Far from the glamorous moorings of the Costa Smeralda, the high mountain plains in the center of the island are a fascinating destination for adventurers. The Barbagia range, which stretches southward from the pleasant city of Nuoro, is the place to go to meet Sardinians. Here you'll find traditional hill towns such as Désulo and Sorgono, many still divided into neighborhoods inhabited by separate clans. The women weave exquisite (and not inexpensive) woolens, fashion interesting wicker trays, bowls and baskets, and bake the local pane carasau in ancient stone ovens. Many of the men are still shepherds who go off for months at a time to move their flocks for better grazing. If you drive through this region (for instance, along routes 129 and 131 from Nuoro to Oristano), be sure to have a good map on board and be prepared to get lost at least once.
When the men of Barbagia go off with their sheep, it is often to the Sopramonte, an imposing wilderness where almost the only signs of human inhabitants are prehistoric rock villages such as the one at Monte Tiscali. What you will find are vast oak forests, the most spectacular canyons in Italy, and rock walls lined with caves that often serve as the shepherds' temporary abodes. Among these silent peaks live some 200 mouflon, a rare type of mountain sheep. Try to come here in spring when you may see some of their young frolicking in the oceans of fragrant wild flowers and herbs that spring to life after the heavy rains of March.
Hiking in this area is for the fairly experienced. Wear heavy shoes and thick socks to protect your ankles from the macchia mediterranea, the thorny herbs and shrubs that beguile you with their divine scent. A recommended four-hour walk starts about halfway between Oliena and Dorgali. On the provincial road, follow signs to Sorgente di Su Cologone, then walk south along the fairly well-marked path, through the Corrojos Valley to Mount Tiscali. Blue signs show you an alternate return route through the Valley of Dolovere di Surtana.
Afterwards, drive on down to Dorgali for a swim in one of the nicest parts of the Sardinian sea, and then pay a visit to the nearby Grotte del Bue Marino, caves inhabited by the island's monk seals, of which only about a dozen survive.
If you plan to hike in Sardinia, we highly recommend you first pay a visit to the Club Alpino Italiano at Via Principe Amedeo 25, Cagliari (tel. 070-667-877), the World Wildlife Foundation's office at Via del Mercato Vecchio 15, Cagliari (tel. 070-662-510), the LIPU (Italian Association for the Protection of Birds) office at Via L. Alagon 21, Cagliari (tel. 070-494-471), or at least at one of the EPT (Provincial Tourist Board) offices in Cagliari, Nuoro, Oristano or Sassari.
The Grotte del Bue Marino can be visited by boat only. Excursions leave regularly from Dorgali.