South East Sardinia

Friday 7th May 2010, Pula, Southern Sardinia Two things before we get started.
Firstly: Today is the British election result. We are cut-off from the internet, the radio, television and English newspapers so have been largely unaware of the build-up to yesterday's election. Today we have prowled newsagents' stalls, craning our necks and straining our brains trying to work out from the Italian papers who is now Britain's Prime Minister. In the Italian newspapers the British elections merit a two inch square down near the bottom of the left margin on the front page. It refers to an inside article on page 25 which we cannot read without buying the newspaper, which we generally don't understand. We gathered however that David Cameron has won, but not with an overall majority so we now have a hung Parliament. This is the first time ever that we have not voted. We'd left England before an election had been announced and were therefore unable to send in a postal vote. Swiss people we spoke to told us they could vote on-line and 40% of people vote that way. As far as we know, this hasn't yet happened in the UK.

Secondly: I think I deserve an honorary PhD in linguistics! It dawned on me this morning that what the recent bizarre notice in the campsite about a Peon Bu was trying to say was that we could not use our own hairdryer but that they supplied one free of charge! A paon in French is a peacock so is presumably somewhat similar in Italian. A peacock has a fan tail, therefore peon=fan and fan=hairdryer. bu was simply a misspelling for but. So the mystery is solved. No such creature as a Peon Bu. Pity really. It's still amazing though that using one contravenes Italian law!

Nowadays there are open borders across Europe. We can travel from country to country without needing our passports. In Italy though, they are falling over themselves in their eagerness to get their hands on our passports. And they are frequently reluctant to let us have them back again. In most countries the campsite managers might possibly glance at one of our passports, maybe make a note of the number and hand it back. Here they take both of them and enter every detail onto their database. From our bank card and various campsite computer records all our movements and activities can be monitored by the police. There may well be an enquiry going on at this moment as to how we slipped through their net last night!

We slept perfectly comfortably and undisturbed by the roadside last night and were up and away a couple of hours earlier than usual. The south west corner of Sardinia, away from the coast, is not a usual tourist destination but there were a couple of towns there we wanted to visit.

The area was once an important mining district and our first stop was at Iglesias where lead and silver were once mined. The town dates back to the 13th century and its attractive streets, piazzas and classical buildings are in marked contrast to the remains of open-cast mines that scar the surrounding landscape. The streets were bustling with pedestrians and the covered market crowded. People live within the old town with shops at street level and apartments above, each with its own balcony with washing hung out to dry, or tubs of flowers adding colour to an already agreeable street scene. Generally buildings are a couple of storeys high, frequently with a covered loggia on the roof.

Monument to the miners of Iglesias, Sardinia

School of Mines, Iglesias, Sardinia

Street in the old town, Iglesias Sardinia

Cathedral and campanile on a very pleasant square, Iglesias, Sardinia

Town hall building, Iglesias, Sardinia

Some of the mine workings on the edge of the town, Iglesias, Sardinia

At a very friendly cafe we stopped for coffee, tiny pizzas and to read page 25 of the Italian newspaper, provided for customers' use. We actually find it harder to order the coffee than to puzzle out the meaning of the newspaper. It seems that Britain's level of debt is running at 12% of our GDP making it the highest in Europe, even surpassing Greece! The full election details had not been available when the paper went to press but it looks to be much as we expected.

We called in at the post office for stamps. Gosh, here we could see the full might of Italian officialdom in action! There were twice as many personnel as customers and the wheels of business turned even more slowly than the London Eye! Approaching a counter clerk seemingly sorting paper clips it was pointed out to us that we needed a numbered ticket before we could be served. There was a choice of three, depending on the service we required. We had no idea what any of them were so opted for one of each in the hope of striking lucky. Eventually the paperclips were safely rearranged and the electronic board announced one of our three lucky numbers - immediately followed by the other two! We handed in our first ticket, purchased our stamps and scarpered, leaving two counter clerks thumping their bells in vain and the entire calling system in chaos.

