Sardinia’s ‘100 Towers Path’, one of Italy’s most beautiful coastal walks

Editor’s Note — Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that highlights some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In July, we hit the trails to explore the world’s most beautiful walks.

(CNN) — The ‘Camino 100 Torri’ – or 100 Towers Path – is made up of over 1,000 kilometers of mostly oceanfront paths that circle the island of Sardinia, and may not be Italy’s most famous walk, but it is one of the most spectacular.

This epic tour, full of blood-red sunsets, ancient architecture and beautiful beaches, departs from the city of Cagliari on the southern tip of Sardinia.

From there, eight different routes totaling 1,284 kilometers await hikers, offering hikers the best that Italy’s second largest island region has to offer.

The full experience takes an average of 45-60 days to complete. But for those short on time, it can easily be broken down into smaller trips.

The main highlights, as the name of the trail suggests, are the 100 stone watchtowers along the Sardinian coast. Built in the 1500s and 1700s to defend against enemy raids – including pirates – most have fallen into haunted ruins, though some have been transformed into lighthouses and private residences.

Once wandering by warriors, merchants, pilgrims, priests and marauders, the trail rewards today’s hikers with the unique scents and landscapes of the Mediterranean coast, with its purplish rocks, twisted beach tree branches and grains of sand as thick as rice.

A spiritual journey

The 100 Towers Path takes walkers past fishing villages, ancient chapels, castles, salt pans, abandoned caves, ponds and desert-like sand dunes, with views of the translucent waters of Sardinia never far away.

But for Nicola Melis, a local engineer who rediscovered the 100 Towers Path six years ago and has traveled alone around the island four times since, its allure is hidden behind beautiful scenery.

“It’s more than just a path, it’s a spiritual pilgrimage into your innermost self,” he tells CNN Travel. “Doing it alone is a physical and mental challenge. You conquer the deepest beauty of Sardinia through effort, and it is worth it.

“I like the toughest parts, like the steep hike to the high cliffs of Baunei, along the Ogliastra trail, with the best views, because you rely only on your own strength and stamina. Your first hike here you never forget, it is like having your first car or girlfriend.”

On certain parts of the trail, hikers can soothe their weary feet in the warm waters of the Mediterranean.

On certain parts of the trail, hikers can soothe their weary feet in the warm waters of the Mediterranean.

Nicola Melis

Melis is not just a local enthusiast of the trail. He is also the founder of the 100 Towers Path Association, an outlet for travelers who want to experience the trails for themselves.

Melis says that what prompted him to restore and promote the route was the discovery of a 16th century soldier’s pamphlet that mapped the entire network of defensive towers. The soldier completed the route on horseback and then, mentally changed by the long journey, decided to become a monk.

How to handle it?

When it extends in a straight line, the 100-tower path is long enough to connect the Italian Alps with the deepest southern lands. The furthest from the coast is only two kilometers inland.

Hikers are advised to start counterclockwise from Cagliari, which will allow them to avoid the intense Mistral northwest wind that would blow against them at the start of the walk, making it more difficult.

Travelers can also join one of the association’s regularly organized groups, usually made up of 20-60 hikers, or set out on their own for as many days as they wish. It is open all year round.

Hikers who choose to go it alone are advised to evaluate their abilities and fitness before heading out and keep in mind that they may hike under a blazing summer sun.

“You need to be fit, prepare to strain your muscles, and avoid carrying a backpack that is more than 10% of your body weight,” Melis says.

“You will find fountains and bars for drinking water along the way, but sometimes they are far away, so study the journey carefully.”

Giants, Angels and Demons

Melis says there are four trails that have become particularly popular with hikers.

The shortest and easiest, ideal for beginners, is the 62-kilometer Angel Trail that runs from Cagliari in the north to the holiday resort of Villasimius.

The walk starts at one of the oldest chapels in the city and passes through the first five towers in a ring-shaped direction. Dubbed ‘the devil’s saddle’, it continues past baby powder and pebble beaches, quiet coves, caves and seabeds of coral reefs.

The Sarcapos route is next, which runs for 143 kilometers from Villasimius to Tertenia and offers mostly pure beach bliss along the pristine coasts of Costa Rei. It takes about 5-7 days to complete this hike, which includes a pond inhabited by pink flamingos, rocky hills, a river and the ruins of a Phoenician lost city, a temple and a necropolis.

The scents of strawberry and mastic trees, myrtle and oak trees mingle with the salty sea breeze.

The most challenging route is the Ogliastra, on the east coast, suitable for experienced hikers. It runs for 144 kilometers and takes almost a whole week to complete, leading the craggy mountains of Baunei to enchanting sea rocks such as Cala Gonone, through pine and juniper forests, natural rock arches, old sheepfolds, old coal merchants and donkey trails used by shepherds.

It takes travelers into the untouched wilderness of Sardinia and offers breathtaking panoramas.

The 100 Towers Path consists of eight trails that stretch for 1,284 kilometers.

The 100 Towers Path consists of eight trails that stretch for 1,284 kilometers.

Nicola Melis

Archeology enthusiasts will enjoy the pagan “Giant Path” on the Eastern Sinis Peninsula, another must-do section of the 100 Towers Path. The name comes from the area’s primitive nuragic dwellings, called “Giants,” which resemble miniature Stonehenges.

Hikers meander through the lost Phoenician city of Tharros, the ruins that dot the landscape, and come across sacred pagan springs, an ancient Roman road and aqueduct.

Meanwhile, on the southwest coast, the Mines Trail cuts through the high white sand dunes of Piscinas, a huge desert-like powder-white beach with one of the most translucent seas in the Mediterranean.

Abandoned mines and oddly shaped sea stacks like the “sugar loaf” are the main stops.

“The 100 Towers Path connects 26 different coastal habitats, each with their own idiosyncratic vegetation and wildlife. You’ll encounter beach deserts, rocky granite hills and 40 protected oases with wild boars, sea turtles, cormorants and maritime pine forests,” says Melis.

Monasteries and glamping by the sea

The towers along the trail were built in the 1500s and 1700s to defend against enemy raids.

The towers along the trail were built in the 1500s and 1700s to defend against enemy raids.

Alessio Orrù/Adobe Stock

Melis’ 100 Towers Path Association unites walkers, publishes online calendars of group travel and offers a wide range of suggestions for accommodation, beach bars (“chioschi”) and restaurants with special prices for walk participants.

Entry to the trail is free, but private guides are available for tailor-made short tours. The cost is approximately 150 euros ($150) per day for two people.

Hikers can choose from 200 member companies for their daily pit stops.

These include campsites with state-of-the-art facilities, cozy seaside B&Bs and even beachfront monastic resorts run by nuns, such as Villa Tecla in Quartu Sant’Elena. Prices start at 50 euros per room.
Four-star Camping Ultima Spiaggia, in Bari Sardo, has a spa, restaurant, wooden mobile homes and four swimming pools — perfect for glamping fans — while Camping Isuledda on the Emerald Coast is right on the beach.

Sardinia’s north coast tends to be more touristy and crowded in summer, while the rest of the island, especially the south west coast, is more authentic and unusual, allowing walkers to fully experience the thrills of the 100 Towers Path.