17 September 2015

Sardinia 1 - Sea and Sardegna - 1989

Once upon a time, in Sardinia.....

In 1989, having been travelling around Italy for some thirteen years, I had still not been to Sardinia.... and I was not really all that keen either. I had read D.H.Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia years before and always felt it would be interesting to retrace his journey exactly, and to compare 1921 with now, but, apart from anything else, he made his trip in mid­winter, and this year that wasn't possible. Also we (the queen-bee! [A] and I) decided to take the little red macchina [we had a Renault 4] rather than public transport, this time, so it was to be a different journey. However, I did re-read the book and our paths did cross and so I was able to make a number of comparisons - but more of that later.

Another reason I had not been too enthusiastic about this island was that I've heard tales of banditry and poverty, like everyone else, and, apart from the kidnappings (we were not worth enough, I felt quite safe there) one horrifying story of a German couple stuck in my mind. They were found, she raped, them both murdered by shot-gun, in their camper on some lonely beach, in a scene of rarely paralleled blood and bestiality. I read about it in the newspapers, and I had been, quite simply, scared of the place since.

I had heard so much of the natural beauty, and of the sea- and sun-seeking summer hordes that I feared the indiscriminate spoiling of the coastline for tourism and the emptiness of the interior, and I didn't know much to look for in the towns.

I armed myself, therefore, with the most authoritative of guides: the red Guida d'Italia to Sardegna of the Touring Club Italiano. With that I also had their rapid guide and Grandi itinerari automobilistici nel paesaggio italiano. Solid, reliable, informative books, even if they tended towards the orthodox view of art and history and steered clear of the imaginative/emotive.

So, our journey started early on the morning of Good Friday, 1989, when we wound our way across the Etruscan country from our home in Trevignano Romano to Civitavecchia, to see our car swallowed into the hold of the Ferrovie dello Stato Steamship, Garibaldi (built in 1961 with funds from the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, for the development of Sardegna). Not a magnificent vessel, and I noted maggots crawling on a toilet floor (an inauspicious start - the image of fat white maggots on the dried-blood coloured plates), and that the clocks all stopped at 11.00 (Cassa per le ore undici?) but we had two comfortable reclining seats in a quiet lounge - everyone was tired - and later I was able to sit in a deck chair in the sun and scouring wind.

Eventually the rugged limestone of the island of Tavolara (where the goats have gold teeth - or so they thought, until they found that the macchia there makes their dentures glitter!) crept up on us in the late afternoon mist and we throbbed into the Golfo di Olbia and turned into the harbour of Golfo Aranci (gulf of crabs, not oranges). We wait - we have to - while a goods train is clanked out of the hold, and the cars that arrived after us disembark, then we roll towards Olbia (Lawrence's point of departure for the continent, then called Terranova) in the dusk. The coast is lovely – dense macchia, the sunset sparkling in the clear air; but the recent development, scruffy and without organisation, is, as I feared, disheartening. The road undulates through fields of flowering asphodels, reeking of cats, that spear up from among the cistus; and then, every so often, there's a dusty track leading to some half-finished building surrounded by cement bags and broken tiles, or bare earth….

Olbia is intensely crowded and we find a space to park outside a smart hotel, which, after a quick scout around, we decide to stay in despite the elevated price. We don't feel safe and the car is loaded with camping things, books and clothes. In fact, it is a good room with a colour TV and lots of hot water, and the car is unmolested.

Very tired, and still poisoned from work, we take a passeggiata. The main square of this not-very-large (30,756 inhabitants – now 58,066) town is teeming with youths in blue denim and black. Probably quite a few are on leave from military service, but the majority must be 'students'. There are several who look as though some drugs must play a significant part in their lives, but most buzz with conversation, or look vaguely bored; no money, no entertainment, not a lot of future.

After a supper of spaghetti con arselli (little clams),  not much liking the atmosphere on the streets, we are glad to be back in the almost hermetically sealed anonymity of our hotel room, flicking through the TV channels.

We sleep late, and then start off on our journey, stocked with food and drink and filled with petrol. The pump attendant waves as I say goodbye! A whole new world? Or just sunshine and Easter?

The first part of the road, going south on the Orientale Sardo is scruffy and unappetising, and very third world, with grey-green water stagnating by flaky eucalypts and so on. By the time we pass Posada it is more promising, with floral countryside and the medieval tower of the Castello di Fava dominating the huddled, square-housed village.

