In spite of their proximity to continental Italy and France, of which they are semi-independent regions, the islands of Sardinia and Corsica are not well known to most travellers. After a recent reconnaissance trip to the islands, tour leader Robert Veel explains what each island has to offer the cultural traveller.
The landscape of each island is quite distinctive. Like Sicily and Malta, Sardinia is mainly limestone, with chalky cliffs and rolling hills. White cliffs punctuated with sandy beaches characterise the coastline, whereas the interior is ideal grazing land – you will inevitably find yourself stuck amid a large flock of sheep or goats while driving around the island. The limestone is put to good use, with drystone fences and limestone buildings lending a pleasant consistency to the local architecture.
Corsica was formed mainly by dramatic volcanic uplift and is quite different. The interior is rugged and mountainous, with craggy granite peaks rising over 8,000 feet. In spite of the Mediterranean location, it has a genuine alpine feel with oak forests and superb mountain trails. The coastline is similarly rugged, with beautiful stretches such as the Scandola National Park. Corsica’s rugged terrain means it is sparsely populated, with only 300,000 or so residents.
All the water means that the possibilities of swimming while still enjoying a cultural tour are many. The archaeological sites of Nora and Tharros, for example, are right next to glorious sandy beaches. Most of the coastal towns have beaches, meaning you can undertake a walking tour of the old city and then enjoy a dip in the Mediterranean. Most hotels have swimming pools and on scenic day cruises there is usually a swimming stop along the way.
The history of both islands begins in the Neolithic period, the late stone age. Visitors can visit impressive underground burial vaults (hypogea) that are over 5,000 years old. But it is the Bronze Age (1800-800BC) for which Sardinia is justly famous. Over 6,500 Bronze Age structures have been identified, a truly astounding quantity. The most characteristic structures are the cylindrical watch towers which dot the island. These are called ‘nuraghe’ in Sardinian, hence the term ‘Nuragic civilization’ to describe the Bronze Age culture. As well as the nuraghe, there are castle-like residences, usually in the centre of a small village. There are also buildings with a religious function, such as the finely cut shrines built around springs (water is a precious resource in the dry climate) and monumental ‘giants tombs’, which experts believe to have been communal burial grounds.
Things changed in the seventh century BC, when the Carthaginians established trading settlements at strategic places on the coastline, such as Nora and Tharros. In spite of their gruesome reputation for child sacrifice, artefacts reveal that the Carthaginian enjoyed a technologically advanced and sophisticated culture compared to their Bronze Age predecessors. The Carthaginian settlements were later occupied by the Romans, who held the islands right through until the collapse of their empire in the sixth century AD. As well as agricultural produce and trade, the Romans held the islands to ward off attack from Celts, Goths and other hostile groups.
The period 600-1100AD was one of invasion and depopulation for Sardinia and Corsica. In spite of attempts by the Byzantine Empire to restore order, successive waves of Vandals, Goths and Saracens moved through the islands. Things did not really settle down until the Pisans established strongholds on both islands in the 11th century. Like Venice and other Italian city-states, the Pisans had established a maritime empire, with trading posts stretching from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. The clearest evidence of the Pisan period today are the gorgeous black and white striped medieval churches, built in the same ‘Pisan Romanesque’ style as the famous leaning tower and cathedral in Pisa itself.
Pisa’s dominance of the western Mediterranean was challenged by Genoa, who won a decisive sea battle over the Pisans in the waters off Corsica in 1284. The Genoese presence on Corsica lasted right through until the 18th century, giving the island its longest period of political stability in the modern age. The Genoese were merchants and sailors at heart. They built impressive fortifications in all the major ports of Corsica, none more so than the stunning ramparts of Bonifacio, on the strait that separates Sardinia and Corsica.
The 18th century saw Sardinia and Corsica become pawns in the larger game of European politics. The islands were swapped among the Bourbons, Hapsburgs and Savoy rulers. At the same time, Britain and France were emerging as major rivals. After a failed attempt at independence, Corsica became part of France, just before the whole ancient regime was swept away by Napoleon, a native of Ajaccio on Corsica’s western coast.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, remoteness and lack of economic development meant that the islands became backwaters, renowned for ‘banditi’ and visited by fashionable writers such as Honoré de Balzac and DH Lawrence, in search of the exotic. Of course, this very remoteness and lack of development are drawcards for the modern traveller.
Food and wine
Unsurprisingly, seafood dominates the local cuisine. Fresh fish is available everywhere, with specialities such as lobster around Bonifacio and ‘bottarga’, a delicious fish roe, in plentiful supply in western Sardinia. Lamb is also abundant on both islands, and sheep’s cheese is a staple in Sardinia. In inland Corsica you can find ‘mountain food’, including cinghiale, wild boar sausage.
Overlaid with these regional specialities are classic Italian and French dishes – great fresh pasta in Sardinia and excellent croissants and baguettes in Corsica. One of the delights in making the short ferry crossing from Sardinian to Corsica is that the food tells you immediately that you are in another country.
Both Sardinia and Corsica produce excellent wines, which are only now being recognised. There are four distinct wine growing areas in Sardinia, with vermentino the most popular white variety. In Sardinia, the hilly interior allows for cooler climate wines and the northern Cap Corse region has excellent Bordeaux style reds.
Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director. Robert continues to teach occasionally in Continuing Education courses.