Our next town, Carbonia, was some thirty kilometres further on. It too had been an important mining town, as its name implies. It is totally different though from Iglesias. It had been set up in 1937 under Mussolini and had been intended to provide housing for an increased workforce of 12,000 miners needed to exploit the mines as Italy became embroiled in the Second World War. It was to be a new concept in fascist town planning, apparently based on what was happening in Britain at the time, where homes were being integrated with open spaces. So Carbonia was a sort of Ebbw Vale meets Welwyn Garden City! Initially there were streets of individual houses, each with their own garden. Streets were broad and tree-lined, the houses set well back. There were parks and open spaces, not dissimilar to Arborea seen yesterday. There was a huge piazza lined on three sides by the major civic buildings, the fascist HQ, the theatre and the church with its campanile. The fourth side was left open offering a view down towards the mine workings. Lines were hard and buildings solid and severe in keeping with fascist ideals in design. Remarkably the main part of the town was completed within a year.

Main piazza, Carbonia, Sardinia

The town was intended to be wealthy and develop further. Individual housing soon gave way to flats to accommodate ever increasing numbers of residents and mine workers. What seems to have happened however is that mines have closed, development and investment have ceased and the only people still busily employed in the town are the graffiti sprayers. Buildings are looking drab, grass is growing between concrete slabs and everywhere seems a long way to walk. Both fascism and Carbonia have had their day and are mouldering away together.

It could be easy to design a fitting memorial to miners who died in the cause of fascism when that cause no longer existed! Carbonia, Sardinia

Fascist symbol on a manhole cover, Carbonia, Sardinia

Some of the houses though are very pleasant with the sound of birdsong from large, shady gardens where vines, pines and palms have softened the otherwise stark lines of the buildings. Even here though, some garden walls had been sprayed with blue daubing. We left feeling immensely grateful that it had not been our lot to live there. Generally, it made Milton Keynes seem very exciting!

Residential street, Carbonia, Sardinia

Just off the coast of Southern Sardinia is the island of Sant'Antioco, linked by a causeway to the mainland. We had intended spending the night there for no other reason than we knew it had a campsite, though expensive. We'd made such good progress today however that we decided to press on to Pula, on the coast a little west of Cagliari. This is on our list of 15 euro sites. In the summer, all the sites in Sardinia are between 35 and 50 euros a night! They generally cost a lot more than Corsica without offering anything much for the extra charge.

So we continued round the coast, climbing high on twisting roads up into the mountains, only to have to wind our way down again, passing through a barren landscape of bare rock and wild maquis, rather like the Désert des Agriates in Corsica, and through tiny hamlets, small towns and villages until we reached the coastal plain once more. With the usual level of originality to be found in Sardinia, we are camped beneath eucalyptus trees beside a beach of white sand with the ruins of a Phoenician sea port on a nearby headland. We must be getting blasé.

Saturday 8th May 2010, Pula, Southern Sardinia
We only intended stopping here overnight but found so many interesting and enjoyable things to do in and around the local town of Pula that we returned this evening to ask if we could stay another night.

It has been a very enjoyable day all round. Pula is not mentioned in our guide book yet it is surprisingly large and definitely very attractively laid out with wide, tree-lined streets and flowers everywhere - in gardens, tubs, along the roadside and especially in the churches, though this is because the past week has been one of special celebration here.

Residential building, Pula, Sardinia

The patron saint of Sardinia is Sant'Efisio and last Sunday was his feast day. In fact the festivities still seem to be going on. Efisio was a Roman soldier at the nearby ancient city of Nora around 300AD. He converted to the Christian faith for which he was martyred here on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian, by being decapitated. Every year there is a procession from Cagliari to Pula carrying the statue of the saint. For the rest of the year it rests in the church in the town. (We first encountered Diocletian in our travels to Split in May 2007)

Sant'Efisio, Pula, Sardinia

The streets of Pula were decorated with banners, bunting and palm fronds today and there was a fair on the edge of the town. There were wide squares with bars, cafes and restaurants, all busy with families and couples. Having explored the sunny streets and hidden corners of the old town we found a pleasant bar with wifi where we caught up on emails and blogs for a couple of hours over coffees and pizzas.