We picnic off a side road, in the shade of a large cork oak, with wild flowers and a pretty rustic landscape around. The land is very green, after a bit of spring rain, but it has been too dry. The broom, and the rosemary, are in bloom and there are lots of little flowers, but the macchia is still hardly blossoming. It becomes hot and we cross country to look at the Nuragic village of Serra Orrios, our first encounter with the ancient history of Sardinia. To get to the site we pass through a farm, the yard full of rusting machinery, from an ancient steam tractor to a vast earth mover. In the shade of a cork oak two men, both very dark, the younger black-bearded, are skinning a sheep, presumably the Easter dinner in preparation. Behind the blind north wall of the rectangular, low house, a little boy, his trousers down, tears paper to wipe his bottom. The house will have no toilet.

The ancient village, reached through sheep-filled olive groves and fields lit up by white flowering wild pears, is a crowded, enchanting collection of about sixty circles of stone, about a metre high, each with an entrance and some with vestiges of a central fireplace. Sheep and goats tinkle in the bushes and a lush spring bubbles as a centrepiece to this ancient paese. Two temples stand in walled areas, and the atmosphere is calm and gentle. It seems that the people who once lived here simply moved on at some stage, tired, perhaps, of living so close together, with smoke and lack of sanitation on top of them.  Maybe they moved out and built villas, like the nearby farm - a peaceful expansion.

But I don't know - that's what I feel, with the tinkling of sheep bells and the twittering of birds. So far I've done little homework, apart from reading Lawrence, who hardly mentions nuraghi in his flying visit, concentrating on creature comforts and the blood of the humans he encountered. These little nuraghe don’t look as if they were violated, but Phoenicians, Carthaginians. Romans, Saracens, Pisans, Genovese, or almost anyone - even Etruscans - could have moored their ships nearby and ravaged the countryside for a few days, stopping the millennia in their tracks. Or the evil mosquito might have subtly undertaken the task.
I'm afraid my guide book is no use: we have to leave it to the imagination. The two men, who were friendly, but who had politely insisted that we leave our car on the road and not in their scrap yard, were still busy with their sheep when we left, but now various pieces of obscure innards were hanging to dry from the tree.

We moved on, skirting Dorgali, where the women proudly wear traditional costume and dived down the swooping road to Cala Gonone, twisting between the woods of ilex, until we met the booming resort and marina.

These places don't look their best out of season (and Easter is early this year) but even making allowances, this place is a mess. The new buildings that are finished are garish and unkempt, while the older ones are prematurely dilapidated. We see one single-storey fisherman's cottage - lost amongst the new, with framed photos on the blind wall, the door open to catch some light and air, the occupant standing before an antique electric reflector heater. We see one old patrician villa, with massive wisteria swarming the portico. We see hundreds of half-complete, untidy places, cement and hollow­brick awry, inelegant skeletons, rough and sharp, like piles of broken shells.

But we follow signs to The Oasis and find a modern pensione, perched fifty metres or so directly above the sea, where we can have an attractive room and breakfast for Lit: 59,000. The padrone is pleasant, the garden well-made with bushes and trees neatly planted, and the lounge and dining room looking out and down the rocky coast.

We rest a bit and then wander down to the harbour. It is pleasant strolling about, but there's little charm, no waterfront cafes nor interesting bars – it’s all geared to the rich but tasteless, who will eat at high prices and lie in the sun on their boats or balconies by day and bask in the glitter of their gold by night, regardless of the schiffezza of the environment.

We strike it lucky over supper, however, for we happen on the opening night of the Due Chiacchiere which is a spaghetteria and pizzeria, and we have a wonderful plate of spaghetti ai granchi, made from little crabs fresh from the rocks, which are split and cooked with tomato and herbs. The wine is good, too, and the host and his waiters are very friendly. We learn that tomorrow (Easter Sunday) is fully booked out, but that the season doesn't really start 'til June.

The clocks change, and we nearly miss breakfast, but relatively early we are winding through fantastic, desolate country down the Orientale Sardo again. To start with there's a deep limestone gorge on our right, and then we reach a weird open plain, with standing water and bog daisies and half-wild pigs and horses and sheep without confines, and flowering trees. It's a lovely, expansive landscape, and quite different from anything I've seen on the mainland. The nearest to that I've seen was in Peru, near Cuzco, and it's not unreasonable that they use the same word, altopiano, for these areas.

Then we slide downwards, with vast blue distances of mountains, even showing snowy patches in places, and then we slow to walking pace through the interesting hillside town of Baunei where everyone is strolling, after church, all in blacks and greys and whites, taking the air and blocking the street for nearly a mile. We feel intrusive, but there is only one road, and they don't seem to mind, so long as we take it gently.

