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2007 Sardina & Sicily

Destination Sicily & Sardinia

During May & June 2007 my wife, Judith, and I had the ideal opportunity to explore Sicily and Sardinia as we had been asked by the Alan Rogers Guides to act as campsite assessors for their 2008 guides. The Alan Rogers standards are high so we were delighted to explore these two islands hopefully to the benefit of campers who use the guides in forthcoming years. The plan was to visit all existing listed sites and inspect new sites that had come to the attention of the Alan Roger’s team, and this involved visiting every part of these two beautiful islands.

Our journey to Sicily took us across France, where we used the “aires de service” for our nights’ stop, and down Italy. We stopped in Florence (Camping Michelangelo), Rome (Roma Flash) and Naples (Camping Vulcano Solfatara) and drove onwards to Villa San Giovanni where we caught the ferry to Messina. I must mention particularly the site near Naples, Camping Vulcano Solfatara, it is actually in Pozzuoli, and accessed direct from the tangenziale avoiding the need to go into Naples. Now it might sound like a diversion but believe me it is well worth it because you will find yourself camping in the crater of a live and active volcano. The final drive is virtually all autostradas, mainly without tolls, and involves driving through some wonderful countryside and national parks. There are endless opportunities to buy ferry tickets from the autostrada service areas but we waited till we arrived at the port. In fact it took less than 20 minutes for us to buy the ticket (31€ for Camper and two passengers) and board the next ferry which left immediately. The short crossing to Messina takes about 40 minutes across the narrow Straits where there are plans to build the world’s longest suspension bridge, although the numerous technical problems of building in a highly volcanic area still have to be solved.

For many people the first mention of Sicily brings to mind the Mafia or the La Societa Onorata (The Honoured Society) as they preferred to be called. There is little doubt they are still quite active on the island but the average tourist will see or hear nothing to cause concern from the endless friendly and helpful people that you will meet everyday. Sicily was for many years an integral part of Magna Greece but it was subsequently invaded by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Saracens, and the Normans and as one local explained to us the people have absorbed all of these cultures and this adds to the richness of modern day Sicily. By the turn of the 20th century the island was on its figurative knees. Emigration was draining the island of millions of its inhabitants, aided by the collapse of the sulphur mining industry; and the 1908 earthquake which left Messina in ruins and 84,000 people dead and thousands homeless. With unemployment currently more like 30% and the average wage half that of northern Italy Sicily is one of the poorest Italian regions.

As you leave the port there are signs for two campsites, both are good, but if you want to stay a few days, and recharge your batteries, then I would suggest Il Peloritano at Rodia. It is easy to find on the SS113 and is just 30kms (18 miles) from Messina. Patrizia Mowdello, the owner, will make you more than welcome and ensure you stay is pleasant and peaceful. The new swimming pool and sunbathing terrace are part of the continuing improvements being undertaken at this site; excursions to the Aeolian Islands are possible as is a trip, on public transport, to Messina. Full details of this and other sites I am going to suggest will be found in the 2008 Alan Roger’s Italy Guide (www.alanrogers.com).

Our onward journey was to take us on a clockwise trip around the Island and as we wanted to visit Mount Etna and hopefully Taormina we planned to stay a few nights at Camping Jonio on the northern outskirts of Catania accessed easily from the SS114. This is not the most attractive of sites but its location and good facilities make it popular. Pitches are small and many under cane screens but eight have a private WC/Shower and sink alongside, but this is quite small and basic. Taormina is mid way between Messina and Catania and is spectacularly located on a terrace of Monte Tauro, dominating the sea with views of Mount Etna – it is difficult to exaggerate the charms of Taormina, Sicily’s glitziest resort. Full details of this, and other sites, and a useful plan can be found in the Lonely Planet guide to Sicily (ISBN 1-74059-684-6).

Mount Etna (3323m) is the island’s most prominent landmark and Europe’s largest active volcano. Since 1987 the volcano and its slopes have been part of a national park and the effects of this extraordinary volcano should never be underestimated. The daily bus link from Catania leaves the central station at 7.55am and takes you to Rifugio Sapienza (1923m) where you can catch the Funivia dell’Etna cable car (23€) to a height of 2500m. From the cable car you can attempt the long walk (4 hours return) to the authorised crater area, but ensure you wear sensible footwear, alternatively you can join one of the many guided tours. Guided tours can also be arranged direct from the campsite by the helpful site staff and these range from 30€ to 100€ per person depending on what you want. Just remember that the latest eruption was in 2002 and this swept away a huge swathe of the ancient pine forests and the mountain is constantly covered in clouds of condensation where the heat of the lava clashes with the cold mountain air. Visit www.etnaonline.it to obtain more upto date information.

