Discovering a Sardinia treasure: Alghero
Sardinia’s northwest coast shelters a trio of the most attractive seaside resorts on the island, interspersed with some really spectacular coastline. The principal town on this stretch is Alghero. Sardinia stands in sharp contrast to the Italian mainland and Sicily, and Alghero provides an even sharper contrast to Sardinia itself.
Alghero was not greatly disturbed by foreign influences in modern times until it suffered bombings during World War II. Alghero is one of those places that the Italians have been happy to keep to themselves. Every year thousands upon thousands of main land Italians swarm to Alghero in August, the traditional Italian holiday season.
Alghero has become a major package destination, yet it has retained its distinctive Catalan character – the result of intense Spanish colonisation in the fourteenth century. Strangely given this faintly exotic tinge, it is simultaneously the most “Italian” of Sardinia’s holiday towns, its old centre a tight web of narrow lanes packed with boutiques, bars and restaurants. The town has countless boutiques and a busy weekly market as well as a fruit, vegetable, fish and meat market held in the town centre on Monday to Friday.
Alghero is often compared to mainland resorts like Sorrento or San Remo, and if it lacks their glamorous edge, it’s also refreshingly free of their cynical hard sell. Even a short stay should be enough to get acquainted with the abundance of enticing beaches in the vicinity and to investigate the area’s most important archaeological sites, not to mention the famous Grotta di Nettuno (Neptune’s Grotto) on the point at Capo Caccia.
Outside the resort the northwest coast presents a wild and rocky aspect, sparsely populated and ideal for roaming. Although public transport services are adequate for travelling between the main towns and villages, hiring a car gives you more freedom, while renting a bike is an enjoyable way to cover the shorter distances. The local terrain is rewarding and challenging for walkers, with few overly strenuous tracts though they should be aware that the rough and rugged nature of the coast means that much of the alluring Alghero – Bosa stretch, for example, must be tackled on the road; fortunately, it’s free of much traffic most of the time.
Alghero is a very rare Italian phenomenon: a tourist town that is also a flourishing fishing port, giving it an economic base entirely independent of the summer hordes. The predominant flavour here is Catalan, owing to the wholesale Hispanicisation that followed the overthrow of the Doria family by Pedro IV of Aragon in 1353 – a process so thorough that the town became known as “Barcelonetta” and is still known as Little Barcelona to the locals.
According to some, Alghero’s name is derived from the Arabic, al-ghar, meaning cave or cavern, possibly a reference to the celebrated Grotta Di Nettuna [http://www.in-alghero.com] nearby, still Alghero’s largest tourist attraction. To access the caves you can either take a boat trip or a drive along the coast. The boat stops at the entrance to the caves, the drives involves a rather energetic walk down approximately 750 very steep steps. The views are amazing on the walk down, just bear in mind that you’ll have to climb the 750 very steep steps after touring the caves with only the rock face to look at!
Others suggest that its original name was S’Alighem (L’Alguer in Catalan) meaning “seaweedy” or “place of algae”, though there’s little evidence of this today in the clear blue seas, although the Lido beach in the town does get rather a lot of seaweed accumulating on it’s shoreline. In fact, it is the purity of the water together with the spectacular coast that have helped to put the town on the map in recent times.
Tour operators homed in on Alghero in the post-war holiday boom, which gave birth to the boom of hotels and restaurants that exist today, catering to a constant influx of mostly British and German tourists. As you might expect, the choice of accommodation is extensive, but booking is essential at any time. Although over the past forty years hotels have sprung up all along the coastline the Alghero town council still has very strict building laws for the area to stop the coastline from becoming a skyline of high rise hotels.
Thankfully, the resort has escaped the fate of many other Mediterranean holiday spots and resisted the lure of tweeness and commercial saturation. Instead, it remains a fairly easygoing place, with a sharp but good-humoured population, who themselves like nothing better than a good night out in a trattoria or a stroll along the passagiata, a one and a half mile promenade. In fact the quality of Alghero’s restaurants is generally impressive – the presence of the fishing port ensures a regular supply of the freshest seafood, and the varied local cuisine also makes good use of the Catalan culinary tradition. The town is additionally blessed by its proximity to some of Sardinia’s most famous vine yards, producing eminently quaffable wines. As well as wonderful local Sardinian food it’s possible to find some wonderful Pizzeria’s in the town.
However the real attraction of Alghero is its atmospheric old town centre, an intricate mesh of mainly car-free lanes at the heart of which Via Carlo Alberto, Via Principe Umberto and Via Roma have most of the bars and shops. The old town’s finest architecture dates from the sixteenth century, built in a congenial Catalan-Gothic style; a walkabout should also take in the series of seven towers which dominate Alghero’s centre and the stout girdle of walls that encompass it. The Spanish connection is never far away: the street names are all in the Catalan dialect – carrer for “via”, placa for “piazza”, iglesia for “chiesa and palau for “palazzo” (though, they’re also in Italian which is what most of the locals use). Beyond this historic core, the new town’s grid of parallel streets In little of interest beyond its restaurants and hotels.
The drive out to the north of Alghero will take you through the low-key resort of Fertilia, an alternative place to stay if Alghero is full. If you do stay in Fertillia be sure to check out the old Roman bridge that still stands acrocc the river. Fertillia was built during the 1940′s as one of Mussolini’s land reclamation projects, there are a few bars and trattoria’s here but only enough to keep you amused for a day. Close by is the area’s most important nuraghic complex, Nuraghe di Palmavera, not to mention some fine beaches such as La Bombardi, Lazzaretto and Mugoni. Inland, you could drop into another archaeological site belonging to an earlier era, the necropolis at Anghelu Ruju, set amidst the endless vineyards that produce Sardinia’s excellent Cannonau wine.
Further a field, the undeveloped coast south of Alghero is a jagged and dramatic interplay of rock and sea, with a few select beaches tucked out of sight, There are no habitations here, not until you climb to the village of Villanova Monteleone, situated inland amidst a bare mountainous terrain. In the opposite direction, the country north of Alghero is much flatter, but there are a couple of places worth exploring: Lago di Baratz , harbouring protected wildlife, and the abandoned mining centre of Argentaria, dominated by the eighteenth-century workings of a once flourishing industry.