In the mountains of eastern Sardinia

Tuesday 11th May 2010, Cala Gonone, Sardinia
We have to admit that we are getting a bit edgy and starting to look with increasing interest at the map of mainland Italy. The trouble with islands is that they look so alluring we cannot wait to visit them. Then once we are there, we soon start looking for a way to escape. Sardinia is certainly very beautiful but we need something more to hold our interest. We have been surrounded by German, Dutch and Swiss campers ever since we arrived on the island. They are here primarily for sun, sea and sand. How they can lie on the beach all day wearing next to nothing, sleeping and roasting is something we cannot understand. Cowering in the shade this afternoon, watching them fry, we decided we'd far sooner be at work than spending two precious weeks of holiday on a sandy beach on the edge of a clear blue sea, surrounded by beautiful mountains exposed to permanent sunshine. Admittedly there is wine, pasta and seafood for supper but even that isn't very stimulating when it's the same very evening.

We are feeling culturally deprived. Most of the towns we have seen are rather ugly and closed for much of the day. That's fine if you live here and are accustomed to everything closing down between 1pm and 4 or 5 pm. This afternoon we stopped in Dorgali which, according to our guide book, is a very attractive town. We found it anything but! The streets were hot, silent and totally deserted. Most of the shops had iron shutters closed against vandals and the midday sun. There was dust and steps everywhere as the town is built up a steep hillside – as are most of the towns in this part of the island. We even had difficulty finding anywhere for something to drink and we were the only customers. There was absolutely nothing of any interest to see in the town but we were obliged to hang around as the only campsite along this stretch of the coast was at nearby Cala Gonone. We were so bored we even followed the signs to find the house of a beatified semi-saint of whom we'd never heard, simply for something to do!

But enough moaning. There have been very pleasant parts to our day. We left the coastal marshes this morning, following a delightful valley inland from Tortoli. To either side were green pastures with cattle and sheep, vineyards and olive groves. Beyond, the bare mountains rose against a blue sky. Gradually we wound our way up from sea level and eventually rejoined the main route up the east coast of Sardinia. It is stunningly beautiful as it winds, ever higher, up into the bare mountains in the National Park of Gennargentu. The route was apparently cut in the 19th century by Piedmontese coal merchants and is a major feat of engineering, winding as it does around the grey granite crags where even the maquis had acknowledged defeat and only a few scrubby bushes can gain a hold in the fissures of rock. At the top of the pass, at 3,500 ft. we stopped and walked even higher to gain views back the way we had come. To either side there were gulfs and ravines so deep they took you breath away. Until now we'd though Sardinia could not bear comparison to Corsica. This though was magnificent. We were up on the roof of the world, looking down into chasms and gorges, whereas in Corsica, the mountains crowd in so steeply the summits are unattainable and we were always at the bottom looking up.

Chasm of Gola su Gorruppu in the Gennargentu National Park, Sardinia

Seeing a sign to a nuraghic village we parked Modestine and walked off along a track leading out along a ridge with vistas down on either side to vast chasms where deep down towards the floor were the remains of ancient terraces, the land here no longer used. We never found the ancient village. It's impossible to distinguish what is man-made several thousand years ago and what is created by nature several million years ago. It made a stunning walk though and we had it all to ourselves.

Lower down we stopped to admire the view yet again. Here there was evidence of cultivation down in the valley below with terraces of vines and olives just visible still so far below us.

View to the valley floor. East coast road around Sardinia

Eventually, after endless bends around the rock face we came down to the town of Dorgali which we found so disappointing.

Approaching Dorgali along the mountain road, Sardinia

The campsite was a a long way further down at sea level. A tunnel had been cut through the mountain from Dorgali on the one side, to the coast on the other. After half a kilometre deep inside the hillside we emerged to suddenly have a view down onto the sea way below us. Again we spent ages winding some 500 metres down to sea level. Tomorrow poor Modestine will have to climb all the way back up again!

Here we found our campsite. It is not one on our list of cheap sites. There are none of those in the area. So tonight we are paying 28 euros instead of the 13 we paid last night for facilities that are no better. There is though, no choice.

