Exploring the natural wonders of Sardinia with children

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On our first night in Sardinia, we struck up a conversation with a lone diner at the restaurant table next door. “I left my children at home so I could walk,” the German said as he studied a topographical map of the second-largest island in the Mediterranean. As he detailed his ambition for a multi-day trek, my husband and I could only look at each other, a little enviously, and suppress a smile as our children did somersaults in the adjacent plaza. Delayed two years due to the pandemic, this spring break trip was meant to be an immersion in nature far from our urban home in Paris. Can we persuade our daughters, ages 9 and 11, to follow the path?

For many people around the world, Sardinia is synonymous with spiagge, the fine sandy beaches of the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast). First developed in the 1960s, this glitzy destination in the northeast of the island quickly became a playground for the jet set, complete with nightclubs, mega-yachts and celebrity-hunting paparazzi. But about an hour south of Olbia, the mountainous interior near the Gulf of Orosei offers a different kind of playground: an exciting array of landscapes and natural wonders intertwined with hiking trails for outdoor enthusiasts. The month of April, well before the busy summer peak season, brings an added attraction: a colorful palette of wildflowers blooming in the sun.

For my oldest daughter, Jane, nothing could be better than listening to Spotify and reading a book while tanning on the beach. The same goes for her younger sister, Cecilia: she says the word “walk” and there will be an instant protest. Let’s say bribery was involved. (A Snickers is the best energy bar.) But even more compelling than our tasty picnics was our modus operandi: Instead of “walking,” we would go on a quest to find Eleonora’s rare falcon. We would alternate the walking days with other activities, so as not to overdo it and discourage our children forever. Searching for this raptor, named for the queen of Sardinia who is said to have been the first in history to enact such legislation when she granted the falcon protected status in 1392, created a themed scavenger hunt that took us outdoors and nature.

Bird watching was a pandemic revelation for Cecilia. It all started when I lent her my digital camera and she managed to photograph a Eurasian Kingfisher by a stream in Brittany. Looking at the screen, I was amazed to see a tiny bird, its plumage deep blue and orange, that I had not yet seen with my own eyes. Soon her world, devoid of people during the coronavirus crisis, was populated with birds, each species more fascinating than the last. She carried her dog-eared field guide everywhere, she adopted my camera as her own and even created a bird sanctuary in her bedroom decorated with feathers, figurines and drawings. (Plus, every inch of wall space is covered with bird posters.) At first, I thought her joy stemmed from identifying and collecting birds, as well as her rock collection, but she corrected me. She loves birds for the fun facts and distinctive features, including some awesome superhero powers.

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We identify bird songs in apps, log sightings to Merlin Bird ID, and watch nature videos on YouTube. But there’s nothing like being outside in their real habitat. With bird watching, trips take on another dimension. Over the course of three walks in Sardinia, each roughly eight miles long, we take the time to pause in the landscape and take in the details of the avian inhabitants: the swallows swooping in the twilight (“No, Mom, that it is an alpine swift, Cecilia corrected me, “capable of flying for 200 days without stopping”), the cunning crows entangling food (“Wrong again, that is a hooded crow, considered its own species”), the Eurasian hoopoe showing its marvelous crest (“Like a fan!”), and the nightingale singing at the top of its lungs (“First time I ever saw it!”).

When we stopped to look, we noticed other wonderful things about the Sardinian landscape and culture.

Below the Supramonte mountain range, the road to Gorropu Gorge descended through the rugged and remote terrain of the island. The purple flowers of crocuses bloomed in the groves of oaks and the broom bushes filled with yellow flowers. To the soundtrack of cowbells, we passed traditional shepherd’s huts, built in the style of a domed tipi out of tree branches, and a trail-maintenance crew who, in a mixture of Italian, French and English, wished us congratulations. for the re-election of President Emmanuel Macron. victory in France. Our destination was what the Sardinia Tourism website calls “the most spectacular canyon in Europe and… also one of the deepest”. We were looking for falcons and the golden eagle that nests on the steep cliffs.

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According to Google Maps, we were walking through a national park called Golfo di Orosei e del Gennargentu. Although its boundaries were established in 1998 and are outlined on maps, the national park has never been operational due to local opposition. The communities fought off the regulation of the lands they have inhabited for millennia. “It was a matter of survival, not just because of a rebellious spirit,” explained María Luisa Pira from Chìntula, the organization that manages the gorge. “We can take good care of our land and we have every interest in keeping it pristine. Both herders and tour operators can make a living here in perfect balance. We were afraid that sacrificing so much of our land would also mean giving up our ancestral culture.”

