In Deep: Sardinia

After a long hiatus, we just couldn’t stay away from Sardinia: its wild coast, authentic and welcoming people, along with its rich (and mysterious) history—not to mention the glamorous Costa Smeralda, makes it a place where slowing down is not an option, but truly a necessity. The incredibly long-lived residents are a testament to this; it’s here on Sardinia where you will find one of the highest concentration of centenarians in the world. Keep reading to discover the secrets of Sardinia.

Of Italy, But Different

Located about 300 kilometres (190 miles) off the western coast of Italy, Sardinia is the second-largest island in Italy after Sicily and an autonomous region of the country; it is actually closer in distance to France’s island of Corsica just to the north. With a host of visitors and ruling powers, ranging from the Phoenicians in the 9thC to the Romans, Catalans and the Catholic monarchs of Spain (in addition to various kingdoms and regions of pre-republic Italy, such as Genoa and Pisa), Sardinia is set apart culturally from the rest of the Italian mainland in a number of ways.

For instance, the Sardinian language (and its dialects) is the closest language to Latin itself; it was only in 1760 that the Italian language was imposed upon the island. Italy became a republic in 1946 following the end of the Second World War, relatively late on the world stage.

Something that really illustrates this idea is a recent chat I had with a Sardinian local. While we non-Italians and outsiders tend to think of present-day Italy as a unified country, and consider (in the most general sense) Italians share similar characteristics, a Sardinian told me last week, “It’s only when the World Cup [of soccer] rolls around that we think of ourselves as one country,” as Italians think of themselves in regional terms.

An Ancient Mystery: the Nuragic People

The earliest trace of human settlement life on the island dates to 250,000 BCE, but it is the Bronze Age civilization of the Nuraghic people that put Sardinia on the map, and the mysterious megalithic stone structures they left behind, with more than 7,000 discovered and remaining on the island. Known as the nuraghe, these fantastic structures are the last remnants of this civilization, who did not leave behind any writings—so it remains a mystery how these were constructed and what their precise function was, although it is clear that small settlements and villages were roughly organized around these towers, which served as watchtowers, central places of administrative power, and many other functions.

There are more than 7,000 nuraghe remaining, along with a number of bronze figurines that were traded and have been found  give added clues to how these ancient people lived and what their roles were in Nuragic society. When the Romans arrived, annexing the island in 238 BCE, they were unable to subdue the strong resistance of the ‘barbarians’ inland, and largely left these parts of the island alone.

Wine of Sardinia

Grapes have been grown in Sardinia for thousands of years, starting in the Bronze Age; the name of insula vini, ‘wine island’, was given to Sardinia in the 16thC. The Meditteranean climate, volcanic soils, hilly terrain, and sea breezes mean the ideal spot for wine-making. A focus on quality in recent years means that incredible wines can be found here. Of note are the two famous varieties, cannonau (red) and vermentino (white). Cannonau has the highest percentage of antioxidants than any other wine, and it is entirely possible that this is a key factor in the longevity of Sardinians!

Authentic Welcome and A Culture of Longevity

The Sardinian culture is welcoming and authentic, and one of the most intriguing facts is that the island, particularly Ogliastra, Barbagia di Ollolai and Barbagia of Seulo, are known as ‘blue zones, regions of the world where people live much longer than average.

No matter where you are on the island, take a look around: you are sure to see older people still living purpose-filled and healthy lives integrated with the rest of society, and even still working the land. Living in Sardinia, it isn’t uncommon for children to grow up getting to know their great-grandparents, as B&R’s Travel Advisor Gabriella Brundu, a native Sardinian, did.

So what are the secrets to a healthy, long life? For one, with a culture that is linked strongly to its agrarian practices, there is very little processed food: “We Sardinians eat whatever is available in the seasons, and produce a lot of our own food—for example, when I returned to Toronto after the holidays, I brought back ten litres of olive oil my parents had pressed on our farm in the countryside.” (If only all of us were this lucky!)

See For Yourself

From the mysteries of the nuraghe to the glitterati of the Costa Smeralda, B&R’s Sardinia Self-Guided Biking trip brings you through the twin charms of coastal roads and inland pastures. Make room for an array of local pleasures: local cannonau reds and the famous pecorino sardo.

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The Real Sardinia: Rural Life

Speaking of the countryside, it’s here where Sardinia’s rustic charms are showcased to high effect. Sardinia is the only region in Italy that produces cork, thanks to its ancient oak cork groves; sustainably produced by shaving off the outer layer of bark, allowing the rest of the tree to grow. A cork oak must be at least three decades old before it can be harvested. The cork industry has suffered a bit due to more aluminum and plastic corks being used, but there is a movement to market corks as a sustainable, green alternative. You will also find cork incorporated as a material in traditional artwork or everyday household items like trays.

Look around and you’ll also see a lot of sheep, nearly 4 million of them—one of the highest densities in the world. The indigenous Sarda sheep is a domestic breed which produces the best milk for pecorino sardo cheese. This firm cheese is not as well known outside of Italy as similar cheeses such as pecorino romano, although Sardinians also produce it. A form of pecorino sardo can also be transformed into casu marzu, a decomposed cheese (created by introducing the cheese fly maggot to its interior) that is considered an aphrodisiac.

Sublime Biking

As you might expect from a B&R trip planner, Sardinia wouldn’t be one of my most beloved destinations without the addition of exceptional biking—and we’re not the only ones. The famous Giro d’Italia has taken place in Sardinia three times, most recently in 2017 as the start of the 100th anniversary of the race. Whether you’re riding along the rugged coast or taking a detour to the sparkling Maddalena Islands and her curious granite formations, through the glamorous resorts and yacht-studded seas of Costa Smeralda or along the massif of Mount Limbara, the challenge of the routes and the sheer beauty of the rides will have you coming back for more.

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