Tharros and Oristano

Monday 3rd May 2010 Continued, Torre Grande near Oristano, Sardinia
After lunch today we drove across the flat arable countryside to the ancient site of Tharros situated on a spit of land known as Capo San Marco. The settlement was founded by the Phoenicians around the end of the 8th century BC to act as a safe anchorage for its trading ships. Prior to this however the site had been occupied by native tribes, the Nuraghic peoples. The remains of their village can still be seen, their round houses, constructed in dark, volcanic stone, dating back to the Bronze Age, standing on a small headland overlooking the lagoon and the marshes. There are thousands of Nuraghic sites right across Sardinia. Once you become aware of them they can be seen as piles of rocks or small towers scattered in the surrounding fields.

Circular walls of a Nuraghic dwelling, Tharros, Sardinia

The site of Tharros dates mainly from the Punic and Roman periods though it was continuously occupied for nearly 2,000 years, right up until early Mediaeval times. Thus its history bears witness to the Phoenician custom of burying the cremated remains of babies in special urns at a site located near the Nuraghic village through to the introduction of Christianity by the Romans. In the nearby present day village of San Giovanni there is perhaps the oldest Christian church in Sardinia, dating, it is claimed, from the 5th century AD.

San Giovanni di Sinis originally constructed in the 5th century, near Tharros, Sardinia

Interior of San Giovanni di Sinis constructed in the 5th century and extended during the 10th, Sardinia

Interior of San Giovanni di Sinis, near Tharros, Sardinia

The sophistication of Tharros was impressive. There were several hot baths, a very well developed drainage system, broad streets paved with basalt slabs, cisterns for storing water and an aqueduct for bringing it into the city from the nearby well. There was a baptistery, a defensive ditch and fortifications and the remains of several Corinthian columns and capitals. The site itself was pure magic. Flowers and grasses softened the harsh volcanic stone and the bare rock from which chambers had been hewn, while thousands of green lizards have been the town's only permanent residents since the last human inhabitants departed. The narrow strip of land on which Tharros is built means the sea washes it on both sides with just a narrow isthmus of land stretching a short distance beyond. In the past the entire isthmus would have been heavily populated but the city, vulnerable to attacks from the Saracens, was gradually deserted and in 1071 the seat of the bishopric was moved to Oristano. Only a part of the site has yet been excavated and much more remains to be done.

The main street (cardo maximus) passes the main water tower, Tharros, Sardinia

Octagonal Christian baptistery, Tharros, Sardinia

Punic style temple cut into the rock of the hillside, Tharros, Sardinia

Re-erected columns with a quinquireme of Nineveh passing behind them, Tharros, Sardinia

Drainage channel, Tharros, Sardinia

Roadside flowers, Tharros, Sardinia

General view of Tharros, Sardinia

Overlooking the town, up on the hillside, stands the remains of a Spanish watch tower, dating from the period of Aragonese occupation in the 14th century. From here, in the landward direction, were excellent views across the salt marshes and the salt water lake.

Aragonese watch tower, Tharros, Sardinia

Salt marshes and lake seen from the Aragonese watch tower, Tharros, Sardinia

Cabo San Marco at the furthest tip of the Sinis Penninsula, Sardinia

As we returned to the campsite we discovered the strange little village of San Salvatore. The streets are simply rough tracks and the single story buildings are semi derelict, used for just a couple of weeks a year to house pilgrims visiting the church for the feast of San Salvatore. The uninspiring 17th church was locked and also looked semi-derelict. It is apparently built over the remains of a far earlier foundation used as a place for worshipping sacred waters by the Nuraghic peoples. The sandy, ill-kempt square in front of the church was used in the 1960s as a location for making spaghetti westerns.

San Salvatore, Church and pilgrims' houses, Sardinia

Just a mile from our campsite we discovered the little town of Cabras on the shores of the huge freshwater lake we saw yesterday. Until recent times the fishermen used to construct boats from the reeds growing along the margin of the lake, using exactly the same technique as the Phoenicians once used.