We make a detour to sea level, down a steep, rock-strewn road under alarming cliffs.   A place called Pedra Lunga, where an unspoilt cove is dominated by a giant limestone stack, which is itself guarded by a pair of peregrines. Goats bleat and tinkle in the precipitous macchia, seeming to be nibbling the spiky broom, and we picnic by the kiss and suck of the spangled blue sea.

After this, we hit tourism again, and its allied mess. Santa Maria Navarese, Tortoli and Arbatax fill us with gloom, though the last has an excuse in boasting one of the largest paper mills in Europe. The light is joyful, there are flowers everywhere, and we are on holiday, but it doesn't make much difference. The Easter weekend has most things shut, the road signs don't lead anywhere, so we continue south, through stone-walled fields and flowery meadows, and I suddenly wish I were in Ireland, about to stumble on a friendly Inn.

No such luck.   In the day of DHL there was hardly anywhere to stay, and his account of village inns is grim reading: dark, cold, earth floors, no sanitation, black wine, broth followed by tight meat.  So, given fair weather, we take a risk and drive for the dead end of Marina di Gairo, where there's the Coccorrocci campsite. We are in luck and we pitch tent in a flowery space by an arbutus and a tree­heather covered in a mass of white florets. The place is not crowded, though there's quite a gathering of Cagliaritani in cabins, celebrating Easter in the open air by the long shingle beach and the blue sea. Mountains tower behind us, clothed in unbreakable green; bright red porphyry rocks cascade into the sea on the north side, and jagged limestone on the south: cows and goats clonk and tonkle in the dense macchia, and there's an excellent thick red wine for me to buy from the padrone.

The next day we don’t move: Pasquetta is a busy holiday, with picnicking the main sport. From early our bay is alive with car horns and excited voices. Smoke rises from the macchia, and, while we're not overrun, it's better not to be on the road.  So we read and sunbathe and picnic and read and explore the granite rocks and the shingle banks.  If only it were a bit warmer I would swim all day.

I read Lawrence: bad-tempered, vacillating Lawrence. I see the frustration, the irritation gleaming like a cut bone. I see the life burning in him, and his restless, difficult desire to relate, to be an individual flame in a roaring fire. The era of love and oneness is over.... The other tide has set in.            Men will set their bonnets at one another now, and fight themselves into separation and sharp distinction.

The day of peace and oneness is over, the day of the great fight into multifariousness is at hand. Hasten the day, and save us from proletarian homogeneity and khaki all-alikeness.... I love my indomitable coarse men from mountain Sardinia....

I like him - I've been to the house in Taormina, and I can feel him there, rising cold before dawn to pack and take the train. I know what he means when he says: Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.  And I dance when I read:  There is nothing to see in Nuoro:  which to tell the truth, is always a relief.  Sights are an irritating bore.... Happy is the town that has nothing to show.  What a lot of stunts and affectations it saves! Life is then life, not museum-stuffing.... I am sick of gaping things, even Peruginos. I have had my thrills from Carpaccio and Botticelli. But now I've had enough.  But I can always look at an old, grey-bearded peasant in his earthy white drawers and his black waist-frill, wearing no coat or over-garment, but just crooking along beside his little ox-wagon. I am sick of things, even Perugino.

The greatness of it is the honesty and the immediacy.   By now he means that moment, and we know that the next essay will be about things. And we know that his interest in the peasant is not patronising: he is not unaware of why he has no coat or why he is crooking along.  And right now I take another bottle of wine, about 17° I'm told, and we drink gently and eat lentils and tuna fish and cheese and fruit and then, as the planets and the stars appear, we sit on the beach and throw stones in the water….

Tuesday morning, bright and early, we settle up, strike camp and move on, following the TCI itinerary. West first, up to Ierzu, which is hideous, and past Ulássai and Nuovo and Vecchio Osini. These towns hug a valley side (and sometimes slip, hence the new Osini and the abandoned old) in bare limestone country. We've left behind the olive green region of Ogliastra and we're headed for the Barbagia, the untamed heart of Sardinia.

We were going to stop for a coffee and explore Ierzu, or Ulássai, or Osini, but the barren concrete buildings and a kind of dark threatening mood keeps us moving. Breeze blocks, concrete frames, cold looking people. But we turn a corner and the valley becomes softer and at Gairo Taquisara, a hamlet around the railway station on the amazingly contorted Arbatax-Cagliari line, we feel more comfortable. There's a nice little subterranean alimentari, and next door there's a nice little subterranean bar, and there are pink little houses by the open railway tracks. But.... no bread in the grocer's and no coffee in the bar!

