** SARDINIA-CORSICA 2009  - Weeks 3~5 **

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The gently lilting mandolin accompaniment to our last edition may fit the tourist image of Sardinia, but the real Sard soul is more represented by the mystically droned chanting of the Tenores di Bitti from the mountainous interior of Nuoro; 'easy listening' it certainly is not, but resist the temptation to switch off - listen to the real music of Sardinia.

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On a bright sunny morning, we left Dorgali nestled into its hollow in the craggy mountain slopes, and began the long climb southwards into the mountainous interior following the superbly engineered SS125 Orientale Sarda road. Clinging to its vertiginous shelf across the desolate limestone terrain of the Altopiano del Golgo, the road gave a panoramic vista across the spectacular but desolately uninhabited wilderness of mountainous grandeur. Looking across a broad deep valley towards the Supramonte massif, the Gorge of Golo Goruppu sliced monumentally into the mountain face. The road climbed steadily to the watershed of the Genna Silana Pass at 3,400 feet, and began the long winding descent through a gentle green and pastoral plateau with grazing cattle and goats. It was here that we encountered herds of wild pigs, small, grey hairy creatures which showed none of the aggression of the larger wild boar which frequent Sardinia's hills. Losing further height, we re-entered wild countryside with steep, darkly forested mountain slopes stretching away endlessly to misty horizons. This winding descent continued for another 30 miles, finally reaching more benign coastal scenery close to Tortoli, beyond the mountain village of Baunei. Camping Pineta at Bari Sardo had all the signs of a good campsite: a smilingly hospitable welcome from the owner, a delightful setting by a beach among sweetly scented eucalyptus, and good value prices.

South from here, the SS125 road is in process of reconstruction, making for confusing navigation, and in pouring rain the hilly terrain seemed gloomy and alien. Beyond Muravena, the long beaches of the Costa Rei showed just how magnificent this wild coastline was; we woke to see the sun just rising over the sea, with a brisk wind driving a huge surf crashing onto the white sands (Photo 1 - Wind-driven surf at the Costa Rei). And among the shallow lagoons (stagni) which line the shore, flamingoes stood feeding. In spring time, the wild flora of Sardinia is flourishing with so many Mediterranean species to observe; we were fortunate to find an early flowering Illyrian Sea Lily a beautiful flower, among the coastal macchia and unique to Sardinia and Corsica (Photo 2 - Illyrian Sea Lily).

The SS125 turned inland climbing westwards over the desolately bleak wilderness of the Setti Fratelli Hills, descending towards Quartu Sant' Elena and the suburbs of Cágliari, the island's capital city. The nearest campsite to Cágliari, Camping Pini e Mare, is in fact 18 kms east along the coast, gloomily shaded by the eponymous pine trees and the mare across a traffic-ridden main road. The campsite is pretty basic, but the English-speaking owner could not have been more helpful, particularly with the complex logistics of buses into Cágliari: the Linea 1Q bus from outside the campsite takes you 4 kms to Flumini and a change of bus to Linea PF completes the remaining 45 minute journey into the city to the terminus at Piazza Matteotti opposite the port; tickets had to be bought from a Tabacchi prior to boarding. Cágliari is surrounded by stagni, and riding in on the bus, we had our closest sighting of flamingoes feeding in the shallow lagoons oblivious to the passing traffic. The TIC at Cágliari provided details of all the Easter celebrations. La Settimana Santa (Holy Week) is the time of the most important festivals of the church year, leading up to a re-enactment of the Passion with all the solemnity of mourning on Good Friday, the joyous celebration of the Resurrection an Easter Sunday, culminating with S'incontru, the ritual 'Meeting' of the Risen Christ with Mary, the Mater Dolerosa. Each of the principal churches of the old city's central quarters has a lay-brotherhood, called Confraternity, which organises solemn processions bearing statues representing the Crucified/Risen Christ and Mary his Mother.