The town is unusual in that most of the buildings are single storey and the streets are remarkably wide. On the main street we found an excellent museum. We were the only visitors and were enthusiastically welcomed by a charming young lady speaking very halting English but eager to try. Speaking a mixture of English and Italian we muddled through while she explained what we could find in the three main galleries. She also showed us a video in English of the history of the site of Tharros which helped me enormously to understand what I'd spent the afternoon exploring.

The galleries included finds from excavations at Tharros and also various local Nuraghic sites. There was a collection of the ceramic urns used by the Phoenicians for the cremated remains of children, These were then buried in a special area known as a tophet and the site marked by a stone stele, often with the figure of the godess Tanit. There were also examples of glass, jewellery, tools, lamps and crockery also found at Tharros. Another gallery held a very large display of artifacts found at a Nuraghic village excavated on the shores of the lake with hundreds of examples of pots, vases and dishes. The third gallery displayed finds from the sunken wreck of a Roman trading vessel on its way to Tharros. It had sunk off the little island of Mal di Ventre in the 1st century BC, laden with 2,000 ingots of lead, each weighing 33 kilos as well as perfectly preserved amphorae used for transporting olive oil, wine and grain, and several massive lead anchors.

Punic pottery from Tharros, Museum at Cabras, Sardinia

Phoenician burial urns for infant deaths, Museum at Cabras, Sardinia

Stele marking a tophet or burial site for infants, Museum at Cabras, Sardinia

Lead ingot salvaged from a Roman wreck near Tharros, Museum at Cabras, Sardinia

Amphorae from a Roman wreck near Tharros, Museum at Cabras, Sardinia

Back at the campsite the weather has turned much cooler with a lively breeze from the sea. It feels very pleasant though the pollen from the pine trees makes us sneeze while thousands of tiny catkins patter ceaselessly on our roof. It sounds exactly like rain – actually we have just gone outside and it is rain!

Tuesday 4th May 2010, Torre Grande near Oristano, Sardinia
It poured all night long. This morning there were puddles all around the campsite, coated and ringed by a thick yellow scum of pine pollen. Fortunately the rain stopped and it has been a pleasant dry day without excessive heat.

We drove into Oristano, six kilometres away. With 32,000 inhabitants it is the largest town in western Sardinia and quite frankly it sucks! Our guide book cannot really be honest and say so I suppose but the photos made it look far more attractive than it is.

We found somewhere to leave Modestine near the public park. So far it all seemed pleasant enough. Across the park our map indicated a public library. What we found appeared to be nothing but the barricaded shell of a building, smothered in graffiti, ankle deep in sweet wrappers, coke cans and other rubbish. Everything moveable had been stolen or vandalised and there were young couples playing violently loud music huddled together in the shelter at the side. The area was weed-strewn and dilapidated.

Public library, Oristano, Sardinia

All the windows had iron grills across while up some steps we discovered the heavy library door was unlocked. Inside all was calm. Computer screens flickered in the corner and the bookshelves held copies of Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation and Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques. Such contrasts were to be the order of the day for us around Oristano with deprived, broken and vandalised areas rubbing shoulders with tree-lined streets of pleasant houses set in their own gardens. It has to be said though, that a library situated in such an area with a book stock so totally out of keeping with the aspirations of its users, must surely be doomed to failure.

Library staff were very friendly, speaking to us in English and happy to allow us free use of their internet for 30 minutes. We both had to complete forms for the police however and show our passports even though we shared one computer. Having each answered an entire A4 sheet of questions about where, when and why we were born, our full address, email, phone number and our mothers' maiden names we were told we also needed to complete the questions on the back! Really, Italian police might make better use of their time by insisting such forms are completed by anyone attempting to purchase a can of spray paint rather than treating visitors like criminals! The library staff then had to send off our forms to the local carabinieri for retention in their database, ANAL. It must be an Italian acronym.

