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Despite being the second largest island in the Mediterranean, Sardinia’s cultural treasures remain largely undiscovered by travellers. Its extraordinary jagged coastline and clear blue seas have earned it a deserved reputation for beach tourism, with villas and resorts clinging to the cliffs along the Costa Smeralda. Yet the wealth of prehistoric sites, Punic and Roman remains and Pisan-Romanesque churches make it a fascinating destination for those prepared to forego the luxury of the north-west coast and explore inland.
As with all the larger islands in the Mediterranean, Sardinia was plundered and settled by a succession of pirates and empire builders, though due in large part to its rugged and impenetrable landscape, Sardinian identity was never wholly extinguished. Her Bronze Age settlements truly set it apart. Deep gorges, craggy limestone and slate mountain ranges and swathes of verdant countryside hide over 7000 nuraghi, peculiar conical stone structures which were forts, palaces and simple domestic dwellings. Much is left to the imagination as little is known about these edifices, though digs are leading to some fascinating insights.
Evidence of Phoenician power on the island can be seen at Tharros on the west coast, established in the eighth century bc in a strategic position jutting into the sea in the Gulf of Oristano. Later colonized by the Romans, the site is a remarkable example of a coastal city-state. Finds can be seen in Sardinia’s superlative collection of archeological museums, in Cagliari, Sassari and Oristano.
The decline of the Roman Empire left Sardinia open to Goths, Lombards, for a short spell the Byzantines, and to the new Muslim empires of North Africa and Spain. The Pisans and Genoese in the eleventh century left an indelible mark on the island with their superb Romanesque churches in the Logudoro region, indeed some of the finest in Europe.
Rule by the Kingdom of Aragón brought a Spanish dimension to the island’s culture, most evident today in the Catalan-Gothic architecture of the fishing port at Alghero and, concealed in mediaeval churches in tiny villages the length of the island, sumptuous sixteenth-century retables which rival coeval ones on the Italian mainland.