So, on we wind, to Ulássai, at 670 metres with splendid view over the weird scenery of the Tacchi, which are angular knobs of limestone left sticking up from the schist of the plateau; the most notable of these is Perda Liana, a vertiginous stack at 1293 metres.  We find a sunnier, friendlier aspect and I get a good coffee while A does a bit of shopping in one of those lovely old places with glass-fronted cupboards higgledy-piggledy with home­made cakes, and clutter and clobber for all household needs and shelves and racks of dusty groceries - but a warm old woman who laments not having many tourists. She shouldn't really be surprised, however, as the single twisty road in and out goes from nowhere in particular to nowhere else, and to the north, west and east (as the crow flies). The next road is ten kilometres distant each way (and the country is deeply and steeply corrugated, so it would be at the least a day's difficult expedition) and to the south it's sixteen kms.

When A asks for a tin of beans, by the by, the woman creases up, and giggles with the other shopper. Here we have beans in such abundance, she says, smiling broadly, that who could ever want them in a tin? She also, having started talking, tells us of a marvellous, isolated church and a picnic spot with a fabulous view on the top of Monte Arcueri, 1109m. It's fantastic; she muses, we went there only yesterday. It's just, she points to the wall above our heads, up there. Follow the road up, she twists around almost all the way to her left, and then to her right, her friend contorting herself similarly, and nodding vigorously, and turn where it says Campeggio.

With all our hearts we would have followed her generous directions to the end of the earth, but there's no sign that says Campeggio.  Perhaps she meant Campo Sportivo? But she went there yesterday, for her Pasquetta Picnic - she should know.  Instead we pass a rather dull churchlet and pilgrimage park, and, then continue for miles along a pot-holed road in a barren, martian landscape. The road disappears into a bluish distance, and we turn, eventually, dispirited.  A fence, keeping who from what I can't imagine, flaps with ragged clothes;  shirts, trousers, vests, skirts;  an ominous signal in the frightening void.  No wonder there are no tourists.

We press on, to Seui, which is better, with schist and wooden buildings, some of which have wrought iron balconies.  It has a southerly aspect, a positive thing in these villages, and once they mined coal here, so there was work, and now (my TCI guide tells me) there is the Museo della civiltá contadina, pastorale & artigianale, dell'Attivita mineraria & dell'Emigrante. A grand idea, and one that should pack the visitors in, though unfortunately it's in two parts, and one isn't open yet. And the other is only aperto nei soli giorni festivi, dalle 18 alle 21 [open Sundays from 6 to 9pm]. I wonder if anyone's visited it yet? A pity we're passing through at 12.30 on a Tuesday - only five and a half days to opening time!

On, down and round and up and down, and suddenly we find a picnic spot, blown to bits in a raging wind, but sheltered by a Holm oak and off the road with a view, so we relax and chew bread and salami, and gaze at the wastes of Sardinia.

Soon we are crossing the almost dry Lago di Flumendosa, where there should be a great reservoir, but it hasn't really rained in these parts for well over a year. It could be a disaster, this year or next year, or maybe it will be all right?  On to Serri, a quiet, pleasant village where dogs stretch safely in the middle of the street, and up on to Sa Giara, one of the basalt plateaux that characterises this area. This altopiano is only four kilometres square (the giara di Gesturi, which we shall visit later, is 45km² )but it is not less interesting for that.  Sheep graze, and trees lean with the wind, and we trek along to the village/sanctuary of Santa Vittoria, one of the most fascinating remains of the nuragic civilisation. There's a suggestive complex of stone buildings, set in a most imposing position, overlooking the modern villages of Gergei and Escolca, which lie below in a green and grey plain that disappears to a hazy skyline ages away.

We see enclosures and excavations and chambers, and, being otherwise ignorant, we learn from the books that here there were gatherings of political and religious importance. There's a small temple in the shape of a well, a great enclosure for festivities, the chief's hut, and a building where representatives of all the tribes in central Sardinia would have met to consecrate their alliance. It is quiet, and the echoes of such a distant civilization are very faint, but they are becoming clearer in my mind. A week ago, or less, I knew nothing about nuraghi except that there were some in Sardinia, and that they were a little bit similar to the towers at Filitosa on Corsica, and even a little bit like the Pictish Brochs, but that was that.  Now I know that there were about thirty thousand (known) sites on Sardinia, but that only about seven thousand have withstood the passage of other builders and time.  And I have an idea of the timing of them, which is that there were roughly five phases: the first three occupying the early, middle and late bronze ages (about 1800 to 900 BC); the fourth coincided with the first Iron Age (900 - 500 BC); and the fifth with the late Iron Age until the coming of the Romans (238 BC). 