Festive celebrations, Pula, Sardinia

During the afternoon we drove down to the coast to look at Nora, founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC and continuously occupied until the early Middle Ages when invasions by the Saracens forced the population inland. The site is extensive. Much of it has yet to be excavated and yet more is beneath the sea. Once it was abandoned it became silted up and buried. Only the very top of the Roman theatre was visible, sticking up through the fields. It was not until the 1970s that any sort of excavation work began and the full extent of the town became apparent. Now the problem is what to do with such a huge complex. There are several baths, areas of mosaics, ports, streets of houses, courtyards and a forum now on the edge of the sea. It is almost all Roman however with little remaining from the Punic era except for a tumble of stone which was once the temple of the fertility goddess Tanit.

Nora, tumbled walls on the sea shore, Sardinia

Nora in its setting, Sardinia

Mosaic at Nora, Sardinia

Nora, Sardinia

We were particularly fortunate as the theatre complex is not officially open to visitors but we were invited inside by a charming archaeologist happy to speak to us in English. He explained far more than our guidebook could do and in exchange we told him about the Roman excavations at Exeter. Looking around the site we had noticed a marble frieze on the ground, backed by reinforced concrete which had begun to rust and split the marble veneer. He explained that the same had happened to the mosaics re-laid after excavation during the 1970s and that they had need to be carefully restored again and laid down on a mortar without iron using a formula based on that originally used by the Romans.

Roman theatre at Nora, Sardinia

The site is overlooked by the Spanish Torre del Coltelazzo offering interesting views over the site and a stunning vista of the volcanic coast line and inland mountains.

Nora with the Torre del Coltelazzo, Sardinia

We'd left Modestine trying to keep herself cool beneath a date palm on the edge of the sea. Nearby, right on the beach, was the lovely church of Sant'Efisio with its barrel vaulted roof, established by French monks from Marseilles in the 11th century. Inside it was still decorated with flowers and silk brocade following the recent pilgrimage to the site.

Modestine snoozes in the shade, Pula, Sardinia

Sant'Efisio, Pula, Sardinia

Inside the church of Sant'Efisio, Pula, Sardinia

Back in town we realised there was to be another procession this evening. It is the feast of Santa Margherita. Once a year her statue is taken from the church in Pula and carried in procession of the chapel of Santa Margherita some 6 kilometres away. In fact, the chapel is less than a kilometre from our campsite.

So this evening we walked to the little chapel to await the arrival of the statue.

Chapel of Santa Margherita, near Pula, Sardinia

It may have been bright and sunny when it left Pula but it was pitch dark before it arrived here. We waited for well over an hour with a group of elderly local gentlemen sitting on the wall outside the chapel while their wives chanted prayers with the white robed priest within. Every so often a car would draw up to tell us all how far along the route they'd got. Eventually though, blue lights came flashing along the road and a convoy of Italian police motorcyclists arrived and immediately set about creating chaos by blocking side roads, halting all vehicles and waving, shouting and gesticulating with their red lollypop traffic sticks. Soon we had five motorbikes with flashing lights, two police cars, a fire engine, an ambulance and a good dozen or so police, fire and ambulance personnel. Still, however, there was no sign of the procession. Even the priest stopped praying and came out looking anxious. At last though, a sort of wailing music heralded the arrival of Santa Margherita. She loomed out of the darkness balanced on a red painted cart pulled by two of the hugest oxen I've ever seen! They were yoked together and garlanded with flowers. Their massive horns were decorated and they wore leather shoes to protect their hooves from the asphalt road. They were patient, docile creatures. A second ox cart carried the musicians in Sardinian national costume and behind followed the pilgrims who had walked with them from Pula.

Everybody crowded around the ox cart carrying the saint, reaching up to touch her or kiss her robe. She was carefully lifted from the cart and rose petals were scattered over her and along her path as she was carried in procession into her chapel to be placed beside the altar. We all squeezed in after. She had come home!

Arrival of Santa Margerhita at her chapel, Sardinia

We understand that she only spends one night in her chapel, once a year. Tomorrow the police convoy and the oxen will be back to take her on the return journey to Pula where she will be left in the company of Sant'Efisio until this time next year.

