OLBIA, Sardinia — "Half a continent"--Thus do the Sardinians like to call their domain floating in the Mediterranean.
According to local legend, this island, a mere 7.5 miles away from its kid brother Corsica lying north, was the last one created on earth by God. It is also one of the last islands to become Europe's best travel revelation, ever since 1948 when hundreds of thousands of mosquito beds were finally wiped out, thereby eliminating malaria and making Italy's second largest island fit for people at long last.
And, boy, the tourists from Italy and other European countries are making their way to this offshore Hercynian block of 9,300 square miles, known to geologists as the Tyrrhenian continent. The island has a history that goes back several thousand years and has kept intact traditions, customs and architecture that make it different from any other part of Italy.
It also has an authentic mystery with more than 6,000 "clues," if you please, that captivates everyone who comes here. When you come to Sardegna (the Italian word for it), it's hard not to be enchanted and mystified with its prehistoric monuments, the nuraghi. All over the island--a third of which consists of plateaus that rise between 600 and 1,300 feet--are strewn nearly 6,500 of the nuraghi , which are a distinctive feature of the Sardinian landscape and not found anywhere else in the world, not even in nearby Corsica or on mainland Italy.
At one time as many as 30,000 nuraghi dotted the island. Comprising one of the most unusual tourist attractions of Europe, these nuraghi , itself a word of unexplained origin, are huge cylindrical stone constructions (the equal of the sphinx in grandeur) built by a Bronze Age civilization around 2,000 years before Christ.
Many of the thick, eccentric, tower-like structures, some of which weigh more than two tons, were put up without cement. The huge stones were placed atop each other in a circle that actually grows smaller until they meet 10 to 20 feet high to form a sort of truncated cone. That they have survived intact demonstrates that prehistoric Sardinians must have indeed been expert stonemasons.
To see some of the most impressive nuraghi , three places to visit are the towns of Abbasanta, Barumini and Sarroch, but the area 14 miles east of Nuoro has absolutely the best, most magnificent set of nuraghi on a lonely massif whose slopes are covered with chestnut trees and cork oaks.
Once there, you can go into a nuraghe (singular) with a veteran guide who'll make sure you don't bump your head too often as you ascend a narrow, winding stairway in a crouch. Or you can climb from the outside on a lean-to ladder to peer down into the interior.
It is suspected that the nuraghi may also have been fortress residences for single families, so you get a pretty dramatic idea why an invader must have had problems. If he managed to negotiate the dark, circular passageway without breaking his neck on the uneven steps, he faced the possibility of being clobbered by a bludgeon-wielding guard hidden in a niche off one of the corridors leading to the inner rooms.
A nuraghe at Barumini, which has near it the remains of a recently excavated Phoenician village, is considered one of the most exciting to visit because it looks like a massive fortress with several towers connected by galleries, an armory and courtyards with wells. It goes back to 1470 BC and was uncovered only in 1949.
This ancient stronghold is a maze of walls and hideouts, reachable by dangling rope ladder and secret, shoulder-wide winding stairways that you follow using a flashlight or a candle. Your guide prefers the candle, to give the same eerie effect had by the mysterious nuraghi people.
As to whether the nuraghi were fortresses has not been settled by the experts because many of the nuraghi are to be found in close connection with fortified villages. Thus there is a school of thought among scholars that perhaps each nuraghe served either as a residential castle for a chieftain or as a place for religious use.
From the subterranean chambers of the nuraghi , some of which have served as tombs, have been unearthed metal implements and weapons, ornaments and coarse pottery, bronze statuettes of women, mythological beings, models of ships and noteworthy reproductions of warriors.
A full display of these can be found in Cagliari's National Archeological Museum, where at the souvenir stands you can buy a 15-inch bronze copy of a nuragic tribal chief or a five-inch replica of a warrior in a horned helmet.
While visiting Sardinia's strange, mysterious structures, you get an unearthly feeling that you may have changed planets.