Alghero and Sassari

Friday 30 April 2010, Alghero, Sardinia
This evening I was so tired from walking around in the heat with a troublesome hip and waiting while Ian went into raptures of delight over yet another manhole cover, that I fell asleep once we got back. When Ian finally stirred me around 10.30pm he'd written today's blog for me! So here it is....

After so much coastal and rural scenery we felt the need for a day in an historic town and Alghero did not disappoint. The campsite is located about half an hour's walk from the old town centre and the ramparts which fronted the sea were visible from a long way off as we passed the marina. When he visited in 1541 the Emperor Charles V described the city as "Beautiful, by my faith, and quite solid", a statement that remains true today. Although the landward walls have been largely demolished, leaving several massive towers stranded in the middle of open spaces, the seaward defences are still very solid, with wide promenades along much of their length.

Ramparts, Alghero, Sardinia

We strolled along high above the sea, past towers such as the 16th century Torre di San Giacomo, also known as the Torre dei Cani as it was once used as a very secure pound for stray dogs.

Torre di San Giacomo, Alghero, Sardinia

We were stopped in our tracks by a coloratura performance emanating from one of the many restaurants which line the ramparts. The sound had attracted a little audience and we spent several minutes pretending to gaze out to sea while enjoying an Italian woman in full throttle laying down the law molto cantabile to a cowering man hidden in the depths of the kitchen, who was only occasionally able to add a few notes of his own. But it was really a solo rather than a duet and something that lovers of grand opera would pay a small fortune to hear!

Further along a dog was perched on one of the battlements begging for a stick to be placed in his mouth, on which he barked with delight, promptly dropping it again. Masses of children perched on cannons to have their photographs taken, groups of men walked past or rode by on scooters gesticulating in animated conversation, and all in all it was a typical scene of Italians passing the morning in their noisy way. Beneath the ramparts we came across a collection of cats in a refuse tip and some wag had provided a notice dubbing the place Gattalonia (Cat-alonia).

Cannon fodder, Alghero, Sardinia

Gattalonia, Alghero, Sardinia

And indeed one could almost be in Catalonia. Catalan can still be heard in the streets and notices are in Catalan as well as Italian. It is all a relic of the centuries when Sardinia was ruled by Aragon and this is also reflected in the architecture as there are several examples of the gothic style which the Aragonese introduced. The Cathedral, which was given a neo-classical facelift and has a wonderful altar with inlaid marble, still retains the octagonal gothic tower and the 15th century doors.

Gothic doorway to Cathedral, Alghero, Sardinia

Part of the Cathedral altar, Alghero, Sardinia

There are palaces scattered along the streets, some residences of the Spanish governors and officials and one, we were intrigued to learn, the Palazzo Carcasonna, was built for a Jewish family from Carcasonne in the 15th century. Many of these palaces hid inconspicuously in the narrow cobbled streets, garlanded with washing. We had pizza and rice salad with bits of octopus in a pleasant restaurant on the Piazza Civica followed by enormous and delicious ices to cool off during the afternoon. (Jill... Ian commented that the meal was reasonably priced and hadn't cost us an arm and a leg. Unfortunately that is exactly what it had cost the octopus!)

Piazza Civica with governor's palace, Alghero, Sardinia

Typical street, Alghero, Sardinia

As we left the old town we passed the Forte de la Magdalena, the most important of the Spanish fortifications and on one of the towers found a plaque recording Garibaldi's landing here in 1855. The fiery fighter for Italian unity was not always good news for the different factions and he had only been allowed to return to Italy from banishment the previous year. He acquired part of the island of Caprera , just off the north-east coast of Sardinia which became his home until his death. He is buried on the island.

Plaque to Garibaldi on Forte de la Magdalena, Alghero, Sardinia

We returned home via the station to enquire about trains to Sassari. A moment of alarm when there were no tracks on the main platform and evidence of massive engineering work, but it appears that the little graffiti-daubed narrow gauge trains at present leave from a siding, so all looks well for a train ride tomorrow.