It had been worth waiting for though it was a great pity she didn't arrive until after dark. The flash has broken on our camera and none of the photos were usable. We greatly enjoyed the pageantry. The oxen, the costumes, the music and the ceremony were very satisfying. For the Sardinians though, it really was a question of faith. Though the menfolk had preferred to sit outside the chapel chatting with friends while the women were praying, once Santa Margherita arrived, they were as eager to touch her, cross themselves and scatter rose petals as were their wives.

Outside in the darkness, we found the oxen waiting quietly. Where will they pass the night I wonder? The police were still flashing their blue lights, waving their sticks and gesticulating to passing cars while emitting a constant babble of orders. They were so noisy! Until they arrived everything had been so peaceful and friendly.

Our supper this evening was a disaster. Hurrying to get to see the procession we opted to prepare a quick pasta dressed with pepper, olive oil and a creamy cheese, served with salad. Did anyone know that in the area around Ferrara they make a special sugary sweet pasta? Well you know now! Yuck, it was horrid. If I'd realised I'd have served it with custard. That's the trouble with not speaking Italian, though I should have been able to work it out. It simply never occurred to me that pasta could be anything but savoury.

Monday 10th May 2010, Arbatax, Sardinia
Yesterday was a fairly uneventful day of driving round the coast of south east Sardinia. Routes into the interior are few and very steep and twisting, frequently leading up into the mountains to eventually peter out at a shepherd's hamlet just below a summit. This area does not have a great deal to offer tourists except scenery, which is undeniably grand, and nuraghic remains which are scattered throughout the hillsides. Inland the area is mountainous and covered in maquis, which is now a haze of white flowers as the myrtle comes into bloom. Out to sea there are vistas of rugged coasts and headlands jutting out into a sea of the brightest blue, while a ribbon of white sand marks coastal coves and beaches.

We skirted Cagliari along the coast road in front of the salt marshes skirted by industrial sites, passing beside the port and glimpsing inland the buildings, streets and bars we'd visited just a few days ago when we arrived by train. We stopped for a pleasant picnic lunch in a sandy cove which we shared with Sardinian families enjoying a sunny Sunday by the sea. Nobody, though, was in the water which looked more suited to surfing than swimming today.

Coast road north of Cagliari, Sardinia

Soon we'd left the Cagliari crowds behind. From then on none of the little towns or villages we passed through on our winding road northwards showed much sign of life and there was very little traffic around. By mid afternoon we'd reached our intended campsite just south of Muravera. After a walk along the headland of nearby Capo Ferrato through continuous maquis, and wonderful coastal views we made our way to the campsite. It was all rather smart, more a camping village with bars, restaurants and shops, set beneath eucalyptus trees on the edge of its own sandy beach. Having settled Modestine we strolled along the sand to the beach bar where we sat beneath reed covered umbrellas with bottles of chilled Sardinain beer while around us the bronzed and the beautiful sunbathed. Back at the campsite about thirty hearty Germans travelling as a group in their camper vans had taken over the central area and together were enjoying traditional German sausages with Sauerkraut and mustard. They were thoroughly enjoying themselves though experiencing nothing at all of the Sardinian lifestyle.

Enjoying a cold beer on the beach, Muravera, Sardinia

We enjoyed our beer and beach experience yesterday but this morning were ready to move on in search of something more stimulating. So today has been spent moving slowly northwards, always timing our activities to arrive at one of the few campsites currently open around the Sardinian coast – there are none at all inland.

