Alghero: Sardinia's Other Coast

To travelers jaded by the Emerald Coast,
the Coral Coast—with its breathtaking vistas and friendly people—is a real gem.

by Alfred Rosa

It took us ten years, but we were finally coming home—home to the land of Garibaldi, of prehistoric, fortress-like structures called nuraghi and of emerald green waters. As my wife and daughter and I stood on the deck of the Petrarca, the overnight ferry from Civitavecchia, the chilly morning air only lent further excitement to our anticipation. The ship began to enter the long, narrow channel to the port of Olbia on the eastern coast of Sardinia accompanied by a small but reassuring pilota, or pilot boat, necessary to keep the ship from crashing on the rocks. As we prepared to anchor, the sun began to rise behind us.

We were "coming home" because we had lived on Sardinia ten years earlier. I had been the first Fulbright scholar assigned to teach in Sardinia and the guest of the first Sardinian to be a Fulbright scholar in America. I taught at the Universita di Sassari, and we lived in the picture-perfect seaside resort city of Alghero.

If Sardinia stands in sharp contrast to the Italian mainland and Sicily, the city of Alghero on the northwestern corner of the island provides an even sharper contrast to Sardinia itself. And yet, Alghero happily wears its unique mantle as a place apart in this undeveloped and primitively beautiful land. A sun-drenched city of 40,000 people on Italy's second largest island, Alghero caters to tourists from all over Europe. The city prides itself on being a more genuine and natural vacation spot than the often-publicized Costa Smeralda, summer watering hole on the northeastern coast and home to movie stars from America and royalty from everywhere else. As the Algherese remind you, theirs is not an artificially created resort, but a city with a long, proud history.

Alghero derives its name from the abundance of seaweed (alghe) in the surrounding waters. It was known as Algarium in the Middle Ages and Al Alguer and Barcelloneta under Spanish rule. Surrounded by water on three sides, the "old city" of Alghero, the center of its traditions and customs, seems once again held captive-not by the Spanish who once dominated the city for some 360 years, but by the very people who love the city so well. The old city sits within thick fortress walls, interrupted only by solemn towers. These torre are not the delicate ones of San Gimignano but massive structures, arresting in size and captivating in the way the sea-mirrored sunlight endlessly plays off their rough textures.

The stone streets of the old city, narrow and lined with shops, are dotted with randomly spaced and seemingly unplanned tiny piazzas. You do not often hear a mother's plaintive "Giovanni!" or "Franca!" issuing from an upper-story window as you might in other neighborhoods. Here life is quiet and the people rather more subdued. The day's laundry is strung out against the backdrop of elegant Spanish-inspired arches that bridge the streets. Rising above the rooftops, and more easily seen from afar than from close by, is the variegated ceramic dome of the church of San Michele and the stately, pointed Aragonese tower of the church of San Francesco, two of the old city's most familiar landmarks.

Alghero's origins go back to the tenth century, when the Genoese, with the help of Pisans, turned out the Arabs and obtained grants of land from the Judges of Logudoro, one of the groups of judges that administered Sardinia during the Middle Ages. The Genoese house of Doria took possession of the city at the beginning of the twelfth century and held onto it until 1353, when the Catalan fleet defeated the ships of Genoa near Porto Conte on the outskirts of Alghero. The Algherese revolted against the commanding officer of the garrison and killed him. The Spanish responded by sending 12,000 men and 100 galleys to suppress the revolt.

A treaty was arranged, the original inhabitants were forced to abandon their homes, and the town was then settled by Catalan families. Later, when Charles V wished to use the city as a base of operations against Saracen pirates, he visited Alghero and was so warmly received by its people that he proclaimed them todos caballeros, a mark of distinction held in regard to this day by the Algherese.

After Alghero came under Austrian rule with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Spain tried once again to take over the city, but was obliged by the Treaty of London to yield Sardinia to the House of Savoy. Alghero was not greatly bothered by foreign influences again until it suffered bombings during World War II. Fearing an invasion by the Allied forces, the Sardinians built bunkers in strategic locations around the city that are still standing today, grim reminders of Alghero's more troubled times.

Of all the contrasts that exist between Alghero and Sardinia, perhaps none is so striking as that which exists between the Algherese and the people from elsewhere on the island. If the Sardinians are noted for their quiet strength, independence, fierce loyalty, bravery, deephearted friendliness and, at times, dour mien, the generous and hospitable Algherese have a well-earned reputation for combining the best traits of the Sardinian character with an unabashed love of the good life. Neither loud nor overbearing, they nonetheless know how to have a good time. They are people who would rather enjoy the sun, the beaches, and the caffe than do anything else. It is not laziness as such, but it could easily be mistaken for it. The Algherese are quite fashionable; they take to the passeggiata as if they had invented it, and nowhere else in Italy have I seen a greater percentage of the local population go about this ritual with such great care.

"What further distinguishes the Algherese from the Sardinian and the Italian," according to Dr. Antonio Deligios, an Algherese and a local historian, "is the persistence of the Catalan language, the turning to the sea and not the interior of the island as a way of life, and the very strict prohibition against any violation of the afternoon siesta in the home. There is an almost sacred observance of this custom," says Deligios, "and you can feel it throughout the town."
Turning seaward yields other rewards to residents and travelers alike. For in the area are to be found the beautiful beaches of Le Bombarde and Porto Conte, as well as the Porto Conte, Punta Negra, Dei Pini and El Faro hotels.