Our visit coincided with the Procession from the Church of San Giovanni Battista, bearing the statue of Mary up to the Cathedral and organised by the Arch-Confraternity of Solitude. We joined the small gathering in the narrow street outside the church where the white-robed, cowled members of the Confraternity chatted and smoked before the ceremony began. Inside the church, the centre of attention was the lily-bedecked bier bearing the statue of Mary veiled in black. The little church buzzed with imprecations of elderly ladies and nuns seeking Mary's support in forgiveness of their sins, which must have been multitudinous judging by the repetitive pleadings. Outside, the procession was to be accompanied by 3 pompous Carabinieri dressed in their comic-opera dress uniforms with swords, riding boots and spurs and extra-wide red stripes on their pantaloons; the fact that one of them was a Rowan Atkinson look-alike simply added to the comedy of their supercilious self-importance, compared with the genuine expressions of feeling from those taking part in the procession.

At 4-30pm the procession began, led by Confraternity standard-bearers with black banners, silver lamps and crucifix, and the solemn beating of a black-draped drum (Photo 3 - Easter Saturday Procession of San Giovanni in Cágliari). A bevy of black-veiled nuns, solemnly bearing phallic candles and rosaries emerged from the church, still muttering their imprecations, followed by the bier with Mary's statue born unsteadily aloft by white robed Confraternity members, while the Confraternity choir chanted hymns handed down across generations by oral tradition. The singing had a haunting almost spine-chilling tone with rich harmonies and deep-bass accompaniment. And the 3 Carabinieri assigned to escort the procession stood by leaning on their swords looking on with studied condescension. The procession led off along the narrow lanes accompanied by the funereal beating of the drum, followed by the muttering nuns, the chanting choir, the bored Carabinieri, and the sweating Confraternity members bearing Mary's statue bringing up the rear. Rain added further gloom to the solemn occasion, and the bier party made frequent stops to catch their breath along the steep route up to the cathedral (Photo 4 - Mary's statue paraded in Easter Procession); the choir's mystical chanting echoed around the streets, the nuns' imprecations increased in fervid intensity as the procession neared the Cathedral, and the Carabinieri escort chafed as their nice uniforms got wetter in the rain (Photo 5 - bored Carabinieri with wet uniforms). At the Cathedral steps, Mary's statue was carried inside for her ritual meeting with the crucified Christ (Photo 6 - Mary's statue born into Cágliari cathedral). Despite moments of comic relief provided by the Carabinieri, it was a moving and reverential occasion full of genuinely felt emotion both for those taking part and those of us witnessing the procession. We just hoped that in the miserable gloomy rain of evening, the bewildering uncertainties of bus connections would succeed in transporting us the 18 kms back to camp at Capitana.

Wretchedly wet weather and virtually no buses on Easter Sunday meant that we missed the celebrations that day. As we stood in pouring rain waiting forlornly at bus stops, you had a feeling that when a bus did eventually come along, people got on because operating buses were a rarity to be savoured on Easter Day or simply to get out of the rain. Easter Monday brought better weather and a better bus service, and we again made the long journey into the city to see some of Cágliari's other sights. It is certainly a 3-dimensional city with narrow streets leading in every direction particularly upwards, sloping steeply up from the waterfront to the Castello district and former Pisan fortified citadel. At Piazza Constituzione, we climbed the ornate marble steps of the massive Bastione San Remy, an overblown elaborate monstrosity appropriate in its vainglorious grandeur to its originator, the Savoyard King Umberto I (Photo 7 - Bastione San Remo leading up to the Castello). At the top, the wide palm-tree planted marble-paved expanse of Terazza Umberto I gave panoramic views across the city and surrounding stagni. At the centre of the Castello, we found Sardinia's National Archaeological Museum which, like most capital cities, has hoarded the best of finds from around the country, yet displays and labels them indifferently. The displays began with Neolithic remains with flint and obsidian tools and weapons, attractive if crude ceramics and chubby little stone female deities. But the crucial displays were of finds from the Bronze Age Nuraghic culture (1,800~600 BC), with a wealth of turned, glazed pottery, bronze weapons, ingots and moulds. But the cases which drew our attention were those displaying the small, delicately crafted bronze votive figurines (bronzetti) found in Nuraghic tombs and sanctuaries: archers, warriors with spears, swords, shields and crested helmets, caped figures of priests or chieftains; figures from pastoral life such as the shepherd with lamb around his shoulders, and the moving figurine of a mother supporting her dead child like a prehistoric pietà; and most intriguing, a musician playing the triple flute exactly like the modern-day traditional Sard 3-reed launeddas bamboo flutes (Photo 8 - Nuraghic bronze votive figurine playing triple-flute). Around the mighty 13th century citadel walls built by the Pisans during their occupation of the city, we reached the Torre dell'Elefante, a huge tower and masterpiece of military engineering, which formed a key part of the Pisan bulwark against threat of Aragonese invasion (Photo 9 - Torre dell' Elefante and citadel looking over Cágliari" . From here, we turned back into the heart of Castello's narrow streets to the Cathedral; the dedication on the restored façade read Santae Mariae Reginae Sardorum (Photo 10 - Cágliari Cattedrale of Santa Maria). Back down at the arcaded cafés of Via Roma, the venue for Cágliari's evening passegiata, we paused for a much need, albeit expensive, Ichnusa, the Sardinian beer we had come to appreciate, before catching our buses back to camp. Our lasting recollection of Cágliari will be standing in pouring rain, waiting anxiously at bus stops, uncertain if or when the orange bus would appear; it felt as if we had spent as much time waiting at bus stops as actually visiting the island's capital city. It had been a gruelling Pasqua weekend, with grim weather and uncertain public transport, but despite this, we had succeeded in seeing all we had come to see and more. All in all, very satisfying.

