ALGHERO, SARDINIA — The shortest distance between Spain and Italy is 60km along a pockmarked highway on a windy island in the middle of the Mediterranean. I have proof.
Early risers that we are, we packed up, vacated the castle and hit the road. Only about half way up the island, we had ambitious destinations in mind: skirting the famous playground of Europe’s rich and famous in Costa Smeralda and dropping off for a bit of island life on Isola Maddalena before whipping around west to Sardinia’s second city, Sassari.
Maddalena is the largest island in an archipelago that links Sardina to Corsica. The islands are officially an international refuge, but it doesn’t stop thousands of tourists from making the short ferry hop to its half dozen or so islands for sun, sea and diving.
We found a little windswept cove to splash and play as the multi-million dollar yachts chugged in and out of the bay. In Maddalena town, the heat forced us reluctantly into one of the more famous gelato shops on the port.
Back to the mainland and onto a long, winding road that ran the 45 degree angle southwest into Sassari.
Sardinia’s crowded, grungy northern capital is its Genoese stronghold. Although overrun with college students, foreign workers and retirees, it’s not without its hidden charms, especially along the medieval streets of the Centro Storico. It’s as if you might be able to wipe back the grunge and graffiti and reveal the historic architecture and history that lies behind.
We left on the day of Sassari’s largest festival, I Candelieri, where costumed bands of local guild members carry huge wooden ‘candlesticks’ through the city — shouting and singing the entire way. We could a glimpse of a couple of these bands struggling up the incline of Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
If Sassari is the heart of Italian Sardinia, Alghero is the everlasting remnants of the Spanish rule here. Only about 60km from Sassari, this sandstone port town truly feels like you’ve somehow been transported to the wide boulevards of Madrid or Pamplona.
We explored the city’s ramparts and tiny field stone shops, even witnessing the release of an injured sea turtle back into the surf from the ancient docks. It was unfair to only have a short taste of such a beautiful and unique city, but just like the famous wine poured here, there’s always another year, always another vintage to try again.
Back on the road and the tour was almost complete, the circle turned. But not before one last amazing view along the western coast on the road south to Bosa and one last dip in the crystal waters of Putzu Idu, deep in the southwest dunes. The impossibly white sands here were just one last reminder of how unique this place truly is.
From the craggiest mountains to the picture-postcard beaches. The bitter taste of Agriturismo wine to the sweetness of a cappuccino sipped on an ancient rampart. Sardinia certainly no est Italia, but it’s not quite like any other place either. It’s fully and unapologetically its own. And that is a wonderful thing.