** SARDINIA-CORSICA 2009  - Weeks 1~2 **

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950 miles and three days driving from Calais, with gloriously sunny Spring days and crisp frosty nights, down through France via Rheims, Dijon, Lyon and the Isčre Valley, and through the Fréjus Tunnel down into Italy past Turin and Genoa, brought us to Livorno near Pisa for the evening ferry to Olbia on Sardinia (Photo 1 - Evening ferry from Livorno). The autoroutes are now understandably deserted, with most traffic crowding the Routes Nationales; motorway and tunnel tolls for our journey south totalled a whopping €168.

Click on red squares for detailed maps

Contrary to expectation, the Moby Line ferry was modern with orderly and efficient boarding into the cavernous hold, and impressive organisation and facilities. As we eat supper in the cafeteria, the throb of the ship's engines increased and the huge ferry slipped out of Livorno docks; our 11th major trip was underway. Misty salmon-pink sun light of early dawn the following morning greeted our arrival in Sardinia as the ferry edged into Olbia docks.

The SS125 road north climbed over rocky terrain as we got our first sighting of the macchia scrub-land which covers most of Sardinia. Still disorientated by our journey and early awakening, we were glad to recover with a stroll and a coffee, as the peaceful coastal village of Cannigone was just coming to life; we relished the Spring sunshine, but local people were still swathed in coats and scarves. But relaxation was not for us; there was already serious exploration to be done, and within a couple of hours of our arrival, we set off for the market town of Arzachena for information on the area's archaeological sites. Up in the quietly unassuming little hill-top town, Arzachena's TIC was delightfully helpful, arming us with the detailed map to help us explore the macchia-covered countryside, and just south of the town, we found our first nuraghe. These mysterious rock-built structures were built by the Nuraghic culture which flourished in Sardinia during the Bronze Age 1,600~800 BC. 7,000 of these Nuraghe tower structures survive, but their purpose remains a mystery: were they fortified dwellings for tribal chieftains, defensive fortresses protecting villages, or sanctuaries for ritual worship? Whatever, they are massively impressive structures built with huge boulders and inside, inward-corbelled chambers resembling tholos-tombs which suggests cultural and trade interchange with contemporary Mycenaean Greece.

The Nuraghe Albucciu near to Arzachena is set in an olive grove, a single storey broad Cyclopean walled structure with a massive stone lintel over its doorway, which leads into the inner chambers. A rock stairway leads up onto a higher defensive platform looking out over the surrounding countryside (Photo 2 - Nuraghe Albucciu near to Arzachena). With a fiercesome Mistral wind now blowing, we ventured up into the macchia-covered hills to find the small Nuraghic sanctuary of Tempietto Malchittu, built around 1,500 BC among the weather-eroded granite hills. As always, it was an unnerving but thrilling sensation standing within structures built by civilised and skilful human beings 3,500 years ago. And that night, the scented eucalyptus trees of Camping Golfo di Arzachena provided a sheltered first camp and a warmly hospitable welcome from the warden; they were still preparing for the season, but he opened an apartment's facilities for us and charged only a fraction of the normal price. This was the first of endless examples of Sardinian hospitality.

Wednesday is market day in Arzachena, when the narrow streets and central piazza of the old town are filled with market stalls selling all kinds of household goods, fruit and vegetables but especially hams and cheeses. In what for us was warm sunshine, we wandered happily around the market (Photo 3 - Buying cheese at Arzachena market). The local Municipal bobby greeted us with a cheerful smile, while the typically arrogant Carabinieri with their comic-opera uniforms just glared.

We filled that day with visits to other Neolithic or Bronze Age monuments around Arzachena including the Tomba di Gigante of Li Lolghi. These so-called Giants' Tombs, built in the early Nuraghic period around 1,600 BC, gained their name since no one knew the mysterious origins of these megalithic tombs. A curving frontal façade of vertical stone slabs, the central one 16 feet high, encloses a stone-lined and covered burial chamber behind which would once have been covered with an earth dolmen-mound now eroded away (Photo 4 - Nuraghic Tomba di Gigante). Nearby, the Nuraghic village and tower-complex of Prisciona was in process of excavation: in today's mechanical world, reconstruction of the monument required a tower-crane to lift the huge stone blocks into place; how on earth did the Nuraghic builders of 1,200 BC manage to assemble these massive stone monuments? This had been a magnificent 2 days of exploring, and the profusion of wild flora growing among these prehistoric structures added an extra dimension of interest.