We escaped the Cágliari conurbation to turn westward along the south coast, having crossed the stagni on raised levées where more flamingoes stood feeding in the shallow waters. This led past the vast oil and chemical refinery at Sarroch, a sprawling tangle of pipes, tanks and flaming chimneys despoiling the macchia-covered hilly hinterland where we hoped to find the Bronze Age monument of Nuraghe Antigori. The significance of this Nuraghe, set on a bluff strategically overlooking the coastal plain, is not so much its corbelled tholos structure but what had been found there: in one of the chambers, a cache of Greek Mycenaean pottery gave conclusive evidence of trading and cultural interchange between eastern and western Mediterranean Bronze Age civilisations. Antigori was perhaps a trading post where Sard Nuraghic peoples exchanged goods with Mycenaean sea-farers. In searching for this obscure site, up in the macchia, it was here that we experienced one of life's significantly serendipitous meetings: Renzo, a widely educated man from Turin who shared so many of our interests, was also trying to locate the Nuraghe. Pooling our knowledge, we explored the Bronze Age site and discussed its implications. Together we drove beyond Sarroch to find another Nuraghic site, the perfectly preserved triple tower complex of Domu 'e S'Orku. The massively stone doorway led into a perfect tholos inner chamber; the lintel was supplanted with a weight-relieving space and the upper part of the passageway was corbelled inwards to form a tapered roof space exactly like the casemates at the Tiryns Mycenaean palace. Standing in the central chamber, it felt like the Mycenae tholos tombs. Dare one speculate that, in addition to trading pottery, the Mycenaeans also introduced such megalithic construction techniques to the Nuraghic peoples of Sardinia who applied this for their own purposes in building their monumental tower complexes whose remains have lasted 3,500 years to be seen today. To Renzo, we send our greetings, happily recalling our sharing the joys of discovery on that sunny afternoon.

Beyond Pula, Camping Flumendosa provided a comfortable base for our visit to another of the region's significant archaeological sites, the Phoenician-Carthaginian-Roman city and harbour of Nora. Founded in the 9th century BC, Nora was the first Phoenician colony in Sardinia, its location strategically placed on sea routes and its three differently facing natural harbours offering shelter whatever the wind direction. The city was taken over by the Carthaginians in the 6th century, and after their defeat by Rome, the subsequent Roman city flourished for another 800 years. Most of the excavated remains visible today are from the 2nd~3rd century AD Roman city, but one significant earlier inscription from Nora gives in the Phoenician script what is thought to be the first recorded reference the name of Sardinia (see right). Before visiting the site, we viewed the remains from Nora displayed in Pula's excellent archaeological museum, mainly grave goods from the town's necropolis. The excavated site spreads across a broad headland with much of the former city now submerged beneath the sea. Most of the buildings are now ground-level including temples, mosaic flooring of a patrician villa and public baths complex, but the 2nd century AD Roman theatre has been well-restored (Photo 11 - Roman theatre at Nora archaeological site). On a low hillock, the only surviving remains from the Punic period are the amorphous remains of a small temple to Tanit. Although the visible remains at Nora are scanty, its significance lies in its 1,500 years of history of civilised urban life.

