Published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2003
The Nancy Dell’Olio lookalike bastes her mahogany limbs with factor two, lies back and closes her eyes. Around her, couples and families are being shown to their sunloungers by a bare-chested man in tight shorts. It is 8.30am, the temperature is nudging the mid-70s and we seem to be the only guests at the Hotel dei Pini not on the beach.
If Sardinia’s east coast, the Costa Smeralda, is for the well-heeled and immaculately attired, the west coast, the Coral Riviera, is for anyone who just wants a good beach holiday, either on the pine-fringed sands west of Alghero or in splendid isolation in one of the many rocky coves to the south of the city. The sea on this side of the island may be a standard blue rather than emerald green, but it is remarkably clear and clean; so are the beaches.
The majority of holidaymakers in the Coral Riviera are Italians but, encouraged by the fact that Ryanair now flies into tiny Alghero airport, Britons are discovering that they can leave Stansted at 7am and be on the beach by 11am. But there’s a lot more to do on the Coral Riviera than simply lie in the sun.
We began with the Nuraghe Palmavera. Nuraghi, conical towers surrounded by dwellings, date from the Nuragic civilisation, which lasted from about 1,800BC to 200BC. The remains of hundreds of them are scattered throughout Sardinia, although only a few, including the Nuraghe Palmavera, are deemed to be of archaeological importance.
We found what’s left of two towers and a village crouching behind a wire fence on the main road to Porto Cervo. We paid our £1.50 admission and, declining the services of a guide, made our own way round the ruins. Perhaps this was a mistake, because I found the nuraghi rather uninspiring; the more delicate, and to my mind, more interesting items have been carted off to a museum in Sassari, the regional capital, leaving piles of what looked like sun-bleached rubble. But my companion declared the “rubble” fascinating, so maybe I was having an archaeological off day.
Back in the car, we consulted the map. Should we stick to an archaeological theme and take in the Anghelo Ruju, a pre-Nuragic necropolis near the airport? Or carry on to the bay of Porto Conte, finishing at the Grotta di Nettuno – Neptune’s Grotto – on the western tip? We opted for the latter and spent a delightful hour meandering around what is considered to be the widest natural bay in the Mediterranean, stopping occasionally to admire what the Romans called the Lake of Nymphs. Gradually the road began to climb until we were a good 1,000ft above sea level and ending abruptly in a car park. A sign indicated that we could continue to the grotto on foot. With each flight of steps, we expected to reach the cave mouth, but each flight merely led to another, then another, twisting down towards the sea. We passed a group of Germans coming up. Their faces were red and their breath came in shallow gasps. “654 steps. You know this?” wheezed one. The penny dropped. This was why a brochure in our hotel lobby had suggested visiting the caves by boat – and why these 654 steps are known as the Escala del Cabirol – or goat’s steps.
We pressed on and, when we at last arrived, agreed that the caves were worth every step (which was just as well because there were another 350 inside). Cavernous and flooded by both fresh water and seawater, these beautifully lit cathedrals are studded with magnificent stalagmites and stalactites. Notices asked visitors not to touch anything, but it was impossible to resist running a surreptitious finger over the cool, damp rock face.
Sassari, some 12 miles north of Alghero airport, is the regional capital but it is Alghero, with its mighty fortifications, that draws most visitors. This ancient Catalan fishing port – known locally as Little Barcelona – provides everything the holidaymaker requires from an Italian town: an old section with narrow lanes opening on to shady piazzas (or placas, as they are called here); street cafes and restaurants where the food is good and the waiters are pleasant; shops selling local handicrafts (mostly coral jewellery), plus a selection of designer establishments; pretty little churches and a cathedral. It even has a perfectly nice beach (although the best beach is undoubtedly Le Bombarde, just outside Alghero).
Cars are not permitted in the old town, but you can park easily enough near the marina and continue through the enormous city gate on foot. We drank a glass of Sardinian rose at a cafe close to the city ramparts. Mass was being said in the church across the street and through the open door came the discordant notes of an offertory hymn. The idyll was rudely interrupted by the arrival of the Trenino Catalano, a little tourist train that trundles through the city spewing out commentary in several languages, all of them unintelligible.
We moved to a nearby placa for supper, and watched nuns flitting like small grey birds in and out of their convent on the far side of the square. On the way back to the car, we peered over the city ramparts to see a girl in a black bikini fishing from a rock. A little farther along, there was a scantily clad man – his skin the colour and texture of an old shoe – doing the same; and beyond him, a man and a woman stood back to back, casting their lines over the foamy water. The light was dying – and nobody seemed to have caught anything.
The wine we drank rather too much of throughout our stay came from Sella & Mosca, Sardinia’s leading wine producer. Established more than a century ago, the 1,600-acre estate lies just north of Alghero and, according to a flyer we picked up at the Nuraghe Palmavera, is open to visitors every day “at 5.30pm”. We arrived shortly after opening time. “You’re too late,” an employee was explaining to another group of would-be visitors. “We are open at 5.30pm – and that’s it.”
After a deal of tutting and raising of eyes to heaven, we admitted defeat and filed into the shop. There we bought half a case of rose that, needless to say, doesn’t taste half as good in London as it did on the Coral Riviera.