The Mistral wind was still gusting as we progressed north alongside the exquisite wild beaches of the Golfo di Saline with its macchia-covered hinterland. The shallow waters sparkled in the morning sunshine with every shade of aquamarine, turquoise and cobalt-blue (Photo 5 - Wild beach at Golfo di Saline). At the rocky headland of Capo d' Orso on the island's NE tip, the granite outcrops are weathered by the constantly blowing Mistral wind into fantastic shapes, one resembling the outline of a giant bear, hence the Cape's name. The headland was carpeted with Spring flowers including the ubiquitous Asphodel so typical of Mediterranean lands (Photo 6 - Flowering Asphodel). Along the northern coast, ironically we reached what would be the eventual concluding point of our six week circuit of Sardinia; from Santa Teresa di Gallura, we should eventually catch the ferry across to Corsica whose cliffs were just visible across the Straits of Bonifacio. But today we explored the nearby spectacular headland of Capo Testa, with the Mistral wind driving a fearsome surf onto the rocky shoreline where the Romans had once quarried stone (Photo 7 - Mistral-driven surf and distant cliffs of Corsica).

Camping Baia Saraceno at Palau provided a sheltered shore-side camp; we sat that evening drinking delightfully crisp Vermentino di Gallura wine, and looking out at the ferries chugging back and forth to the off-shore Maddalena Archipelago. We walked from the campsite down to the Stazione Marittima at Palau harbour to catch the ferry across to Maddalena for the day. Regular sailings ferried cars and lorries across to the islands (Photo 8 - Ferry-crossing to La Maddalena), and we spent a relaxing day ambling around the narrow lanes and old harbour of Maddalena town, even finding an internet café to collect emails.

While the beautiful Sardinian coast is what attracts most visitors, this misses the essential heartland of the Sard soul, the mountainous interior of the island. We therefore looped southwards, steadily gaining height into the hill-country of Gallura. Even minor roads in the hills are well-engineered, surfaced and protected, and traffic is generally light. 20 kms from the coast, we turned off up into the little Sard town of Luogosanto, nestled into the high hillside. Beyond here, the road twisted and turned gaining more height to high plateau-land with a few impoverished farms and emaciated cattle, and the inland main town of Tempio Pausania. In the gloomy light of an overcast day, the grey granite buildings of the old town centre took on an austere air. The sprawling less attractive suburbs spread out towards Monte Limbara, Gallura's highest peak and today shrouded in gloomy rain clouds. A few kms further, we reached Calangianus, capital of Sardinia's cork industry; 90% of Italy's wine bottled are stoppered with Gallura cork. The hills around are cloaked with cork-oak trees, their lower trunks stripped of the cork bark, revealing the rust-red inner bark. The trees live to some 150 years and the first crop of cork-bark is not harvested for 25 years and then at 10 year intervals (Photo 9 - Cork-oak trees stripped of their cork bark). Around Calangianus piles of harvested cork bark lay in the fields awaiting processing in the town's factories into usable cork (sughero).

