If a relaxing and historically enriching tour of one Mediterranean island is good, two has to be twice as nice, right?
We think so, which is why we’ve paired the islands of Sardinia and Corsica in our September 2017 Beauty and the Beach package. After exploring Sardinia (the second largest island in the Mediterranean, after Sicily) from its southern to northern tips during the first week, we simply hop aboard a ferry for a second week in Corsica.
Don’t worry about duplication of experience, by the way. Though they’re only eight miles apart, the two islands couldn’t be much more different in terms of culture, history and terrain. For starters, Corsica is a territory of France and known for its rugged, mountainous interior, while Sardinia is an autonomous region of Italy with a reputation for beautiful beaches—more than 200 of them.
One thing the two islands do share is a distinctive cuisine, emphasizing seafood, exotic meats such as wild boar and other game, locally produced vegetables, breads and cheeses, and excellent local wines. Another is a long history of rule under assorted conquerors going back to the ancient Phoenicians (for Sardinia) and the ancient Carthaginians (for Corsica), plus several hundred years of Roman rule, as evidenced by Roman ruins on both islands.
Our two-week tour begins in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia. We’ll spend two nights there, taking time for a first-morning trip to the ancient city of Nora, with its Roman ruins including an amphitheater, forum and baths. We’ll also take plenty of time to explore the narrow, high-walled streets of Cagliari’s Castello district, a medieval old town boasting Roman antiquities of its own, plus the 14th-century Cagliari Cathedral and an assortment of museums, boutiques, bars and cafes.
The next day we continue our drive north to the Su Naraxi archaeological site. Su Naraxi is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to the insights it offers into the Nuragic civilization—a warlike seafaring people (and expert metal workers) who flourished in Sardinia from the Bronze Age to the second century A.D. The Nuragic left no written records, but they did leave behind remains of some 7,000 nuraghe tower/fortresses that dot the Sardinian landscape. Later that day, we’ll make a stop at the small coastal town of San Pietro to visit its old quarter, featuring a Romanesque cathedral built over an early Christian necropolis, before driving on to spend the night in Nuoro.
Nuoro is sometimes called the Athens of Sardinia, because it’s the birthplace of many renowned writers, poets, painters and sculptors (including Grazia Deledda, the only Italian woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature). We’ll merely take appreciative note, however, before heading on to our next destination, the resort town of Alghero.
Alghero is sometimes known as “Little Barcelona” because some of its population descends from Catalan conquerors in the Middle Ages—and a form of medieval Catalan is still spoken there today. We will spend two nights there, again taking time the first morning to tour nearby Sassari, the island’s second-largest city, and its well-preserved medieval quarter dating back to the 12th century. Though, naturally, Little Barcelona is no slouch in that department itself. Alghero features a remarkable medieval old town, fortified by massive walls and armaments facing the sea, in addition to cobble-stoned streets, a wealth of Gothic buildings including a 14th-century church, and charming café-lined piazzas. And we’ll have a day and a half to explore all the town’s treasures at our leisure.
After Alghero, we’ll drive along the northern coast (about as far north as you can go in Sardinia) to the cheery seaside resort town of Santa Teresa di Gallura—complete with a view of the southern coast of Corsica. With one eye on our next destination, we’ll take an afternoon and evening to enjoy the charms of Santa Teresa, including the central square with its café-bars, jewelry and coral shops, a scenic cliff-top walk to an historic watchtower and Rena Bianca, the sandy town beach.
It only takes 50 minutes, the following morning, for the ferry ride to Bonifacio in Corsica, where we’ll transfer to our hotel after a tour of the town’s Haute Ville. The historic upper city is centered around a ninth-century fortress built by the Tuscans around the time the town was founded. After check-in, you’ll be free to explore other attractions of the upper city including restaurants and museums—or to check out the cafes and bars lining the town’s yacht-filled harbor.
Next, we’ll drive to Corsica’s west coast (stopping briefly in the resort town of Propiano for lunch) and its largest city, Ajaccio, which is surrounded by mountains and beaches. After arriving, we’ll spend the afternoon touring the Genovese town center featuring a 16th-century citadel and watchtower, plus numerous examples of 16th-century baroque architecture. And we’ll continue to take in the historical sights the following morning, most notably the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte—now a national museum. The afternoon is free for exploring, with one of the most highly recommended attractions being a cliff-side hike along the Crest Trail, offering gorgeous views of the Gulf of Ajaccio.
After fully enjoying Ajaccio, it’s all aboard the tiny two-car island train, Chemins de Fer de La Corse, for a 75-minute trip into the mountainous heart of the island, through tunnels and over bridges to the mountain town of Corte. The capital of the short-lived Corsican republic during the brief time between liberation from Genoa and military conquest by France, Corte is also the only university city in Corsica, as well as the birthplace of Napoleon’s big brother Joseph—later named king of Naples and Spain by the Emperor. (Not that there was any hint of nepotism.) We’ll tour the old town center, including the Eagle’s Nest citadel, built in the 15th and 18th centuries (and later occupied by the French Foreign Legion). And the remainder of the day will be devoted to enjoying the mountainous scenery and the town’s many cafes and bars.
Following our overnight in Corte, we’ll once again board the tiny Chemins de Fer train, heading north to the coastal city of Bastia for our final two days in Corsica. Situated between the central mountains and the Ligurian Sea, Bastia was founded and fortified in the 14th century by the Genoese. Today, it is Corsica’s principal port and principal commercial city—particularly well known for its wines. Bastia is also known for its historical riches, including a walled, 15th-century old town featuring narrow, winding alleyways and numerous medieval buildings, the 15th-century Eagle’s Nest citadel, the Governor’s Palace (now housing the Musée de Bastia) and the ancient cathedral of Sainte Marie.
Obviously, there’s plenty to see, but after trekking two islands in two weeks, you may choose to spend your final day relaxing, souvenir shopping or even taking it easy on a nearby beach. Perhaps with a bottle of that fine Bastian wine.