We're making progress!

The next stop is a white limestone nuraghe (called Is Paras) in a field by the Carabiniere station of Isili. This monument stands proud like a Martello tower, roofed like a stone igloo, crumbling but intact, the dry stone construction beautifully controlled, beautifully designed. Inside there is a deep well, or store, and a honeycomb effect looking up to the eye of heaven, the chimney and window in the centre of the roof.  At 14 metres this is the tallest tholos (vaulted cupola) that has survived in Sardinia, though judging by the cracks through many of the stones (cut blocks, two or three feet by one by six inches?) it may not last a lot longer.

This night we lodge in a plain but decent hotel in Uiconi. Before supper we explore the town and its park, which rises up a hillside with springs darting out of the limestone, with caves and gullies, and great ilexes, and a splendid ruined castle called Castle Aymerich, the tower of which dates from 1053, the elegant gothic hall from the fifteenth century. We also stumble into the quaint little house where San Ignazio di Laconi (a venerated Capuchin monk) was born in the 18th century) and wonder at the little kitchen garden and the low-roofed, earth-floored room that is now a chapel.

From our room in the Hotel Sardegna we watch the sun go down over a huddle of medieval houses and a budding, verdant valley. Then we go downstairs and watch the news in hazy black and white, and eat a decent meal and drink good red wine. I ask for a pork chop, and am given two, and A reckons the ravioli with spinach and ricotta rate among the best she's had. It's okay, and the three sisters (tall, medium and short, to diversify) are all friendly and chatty, despite a curious distacco they carry.

We rest well, and get up to a high wind-and cloudy horizon. But no rain comes. The wind blows it all away and the sun comes out and silvers the olive grey hills. We retrace our route to go to Barumini, past the massive Giara di Gesturi, to see the Nuragic complex of Su Nuraxi - big stuff in this ancient world. Here there are chambers and courtyards and stairs and vaults, and the central tower is Bronze Age and then they piled more and more stones around in the Iron Age and the enormous weight of rock (in this case basalt) takes your breath away.  It reminds me a little of Tirintz in the Peloponese.

Back through Laconi and then up round the hills to the slopes of Monte Gennargentu, the top of Sardinia. Through Aritzo, which is a bit like Monte Amiata, in Tuscany, with chestnut woods and steep streams, though the extraordinary limestone peg of Monte Taxile destroys the impression to the west. We stop in a nice old bar in Belvi, by old lanes with schist houses, and then, just off the road to Desturi, we picnic within sight of a marvellous couple: she, in bright russet traditional dress, watering the carefully tended plants; he, in suit, lies watching in the grass. Lawrence passed by this way, when this couple were young. This Sunday morning, seeing the frost among the tangled, still savage bushes of Sardinia, my soul thrilled again. This was not all known. This was not all worked out. Life was not only a process of rediscovering backwards. It is that, also; and it is that intensely. Italy has given me back I know not what of myself, but a very, very great deal.  And just up the road from here he encountered a procession bearing a great life-sized seated image of Saint Anthony of Padua. After the men was a little gap - and then the brilliant wedge of the women. They were packed two by two, close on each other's heels, chanting inadvertently when their turn came, and all in brilliant, beautiful costume. In front were the little girl-children, two by two, immediately following the tall men in peasant black-and-white. Children demure and conventional, in vermilion, white and green - little girl-children with long skirts of scarlet cloth down to their feet, green-banded near the bottom: with white aprons bordered with vivid green and mingled colour: having little scarlet, purple-bound, open boleros over the full white skirts: and black head-cloths folded across their little chins, just leaving the lips clear, the face framed in black. Wonderful little girl-children, perfect and demure in the stiffish, brilliant costume, with black head-dress! Stiff as Velasquez princesses!

I wonder if our lady was one of them?

We go on, through Tonara, past the Lago di Gusana and up to Fonni, the highest village in Sardinia (1000m).  The town is curious, colourless: bunches of old folks in dark costumes in the old part, middle-aged around the bars, and the young hanging around the bus stops. The place is supposed to be a resort, but there's no snow now so the winter season hasn't happened. There's a funny, dismal atmosphere, and it doesn't surprise me when I read (the next day) that a bomb is exploded in the night. It's internal politics, and I don't follow it through, but the fact is that all is not well in Fonni.