We completed our inland venture into deepest Gallura, returning to the coast back at Olbia to move south to the floral haven and birdsong of Camping Tavolara near Porto San Paolo. The campsite takes its name from the precipitous island of Tavolara whose whale-back bulk rises to1,800 feet from the waters of the nearby bay. The tamarisk fringed deserted silver sands of the bay provided a perfect setting for photographing both Tavolara Island (Photo 10 - Precipitous cliffs of Tavolara Island) and the wild orchids flourishing on the macchia-covered slopes above. Without doubt this is the finest time to be travelling: places are peacefully deserted, days are lengthening and warm awakening a paradise of wild flora. On such a Spring day, we walked out along the shore-line of Capo Coda di Cavallo (Photo 11 - Macchia-covered coastal slopes); the dense impenetrable macchia scrub of juniper, lentisk, oleander, myrtle, broom and arbutus with its strawberry-like fruits covered the slopes (Photo 12 - Macchia-covered seascape at Capo Coda di Cavallo). The beautiful silver sands of La Cinta separate the sea from the brackish inland lagoon of the Stagno di San Teodoro, and here flocks of pink-legged flamingoes stood feeding in the shallow waters, and grey and white herons soared overhead. Continuing south, the SS125 Orientale Sarda road led us to the wildly desolate macchia-covered shore-line of Capo Comina, Sardinia's most easterly point, and a hospitable welcome at Selema Camping near to Santa Lucia where the warden offered us a special sconto (discount) rate of €10 for being his first clients of the 2009 season.

But it was again time to leave the relative comfort of the coast, and to head inland to the highlands of Barbagia and the regional capital city of Nuoro. The modern SS131 highway gained height steadily through broad valleys encircled by desolate hills. We turned off to visit the hill-town of Bitti, home of the traditional Sardinian polyphonic singing group, the Tenores di Bitti. Although we heard no singing in the old town, their curious harmonic chanting must be thirsty work since never before had we seen a piazza surrounded by so many bars. Listen out in our next web edition for a sample of Sardinian polyphonic singing from Bitti. A narrow road wound over the lonely hills, dropping down to Nuoro where we managed to park close to Corso Garibaldi in the old centre. In the maze-like network of alleyways, we found the small Museo Archaeologico with its treasure trove of well-displayed finds from the Nuoro region. Of special interest were remains from the Nuraghic period, particularly the finely-wrought bronzetti, small bronze statuettes of warriors dating from the 12~8th centuries BC, votive offerings found in Nuraghic sanctuaries around the region (Photo 13 - Nuraghic bronze statuette votive offering). There are no campsites around Nuoro, a city well off the regular tourist track, but we had reference to an agriturism offering straightforward camping. The helpful TIC in Nuoro telephoned for us and the owners of Agriturismo Roccas offered to drive down into the town to guide us. This was just as well: we followed them up a narrow lane winding around Monte Ortobene to a tiny camping area set at 2,800 feet among granite boulders and macchia-shrubs, and overshadowed by a 900 year old Evergreen Oak. We were welcomed with a glass of the local luscious red wine, and settled into one of the finest camping spots ever experienced looking out across the magnificent panorama of distant misty hills (Photo 14 - Camp at 2,800 feet on Monte Ortobene under a 900 year old Evergreen Oak). It may have been an expensive stay, and facilities were some what primitive, but this camp spot was a serendipitous find.

We spent a second day exploring the mountain villages south of Nuoro, a city set in startling topography high among mountain peaks and precipitous valleys. From our remote mountain camp, we descended dramatically then climbed to the hill-town of Oliena nestled into a hollow high on the face of the Sopramonte massif and surrounded by olive groves and vines which produce the local Cannonau red wine. Elderly ladies dressed in their traditional long black shawls pottered routinely about the town going about their daily chores; it was us who felt self-conscious as obvious visitors from another world. Before leaving Oliena, we had to sample the rich red Nepente d'Oliena wine; at the modern winery, the lady asked Vorremmo assaggiare? - did we want to taste? - as she poured us generous samples. It was a superbly rich red, full-bodied with a spicy aftertaste; we started our wine buying early this trip. Continuing across rolling hill-country planted with vines, the road wound steeply up to the colourfully painted settlement of Orgósolo, nested into the mountainside. 18 kms deeper into the mountains from Nuoro, Orgósolo had remained cut off from the outside world and linked to Nuoro only by mule tracks until the 1950s. This isolation had gained the town the reputation as the centre of Sardinia's bandit country. The men-folk's arduous life-style as shepherds, impoverished living conditions and fiercesome independence spilled over into murderous family vendettas and in the 1960~70s, more profitable kidnapping and ransoming of wealthy tourists. Local grievances and resentment of political oppression found expression more recently in graffito-murals which now decorate most of the town's shabby buildings. What started as an outlet for feeling of injustice evolved into a pop-art culture, drawing visitors from the outside world from which Orgósolo had once been isolated. Even the town's sign-boards were peppered with bullet holes. The main street was one continual gallery of vivid graffito-murals, stridently raging both graphically and verbally against poverty, exploitation, political corruption and police brutality. The underlying theme seemed to be the collision between traditional culture and the materialistic values of the modern world, a sentiment we could readily identify with. Dodging the speeding pick-ups hurtling through the narrow Corso Republica, we wandered uncertainly through the town, bemused at the artwork (Photo 15 - Political protest graffito-murals at Orgósolo ). The nearby town of Mamoiada is home to the Museo delle Maschere which displays the masks and costumes worn in the local Shrove Tuesday traditional carnival rituals. Two groups of performers take part in the processions: the Mamathones wearing grotesque black wooden masks, shaggy sheepskin coats and heavy goat bells, are herded with whips by the smart red-coated Issokadores. The boisterous celebrations are probably of pre-Christian fertility origin, similar to agricultural rituals around Europe including English Morris Dancing, but they now pull in the tourists to the town (Photo16 - Ritual wooden mask worn in the Mamoiada Carnival celebrations).