We continued westwards, pausing at the village of Chia where a 16th century Spanish watchtower on a headland still stands guard over the wild coastline. And a truly magnificent coastline it is, with beautiful wild beaches backed by craggy macchia-covered hills (Photo 12 - Wild beach at Torre di Chia in Southern Sardinia). The silver sands of Chia Bay arc away into the distance, lined with groves of juniper, olive and eucalyptus, and a small stagno where we got our closest sighting of the flamingoes (Photo 13 - Flamingoes taking to flight at Stagno di Chia), and the paths were covered with blue Barbary Nut flowers. The corniche road around the Costa del Sud is a jewel tracing the indented bays of this rugged coastline high above the shore, and dropping down to silver sands and turquoise sea.

After a night's camp on the coast near Teulada, we turned inland to find the 4th~3rd millennium BC Neolithic Necropolis of Montessu. Built by people of the pastoral Ozieri culture, this burial ground and sanctuary is set in a natural amphitheatre in the hills, overlooking the valley where its people farmed 6,000 years ago. The site was found to contain over 40 burial chambers cut into the natural rock, and called Domus di Janas (fairy houses) because of the tombs' mysterious appearance (Photo 14 - Rock-cut tombs (Domus di Janas) at Neolithic necropolis of Montessu). Following the maze of paths, we explored the tombs and sanctuaries, some shallow rock-hollows with ritual spiral engraving, others large open chambers with megalithic approaches and enclosures. One tomb showed the bull's horn engraving of the male earth-deity, while another had its rock door which would have fitted into its rock-cut rebate sealing the tomb. Here was a sacred burial place which had served its pastoral community for over 1,000 years. That night, we wild-camped down on the coast where the road ended at Porto Botte, close by a stagno where we were able to watch flamingoes, cormorants, golden-eye ducks and black-winged stilts. And the following morning, we woke to a spectacular flaring dawn, the rising sun streaking its light across the still stagno (Photo 15 - Bright dawn over stagno, wild camp at Porto Botte).

Carbonia ('Coalville') is a curiosity, a town founded by Mussolini in the mid-1930s for one purpose only - the mining of coal. Fascist Italy's imperialist invasion of Abyssinia incurred League of Nations sanctions, making it necessary for Il Duce to aim at self-sufficiency in fuel production. The new town of Carbonia was built to house the workers shipped in from all over Italy to operate the mine. Carbone Sulcis, as the lignite was euphemistically called, was in fact poor in quality and expensive to extract, and the mine closed in 1964 after just 27 years of production. As the town's only employer, the mine's closure brought huge unemployment and economic depression, scarcely offset by the plethora of cut-price furniture warehouses and car show-rooms which today surround the town. The town centre is still dominated by the evident urban architecture of the Fascist period. It's a town however that can be proud of the well-presented displays and quality of multi-lingual commentaries at its excellent archaeological museum, which contains Neolithic, Nuraghic, Phoenician, Punic and Roman finds from around the Sulcis region. Many of the finds are from Monte Sirai, a broad 600 feet high plateau just outside the town which was the site of the major Phoenician and Carthaginian garrison fortress controlling Sardinia. Excavations have revealed a sophisticated necropolis with tombs cut deep into the tufa bed-rock.

But you can't come to Carbonia without at least sampling the town's raison d'être: on the outskirts, the two surviving headstocks of the now closed coal mine mark the former colliery buildings which have now been converted to the Grande Miniera di Sarbariu, Mining Museum (Photo 16 - Head-stocks of Carbonia mine). We were fortunate in being shown around the underground workings by an enthusiastic English-speaking guide, who discussed with us the social and political history of the mine, its troubled industrial relations, and the Fascist period of Italian history. In its 1950s heyday, the mine employed 18,000 people with 4,000 on shift at any one time. There were over 100 kms of galleries over several levels down to 1,000 feet deep. We were shown the more traditional methods of coal extraction as well as more modern coal-cutting machinery and hydraulic props. But as always, such a museum, while giving fascinating glimpses, is scarce recompense for the tragic loss to a community when its major employer folds. Even so, Carbonia seemed to have a lively air.