Saturday 1st May 2010, Alghero, Sardinia
Jill's back on the job today.
We arrived at the station for the 9.30am train to Sassari. The man in the ticket office explained to us that although that train was indeed running, today is a national holiday and we needed to take great care selecting our return train or we may end up stuck in Sassari overnight. Ian muttered "si, si, capisco" several times which rather impressed me. We then translated it all for a retired Dutch couple who were also taking the train. They spoke fluent English and were convinced that everybody else in Europe spoke it too but were simply pretending they didn't! We know for a fact that most of Europe does not speak English and you have to muddle through as best you can with whatever language skills you may have. Somehow it all works out in the end.

The train arrived at 9.30 Sardinian time which is somewhere around quarter to ten. The driver was gesticulating to passengers to keep well clear as the train drew in and thousands of Sardinian teenagers spilled out from the three carriages like sardines from a tin. We were convinced they nipped round the back and came out again! How could a train hold so many youngsters! Being a holiday there were no lectures today and every college student in Sassari had decided to head for the beach with a bag full of beer and a football. At this moment they are crowding the nearby beach, their happy screams punctuating the sound of the holiday traffic passing beside the campsite on its way back to Sassari this evening.

The train ride was enjoyable. It took 45 minutes and arrived nearly 30 minutes late, but who's worried with a single track line and a reduced holiday service? We passed through plantations of olives and vines and open meadow land. Beside the track were colourful flowers while sheep grazed beneath the olive trees. Leaving the coastal plain the train then wound its way along the rim of a valley cut through chalk rocks. At Sassari we fought our way through the next wave of young people heading for the beach at Alghero and emerged onto the streets of the town – the second city of Sardinia with a population of 120, 000.

We made our way up into the town along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, lined with 19th century houses and 16th century Aragonese buildings.

We have to say the weather has been extremely close and humid. Hugging the shade we made our way to the old town. It's a pleasant place of narrow streets lined with tall, crumbling old houses with broken shutters and washing festooned from the facades. Traffic squeezes through these alleys and we spent a lot of time squashed onto doorsteps waiting for them to pass.

At the centre of the old town is the cathedral dedicated to St. Nicolas, which we found open. The facade is 17th century ornate baroque. At the top is the figure of St. Nicolas. The main cathedral is a gothic shell with baroque embellishments. The altar is marble inlay, similar in style to that of Alghero though less ornate.

St, Nicholas Cathedral, Sassari, Sardinia

Interior of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, Sassari, Sardinia

Candle of one of the guilds, St. Nicholas Cathedral. It is carried in processions through the streets of Sassari, Sardinia during the Li Candarei festival

St. Nicholas on the baroque facade of the Cathedral, Sassari, Sardinia

There were several other churches of note around the centre of the old town though most were locked. We did though visit the University which has a very pleasant 18th century courtyard with palm trees. The University has existed since the 16th century though was seriously affected when Sardinia decreed there could be only one university in the island and that at the capital Cagliari. The decision was later repealed and today the university specialises in law and medicine. Its library has long received a copy of every book published in Sardinia.

Courtyard to the University building, Sassari, Sardinia

Right in the centre of the town we discovered the Piazza d'Italia with the Provincial Palace. This is a magnificent building with state rooms to house the King of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel II on his rare visits to the town. In fact his apartments have never really been used. There are guided visits to the royal apartments though they were closed today.

Palazzo della Provincia containing the royal apartments, Sassari, Sardinia

Victor Emmanuel II in front of the Palazzo della Provincia, Sassari, Sardinia

Because of the public holiday the town was definitely sleepy today with most of the bars and cafes closed as well as the shops. We found a pleasant bar near the palace and disappeared into the cool interior for a couple of beers and a cheese and mushroom sandwich swimming in olive oil.

