The Big Islands of Europe
The three off the beaten track islands recommended here are interesting to visit because of their isolation. Why make the effort to visit them?
- Signs of unique and ancient civilizations.
- Handicrafts--items like hand-made Sardinian rugs and Corsican musical instruments, along with interesting pottery and unique decorative items you can purchase.
- Strong folk art traditions.
- Traditional foods can range from the bizarre (Sardinia's maggot cheese) to the sublime (Corsican Charcuterie--cured meats--considered the best in the world).
My favorite island--if you avoid the Costa Smaralda, the rich folk's scab on one of Europe's most beautiful coastlines. OK, I've worked in Sardinia's interior for five summers and know it pretty well--you might have some difficulty knowing where to go, so you might consider hiring a guide or at least purchasing a decent guidebook. But Sardinia is the place for someone looking for the signs of an isolated culture with unique antiquities. Visit a Nuraghe or two (bronze age stone towers unique to the island), take a gander at a the sacred well of Santa Christina (and marvel at the construction--you can't slip a sheet of typing paper between the precisely worked blocks), visit the ruins of the Roman baths at Fordongianus (still operating, in a sense, thanks to its hot-spring fed pools), see an ancient village inside a mountain at Tiscali, and for something completely different, see the political murals of Orgosolo. Eat great seafood on the coast, roast meats in the interior. Try mirto, a myrtleberry liquor.
And the festivals in Sardinia are real, home grown, meaningful expressions of culture--not shows for the tourists, although you'll be welcomed at any one of them. If you are there at the start of July, don't miss the horse race called l'ardia di San Costantino which makes the Palio di Siena look like a cakewalk.
When to Go: Summer can be brutally hot. Spring and Fall are best, but if you like the heat, the interior of Sardinia is very lightly touristed, even in summer.
Language: Italian, although most speak a dialect of the local language Sardo. English is spoken in the large cities, but not in small villages.
Recommended lodging: Hotel Su Gologone is attuned to the food and customs of Sardinia like no other hotel I've stayed at. Traditional foods expertly cooked are served each evening at dinner, and the breakfast buffet is incredible--don't miss it. Local folk groups practice here at night--and the hotel serves finger food and drinks to those who wish to watch (or dance along). They also can find a local guide for you or arrange a tour to the local hot spots.
Just an hour by ferry from Sardinia, Corsica offers a French-tinged version of the same independent spirit in their culture. The interior of Corsica is greener, more mountainous and wilder than Sardinia. Take a slow train around the island. Take in some traditional Corsican music. You can even stay in a "music house" hotel, Casa Musicale in a small Balagne village, where you can take music courses, hear singing groups based there, and eat good Corsican food. For the beach folks, Corsica features 1000 kilometers of sandy shoreline, coves and bays. There are even ski areas on Corsica. Finally, Corsica is covered with ancient footpaths, many of them with stupendous views.
When to Go: Campers flood Corsica in the Summer. On the other hand, lack of venues means that most Corsican festivals happen in the warmer months. Be sure to reserve a hotel in the port cities--if ferries can't run because of rough seas, the hotels can get backed up.
Language: French is the official language of Corsica, but a large number of Corsicans speak Corsican or Corsu. Don't count on English outside the main tourist cities; Italian sometimes works, as do hand signals.
More: Corsica Travel Directory
Many islands in Greece are clogged with tourists who lie on the beach all day and party in paradise all night. But Crete is big enough for everyone, from the walkers who will find walking the Samaria Gorge, to the budding archaeologists who will enjoy the ruins at Knossos and elsewhere. Of course, as a long and slender island, there are miles and miles of beaches as well.
Our Crete Maps and Travel Guide will take you through the best of Crete, from the weather and climate to the main attractions to where to stay.
Many folks go to Malta to see the Neolithic Temples. Built a millennium before the pyramids, they are an achievement unparalleled in their time, considering the necessity of moving 20 ton blocks around the rocky landscape. Malta is an open-air museum all by itself. You can trace the footsteps of St. Paul where he shipwrecked on the Malta coast, a point traditionally known as St Paul's Island, marked by a statue commemorating the event [read all about it in the Acts of the Apostles (XXVII)] You can see the places where the Knights of St John defended Christendom in Malta.
The rugged coastline of Malta features some spectacular views. Maybe the best place to walk is the island of Gozo. Take a boat trip around the islands to get it all in.
When to Go: Although summer can be hot and leave the islands looking a bit barren, From mid November until mid May or so, you'll find them more or less green and lush. By late spring, a thousand or more species of plants will be in flower.
More: Malta Travel Directory