Our continuing journey took us south, past the petrochemical industry that has taken over the coastline between Augusta and Syracuse, to Avola where we found one of Sicily’s hidden gems, Camping Sabbiadoro, easy to find off the SS115. The Alia family have developed a truly beautiful campsite with over 100 different species of trees and flowers and direct access to a sandy beach and good facilities. As we arrived a party was underway to celebrate the natural produce of the area and Ricotta cheese was being made in a large copper pot. We were invited to join in the festivities and drink local wine and eat local cuisine, plus we had fresh Ricotta straight from the pot: it was delicious!

After a night’s rest we continued to Punta Braccetto, south of Ragusa, to find another new site for the guide. Camping Scarabeo, owned by Angela di Modica, it is everything I could have hoped for: fantastic location, an excellent welcome, an attractive well planned site and exceptional facilities. Each camper gets the key to their own locked WC compartment which has a wash basin and the ample hot showers are for communal use. The site has direct access to a good large sandy beach and the turquoise sea was very inviting and warm. The is no restaurant or shop on site but this is not a problem as a small restaurant/pizzeria is just 200m down the road, on the beach, and bar and bakers is even closer, and the ice cream vendor and fresh fish sales-van visit and park in the middle of the site. By the way, the ice cream was great and as I sit here and write this article the fish have just been cleaned and the BBQ is almost hot enough!

Well having eaten the fish, and got out of the washing up, it seems an appropriate moment to mention Sicilian cuisine. Sicilians aren’t big on antipasta so you can concentrate on the prima plati and secondi plati. I particularly liked Pasta alla Norma with its rich combination of tomatoes, aubergine and salted ricotta which was named in tribute to the composer of Norma, Vincenzo Bellini. Another particular favourite was Pesce Spada alla Messinese, swordfish done in a way only the Sicilians could perfect; truly mouth-watering. I hope to find, during the next week, somewhere with coniglio all’agrodolce on the menu, sweet and sour rabbit in a sauce flavoured with garlic, olive oil, onions, bay leaves and rosemary. If that doesn’t entice you here then you could try one of excellent pizzas, the problem there is pizza at home will never be the same. Enough of food, the ice cream man will be here soon and I want to try the Granita a drink made of crushed ice and fruit juice or if you prefer with coffee and fresh whipped cream.

A very short diversion took us to the Mercedes Benz dealer in Modica, who had ordered a new motor for the air-con fan, this was fitted in 15 minutes and we were back on our way. We stayed the next night near Agrigento so we could visit the Valle dei Templi, the Doric Temples and ruined city walls of the ancient Greek city of Akragas. This UNESCO World Heritage listed site is Sicily’s premier attraction and on every tourist trip. The five Doric Temples are sited on a ridge and were designed to be visible from all around and a beacon to homecoming sailors. They are well worth a visit but don’t think about taking your motorhome or caravan with you.

We rely on GPS navigation for planning our journeys and the computer said the shortest route for the remaining sites was first to travel north, across the middle of the island and then continue anticlockwise to finish at Trapani for the ferry to Sardinia which we had already booked a few days earlier. So we set off on that route and were glad we did because we saw so much of the central region and drove on good roads all the way across Our next stop was near Finale on the north coast were we stayed at Camping Rais Gerbi a truly excellent site and although it is cut almost in half by the coastal railway line it makes up for that which excellent pitches and facilities. The view we had for breakfast was truly magnificent.

A short way west along the autostrada is Palermo, which has no bypass so we spent some time in traffic through this busy city. It is hard to describe Italian traffic and driving, there just aren’t enough adjectives. Granny with a one year old on her lap letting him steer, scooterist on the wrong side talking on their mobile phones, double, treble or quadruple parking; yes its all there in a typical day. We eventually got through though and got used to the habit of forming 5 lanes on a 3 lane road at every set of traffic lights and we were soon on route to San Vito lo Capo and the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro. Here the El Bahira camp-site was quite pleasant although there are two many static caravans for my liking and the showers could be better. But it does give a opportunity to explore this promontory and the national park where the coastline is a haven for the rare Bonelli eagle along with 40 other species of bird and 700 plant varieties, some unique to this coastline. For sun worshippers the site’s pool and rocky beach supplements the sandy beach at San Vito, just 3kms away.

With just two days left on this beautiful island we had 2 sites to visit before catching the weekly ferry from Trapani to Cagliari. The ferry leaves at 9.00pm and arrives at 8.30am the following day, only on Tuesday’s during May and unfortunately there is no “camping on board” on this ship so you have to choose between a cabin and an airline type seat for this journey. Our trip cost 279 Euros for a 7m camper and a cabin for two passengers.