Cala Gonone, Sardinia

Coast at Cala Gonone, Sardinia

We have been unable to find a shop open anywhere today so have been living on our emergency supplies which are becoming rather boring. Indeed we are reduced to eating pasta with tuna and tomato sauce accompanied by a mixed salad. Tonight we have decided to use the campsite restaurant. Who knows, we may be pleasantly surprised, though the likelihood is that we will be served pasta with tuna and tomato sauce accompanied by a mixed salad!

.... Well, we have just returned from the restaurant. No surprises really. As we still have some ravioli in the cupboard we rejected that choice on the menu in favour of the Sardinian option - a sort of soggy poppadom covered with tomato sauce with herbs and topped with a fried egg and parmesan cheese. Sardinian specialities always seem to come with fried eggs, though we've not set eyes on a chicken since we came here. Otherwise they are much the same as dishes found in Milan, Turin or anywhere else in mainland Italy. Our meal came with a large jug of red Sardinian wine which was unsurpassable. It was far more than we could drink but even so we seemed to get remarkably lost in the dark trying to find our way back to Modestine parked somewhere in the pine forest.

Reception here informed us that unfortunately their wifi service isn't working. This is the same story we hear at all the campsites. They must all use Tiscali! It's a pretty useless service. We found nowhere in town offering internet access either. Last time we managed to read our email we found a message from a Dr. A. Colin Wright who had picked up on our Sardinian travel reports. He is English and a retired teacher of linguistics from Ontario where he now lives. He used however to live in Sardinia and published a novel, Sardinian Silver, which is set here. He was intrigued with our travel accounts and suggested we should visit Orgosolo while we are here, set high in the mountains and during the 1960s, which was when he lived here, the area was known as bandit country. Indeed there was a film set in the town called Bandits of Orgosolo, depicting the difficult lives of shepherd families and the rural community who felt themselves isolated from the rest of Sardinia and from central government in mainland Italy. We just love it when people take the trouble to contact us and suggest places we should visit so, having searched our map, we are determined to get to Orgosolo somehow tomorrow and soak up some of the atmosphere that was so apparent in the days Mr. Wright recalls.

Wednesday 12th May 2010, Tavolara, Sardinia
Well tonight we have closed the circle and returned to the campsite we stayed at shortly after arriving in Sardinia. Was it really only three weeks ago? We seem to have done so much and visited so many different places. We have lost all sense of time. It was though, very nice to return to this campsite, which is the one we have most enjoyed in Sardinia. We are even camped on the same pitch.

We did get to Orgosolo this morning and it was indeed well worth visiting. First though we stopped to explore Nuraghe Mannu, a Nuraghic village perched 200 metres above Cala Gonone. It required a long walk down a rough track amidst the maquis with stupendous views towards the sea and the coast on one side and an awesome drop into a gorge with bare mountains looming ever higher on the other. These ancient peoples certainly knew how to pick their sites. Much of what remained was Roman though the central Nuraghic tower had been retained and many of the circular walls of their dwellings. The Romans simply took over the site, strategically placed for observing the coast and any would-be raiders.

Nuraghic tower, Nuraghe Mannu, Sardinia

Nuraghic and Roman remains, Nuraghe Mannu, Sardinia

Looking down onto Cala Gonone from Nuraghe Mannu, Sardinia

Typical landscape with pastures and fertile land below, wild maquis higher up and finally the bare mountainside, Sardinia

We had to cross the mountains before we made our way through fertile plains towards Orgosolo, set high on the slopes of yet another mountain, hemmed in on three sides. Until recent road improvements the area would indeed have been very isolated. Even so, the route up into the village of about 5,000 inhabitants was steep and winding.

Orgosolo in its setting, Sardinia

The town was much like others we have seen over the past few days. It staggers up the hillside in a series of steep streets or steps with several parallel roads running one above the other. Because of its relative isolation some of the older traditions have been retained despite having virtually disappeared elsewhere in Sardinia. We actually saw several elderly ladies in the streets dressed entirely in black. We have seen relatively few elsewhere on our travels round Sardinia.

