Modernity forgot Sardinia. The antique hills are still dotted with stone outposts, as though Phoenician raiders may at any moment appear on the horizon. There is an Arthurian feel to the island: it is waiting patiently for a great king to arise, rebuild the Nuragic edifices and light the beacons. Then the few, incongruous modern airports will be overtaken by nature. Holm oaks will grow where once characterless hotel lobbies glittered amidst vines and dirt tracks. The alien apartment blocks will crack and crumble with the devastating accumulation of time, while the Saracen outposts will still stand proudly, watching the sea for the black sails of the next tyrant to try and tame Sardinia.
In the meantime, however, the island is the perfect destination for any sort of active holiday. Outside tourist season, most of the roads are calm apart from meandering sheep, and the beaches are beautifully empty. Sardinia is a place of great natural beauty, and every outdoor sport imaginable is practiced here. There are white pillars of rock to climb, winding roads to cycle and wild seas to surf and sail.
I headed to Sardinia to cycle. I had planned out a route that went from Cagliari (the most southern town) up to Alghero in the north, with a short trip by train to avoid the more metropolitan start. On my last cycling trip abroad, in Sicily, I had been chased by wild dogs, slept rough and ended up getting lost several times. Memory romanticises such adventures, but even so I was determined to avoid the cold and fear this time so I had meticulously planned out the route and bought adequate supplies.
The journey went more or less as planned: I reached all my destinations on time and without incident. The cycling itself was incredible. I soared through wide, hilly valleys. The roads rewarded arduous climbs on torturous roads with open views and sweeping downhill dives into Mediterranean towns with views over the sparkling Sardinian seas. In my downtime, I sat on white beaches and read books as the sun meandered its way across the dreaming sky above me. It was idyllic.
What makes Sardinia a great destination, however, is not simply the vast swathes of untouched nature. Throughout my trip, I met a great number of people from all walks of life. I met farmers, industrial workers and businesspeople. Among Italians, I have often encountered the stereotype that southerners and islanders in particular are warmer, more friendly than northerners - 'una gente più calda'. Regardless of the truth of this, I was constantly amazed by the hospitality of the Sardinians. On my first day, I found myself walking along a dirt road to the airport to pick up my hired bike. A car stopped next to me. A grizzled old Sardinian waved me into the car. He was dressed in a scrappy flannel shirt and a model smurf was perched on his dashboard, nestled among a collection of knick-knacks. As soon as I had got in, he asked me all about myself, told jokes and quite happily drove me to the airport.
The more time I spent in Sardinia, the more I realised this friendliness was common to Sardinians. A military pilot stopped to chat to me at a train station. On the train, the ticket collector engaged me in a long conversation about cycling. Once, I stopped to buy some fresh fruit at a small stand. I made the careless mistake of asking about the fruit and within two seconds I had been mobbed by little old ladies in colourful shawls keen to tell me all about Sardinia. When I eventually escaped their clutches, it was with a chorus of goodbyes and best wishes.
My whole journey was characterised by this sort of experience. When I arrived at my first place of stay, a bed and breakfast called Torre del Pozzo, the owner immediately put together a feast of fresh Sardinian ricotta, pecorino, prosciutto, cold beer and bread when she realised I was tired from the cycle, despite my insistence that I would go and find somewhere to eat. I mentioned at breakfast the open kindness of Sardinians, and a Milanese guest wryly suggested the lack of Mafia. I am not convinced that is the reason: I think the fantastical generosity of the Sardinians is a natural outcome of living in a Tolkein-esque world where the roads go ever on and on over timeless rolling hills.
Sardinia is an incredible place, filled with awe-inspiring scenery and kind people. If eventually some Arthurian past reclaims the island, I expect to go there and be greeted as Odysseus was received by the Phaeacians, with wine and stories that last the night. I will go and sit on a lonely hill by the sea and wonder at how in this new age of technology a place so unscarred and welcoming still endures. Then, as now, I will talk to friendly Sardinians from the moment I land to the moment my ship leaves, and feel a gentle pang of regret as I reluctantly embrace the cold reality of the outside world. I will not advise you to go to Sardinia, in a vain hope of preserving its rugged shores. If you do go, however, you will not be disappointed.
All images are unedited photos taken by the author on his trip.