Our journey to Sardinia, by ferry from Trapani to Cagliari, was more plain sailing than it was smooth. We sailed on the Tirrenia ship Flaminia on it’s once a week regular voyage. Boarding starts at 7pm with the ship set to sail at 9pm and you are destined to arrive at 8.30 the next morning. First, loading of numerous tankers and HGVs takes priority, followed by the coaches of elderly Italians and then cars and any campers that are making the trip. So it was about 8.15 before we got towards the front of the queue and could see why boarding was taking so long, the ramp was like a ski-slope with a violent kink in the middle so every vehicle was going very slowly to avoid the risk of grounding. We watched carefully and took the slalom approach going at an angle to begin with and then straightening up for the second longer slope. In the end it was no problem and we were soon heading towards our booked cabin.

We docked at Cagliari about 1 hour late, and unloading was as slow as our previous experience with everyone taking time to negotiate the downwards slopes and flat middle section of the ramp. We were quickly out of the port, no customs or formalities, and on our way southwest towards Pula on good roads. I soon realised that Sardinians seem a lot slower behind the wheel than their Sicilian cousins, no mad overtaking and a much calmer pace. We spent our first night near Chia at a pleasant site that was not supposed to be open for another few days but it was however already well occupied.

The next day we headed towards San Antioco, a much smaller island in the far south west corner and quickly drove the 12kms on this island to Camping Tonnara located in the beautiful Cala Sapone bay. This is a delightful site with most pitches having views of the small bay and sandy beach to which the site has direct access. It has a restaurant selling excellent fish dishes between April and September, and its only downfall is that its “drinking” water is bought in by tanker and is not really what you would want to drink. So you have to rely on bottled water for drinking, the site supply is fine for cooking, washing and cleaning but you would be wise not to try to fill your tank here, in fact try to arrive with your tank full. This minor problem should not put you off what is an excellent campsite in an idyllic location.

Sardinia is about 270 miles long by about 90 miles wide and has had a similar lengthy history to Sicily, with the added factor that is was conquered by the Spanish and occupied for over 300 years before being ceded to the Austrians, so inevitably it is very different to Sicily. For many the nuraghe (stone tower) builders embodied the seeds of a nation, the integrity of which has long since been guarded by the shepherds of Barbagia. Astonishingly, millions of euros designated by the EU for Sardinian developments were withdrawn not - because of any shady dealing but because Sardinia failed to spend the money! The island’s new president, Internet billionaire Renato Soru, is determined to make changes; he built his global company, Tiscali, by uniting the small fragmented European telecom and internet service providers and obviously hopes he can perform the same magic on Sardinia.

Our journey took us from the south west to the south east, but not before we had visited Carbonia, a city built by Mussolini in 1938. It has retained its Fascist town planning and architectural conception but has long since lost its principal raison d’etre of being the capital of the Sardinian coal industry. The south east coast is the home of many campsites and we were to visit three along the Costa Rei before venturing north towards the Parco Nazionale del Golfo Gennargentu and Siniscola, where we would again cross the island to the west coast. Here we could continue a clockwise trip to Olbia in the north east, near where the Aga Khan and a group of his friends bought a 10km (6 mile) stretch of coast line to create Costa Smeralda.

On the Costa Rei the small campsite, Capo Ferrato, was particularly nice, it accepts camping cheques, and has good deals in the low season and it is close to the new SS125 and runs along an excellent beach. During June and September they run short courses entitled “Discovering Sardinia - Gastronomy and Culture” which sounded very interesting and great fun. Don’t forget to try the Mirto, a liqueur made from the leaves and berries of the myrtle plant. After a very wet Sunday; our drive on the Monday took us through the Gennargentu National Park some 146,000 acres of the wildest and most mountainous landscape in Sardinia. Over about 35 kms we climbed from sea level to 1021m (3100 feet) and enjoyed some breathtaking views along the well graded SS125 which runs through the park. The SS125 is in fact the Orientale Sarda road that was hewn out of rock by Piedmontese coal merchants during the mid 1800s. These “foreigners” carved a road through remote mountain valleys and felled trees that were sent to the mainland. The deforestation that resulted has proved irreversible. During this drive we saw a few snakes, all non poisonous in Sardinia, and goats, cattle and pigs all in the middle of the road at various points. The steady descent takes you down to Dorgali when the road follows the coast to Siniscola.

Before we reached Siniscola we stopped to assess a couple of campsites near Arbatax, a busy ferry port, with regular connections to the mainland. But for me most importantly it is the terminus of the Trenino Verdi, a narrow gauge railway that goes south to Cagliari. The five hour trip on hard wooden benches traverses some wonderful countryside and spectacular views but unfortunately you cannot make the return journey the same day. I still cannot understand why my wife said whatever the question was the answer is “no”!

