In the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, about 125 miles from the Italian mainland, lies the unique island of Sardinia, or Sardegna in Italian.

The island is relatively free of large cities or heavy industry, and its beaches are some of the cleanest in Italy and mostly uncrowded, except during peak season. But Sardinia offers plenty besides sun and sea.

Although not known for its cultural riches, the island does hold some surprises, remains of the various civilizations that passed through here.

The island was ravaged by a succession of invaders over the centuries, each of them leaving some imprint behind: Roman and Carthaginian ruins, Genoan fortresses, a string of elegant Pisan churches with some impressive Gothic and Spanish Baroque architecture.

Perhaps most striking of all, however, are the remnants of Sardinia's only significant native culture. The Nuraghic civilization, named after the 7000-odd nuraghi that they left behind, was unique to Sardinia.

Their mysterious, stone-built constructions are often in isolated places, but there are a few to be seen in the museums of Càgliari and Sassari.

The capital is Càgliari. With good accommodation and restaurants, it makes a useful base for exploring the southern third of the island. The Costa Smeralda is Sardinia's best-known resort area and lives up to its reputation for opulence. 

Alghero, on the western shore, has a Spanish ambience, a legacy of long years in which the town was a Catalan colony, and a wholly different feel from the rest of the island.

Inland, Nuoro has impressive literary credentials and a good ethnographical museum. As the biggest town in Sardinia's interior, it also makes a useful base for visiting some of the more remote mountain areas, in particular the Gennargentu range, which covers the heart of the island. This is where you can find what remains of the island's traditional culture, best embodied in the numerous village festivals.

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