We book in for the night in the Albergo Ristorante Gusana, in a quiet, pleasant room, though the bed is soft; one of those cripplingly soggy metal frame mesh beds with an inadequate mattress. It's still only mid-afternoon so we go up to some extraordinary granitic heights above the village of Ollolai (until recently a typical shepherd's village, but now as pink and squarely modern, faceless as anywhere) and scramble to peer into the mist. And then we poke around Gavoi (which Lawrence liked) and look into the nice, late gothic church, whose tower, I fear, may follow Pavia's soon [to fall], and extinguish a few of those dark old parishioners shining their pantaloons in its shade. There's a good granite rose in the facade and a lively carved and decorated wooden pulpit, and· cover for the baptismal font, and beautiful flowers; which must have cost a fortune.

We wander a bit  in the steep twining streets, and then call into a cantina to taste and buy a bit of wine, and then, back at the hotel, we examine the dam that holds back the lake, cutting off the river from its tumbled, awesome gorge, and providing a hundred jackdaws with much appreciated accommodation.

Supper is very good, authentic Sardinian food - Pane Frattau (wafer thin Sardo bread with ragu), Porpusa (chopped pigmeat, which is the makings of sausages, but without being tied) and then Sebaddas, (cheese-filled pasta­ frolla, deep fried, then coated in honey). And the wine is good too. It's a large dining-room, decorated with local artefacts and homespun pictures, and the chap who serves us - one of the brothers who owns the place - waxes enthusiastically about authenticity.

Next morning, the first stop is Ottana, near the vast synthetic fibre factory, to look at the candy-striped (black and white trachite) Romanesque church of San Nicola, but it is shut, and the steps are scattered with broken glass, so we get rapidly out of there. Apparently the town has remarkable carnival festivities, but the presence of the factory (built in the early '70s by the government and various industrial groups) symbolises the confused approach to the island's economy. It was supposed to help boost the economic rebirth of 121 comuni in central Sardinia, but partly because of the lack of adequate development of secondary industries (textiles, clothes) and partly because the local people actually prefer tending sheep to working in a huge factory, the ambitious project (to quote the TCI Guide) has ended up provoking more instability (in both socio-economic and territorial aspects) than benefits.

So, across country, past the bucolic scenery around Lake Omodeo, to Abbasanta and the Nuraghe Losa, a castle in a neatly kept field, the basalt blocks yellow with lichen and greened with ivy pouring out of the top like something boiling over in a massive cauldron: birds nest excitedly in the vegetation-and the great hollows within seem as if they were only vacated yesterday. We encounter an ancient American couple, with a Roman car, who clamber in at the entrance. It makes you wonder, she drawls to him, how they got all these rocks up in the air.... She wheezes up the megalithic doorstep. Especially since it was even before Homer, I think.....

She is right about the wonder; but I don't quite see where Homer comes in.... Anyway, it's pretty old (initially first half of the 2nd millennium BC) and it's pretty big; three floors, three lobes, staircases in the walls, niches, corridors, cells, courtyards. Of particular interest is that the stones that close the central vault are movable, so that the light inside the great mass could be increased. At the end of the last century, excavations here turned up a lot of interesting material (now in the National Museum of Cagliari) which include arms, bronze votive offerings, iron utensils, little ceramic nuraghi and ornaments from punic, Roman and medieval times, including a green jasper scarab.

Across the altopiano di Abbasanter, through busy Macomer, and then over a plain where the trees are swept almost horizontal to the ground by the prevailing westerlies. A single­carriage train winds across our path a couple of times before we start to descend, and then we drop swiftly through fertile and well cared-for country to sea-level and Bosa, dominated by the medieval castle of Serravalle, and connected to the sea by the broad river Temo, along whose shore fishing boats are tied.  We make a detour to see the church of San Pietro Extramuros, which sits quietly among olives, sparkling with yellow oxalis, and then we park under plane trees by the river and go for a walk in the old town.

It's very hot, and it's lunchtime, and the streets reverberate with children singing their ways home from school, and dogs doze in the sun. The medieval houses of the upper town are crumbling and crowded, but the lower, renaissance streets are fine, with tall, well-made buildings and wide, airy passages.

We take a drink in a bar, and read the papers, and then move on, up the coast, to picnic on a cliff overlooking the wild, unspoilt waves, down the glittering coast to the Torre Argentina, Bosa Marina and beyond - perhaps as far as the low shape of Capo Mannu on the horizon.

And then north up the marvellous coastal drive to Alghero, arriving there in the quiet of mid-afternoon, and we check into the Margherita, which supplies us with a good little room whose balcony surveys the promenade and the sea, and a garage, which is a relief, as even just outside the hotel cars were broken into last night.