As you drive along the generally quiet roads you begin to notice a few things. In the past Sardinia had a reputation for kidnapping, but what we noticed in many places was the fact that road-signs were riddled with bullet holes or punctured by a shotgun cartridge. Clearly a pastime for locals but not one that worried us as we always felt safe and secure. The second thing, and perhaps more worrying if you don’t think ahead is that many petrol stations close between 12.30 and 15.30 each day and few are open Saturday afternoons and Sundays. We even found a couple that would only sell diesel to Lorries and not campers or cars, so don’t let you tank get too empty.

In Budoni, a bustling seaside town north of Siniscola, we stayed at the Pedra E Cupa campsite which had good facilities and pitches and access to a beautiful quiet beach. The day after we headed south west to look at a somewhat unusual site, for the Alan Roger’s guides, an Agrituristica near to Nuoro. Recommended by a reader this very small site, only 9 pitches, is part of a large organic farm owned by Giovanni di Costa. I am sure Azienda Agrituristica Costiolu will find its way into the 2008 guides and will be visited by many looking for a quiet resting place high up in the Barbagian Mountains.

Our journey continued south west to Oristano and then we followed the coast north to Alghero via the interesting town of Bosa. Alghero known to the Spanish as little Barcelona, has a distinct Catalan flavour and we enjoyed an excellent lunch at a restaurant, overlooking the marina, in the old town before travelling some 15kms to the Torre del Porticciolo campsite. This good site has access, via a flight of stone steps, to a small sandy bay overlooked by a large stone tower currently being renovated. With Alghero airport, just 15 minutes drive away, served by many budget airlines this site is finding increased trade in the low season for its small timber chalets and good bungalows.

After visiting Porto Torres, known to the Romans as Turris Libisonis, where I managed to get a haircut, we continued north east along the coast to Valledoria and Camping Le Foce where we spent a very pleasant weekend.

This excellent site offers kayaks to rent, bird-watching boat trips along the river and a shuttle boat service to a remote white sandy beach. The site accepts camping cheques right through to early July so offers excellent value for low season campers. At the site we enjoyed some typical Sardinian cuisine I had Malloreddus, gnocchi like dumplings served with fresh tomato sauce and minced sausage. And we could not resist the Sebadas, fritters stuffed with cheese and lemon peel, then fried and served with local honey. Judith had tried the Buccinis, a type of mollusc and the Arselle, clams, with Cozze, mussels, in Alghero and we had bought some Porceddu, roast suckling pig in a supermarket and that made an excellent lunch on the road one day.

We had also enjoyed the local red (Cannonau) and white (Vermentino) wine and bought some Mirto and Lemoncello to take home as a lasting memory of a magical stay in Sardinia. With a little over a week to go our route continued north east towards Santa Teresa di Gallura where we visited for a few hours the campsite Baia Blu Le Tortuga. This is a truly excellent site, a good mixture of pitches, great facilities and new sanitary blocks that were a couple of days off completion. The site also offered fully serviced pitches and private bathrooms to rent and had a great private beach. They accept the ACSI card so camping in low season is just 14€ (less than £10) per night. We would have happily stayed here but had already decided to spend a few days on the Costa Smeralda.

On route to Camping Villaggio Isuledda, north of Gannigioni, we stopped to explore another Nuraghe. In fact there are over 7,000 of these distinctive truncated stone cones in Sardinia and little is known about the civilisation that created them and flourished here between 1800 and 500 BC. Having also looked at the small adjoining museum we left for our campsite which is located on the west side of the gulf de Arzachena looking towards the Maddalena archipelago. This group of seven islands, between Sardinia and Corsica, in the straits of Bonifacio, was listed as a marine reserve of international status in 1997 and no trip here is complete without a visit to Caprera where Guiseppe Garibaldi lived and is buried. The strange thing about this spectacular national park is that it is also the home to various US nuclear submarines under a NATO agreement ratified in 1972. We were told there are now over a 1,000 US personnel on the small island of San Stefano much to the annoyance of locals and Friends of the Earth. In 2003 there was a near disastrous incident when the atomic submarine Hartford became stranded on a sandbank and in 2005 more controversy hit the papers when it was discovered that the USA wants to treble the size of its base here.

Isuledda is a great campsite, our pitch is on a small promontory, almost entirely surrounded by the turquoise sea, and as I sit and finish this article the dolphins are swimming across the gulf enjoying the warmth of the sun and the refreshing breeze. The site has excellent facilities and offers diving, windsurfing and sailing plus you can hire boats, cars, cycles and scooters.

Our return journey from Olbia to Civitavecchia, north of Rome, takes 5 hours on the Tirrenia vessel Nuraghe, departing at 12 noon, at a cost of 239€. From there our trip continues through Tuscany towards home, our 4 week stay in Sardinia was delightful and we are already planning to return.

Bon Voyage.