast off-road vehicle, driver Ricardo took us along a steep, extremely bumpy road up Monte Santo di Pula, pausing to let deer pass at one point and stopping elsewhere to admire the view. Eventually we reached the plateau of Is Cannoneris at just over 700 metres up, to find another taste of the past within in a Lord of the Rings-style forest.

Meeting shepherd Roberto, we discovered the 300 sheep on his nearby farm are still hand-milked twice a day, before he demonstrated how to turn the sheep milk into young pecorino in just 20 minutes.

Tasting it along with some olives and local wine, it was delicious — imagine the taste and texture of a kind of Sardinian version of halloumi — and almost magical to see something created so simply and quickly.

Descending down the other side of the hill, it was something of a relief to encounter an ordinary, albeit still winding, road among the oleanders as we headed back to our base at Forte Village.

Less than an hour from the airport and Cagliari, and an even shorter drive to Nora, the resort is the perfect location for exploring the south of Sardinia.

With more than 700 rooms split across eight hotels, all sprawled over 50 hectares of gardens with direct beach access, the greenery makes it feel more private and smaller than it actually is. Car-free and easily walkable, it’s fun to borrow a bike to get around too.

I stayed in the five-star Hotel Le Dune, which is close to the beach and made up of a series of large, comfortable and stylish bungalows and suites with living areas — most also have private lush gardens. Other options include the boutique-style Villa del Parco Hotel, bungalows at Hotel Bouganville, which are ideal for families, waterfront suites and private villas, with pools and butlers, that would tick all the boxes for an X-Factor judge’s house.

There are 21 restaurants on site too, ranging from buffets and pizzerias to three overseen by Michelin-starred chefs, mainly serving locally sourced food including plenty of fish options, such as my excellent seabass fillets. Vegetarian (especially vegan) options, however, tended to be more limited.

Dinner at three Michelin-starred Heinz Beck’s restaurant was a highlight, with a huge range of beautifully presented amuse bouches (including one shaped like a jigsaw piece), followed by dishes including red snapper tartare with almond, cucumber and herbed yoghurt, John Dory with asparagus and truffle and a deconstructed tiramisu.

If you’re visiting with children, there’s an equally huge range of activities from the fabulous, supervised “Wonderland”, with its own pools, to “Mario’s Village”, made up of nine themed playhouses, plus a theatre, vegetable garden and much more, where children can either visit with their parents or be supervised by the cheerful staff.

There are also impressive sports facilities for all ages, including tennis courts, group fitness classes and a well-equipped gym, along with so-called academies for everything from netball and basketball to fencing and rowing among other options, often with guest tuition from some big names in the respective sports.

For me, though, the stand-out features were the Thalasso — a circuit of six heated seawater pools, ranging from oily, hot and salty to cooler and clearer with massage jets — and spa.

Neck pillows are available so you can relax and float easily in each pool for the recommended ten to 20 minutes, before chilling out on a lounger on the terrace of the beautiful final pool of the circuit. There are treatments galore at the spa as well: I opted for a salt and honey scrub carried out on a waterbed, which was a kind of Sardinian take on a Moroccan hammam experience.

It’s tempting, in fact, to spend your entire stay in the resort and its lovely beach. But you won’t regret venturing further afield, to uncover some of the secrets of Sardinia on your doorstep.

Getting There

A Deluxe Bungalow at Forte Village Sardinia costs from around £465 per night half board, excluding drinks.

Flights from Gatwick to Cagliari cost from around £60 return with easyJet.

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