It is fiercely hot, but we go out to explore, and watch them unloading swordfish down by the bastions. We wander in the labyrinth of the cittadella, and admire the beautifully restored Catalan gothic (and baroque) church and cloister of St Francis, an unexpected treasure.  Evidently (The Dubliner, The Jamaica Inn, The Hill Inn, etc) this place has considerable tourism - the most we have encountered but it also has character. The problem is that it's in a state of change. In the old, smelly streets you find gold jewellers and chic boutiques rubbing shoulders with stable doors opening into fishermen's cottages, and then you turn a corner and see piles of refuse, or a broken and under repair theatre. The cathedral is a mess in scaffolding; St Francis's is elegantly restored.  This could be as up­market as St Trop., or even a kind of St Paul de Vence on Sea, or it could be as thriving as Ajaccio or Bonifacio, but it is not, yet.        

There's plenty of money about, but it sits in the cafes all day, wearing very expensive shirts and gold chains, doing nothing: nobody is planning or developing concepts;  it's all selfish, narrow, greedy, but stupidly ad hoc, unstructured.

We have supper da Pietro: cozze alla marinara and squidlets, and quite good wine (Sella & Mosca have their production around here, and all theirs is pretty good). It's a decent, well-patronised trattoria, but the owner is a bit on the nervous, bossy side and he's not fond of seeing empty places, so the girl that serves us does not help us enjoy the evening with her restlessness and lack of sympathy.

In the morning disaster strikes!  I wake up with a very stiff back, try to loosen it up with a bit of gentle exercise, but then tear a muscle getting the garage gates open.    It's not just painful; I cannot move, so back to the hotel (fortunately it's friendly, clean and dry) for another two days. The first completely flat out swallowing aspirins and grimacing; the second, full of Paracetamol, clutching a stick, managing to totter about like a retired scarecrow.

Of course, clouds do have silver lining, and I manage to do some reading, and discover the extraordinary Padre Padrone by Gavino Ledda (which I had seen as a film, but never realised it was a book/true story) and Sardinia's Nobel Prize for Literature winner (in 1936), Grazia deLedda, who I had not heard of (or, truthfully, hadn't thought about - D.H.Lawrence mentions her twice).

The account of pastoral life that Ledda gives is most revealing, and, although much has changed, it helps me understand Sardinia. Grazia deLedda is altogether a different thing, and I have only begun to scratch her surface, but Il Paese del Vento paints a remarkable picture of people in a wide, empty landscape and tells something of bourgeois life on the island.

The third night in Alghero we go out to eat at al Tuguri, which is expensive but altogether an uplifting experience. The decor is tasteful and it is light and comfortable; the owner and his daughter are friendly and helpful, and the food and wine imaginative and excellent. I have spaghetti al riccio [sea urchin]- a rare treat - freschissimi calamari arrosti, and A starts with cozze allo chef (an aromatic version of alla marinara) and then has insalata di mare, topped with a little crab. We share a salad and the only portion of bieta he has left (because he only uses fresh food, so doesn't over-prepare) and then a crema brulata which is simply beautiful. The wine, their own, is light and delicious.  All in all, despite my twisted back, it is one of the best meals we have had for ages, and it is such a pleasure to stumble across imagination, and courtesy.

Feeling easier, I manage to get in the car the next morning, and we make tracks for Logoduro. First to see S Pietro di Sorrés.... a Pisan-style convent church that elegantly crowns a hill in gentle countryside, and then we go down into the so-called Valley of the Nuraghi to explore the complexities (all to ourselves) of the Nuraghe S Antine, which has stairs and first-floor apartments, as well as a complete cryptoportici round the back.

We also discover the excellent new museum at Torralba, where finds (ceramics and bronzes) from S Antine are exhibited along with a display that explains the use of the horse in this area (through history) with photographs and models, as well as authentic saddles and bridles – which all fits in well with reading Padre Padrone.  In the garden as a number of Roman milestones that demonstrate the thoroughness of the military mind, the process by which the land was subdued.

Back through the country of Gavino Ledda, with the village of Siligo on the left now and the stone-walled tanche of Baddevrustana to the right, and then eastwards towards the impressive, though decaying, church of Santa Trinita di Saccargia and then to S Antioco di Bisarcio. The latter is almost unapproachable, and, although scaffolding shows that some kind of work must be going on, it is difficult to see exactly what is being done, and the road, which ends in a semi-deserted village (constructed years ago by EFTAS to promote small farms - to no avail; shepherding still predominates) leaves one feeling abandoned in a remote and inhospitable place, even though men have lived here since earliest times.