Rock formation near Neptune's GrottoTraveling to the northeast, some 24 kilometers from Alghero, you can drive to the top of Capo Caccia, an awesome promontory from which you can descend the daring 654 steps of the famous Escala del Cabirol, or Goat's Stairway, to the stunning lake deep in the interior of the cavern known as Neptune's Grotto, the mythical abode of nymphs. Accessible also by tour boat from Alghero, Neptune's Grotto is filled with generously lit pastel stalactites and stalagmites that can be viewed from breathtaking walkways carved out of the stone. Old-timers fondly remember when visitors could row across the lake and when thousands of small candles on small plates floated on the water, creating an otherworldly glow of enchantment in the grand chamber.

Coral Artisan and Jewelry Called the Riviera del Corallo, Alghero is famous for its coral jewelry and carvings. Every year divers risk their lives to extract the coral from the deep coastal waters surrounding Alghero, and sadly, the sea has exacted its toll for the harvest by taking the lives of a good number of these courageous workers.

The coral in its raw form is branchlike and must be worked into the various shapes necessary to make the beads, rings, earrings and carvings so highly prized by natives and tourists. Walking along the back alleys of the city and peering into the dimly lit workshops, one can see the artigiani laboring away as, in typical Italian fashion, they create beautiful objects out of the most unlikely materials. The most prized of the coral is the rare pelle d'angelo, or angel skin coral, and the best work comes from the strikingly modern factory and showrooms of Signor Marogna and his family. Here you can buy the popular ox-blood coral and, while you wait, have 18-karat gold and coral rings fitted to size with a deftness that belies the difficulty of the work. There are literally dozens of such shops throughout the area.

Nuraghe Palmavera, north of AlgheroWhile coral jewelry helps support the modern Algherese, the town's nuraghi provide a link with their past. The notable nuraghe of Palmavera, one of the 7,000 cone-shaped buildings thought to have served as fortresses throughout Sardinia, is located about nine kilometers north of Alghero. The main nuraghe is constructed of stone stacked without the aid of mortar and sits in the center of the site. It is entered through a low doorway, requiring that you stoop as you pass into the barren circular main chamber, which has no windows or other doorways. This nuraghe, and the site in general, is interesting because it exhibits two distinct building styles and is thought, therefore, to have been rebuilt around 880 B.C., toward the end of the nuraghe civilization (1500-500 B.C.). It is believed that at the time of the reconstruction the lesser nuraghe, as well as the smaller, rectangular structures that encircle both buildings, were added to the site. Standing in this spot one is overwhelmed by an eerieness similar to that which envelops the ruins of Paestum and Agrigento, and yet it is stranger still. Who were these people? What were they really like? Why did they build these mysterious structures? These are questions that naturally come to mind here, questions that to this day remain unanswered.

This is an area where, in many ways, time seems to have stood still. Although no longer used as fortresses, the nuraghi play an integral part in the lives of the Algherese, giving shelter to their flocks. The time-honored work of the herdsmen has not changed over the centuries, and the pastori of Alghero and its environs still spend lonely days and nights tending to a good number of Sardinia's 2.5 million sheep (which constitute one-third of Italy's flocks). It is not surprising then that succulent young lamb is commonplace on the family table.

Sardinian food is simple and hearty, but while in Alghero you can benefit from the demanding Sardinian who, when it comes to eating in restaurants, makes even the most fastidious of restaurant-goers appear lackadaisical. In such excellent restaurants as La Lepanto, Il Pavone, Da Bruno, Dieci Metri, and La Muraglia one can be adventuresome and try some of the more unusual varieties of the freshest seafood from the morning's catch. A restaurateur in Alghero would no sooner dare display a fish whose eyes did not have the necessary sparkle of freshness than he would commit a heinous crime.

As a New Englander and a fancier of Maine lobster, I have come to regard the Sardinian aragosta as superior to our own in sweetness and delicacy. I have also enjoyed in Alghero a dish that I have not experienced elsewhere in Italy: spaghetti alla bottarga. The dish is made with mullet or tunny eggs, which are shaped into bars, dried, hardened and then grated over the freshly cooked pasta mixed with olive oil. The result is a specialty reminiscent of, but much more interesting than, spaghetti con acciughe. Because of its great cost, bottarga is treated like gold dust and used very sparingly.

The wines from the vineyards that surround Alghero and that so beautifully stretch down to the sea are not well known and are, in my opinion, vastly underrated. In particular, I Piani, Anghelu Ruju and Cannonau are some of the region's more memorable offerings. And those from the house of Sella and Mosca are some of the finest I have tasted in Italy.

We felt at home in this remarkable place not only because we had lived there before but also because Alghero is simpatico, and you needn't feel that being a visitor puts all kinds of obligations on you. The intense sun, the pleasant food, the coral-flecked beaches, the prehistoric sights and, best of all, the Algherese themselves made for a truly memorable homecoming.

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