Leaving Nuoro along a broad valley flanked by the towering limestone massif of Supramonte, we stopped off on our journey to visit two more Nuraghic monuments: another Tomba di Gigante at S'ena e Thomes set in a magnificent mountainous landscape against the backdrop of distant Monte Albo (Photo17 - Sardinian mountain landscape and Asphodel). Out in this wild countryside, the high vertical slabs of tomb's façade enclose a perfect dolmen burial chamber (Photo18 - Nuraghic Tomba di Gigante S'ena e Thomes). Nearby you can see the excavated remains of a complete Nuraghic village at Serra Orrios, some 70 circular stone huts and two temples with evident similarities to Mycenaean Greek sanctuaries. With menacing thunder clouds threatening a stormy downpour, we walked with fascination among the homes and temples of people from 3,500 years ago. We were later to see the finds from Serra Orrios in Dorgali Museum, including moulds for casting bronze tools and weapons.

Descending by hair-pin bends to the coast, the road rose again to the high mountain town of Dorgali, yet our next campsite was some 3,000 feet below down at the coast at Cala Gonone, separated from us up in Dorgali by an apparently impenetrable mountain wall. The topography was bewildering, but the road suddenly plunges into a 400m long tunnel, piercing the mountain wall and descending on the seaward side by a narrow, spectacularly serpentine road to the little port below. Cala Gonone campsite is overshadowed by the massive limestone cliffs which divide the narrow coastal strip from the mountainous interior; and Dorgali is perched somewhere up there the landward side of the mountain wall. The tiny settlement of Cala Gonone huddled around its harbour was only accessible by boat until the tunnel was cut through the mountain wall, opening up the village to resorts-ville development and tourism. But the delightful setting ensures the atmosphere of isolation remains intact. A coastal walk the following day to the wild beach of Cala Fuili revealed the true beauty of this remote and coastline which stretches away for miles to the south, inaccessible and totally uninhabited (Photo 19 - Eastern Sardinian coastline at Cala Gonone). Boat trips from Cala Gonone harbour take you along line of cliffs to the sea-cave of Bue Marino, once home of the now extinct Monk Seal, the Bue Marino or Sea Oxen. It was a new experience entering a cave from the sea (Photo 20 - Entering the Bue Marino sea cave).

Our first two weeks in Sardinia have offered a wonderful feast of scenery, wild flora, fascinating history, experiences, kindly hospitality, and of course much learning. Sardinia is pictorially so enriching, especially in the Spring, and to reflect this we have presented an unprecedented gallery of our photos reflecting our experiences. Next week we continue south down the south-eastern coast. It's Easter next weekend, a special time in Sardinia, and we hope to witness the Easter celebrations in Cagliari the island's capital city.

   Sheila and Paul

   Published:  April 10 2009    

Next edition to be published in 2 weeks


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