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Sunny Sojourns On Two Mediterranean Isles : Sticking to the back roads, two intrepid travelers go in search of untrammeled beaches, mouthwatering local food, places of wild beauty. They find it in. . . : Sardinia

June 20, 1993|ALEXANDER LOBRANO | Lobrano is a free-lance writer based in Paris. and

CAGLIARI, Italy — Peering over the cliff, we saw that the sea far below looked like some sort of fantastic Oriental carpet. There under the calm waters, seaweed, rocks and sand had changed the dominating azure to shades of green, brown and red, creating patterns of perfect pleasure. The sun bore down hard on our shoulders, and the air carried the clear perfumes of wild bay, myrtle, rosemary and thyme that had been released by the heat. Now, coming up a ridge, we heard bells tinkling, and then, looking over the brow of the hill through the yellow-flowering broom, we saw a valley filled with white goats, and were relieved to have some company.

We'd been feeling small on this landscape of low, brush-covered mountains, white beaches wedged into deep coves and spreading blue sea. We'd even been feeling a little lonely, but then this can happen along the nearly empty Costa di Sud, or almost anywhere else in southern Sardinia, since this is one of the least-trammeled, least-visited parts of the European Mediterranean.

This does not mean that you'll be uncomfortable--there are several splendid resorts--or bored: The Bronze Age nuraghi, curious conical stone houses; the sunken Roman city of Pula and the sights of the capital of Cagliari all fascinate and provoke. But it does mean that you won't have any of the jazzy trappings to be found on the more famous Costa Smeralda in northern Sardinia and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

The second-largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily, Sardinia lies 112 miles off the coast of Italy and historically has been one of the most frequently traded pawns in all of Europe. The Sardes, the original people of the island, have successively been invaded by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Ostrogoths, the Genoese and Pisans, and the Spanish, and the island became a part of the Italian republic in 1871. It remained a relatively quiet backwater until malaria was eradicated through a program launched by a Rockefeller Foundation grant. This cleared the way for the most recent wave of invaders: tourists. It was in the early '60s that the Aga Khan recognized the excellent resort possibilities of the wild and dramatic northern coast of the island. The area was dubbed the Costa Smeralda, and within 10 years it had acquired a deserved reputation as a pricey playground for wealthy cosmopolitans from all over the world, but especially for the newly rich industrial gentry of Northern Italy.

Having visited the northern coast, which is quite beautiful but for my taste too stridently glamorous--and also very expensive--I had been curious about the rest of the island ever since I'd read D.H. Lawrence's rhapsodic "Sea and Sardinia." His deep appreciation of the island, coupled with the fact that I've lived in Europe long enough to have succumbed to the fantasy of finding a Mediterranean setting that isn't depressingly overdeveloped and overcrowded, made me hopeful that the almost completely unhyped southern coast of Sardinia might be the place where I would finally find an empty white beach with sparkling turquoise water. Michelle, a Parisian friend who teaches Italian, shared the same vision and was also interested in experiencing the Sardinian dialect, and so after a lot of reading we decided we'd fly to Cagliari, spend a few days there, and then make an expedition heading west along the coast through Pula to the islands of Sant' Antioco and San Pietro a few miles off the southwestern coast. We spent nine days in southern Sardinia and found exactly what we were looking for.

In the south, outside of several luxury resort compounds, the beaches are wild, not serviced by concessions that get $5 for a beach-chair rental, and evening entertainment tends to strolls in the woods or on the beach, maybe a visit to a cafe or a card game, perhaps the chance to settle in on a breezy balcony with the book you brought along. Quite simply, the formula here is deep relaxation rather than antic stimulation.

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