Santa Trinita di Saccargia, with a tall, smart campanile, like a young man wearing his first bow tie, stands by the roadside, with the walls of its ruined monastery and the vans of memento-sellers bearing witness to the continuum of time beside it. An old man leans on the back of a chair in the doorway; but it is difficult to tell whether he is a custodian of the church or of the flock of sheep that grazes and tinkles in the adjacent field. Inside the elegant church there are too many signs of desecration, names scratched and scribbled on stones, broken windows, to feel that the powers-that-be have any interest in the place or its visitors, and the sense of degradation is far greater than that of uplift.

The landscape is sweeping, great spaces dotted by nuraghi or farms or villages, and the roadside is dashed with the pink flowers of orchids and hottentot figs.  We wind past the nearly empty reservoir of Lago di Coghinas, and then up to the unattractive town of Tempio Pausania (where Lawrence paused). Through the stone village of Aggius, where my LP of Sardinian (well, Gallurese) folk-music came from - Gli Aggius, four men in their later years, recorded over twenty [now 45?] years ago, singing songs that stretched back into the last century, and beyond - and on, past the flowering fruit trees, into the so-called valley of the moon, where shattered granite tors litter the scenery, as if a meteorite shower had been left lying around by some giant hand.

Next through the barren valley of hell, and then towards the coast and eventually to rest at a curious, downbeat hotel on the shore at Vignola Mare.  A damp, soft bed which I know will contort my back, a poor supper (even though the tallest girl on the island supplies me with the most authentic peasant dish you could imagine: it's called something like bread soup and it's a sort of Maltese lasagna with stale bread - heavy!) and to sleep with the waves lapping outside the window.

But not a good night, and the muscles in my back are a fiery torch, twists of fibres burning every time I move. The sky is rainy and grey, and the air is damp and spongey. The roadside flowers are closed in protest and the landscape seems harsh. It seems, again, like Ireland.

We look briefly at Santa Teresa Gallura, which Vittorio Emmanuele I developed in 1808, and we would have enjoyed staying here under sunnier circumstances. And then we potter on to Palau, and check in to a dry, clean, warm and pleasant room - with a stiff bed - in the Hotel Roccia.  A great relief. A bit of a picnic and some rest and reading and the world seems a friendlier place.

In the evening I gingerly venture out for a drink and a pizza in a reasonably lively, though hardly ethnic, place. There are many Americans about, attached to the base on La Maddalena, and every one else is a baggy-trousered German.

After a much better night, we lie in until eleven,  which helps a lot. It’s another grey,   rainy day, and there's not a lot to see between Palau and Golfo Aranci (we'll visit La Maddalena and Garibaldi on Caprera another time) so we take it slowly. The scenery is broom- or wattle-yellow, with a background of green and granite and in the soft, pigeon-coloured light by the sea it makes me nostalgic for Ireland yet again. There are many similarities between the islands - depopulated emptiness, a poor, rural or coastal past, a modern touristic development, mistaken attempts at industry (though Ireland has had successes there in the north, and since), powerful images of the past, strong folk traditions, wild, untamed nature, and a disarmingly straight, endearing character in the people….

And we look at Porto Cervo and the Costa Smeralda, and I am reminded of the summer visitors to Kinsale in their yachts, with their tanned and gold-adorned bodies. Here you can appreciate the problems of the rich, poor things, when they have to compete for image at such a price.

We motor through the Aga Khan's back yard, and picnic at Capriccioli, with white sand and junipers, by a turquoise bay with pink islands out to sea. It's blowy and beautiful, and though we are not alone - a steady trickle of baggy-trousered Germans passes by, snapping and beer-swilling - it is quiet and relatively unspoilt.

The long day passes, and we find ourselves in Golfo Aranci, again, awaiting the boat, doing a little shopping and sitting in a bar to avoid the rain. The men talk and play cards, seeming to roll from Spanish with their –os endings to standard Italian in a seamless bolt of textile. We cannot understand all they say, but there's a general drift, as if, swimming in a cold. current, we occasionally find ourselves in a warm eddy.  One anecdote, about an appointment to sell a boat, comes over lucidly. The seller, with some of his family, had been kept waiting by the prospective buyer for over half an hour. Then, when he eventually turned up, he bought the thing outright, sight unseen. That's not how you do business, said a handsome fisherman, his dark face gleaming next to his silver side-burns. When I was in England, if I had an appointment, I was always two minutes early.... for if you were two minutes late, you would have missed everything!

How foreign that land now seems! We see our car disappear into the bowels of the ship; we install ourselves in our little cabin, and then take a bowl of pasta in the galley, and settle down, to the shoosh of waves, and as the boat rolls through the night we know we are going home, to Trevignano.

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