“(Sardinia) reminds me of Malta: lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere. Belonging to nowhere, never having belonged to anywhere. To Spain and the Arabs and the Phoenicians most. But as if it had never really had a fate. Left outside of time and history.” D H Lawrence – ‘Sea and Sardinia’
If Sardinia reminded Lawrence generally of Malta, Castelsardo reminded me specifically of Croatia, of Dalmatia and Istria. Not unlike Rovinj or Trogir with tight packed neat square houses like stacked shoe boxes and all painted in gay pastel hues.
Perhaps this is not surprising when taking account of the fact that between 1943 and 1960 many thousands of Istrian and Dalmatian Italians were resettled in Sardinia following the post war exodus from Yugoslavia. After the war Yugoslavia adopted a policy of ethnic cleansing, expelling the Italian population who were associated with the previous fascist regime of Mussolini and war-time racist atrocities in the area of occupation.
During this time the pressure put on the previously colonising Italians at first through murders and executions and latterly by less violent forms of intimidation such as nationalisation, expropriation and unfair taxation eventually left them with little option but to pack their bags and leave. The Balkans are notorious for ethnic cleansing. Those that arrived on Sardinia brought with them their Venetian heritage and culture.
The Hotel Riviera was expensive and rather disappointing, very overpriced for the basic standard of accommodation on offer but on the positive side there was a magnificent view from the balcony of our room of the multi-tiered town rising dramatically out of the sea like a volcanic eruption, the houses like a flow of lava and on reflection a view such as this was probably worth a few extra Euros.
We declared it lunch time and set off to find somewhere to eat but as usual we had completely failed to take into account that the time was approaching the afternoon siesta, or il riposo as Italians call it and we strolled through curiously deserted streets as though someone had declared a national emergency and everyone had left town.
The concept of an afternoon siesta is not something that I am unfamiliar with but I think that I can say that I have never before seen it so rigidly observed; not in Spain, France or even Greece but here in Castelsardo and across the whole of Sardinia the whole place closed down for the afternoon as the residents retreated behind shuttered windows and locked doors.
Across the streets abandoned washing remained hanging, starched and bleached by the sun, occasionally a loose shutter kissed the window frame and a whispering pigeon looked for a vacant windowsill to spend the afternoon. It was so quiet that I could hear the paint cracking and splitting on the wooden doors, the creaking of shutter hinges, the complaining of rattan as sleeping residents shifted a little in their balcony chairs and the faint crack of seed pods in the flower planters.
It looked as though our lunch might be a half empty bag of potato crisps back in the hotel room but just as we were about to give up hope we spotted a solitary pizzeria that remained open and in case they suddenly changed their minds and inconveniently put up the closed sign we dashed inside and found ourselves a terrace table for pizza and wine.
The day was perfect now and after lunch we made our way towards the old town and the fortress set at the very top of the rocky outcrop. At the lower levels there were souvenir shops selling usual tourist trash and after ignoring these we tackled slippery steep stone steps worn down by the passage of time and feet. Forever going higher we came across the restaurants with tables and chairs wedged into the narrow streets, all closed of course right now but with faded menu boards inviting inspection for evening dining.
At the top we paid our 3€ entrance fee and passed through the gates into the recently restored castle and centro storico where waiting for us at the top there was a breathtaking 360° panorama of the land and the sea.
Also inside there is a museum of basket weaving, which is an important local handicraft although, to be honest, you really need to be an enthusiast to find it interesting. The tourist shops sell mass-produced, cheap baskets but within the walls of the old town old ladies sit in doorways weaving with raffia and beckoning tourists over to admire their goods on chaotic display spilling down steps which are far superior to the contents of souvenir shops.
In a small alleyway I was trapped by a stooped woman with unruly grey hair, leather fingers and the complexion of pickled walnut and she took such pride in showing me her work that I felt obliged to buy one to take home. She relieved me of 10€ and I took possession of the smallest basket in the display.
From the top we set off back down the steps stopping on the way to visit a couple of churches, first the Santa Maria delle Grazie which, unusually, has a figure of a black Christ in a side chapel* and then the Cathedral with its high tower and golden dome standing precariously close to the edge of the towering cliffs.
Now we walked back to the hotel and let the rest of the afternoon slip slowly away and later we watched the light fade and the lights begin to twinkle in the streets and alleys of the old town which drew us like moths towards a flame for an evening meal in a restaurant in a square under the shadow of the fortress above.
It had been a very good day.
* It seems that there is some scholarly theological debate about the race/colour of Christ. In the West we are used to the Aryan images of Roman Catholicism but it is more likely that he was darker with an olive-brown complexion and some claim (Martin Luther King for example) that he was black. I suppose it doesn’t really matter that much, if you believe then Jesus can be anything that you want him or her to be.