Pira hails from the nearby mountain town of Orgosolo, which gained fame for its resistance and the final blockade of a planned military base in 1969. High in the remote mountains, the town today is covered in Cubist-style murals, many of them They are politically motivated. subjects (Orgosolo is also known for previous banditry and kidnapping). Indeed, the history of Sardinia is one of defiance against a constant tide of invaders. It is said that the Romans were never able to conquer the rugged interior of the island; the region called Barbagia comes from the word “barbarian”, which Cicero used to describe the inhabitants.

As we talked to Pira below the vertical walls of the canyon, we were captivated by an elegant yellow bird. “The gialla dancer,” Pira said, is the Italian name for the gray wagtail. He also told us about a project called Life Under Griffon Wings, which aims to reintroduce vultures to the area. The older generation of Sardinians remember the days when the skies were full of these flying scavengers before they were virtually annihilated.

It was in a dazzlingly different landscape, the coastal path linking Cala Fuili to Cala Luna, that our intrepid bird watcher finally spotted an Eleonora’s falcon in its preferred marine habitat. With sweeping views of the turquoise sea, this hike ranks as one of my all-time favorites. It is part of the famous Selvaggio Blu, a long-distance hiking trail established in 1987 in a truly wild Mediterranean setting. Cecilia’s hawk sighting was in a quiet stretch before reaching the beach, considered one of the best in Sardinia and therefore full of bathers, most of whom had arrived by boat. Only accessible by foot or by sea, the sandy crescent is backed by limestone cliffs that are home to cavernous grottoes. (The Grotta del Bue Marino is even etched with Neolithic petroglyphs.)

Our last hike took us to an extraordinary Bronze Age archaeological site hidden in a cave on top of a mountain. The trail climbed stone steps and through cracks in the cliffs, where we hoisted ourselves up on hands and knees. Tiscali was first documented by historian Ettore Pais in 1910; The circular stone dwellings of the town demonstrated remarkable masonry. The Nuragic site is believed to have been inhabited from the 15th century BC. C., and later by Sardinians fleeing the Roman occupation. Not much remains of the ruins, but the setting gave me goosebumps: water trickled down the limestone walls beneath the cave’s collapsed ceiling, swallows nested in the rock, and a view of Lanaittu Valley was framed in the background. through a heart-shaped “window”. ”

Jane and I descended the mountain ahead of the persistent birders, and as we walked, mind wandering in sync with our feet, she had an epiphany about a creative school project—an underrated benefit of a walk outdoors. She stopped to record her thoughts on the phone, and it was at this point that we met another hiker: the friendly German we had met on our first night in Sardinia. When we greeted him, the look of shock on his face was priceless.

Nicklin is a writer living in Paris. his website is marywinstonnicklin.com. Find her on Twitter: @MaryWNicklin.

Urzulei, Nuoro Province

Beneath towering limestone walls, the rock-strewn gorge is home to wildlife such as mouflon and golden eagles. Gorropu can be accessed by jeep tour from the Chìntula organization base camp at kilometer 190 on SS125, or by a steep downhill hike from the free parking lot (Parcheggio Gorropu Gratis) at Passo Ghenna Silana on SS125 . The hike is about five miles one way, but the ascent makes the return difficult. Open from 10 am to 5:30 pm Entrance to the canyon costs about $5 per adult and about $3.50 per child under 12 years of age. The jeep tour costs about $25 per adult, about $20 per child ages 7-11, and about $10 per child ages 3-6.

archeological site of tiscali

Dorgali, Nuoro Province

The ruins of a Bronze Age settlement are hidden in a roofless cave high on a mountain. There are multiple trails; we chose the circular walk that starts in Oliena in the Valle di Lanaitto. Open May through September, 9 am to 7 pm, and the rest of the year from 9 am to 5 pm Tickets are about $5 per adult and about $2.50 per child 12 and under.

Backed by towering cliffs, this beautiful beach is only accessible on foot or by boat. The hiking trail from Cala Fuili is just over six miles round trip. Open every day. Free pass.

Potential travelers should be aware of local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Travel health advisory information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel advisories by destination and on the CDC’s Travel Health Advisory webpage.

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