Cooler and refreshed we sought out the town's renaissance fountain which according to our guidebook was built by Genoese artists in the 16th century in a grassy glade surrounded by woods. It is still, reputedly, greatly revered by the inhabitants of Sassari. We finally discovered it beneath a viaduct in a patch of parched weeds surrounded by blocks of multi-storey flats. The entire area was cordoned off for redevelopment!

Fontana del Rosello seen from above, Sassari, Sardinia

At various stages throughout the day we discovered, first, a pleasant central park, the main appeal being the cool shade offered by the trees, next, the archaeological museum covering Sardinia's history from Neolithic times to the Middle Ages. Neither of us felt inclined to investigate its collection of 10,000 obsidian arrow heads however. Finally we found a couple of columns commemorating indeterminable events standing at the centre of what were once attractive piazzas but were now car parks.

It is not really fair to judge Sassari by today's impression. Normally more would be happening and the weather would not always be so sultry. My hip is still playing up so walking is painful and the sun was just too hot. We decided the train ride was the best bit and headed back to the station for an earlier return than we'd intended. Our Dutch companions had also found the Sassari experience less rewarding than they'd expected and returned with us on the same train. They are staying for a fortnight in Alghero and wondering how to fill the next 12 days without a car! We have enjoyed it here but will probably move on tomorrow.

This evening there were a few drops of rain. Such a relief. We sat outside with our wine glasses enjoying the light drizzle on our parched skin.

Monday 3rd May 2010, Torre Grande near Oristano, Sardinia
By the time we finally found an open campsite last night we were too weary to edit photos and write a blog. Instead we spent the evening watching a dvd of Sense and Sensibility set in England's rural south-west. It transported us to a world far removed from the shores of Sardinia and its rough, volcanic cliffs and crumbling villages.

Yesterday was dry but overcast and much cooler, for which we were immensely grateful. Leaving Alghero we followed southwards down the west coast following a quiet, easy route along a well surfaced but very hilly road. The scenery was spectacular without any sign of habitation the entire way to Bosa. The maquis, bright with flowers, swept right down to the sea. Here the bed rock is chocolate coloured volcanic lava so full of bubbles it looks like an over-risen cake. It protrudes through the green maquis and rolls down into the sea way below the road. Some of the rounded bubbles are huge, forming rounded caves and hollows in the rocks. (Was this perhaps how Corsica acquired such strange shapes in its granite? But then granite is a differently formed rock. The mystery continues.)

Coast road between Alghero and Bosa, Sardinia

Coast road between Alghero and Bosa, Sardinia

Volcanic activity on the coast road between Alghero and Bosa, Sardinia

The edges of the town of Bosa are not inspiring but almost immediately blocks of flats give way to houses with gardens filled with red roses. Then we were in the old town with its several shady piazzas, one with an elegant central fountain. The older buildings are elegant, with doorways and lintels handsomely carved in the tough rosy volcanic stone contrasting well with the coloured plaster of the walls. All the piazzas had their cafes where, it being Sunday, families had gathered to meet friends while the children played in the squares. Small groups of old men sat together over coffees waiting for their wives who were at mass in the cathedral. Bosa is not a large town having only a main street lined with museums and souvenir shops and a couple of parallel streets of commercial businesses. One runs beside the Temo river passing to the side of the town. It is the only partially navigable river in Sardinia with fishing boats at anchor while nets were laid to dry on the quayside.

Main street, Bosa, Sardinia

Back street, Bosa, Sardinia

Bosa with its cathedral, bell tower and castle seen from the river, Sardinia

Fishing nets laid out to dry, Bosa, Sardinia

We glanced in at the cathedral. Mass was taking place and, as in Spain, people seem to wander in and out without necessarily staying for the whole service. We felt intrusive so didn't linger, though it was an opportunity to hear Italian spoken clearly, particularly as the liturgy of the mass is the same and therefore familiar from childhood and easily understood. The baroque decoration was the most lavish we have seen in Sardinia, with much use of bright colours, gold embellishment and multi-coloured marbles.

