After Sicily, Sardinia is the largest island in the Mediterranean. Although it seems far removed from the rest of Italy, it lies only 187km (116 miles) to the west of the mainland. It's much more closely linked to Corsica in France, a similar island lying only 16km (10 miles) to the north of Sardinia.

Its native language, Sardo, can't be understood by mainland Italians. It is the romance language closest to oral Latin, although with heavy doses of the languages of the island's many conquerors (Arabic, Portuguese, Catalán, and Spanish) thrown in.

Sardinia is 206km (162 miles) north to south and it is overgrown in many parts with a thick network of bushes (maquis) that make penetration extremely difficult. Dotted with hundreds of caves and grottoes, Sardinia earns its livelihood from the sea, from shepherding, and from the agricultural products that can be coaxed out of the island's hot and stony soil. The thick covering of forest that was the island's pride was burned to power northern Italy's industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, part of a pattern of abuse and exploitation that Sardinia has endured since prehistory.

Certain pockets of dazzling poshness have been carved out of Sardinia's northeast corner, most notably the Costa Smeralda. Here, the yachtsmen of Europe savor the island's tricky breezes and treacherous currents, sailing on the waters by day and reveling in sybaritic splendor by night. In that small congregation of upscale hotels, jewelry and fashionable nudity are the order of the day. Elsewhere parts of Sardinia slumber in the values and beliefs of another day, clinging tenaciously to ancient customs.

Many northern Europeans flock to Sardinia in summer, viewing it as an off-the-beaten track adventure. Rings of beaches surround the coast, but if you venture inland you will still find abundant wildlife, flora, and hundreds of seemingly unexplored grottoes. Much of the island is still so pristine that Clint Eastwood-style "spaghetti Westerns" were once filmed here. Aggressively out of sync with mainland Italy, the Sards begin their calendar on September 1; and each month has a name unrelated to any of those of Roman origin generally in use throughout western Europe.

Rural Sards still follow country rituals, and they still profess a quasi-belief in magic. Native dances are still danced to a strangely droning music, and prizes are awarded at weddings for spontaneous versification. Despite the encroachment of modern Italy upon the island, many islanders still cling to their traditional way of life.