Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Lazy days in the laid-back south of Sardinia

With ancient ruins, a crystal-clear sea and relaxed resorts, Grace Bradberry finds Pula the perfect place for a child-friendly break…

“Walking up the hillside track to the ruins at Nora, on the southern tip of Sardinia, I feel as if a lifetime of internal conflict has been resolved. I am visiting a ruin - and yet I am scarcely leaving the beach. Below, to the left, is a gorgeous arc of sand and sea, dotted with towels and sun shades and the paraphernalia of a beach holiday. I will be, at all times, within five minutes of this gorgeous expanse as I tour the site.

How brilliant of first the Phoecians then the Romans, to pick this spot to build: sharing the same car park, that requires no long, sticky car journey, no sad half day parted from the sand and sea - in other words, the perfect Mediterranean holiday ruin with a toddler in tow.  And so we - my three year old son and I - "do" the ruin.  I have a slightly heavy heart as there is a compulsory 45 minute tour, in Italian.  But I soon feel slightly ashamed at my attitude - this turns out to be a major site, and the tour guide is lively, switching easily into English.  the oldest inscription dates back to about 1,000 BC and there are the remains of a Phoenician temple to the goddess Tanit.  (Part of that original city is now submerged and can be seen on a separate snorkel tour).  Much of the rest of the site with its baths, theatre and luxury villa, dates back to the Romans, who made Mora the capital of Sardinia in 238 BC, and built a main square overlooking the sea.  We do not quite make it to the end of the tour, I have to admit:  as the sun creeps higher in the cloudless sky, so does the temperature until my son finally cracks and lies down on the rubbly path by the Roman theatre, all possible interest spent.  "No!" he cries.  We beat a retreat and, in a cafe that sits on the dividing line between ruin and beach, we grab the last terrace table not taken by a coach party.  We have done the ruin.  Now for the beach.  South Sardinia is all about the beach - no one would claim anything
else.  In the north east, there is the Costa Smeralda, which is about the beach, but also about luxury shopping, the villas of the trashy mega-rich, and nightlife (Berlusconi’s seaside estate, Villa Certosa, is in this region, with its grotto, fake volcano and notoriously young female guests).  Indeed, it's this expense and bling for which Sardinia is best known. 

But here, in the more laid-back south, there are mid-range hotels alongside the expensive ones, as well as small B&Bs and agriturismo rooms for a little as €30pp per night.  It feels as if there is just the sand, sea and a smattering of small towns, rather than some kind of consumer paradise. We are staying on the edge of Pula, a mile or so up the road from Nora, and 27km from the capital Cagliari, outside which lies the south’s main airport.  Pula is not a flashy town but it has an attractive main square edged by tourist shops, a deli, and a restaurant or two, a couple of supermarkets (we are self-catering), and a church.  We dine at one excellent restaurant Zia Leunora, down a side street, where we eat fish baked in salt and steak in a pretty courtyard with flowering climbers.  My son's favourite dinner though is pizza from a cubby-hole of a takeaway, eaten sitting on a wall.

Our apartment is in the Lantana, a Roman-villa style resort that makes a point of being family friendly and has a large pool with a shallow area and a lovely children's playground.  I could have happily hung out there all day, but that would have been to miss not only Nora but the glory of the beaches.  And what beaches.

Pula is the start of a long string of sandy strips, curving round along the SS195 to Porto di Teulada.  In the middle of this sweep, just beyond Nora, is a kind of mystery stretch hidden from view first by a pine grove and then by the vast Forte Village, an (expensive) complex of hotels and restaurants, which for a long time was an island of luxury tourism in the midst of an otherwise undeveloped coast.

The most glorious of the beaches is Chia, one of those knock-out crescents of sandy perfection, sheltered by dunes and junipers, that features in people's list of top-ten beaches.  Here we stand in a vast sandy moonscape and everything is golden, and perfect and very hot.  At one edge is a cafe selling old-fashioned bottles of Coke, and a place with surfboards to hire.  Then nothing for ages - just sand and sea - until you reach another cafe at the far end.

We paddle, walk half way, get too hot, fight over applying sun cream, make sand castles, get too hot again...and finally I realise that this beach is just too perfect for a toddler.  It's a place for couples and teens, and surfers and well anyone who doesn’t throw a tantrum when they get hot.

By now, I have a taste for the Sardinian roads.  It's time for a mini road trip.  So on a day even hotter than the last (the week would crescendo to 100 degrees) we set off southwest, for the island of Sant'Antioco - my kind of island in that it can be reached by driving across a mile-long causeway (no sea-sick boat trip involved).  Even at 10.30am, as we park near the harbour, the heat hangs heavily.  We walk through a big open square with deserted coffee shops until we reach the main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, entirely shaded by trees.  Up a cobbled street and past old women sitting half asleep in doorways, we make it to the church square and step inside the Basilica di Sant'Antioco Martire, built in 1102.  A young man immediately asks if we would like to go on a tour of the catacombs.  We descend a few steps into a small labyrinth, musky with the smell of earth and old bones (Saint Antiochus is said to have sought refuge and died here). 

But with that visit, our exploration is over.  The following day, we go to the pool and beach.  And the day after that.  We've done enough." 

Grace Bradberry was a guest of Just Sardinia 01202 484858 www.justsardinia.co.uk which has a weeks self-catering from £493pp based on 4 sharing a 2 bed apartment at  Residence Lantana including easyJet flights Stansted to Cagliari and car hire.

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