Resident of Orgosolo, Sardinia

What makes Orgosolo special however is its tradition for protest. This it achieves by murals that cover almost every wall in the town. Their subject matter is wide ranging. They may openly criticise central government in mainland Italy, or accuse the Italian banks of corruption, or the difficulty of farmers and shepherds to maintain a viable standard of living. They may condemn fighting in Gaza, or even American involvement in Vietnam, so some of the murals go back to the 1960s. The text is sometimes in Italian but mainly Sardinian so we didn't always appreciate what the murals were about. All are good, some are excellent. The style of Picasso is frequently apparent and several very reminiscent of Guernica. One of the results of this permissive wall painting was that nowhere in the town did we see wanton graffiti as we have seen in almost every other town in Sardinia. It is also a tourist attraction. Without it Orgosolo would be just a scruffy, ugly little town like all the others, but this brings in the tourists. The main street of a few bars and souvenir shops was bustling with a couple of coach-loads of German tourists. The shops were doing an excellent trade selling books and postcards about the political wall paintings.

Mural, Orgosolo, Sardinia

Mural, Orgosolo, Sardinia

Mural, Orgosolo, Sardinia

Mural, Orgosolo, Sardinia

Mural, Orgosolo, Sardinia

Mural, Orgosolo, Sardinia

Mural, Orgosolo, Sardinia

Mural, Orgosolo, Sardinia

Mural painted on a rock outside Orgosolo, Sardinia

There was even one mural about the making of the film Bandits of Orgosolo back in the early 1960s when banditry was rife in the town. We presume tourism has by now replaced banditry as a means of income though we were amazed at the high police presence in the little town. There was rarely a moment when they were not visible somewhere either on foot around the streets or in their vehicles.

Mural, Orgosolo, Sardinia

We moved on to visit Nuoro, one of the major cities on the island with a population of 40,000. We have no idea where they were all hiding as there were very few people on the streets. Parked vehicles cluttered the roads and pavements which were neglected, broken, dirty and rubbish strewn. The few shops we discovered were shuttered and barred. Nowhere was open, even the nineteenth-century cathedral was locked.

Cathedral, Nuoro, Sardinia

In common with most of the towns in Sardinia we have visited, we walked around wondering where the centre might be. Always we expected to find it and never quite did. Again, because of the terrain it straggles up the hillside in series of parallel streets, the buildings frequently painted in bright, gaudy colours that look hideous when you see the town from a distance out in the countryside. Homes are in large soulless blocks of ugly flats constructed in poor quality materials while the entire town seems to be some sort of building site with work in progress everywhere but very little actually completed. Every place where graffiti might be sprayed, it had been. We felt depressed and angry that people were obliged to live like this and simply accepted it as normal. We left with relief, determined to get out of Sardinia as soon as possible. We'd had enough of its ugly, soulless towns. We've found hardly an art gallery or a museum open anywhere in the entire time we have been here. The ancient sites have been fantastic but culturally we feel in need of a more varied diet. In addition, we've not found an open supermarket for days now and we are actually running out of food!

We took the fast road north and before 6pm were at the campsite up near Olbia. Tomorrow we will go to the port and book a crossing to mainland Italy. With so many lovely cities waiting for us why hang around here any longer?

Friday 14th May 2010, Siena, Tuscany
As you see, we have left Sardinia behind and this evening finds us nestling in the soft green hills of rural Italy on the outskirts of Siena.

We'd not actually expected to be here quite yet. Yesterday we drove into Olbia to book a ferry crossing to Piombino on mainland Italy. From there we hoped to take another ferry to Elba, taking up our interest in Napoleon once more. It was not to be.