Almost everybody we know raves about Italian food. Presumably this is because they experience it while on holiday when they are eating in restaurants producing the very best of what Italy can offer, or even in an Italian restaurant back in England when it is all rather a novelty. Our experience, eating at the cheaper end of the market and generally buying our food in local shops, is that it's all rather dull and monotonous. Pasta comes in hundreds of different shapes and sizes but it's still just pasta. Sauces come in every imaginable flavour so long as it's tomato. Cooking cheese is most frequently a grated powder or it's elastic. Pizzas can be perfectly cooked in a wood-burning oven, but they are still just a base of dough, tomatoes and cheese with other bits added. Try finding something interesting to cook in the local shops and the choice is really limited. Smoked ham and dried sausage, frozen prawns or octopus and tinned tuna seem to be the staples of the average Italian family. Bread sticks and dried toast can be purchased anywhere but it can be impossible to find fresh bread. Small towns have their butcher and fish shop but we rarely find them open. In the markets you can buy cooked chickens, all sorts of sausages, smoked meats and all kinds of locally produced cheeses but no fresh meat. Vegetables though, are excellent from the markets. As for fruits, oranges are piled up by the roadsides and sold for next to nothing. So although we will never starve, we find the food all rather boring and sometimes difficult to cook imaginatively in Modestine. The wine though is excellent and can be easily bought anywhere. Why import from the mainland when Sardinia is awash with it?

So we had a rather mixed shopping trip to Muravera this morning ending up with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables from the market and pasta and wine from the local shop, but no meat or fish. Tonight we have been vegetarian.

Muravera is quite a pleasant place and very busy this morning, the streets the usual tangle of cars and people milling around. Several walls have murals painted on them. It made a wonderful change from the usual graffiti. There is a definite policy in this part of Sardinia to encourage local artists to paint on the walls of local towns, scenes that depict the way of life of the vicinity. Thus Muravera had several paintings including grape harvesting and the festival of oranges.

Gathering the oranges, Muravera, Sardinia

Grape harvest, Muravera, Sardinia

We have realised that most of the little towns in Sardinia are rather ugly and inevitably very boring. Buildings are rendered in bright colours which can seem rather nice at street level. Put the town out on a mountainside surrounded by bare granite peaks and green maquis however, and the pinks, blues and orange tones of the rendered houses looks like a pile of old books and newpapers dumped on the landscape. Typical of this is the town of Jerzu spectacularly located high in the mountains with a stunning vista down over the valley where white gulls soared on the winds far below. Up here the vines produce thousands of tons of grapes each year which are turned into Cannonau, one of the very best Sardinian wines, at the local wine co-operative, its tower and silos full of wine, dominating the view from miles away. The town is perched like and eagle's eyrie, high in the clean air of the mountain, clinging to its side. The buildings though are ugly and gaudy with large blocks of flats, painted yellow or turquoise staggering up the slopes of the town. We were only too happy to leave.

Sprawling town of Jerzu, set high in the mountains, Sardinia

Perhaps the best thing today was discovering three Domus de Janus at San Vito. These are pre-nuraghic burial chambers carved out beneath large granite boulders. The local names means the houses of the fairies. They date back to the Stone Age, around the 3rd millennium BC. They still look as if they have been recently cut out of the rock. We found them as granite boulders surrounded by maquis, their entrances perhaps three feet high by a couple of feet wide with a short entrance passage opening into a rounded chamber where presumably the dead were laid and a stone used to seal the entrance.

Domus de Janus, San Vito, Sardinia

Domus de Janus, San Vito, Sardinia

We reached Arbatax late this afternoon. Apart from a decaying Aragonese watch tower there is nothing much here though there is a ferry link to mainland Italy and a pleasant little port area. A narrow gauge train sometimes runs during the season up from Cagliari. It takes around five hours but the views must be fantastic as it winds its way up and through the mountains. There is not a lot to do on arriving in Arbatax, other than frequent the only café-bar and wait for the train back again.

Spanish watch tower, Arbatx, Sardinia

What certainly did impress us here though is the strange colour of the rock on the seashore. Here rocks of bright pink and red porphyrytic granite jut out into the sea while around them, in immediate proximity, can be found the ordinary grey granite and wide seams of black stone, presumably basalt. Sometimes the seams run side by side, each clearly defined. It's certainly a strange geological formation and one which has been exploited by quarrying.

Red porphyritic rock, Arbatax Sardinia

Natural joint of three different types of rock, Arbatax, Sardinia

We found our campsite several kilometres back along the coast. It seems very pleasant and peaceful. It's also the cleanest and cheapest we've yet encountered in Sardinia. It's a pity it won't make a base for several days but as with all the sites, it's intended for sun lizards rather than explorers.