Moving on from Bosa we turned inland, up into the hills to Cuglieri.

Bosa seen from the hills, Sardinia

Long before the bends in the road allowed us to reach the town we could see the imposing church of Santa Maria della Neve on the summit above. Parking on the main street we climbed up through narrow cobbled alleys winding between small crumbling houses with tubs of plants outside. There were plenty of cats but nobody was around this Sunday afternoon. Yet we felt our passage had not gone unnoticed. It was slightly uncomfortable. When we reached the church the views across the surrounding landscape justified the effort though the cool damp weather meant it was too hazy to see the coast. In the overcrowded cemetery to the side, tombs were laid out in tiers above ground, as seems the custom here, with individual compartments like a filing cabinet to house the coffins. A name, number and date of death were stencilled on each sealed door. Later, if the family so wished, a commemorative stone was fixed to the door, sometimes, for recent deaths, with a photo of the deceased.
Cuglieri seen from the steps of Santa Maria della Neve, Sardinia

Santa Maria della Neve, Cuglieri, Sardinia

Perhaps the very best part of today has been visiting the isolated Punic site of Cornus built by the Carthagians around the 6th century BC. It's useful for me having Ian as a travelling companion. Not only can he navigate and make excellent coffee, he can also explain to me that Carthagians came from the present area of Tunisia and that the word Punic is another word for Carthagian. Otherwise, as the explanatory panel was only in Italian I doubt I'd have understood much! Sardinia would have been an obvious place for the invaders to settle, lying as it does so near the coast of North Africa.

The site lay three kilometres along a dirt track on a gently rolling hillside of long grasses, poppies and other wild flowers. Its walls were completely overgrown and attempts to commercialise on it had been abandoned. Most of the buildings were so lost in the grass it was impossible to get to them and they had been left to the many green lizards that are everywhere around the island. (We were relieved to have read that there are no poisonous snakes in Sardinia as this would have been their perfect home.) The settlement was beautifully framed, with craggy rocks and maquis behind and waving grassland rolling down to the sea in front. The site was occupied until the 9th century AD when it was abandoned in favour of inland Cuglieri because of repeated raids by the Saracens. The atmosphere at the site vividly recalled similar experiences on lonely hillsides in Greece in 2008 though the Sardinian landscape was less arid.

Sarcophagi in the undergrowth, Cornus, Sardinia

Back down at the coast we stopped at the bay of Santa Caterina di Pittinuri, a beach of rough volcanic pebbles sheltering between two pale yellow chalk cliffs, much eroded. At one point near here is a massive natural arch.

Beach at Santa Caterina di Pittinuri with its Spanish tower, Sardinia

Remains of courtyard, Cornus, Sardinia

Overview of the remains with early Christian basilica, Cornus, Sardinia

By this time my back, which has been very painfully for several days, was so bad we decided to head for the nearest campsite on our list. It proved to be quite unsuitable, having only opened on 1st May without the facilities functioning properly, bulldozers and piles of rubble everywhere. The next site was near an ancient Phoenician settlement at Tharros which we wished to visit anyway, so we drove on 20 kilometres, across an endless flat plain of arable crops without a tree in sight, stretching all the way to the sea, passing near Sardinia's largest fresh water lake and marshland. It covers an area of 2000 hectares and has a wide variety of birdlife including marsh harriers and peregrine falcons. Flamingos are also found in the area. We arrived to find the campsite locked and deserted! The site we eventually found is on the sea and convenient for visiting the town of Oristano. Unfortunately we now need to drive all the way back to see the ancient remains at Tharros.

This campsite is efficient but entirely electronic. It feels like an open prison and we have a swipe key to use the showers, washing machine, restaurant and to control the electronic gates. When we leave our card will be read and we will be charged accordingly. Otherwise though, it's very nice. The nearby little harbour town of Torre Grande looked pleasant as we drove through last night and we can hear the sea as we fall asleep at night. There are trees for shade, as the sun is back today, and there is even a swimming pool.