The signing to the port area sent us on a wild goose chase all around Olbia, catching us in one way systems that carried us on fly-overs right across the city and out into the countryside once more. Eventually though we reached the port and made our way to the Moby Line booking office. The young lady behind the desk informed us she spoke no English and returned to her chewing gum. Ian explained as best he could our desire to take a passage on the huge ship moored just outside with Mickey Mouse and Goofy painted on the prow and a life-sized whale with a silly grin on the side. With a shrug and a pointing finger we were directed to another desk. Ten minutes later somebody with a lesser knowledge of English than we had of Italian appeared. She listened to our request to travel on the ferry leaving the following morning to Piombino. We gathered from her reply that there was no ship, "it has broken", all sailings were cancelled and the next one might be on May 21st. We could go to Livorno if we wanted but not Piombino. We pointed out that a ship was listed on the electronic display panel as departing for Piombino so why couldn't we go with it. "Only for freight, no vehicles" she replied and walked away. By now we were really, really fed up with Sardinia and the way nothing ever worked properly. Okay, we'd go to Livorno this evening on the overnight ferry. Once more we waited to be served and eventually somebody else appeared, far more helpful and able to speak English. The price she quoted was very reasonable but when we checked height restrictions she told us Modestine was too tall and the price more than doubled. We promptly cancelled the cabin and opted for a couple of reclining seats instead. We were then told to turn up three hours before departure!! With Brittany Ferries it's 45 minutes! We were assured we could board immediately and have a meal on board before departure. In fact, once we arrived we were told we were too tall to board and would have to wait until the freight vehicles were loaded. We were left on the quayside, reduced to listening to Vatican City Radio for entertainment it being one of the few stations we could pick up on Modestine's radio! The programmes seem to be nothing but prayers in Latin and Italian! Ave Marias, Regina Coelis and appeals for our souls to be cleansed from sin! It was over two hours later that we were allowed on board, hustled up a huge ramp and squashed into a corner facing the wrong way for disembarking. This morning I needed to reverse out between the lorries and turn round in a confined space. I was shouted and gesticulated at by a deck hand in luminous orange overalls with a Moby whale across the back. He shouted rude things in Italian about English women drivers and Ian shouted rude things in Italian back. Being a right-hand drive vehicle with limited all round visibility, reversing at the top of a ramp with other moving vehicles somewhere behind me I was reliant on his signals to know when and where to move. Probably I was more cautious than an Italian driver but frankly, I was dead scared. Modestine has been on dozens of ferries during our travels and the only times we've had problems have been with Italy and Greece. Both have been awful. Welcome to mainland Italy!

We spent yesterday exploring Olbia while waiting for the ferry. It was nicer than we'd expected with a pleasant central square with a couple of friendly bars. Ian went on several wild goose chases looking for Roman aqueducts, baths and wells that seemed to have completely vanished since our guide book was written.

Main church and side chapel, Olbia, Sardinia

We have enjoyed our six weeks visiting Corsica and Sardinia. It's something we've long wanted to do. They each have very different things to offer, Corsica with its Napoleonic links and its struggle for independence. Sardinia with its ancient Nuraghic sites and its Phoenician, and Roman trading cities. Both have spectacular scenery. Sardinia is at least twice the size of Corsica but communication is far easier with straighter, faster roads. Because of the Costa Smeralda countless millions have been poured into making Sardinia a tourist paradise. Corsica has not had that luxury. Tourists generally are not made to feel particularly welcome in either island and they are treated as little more than milch cows. Both islands have fought long and hard for independence. Sardinia has fared better than Corsica though neither could survive without help from France and Italy. In Corsica contempt for France is shown in the way road signs are used for target practice, while in Sardinia we've seen graffiti painted on walls and rocks proclaiming that "Sardinia is not Italy." Many of the residents on both islands seem unwilling to work hard, living on handouts from France and Italy. Maybe it's something about living on an island. The inhabitants cannot survive without outside help but want independence from the mainland nation to which history has linked them. The UK is a larger example of this, wanting to keep Europe at a distance but still needing to be a part of it. The same has been true of Ireland in relation to Great Britain.

The two Mediterranean islands have been interesting places to visit but culturally what they can offer is limited. For outdoor activities or for lazing on beaches however, they are perfect.