We crossed to the island of Sant' Antioco, and around on its lonely and isolated western coast, found the wonderfully located Camping Tonnara at Cala Sapone. The campsite's web site had commended the place to us: "Not recommended for lovers of noise, animations, discotheques and fashionable beaches". Here we found peace and quiet and warm hospitality in profusion. And that evening, as we sat after supper looking out across the western sea, we were rewarded with one of the most spectacular sunsets ever; this extended monumental performance went on long after the sun had set (Photo 17 - Sunset over western coast of Sant'Antioco Island).

The town of Sant' Antioco had been the site of Sulcis, founded by the Phoenicians as a trading centre, with good harbourage and access to the mineral wealth and agricultural produce of neighbouring Sardinia. The more aggressive Carthaginians took over Sulcis in the 5th century BC as a fortified anchorage for their fleet commanding Sardinia's SW coast. Before leaving the island of Sant' Antioco, we wanted to see the finds from this pre-Roman occupation of Sulcis, displayed in the town's Archaeological Museum, the largest collection of Punic remains outside of Carthage itself. And on the brow of a hill overlooking the harbour and straits separating the island from the Sardinian coast, the excavated remains of the Carthaginian Tophet showed a sadder aspect of life in the Punic town. The Tophet was a burial place reserved for deceased infants and new-born, whose cremated remains were placed in funerary urns and set on the terrace of the sanctuary dedicated to Tanit, the Punic goddess of fertility. The rocky hill top was crowned with the remains of the Tophet, with replica cinerary urns and stelae set out to give an impression of how it would have looked (Photo 18 - Carthaginian Tophet (infant necropolis) at Sant'Antioco). By its nature, this was a sad place where infants, not yet incorporated into the community were buried separately, by analogy like unbaptised children; a sad place indeed.

But we had a long and uncertain journey ahead, over more bleak mountains. Re-crossing the bridge back to 'mainland' Sardinia, we turned off north onto a spectacular corniche road high above the cliffs with their mountainous backdrop. This wildly bleak coastline and mountainous hinterland had once been mined for lead and zinc, and the spoil heap remains and derelict mining buildings scarred the isolated settlements. It seemed impossible that a road could penetrate the apparently overwhelming mountain wall which enclosed the coastal area. But rising steeply by a series of hairpins, we gained height into the desolate interior, passing yet more mine ruins and spoil heaps. A long descent brought us to the cliff tops overlooking the most isolated of these mining settlements, lonely Buggerru, nestled coweringly between shore and cleft in the hills (Photo 19 - Former mining settlement of Buggerru). Sounding more like the Sardinian equivalent of Under Milk Wood, Buggerru (actually pronounced Boojeroo) is a small village dominated by the derelict buildings of its former lead and zinc mines. Once accessible only from the sea, this isolated place had to be entirely self-sufficient in its mining heyday. In 1904, the Buggerru mines were the scene of a bitter strike which was brutally suppressed by the Italian authorities. This sad and isolated settlement had a similar lost-world air to Llareggub: with the demise of mining, time simply seems to have passed the place by. Brave attempts to resurrect the local economy with tourism seemed a forlorn hope. The overdeveloped holiday apartments crowding the upper streets seemed more unattractive than the derelict mine buildings. We left Buggerru to its sad and uncertain future, and further up the coast at San Nicolao, found one of the finest camping spots ever, looking out across a sweeping arc of wild beach and mountainous backdrop, with the sound of wind-driven surf crashing onto the shore below us (Photo 20 - Camp at San Nicolao near Buggerru).

Over the last three weeks, the weather has not been all that the tourist publicity would have you believe, but we have experienced a feast of experiences almost unprecedented in our travels. And more to come as we continue up the wild west coast of Sardinia to complete our circuit of the island. Stay tuned ...

   Sheila and Paul

   Published:  7 May 2009    

Next edition to be published in 2 weeks


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Tenores di Bitti - T'Amo

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