Friday, October 12, 2012

The Real Sardinia

I front-loaded my itinerary so I’d have a long stretch of doing nothing in Tangier. Only gave myself five days in Sardinia. I thought about just hanging around Cagliari the whole time, but then I got ambitious and rented a car. I got a map and stared at it for a while and kept coming back to Nuoro, a town in eastern Sardinia—maybe 40 km inland, in the center of a bunch of squiggly roads. “Not immediately likeable,” according to the guidebook. It seemed like a promising description. When I asked the girl at the hostel about Nuoro, she was approving. “The real Sardina,” she said with reverence. I got the impression I was being flattered for not going to a beach.

For the record, I did stop at Is Atturas, a beach on the Sinis Peninsula.

It’s famous for its white sand which, until recently, was used in aquariums and trucked over to the fancier resorts. Now there are signs up telling you not to take any home with you. It’s really more like very fine gravel. Definitely could picture it in an aquarium.

I got a Stranger than Paradise vibe at the beach, which I liked a lot. The water, while choppy, was warm and swimming pool blue. I don’t know, though. I just didn’t feel like going in. I felt like driving.

Renting a car was a good idea. I was getting sick of being a dumbass—dove this, quando that, mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano. Driving I can do. You hear horror stories about driving in Italy, but I have to say: Sardinia is a good place for it. There’s hardly any traffic. Outside the towns, even the back roads are usually wide enough for two Fiat Pandas to pass each other without incident. (The kid at the rental desk told me a Panda was “a Sardinia car.” Well, it’s not much smaller than my Honda, I thought smugly when I saw it. I figured it out later that this was the point: it’s a sort of mini SUV: four doors, a tiny hatchback, and high clearance for the pitted dirt roads I’d find in the countryside.)

There’s an empty feeling even to the industrial parks around Cagliari, and it only gets emptier. 

I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast on Monte Ortobene, 5 km above Nuoro. No one was home when I arrived, so I kept going up the mountain and found a little park up top—a destination for Sardinians, or maybe even specifically just Nuorans. It being Italy, there was a statue of Christ up there.

It being Sardinia, there were also a lot of beautiful, shy stray dogs.

I stopped in at an empty restaurant looking for a payphone. No, none. The maître d', when I made him understand my situation, called my host on his cell phone. It seemed he was at least an hour and a half away. We’d been communicating by email because my phone doesn’t have a sim card, and apparently I had not made myself understood. I sat in the vast, empty dining room reading until it was late enough for dinner, which I ate, alone, looking down on the lights of Nuoro.

More loneliness at the bed-and-breakfast: I was the only guest in a sprawling mountain villa. Sitting on the terrace, looking at the black shapes of distant hills, I thought about how far I’d drifted from my original plan. Last January when I wrote up a travel proposal, I’d thought only of cities. Congestion, chaos, the clashing of private and public lives. Now here I was, alone, guided only by an instinctive attraction to the phrase “not immediately likeable.”


B&Bs are not my style. I dislike tasteful décor and effortful coziness, and above all, I hate having a fuss made over me. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I stayed in one at all. It was cheap, I promise! A better deal than a hotel in Nuoro. 

In any case, it turned out to be another good move. My host, seeing that I was just rattling around without a plan, gave me an itinerary for the next day.

I found some other tourists at my first stop: Orgosolo, a dusty mountain village which has become known (how widely I’m not sure) for its murals.

Most of them are broadly political—some folkloric, many ironic or satirical. Some them treat matters of extreme local interest, like controversies over pasturing practices or dairy subsidies. This one commemorates the loss of 62,000 hectares of grazing land to hill fires.

There’s a kitchen-sink aspect to the sweep of international subjects:  9-11, Tiananmen Square, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the neutron bomb.

I took a lot of pictures so I could translate them later, since so much of it went over my head.

This one is cool. Actual newspaper wheatpasted on.

I like some of the amateur work the best.

Question: is this little mountain town with its Che Guevera statue and its Tiananmen Square mural an anomaly? A tourist trap? Is it the Real Sardinia? 

There are postcard racks, and coaches plastered with Union Jacks, and African men selling souvenirs to German cyclists relaxing in front of a mural sarcastically praising Helmut Schmidt along side a list of Baader-Meinhoff martyrs. But the little old men in black wool pants and shepherd hats strolling Via Gramsci with their hands clasped behind their backs don’t seem to care. I can only say that, in my few days in here, I picked up a native streak of rebelliousness. These are people who celebrate a tradition of banditry and commemorate failed uprisings from the First Punic War.

Another question: is the quest for authenticity fatuous in its own way? 

My next stop was a plateau above Orgosolo. I would see wild animals there, my host said. “Like a safari.” The crowds did not follow me. Within a few km of town, I was utterly alone again, without a house or shack in sight. 

The wild animals turned out to be livestock.

Goats, pigs, beautiful cattle.

The closest things to people were these two dogs, guarding a herd of sheep. They barked officiously at me when I stopped to take a picture.

My last assignment for the day was a hike up Monte San Giovanni. 

I drove further into the hills, up above the “savannah,” until I got to a ranger station. I had the place to myself. As I ate my lunch at a picnic table, I thought of feral dogs, strangers, wild boars (which, my host assured me, were harmless unless they had “puppies”). I guess the solitude caught up with me. Suddenly, I was gipped by a clammy, panicky, urgent wish to abandon the hike. I thought of my host, the questions he would ask when I got back to the B & B. I would lie—tell him I’d gotten distracted in Orgosolo and ran out of time. Or that I got lost and had to turn back.

I sat at the picnic table feeling ashamed for a while, and decided I’d go up the trail a bit—just around the first bend, see how it felt. 

I kept going.

Near the top, I heard a tinkle of bells. These were the only souls I encountered. Not even a dog to guard them.

I ended up walking to the top with a rock in my hand.

It was a perfect spaghetti western landscape up there.


  1. The "industrial accident" one appears to be about Tiananmen Square.

    Didn't you want to bring home a goat?

    1. Right you are, All-Seeing. I seem to have misplaced my photo of the industrial accident.