Oristano does have buildings of merit and many have been restored. It has a mediaeval tower constructed by Mariano II in the 13th century and a small pedestrianised old quarter. The cathedral with an onion-shaped dome to its bell tower looks attractive but is kept locked, as indeed is almost every building in the town.

Tower of Mariano II, Oristano, Sardinia

Cathedral and bell tower, Oristano, Sardinia

Seminary beside the Cathedral, Oristano, Sardinia

One of the recently restored piazzas with pleasant buildings, Oristano, Sardinia

All the shops have solid metal grills covering the doors and windows. There is not one that does not have scribble daubed over it. Unfortunately vandalism means that faster than old buildings can be restored or new ones built, graffiti enthusiasts move in and mar everything with pointless, antisocial spray painting. They cover everything – shop fronts, the town hall, sacred buildings, walls, pavements, even the sun blinds over shop windows. It isn't even artistic, just obscenities, whirls and initials in the main. The only things they seem to leave untouched are the death announcements pasted up all over the town, as is the Italian custom. Rubbish is dropped everywhere and nobody seems to be responsible for clearing it away. Ian spent too much time attempting to get photos that hid the truth rather than showing it as it was. At least the one of the library is accurate and there are others just as bad.

In the piazza fronting the town hall, itself a former palace, stands a 19th century statue to Eleonora of Arborea who ruled the area in the late 14th century, extending the dominion of Arborea over most of Sardinia and setting out a system of laws in 1392.

Eleonora of Arborea, Oristano, Sardinia

Always hoping we would find a bustling heart to this sad town, we made our way across as far as the railway station. Cleaner and better cared for than much of the rest of the town there are orange trees in front where the ground is wet and sticky with fallen and crushed fruit as cars pass by. Yet even here the automatic ticket machine was out of action due to vandalism. By train it is possible to reach the island's capital city, Cagliari in little over an hour. Neither of us fancy driving into the centre of such a place but feel we should see it if we are to get a reasonable impression of the Island. We have now decided to stay here and extra day and visit it tomorrow by train.

We stopped for a toasted sandwich at what looked a pleasant coffee shop. By the time it arrived we'd learned enough Italian to read the free newspaper. Unfortunately it wasn't enough to ask the waiter if he'd gone off for his own lunch before returning with ours!

We'd had enough of this horrid place. Just beyond was a little lakeside town, San Giusta that our guidebook implied was worth visiting. It was generally just as sad and dilapidated at Oristano but its cathedral really was worth seeing. Pisan Romanesque it stands imposingly at the top of a flight of volcanic stone steps. The church is built from gold sandstone from Cap San Marco. Inside, to either side of the central aisle are reused Roman columns topped with Roman capitals, including some from Tharros. Thus nothing matches but the effect is wonderful. It is light, wide and airy. A flight of ancient, uneven steps leads down to a vaulted crypt and here too, parts of columns and assorted Roman capitals have been used to support the roof. Typical of Pisan churches, there is also a wonderful apse behind the altar. To one side stands a tall, pierced belfry while outside a workman painted solvent on the walls trying to dissolve the latest mindless spray painting by disenchanted local youths.

Cathedral of San Giusta, Sardinia

Interior of the Cathedral of San Giusta showing recycled Roman columns and capitals, Sardinia

Crypt of San Giusta showing Roman columns, Sardinia

Carving over the entrance, Cathedral of San Giusta, Sardinia

Apse of the Cathedral of San Giusta, Sardinia

For the rest the town was a disappointment. The lake was largely inaccessible across a building development, and the reed boats or fassonis we'd hoped to see were not in evidence, though we did see piles of reeds gathered ready for use.

Lakeside, San Giusta, Sardinia (carefully avoiding the bobbing debris)

Back in Torre Grande we walked down to discover the sandy beach before returning to the campsite where Modestine drew her usual crowd, causing our supper to burn as we answered questions from enthusiastic Germans in huge camping cars envious of her mobility but unable to comprehend how we can survive in her.

Torre Grande, Sardinia (wonder how the place got its name)