For this week’s guide to Sardinia, I’m taking you to another lesser known destination – Carloforte.
For those of you who aren’t that familiar with Sardinia, you may find yourself asking, where is Carloforte?
Carloforte isn’t technically on the island of Sardinia – it’s a town on the Isola di San Pietro, or Saint Peter’s Island, about 7 kilometres off the south western coast.
I travelled there with my wife Claudia, in early January 2018 to visit my cousin who was gracious enough to let us stay with her, her partner, and their son – thanks Tara!
Now, I’m a bit of a history nerd – I love reading up on the history and background of the places that I visit. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it helps me to get a feel for the place, and it’s always nice to show off to a local that you’re not some clueless tourist.
Carloforte – A very Un-Sardinian town
If you’ve been following Viva La Dolce Vita on Instagram, you may have already read about Carloforte. If not, don’t worry, here’s a quick recap!
Carloforte is actually a “Ligurian” town – for those that may not know, Liguria was a once powerful seafaring region in the north-west of mainland Italy. It’s possible you’ve already heard of its capital city, Genoa.
Anyway, up until the 18th century, the island of San Pietro, was completely uninhabited. Then in 1739, the island was finally settled and the town of Carloforte was founded.
The original settlers were a small number of coral fishers and their families, originally from the Ligurian town of Pegli, close to Genoa. These Ligurian families had already left their hometown in 1541, and had settled on the island of Tabarka, off the coast of Tunisia, to fish for coral.
In 1739, after exhausting the coral supplies on Tabarka and attempting to sail back to Liguria, they discovered by chance that the coast around Sardinia was full of coral.
The fishermen then asked the ruling King of Sardinia and Piedmont, Charles Emmanuel lll, for permission to settle down on the uninhabited San Pietro Island. The king agreed, and this in turn led to the creation of a new Ligurian community in Sardinia.
The name Carloforte, meaning ‘Charles the Strong’ in Italian, was chosen as the name of the new town in the Piedmontese King’s honour.
Locals on the island still speak a variety of Ligurian dialect today, separate from both the Italian and Sardinian languages.
How do you get to Carloforte?
Carloforte can only be reached by boat. There are ferries provided by ‘Delcomar’ running from the ports of Portovesme on the Sardinian mainland, and Calasetta on the nearby island of Sant’Antioco. Tickets start from €4.50 for foot passengers, and the trip takes around 30 minutes.
One thing I noticed is that even though we travelled in January, the ferry was actually quite full. I imagine that during the summer months it’s even busier, so I recommend buying tickets well in advance!
For information, ferry times and tickets, check out the Delcomar ferries website here in English.
One other thing – when we travelled there, we actually ended up taking our car for about €30 for a return ticket. Now, it wasn’t actually necessary to bring our car as the town is very small, and the roads are around the island are safe enough to walk.
Useful tips for accommodation
July and August are usually the busiest months for tourism in Sardinia, and with that come higher prices for accommodation. Carloforte is no exception so it’s always best to book accommodation in advance to avoid disappointment.
If you want to avoid the Summer crowds, and still enjoy the warm sunshine, I recommend May, June, and September. Outside of the main tourist season, the cost of accommodation is relatively low.
As Carloforte gets most of its income from tourism, they’re obviously well used to international and Italian tourists alike, and you’ll find plenty of accommodation choices either in the town, or the surrounding countryside.
What is Carloforte famous for?
Carloforte is most famous for their world-renowned bluefin tuna – the quality is so good that the fishermen actually ship a large amount of their tuna catch to Japan, to be used for sushi.
Every May, the town also hosts the Girotonno – a three-day international event hosting connoisseurs of quality tuna, journalists, and experts of Mediterranean delicacies.
During the event, international chefs face off in a culinary competition focused on Carloforte’s famous tuna. The festival doesn’t just focus on the food, there’s also music concerts, shows and debates.
The first edition of the Girotonno, held in 2003, was an immediate success and an annual event was born. This year’s 2020 event was unfortunately cancelled though due to concerns about the COVID-19 virus.
Things to do in Carloforte
When we travelled to Carloforte in January 2018, the town was in hibernation mode. The tourist season on San Pietro Island is mainly May to August, but even though it was winter there was still a lot to see.
We really loved the town itself. It’s built right next to the sea and gradually goes uphill as you walk through the winding streets. Once you reach the hill, you’re close to the impressive Porta Leone – a part of the Mura di Cinta wall built around the town to protect from attacks by Tunisian pirates. From here, you can see impressive views of the town below.
Going back down the hill, to the town centre, is the Church of Saint Charles Borromeo – an impressive 18th century church.
Less than 1km from the town, close to the lagoon, is the Torre di San Vittorio – home to the new Carloforte Multimedia Museum where you’ll find information on the origins of the town.
The museum has 3D simulations and touch screens that explain the entire history of the island from Roman times, up to the 18th century, when it was finally permanently settled.
The museum is open every weekend from 9am to 1pm – then 4pm to 7pm. During the week, the museum is open only to tours booked in advance. The tours last 45 minutes and tickets are €5 for adults, €2.50 for those from 12 to 18 years old, and free for children under 12.
Information on making a booking can be found on the Carloforte Tourism website here.
Capo Sandalo Lighthouse
Venturing west of Carloforte, to the countryside, we drove 15 minutes to the Capo Sandalo Lighthouse. This lighthouse is located at the westernmost point of Italy.
Here, we were greeted with amazing views of the surrounding cliffs, and were definitely not disappointed with the sunset!
San Pietro Island is full of beautiful beaches that will suit anyone’s tastes. The beaches found on San Pietro are both with sand and stone.
Some honourable mentions are Spiaggia La Caletta, Spiaggia della Punta, Spiaggia di Girin, Punta Nera, Spiaggia Guidi, Cala Fico, and Spiaggia della Conca.
Carloforte is easy to visit for just one day if you don’t have a lot of time. It’s possible to take the ferry early in the morning, and return in the evening. I recommend against this though if you really want to see everything the island of San Pietro has to offer, both for sightseeing and to taste the amazing local cuisine – a mix of Sardinian, Tunisian and Ligurian recipes.
In my opinion 3 days, or a long weekend is perfect!