Have Bag, Will Travel
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The next morning, the night after the cyclone, when we opened the shutters of the room and looked out into the storm battered streets Alghero looked rather damp, drenched, soggy and windswept, forlorn and feeling rather sorry for itself.
In the lobby there were some newspapers and glancing through one looking for a weather forecast there was a two page spread about the storm and the deluge and the damage and a weather map which explained exactly why. It seemed however that whilst it seemed quite wild to us that Alghero had got off relatively lightly compared to the disruption and the flooding in Olbia which was where we were heading for our final day.
Between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the whole island had been smashed and battered by strong winds and heavy rainfall causing huge widespread damage. Sardinia had been plunged into chaos as the cyclone slammed into the island, causing two months worth of rain to fall in just twenty-four hours.
We were in no rush though so this morning we attempted a second walk into the town and were delighted to see that overhead the clouds were occasionally breaking to show a patch or two of blue.
If Castelsardo reminded me of Istria and Dalmatia then Alghero had an immediate Spanish feel and this shouldn’t have been surprising because for nearly four hundred years it was part of the Aragon monarchy which was an empire that stretched as far as Sicily and Southern Italy.
Even today Catalan is recognised as an official language and street names appear in both Catalan and Italian. A good percentage of the population speak this language although being rather isolated from direct Catalan influence over the years the dialect of Alghero today is said to be similar to the language spoken in Catalonia between the middle of the fourteenth and the end of the seventeenth century which for an Algheran to speak to a Catalan today would be rather like me trying to have a sensible conversation with William Shakespeare.
As if to emphasise this Catalan connection Alghero has four twin towns, Tarragona and Balaguer in Catalonia, Encamp in Andorra (almost Catalonia) and Catalan speaking Palma in Majorca.
There is no getting away from an Iberian influence here and walking through the narrow streets of the old town it was easy to imagine being in Girona or Figueres. Enclosed by robust, honey-coloured sea walls the imposing medieval bastions and defensive towers mark out the unmistakable outline of the town and inside the walls there is a tightly knit enclave of shady cobbled lanes, Gothic palazzi and cafe-lined piazzas.
We navigated the city and as went peered down slightly shabby narrow streets, disfigured by graffiti, care worn but lived in with brightly colour-washed buildings with ancient coats of paint like fragments of history which have blotched and been blurred by a combination of successive harsh summers, equally hard winters and general neglect resulting in a glorious wash resembling water colours running in the rain, everything dripping and running, liquefying and merging, leaking and fusing.
The streets between the houses were like deep gullies made brilliant by vibrant washing lines even after a night of torrential rain strung outside of windows like carnival bunting as though in anticipation of a parade, stretching across the streets dripping indiscriminately and swaying gently backwards and forwards above the secret doorways and back alleys and with realistically today, in view of the weather, only an outside chance of drying out.
Everywhere there was water as we picked our way through the town north to south and then east to west and then walked around the battlements where below the sea continued to churn and surge as though someone was taking great pleasure in stirring it into a froth with a giant ladle.
If the weather had been better we almost certainly would have stayed a little longer, perhaps gone to the beach for an hour or so followed by lunch, but it wasn’t to be so we walked back to the car and on the way stopped at a supermarket called Nonna Isa which as it turns out is the leading supermarket business in Sardinia which you may not find especially fascinating but I mention this because Nonna Isa has a service that I fully approve of – it has a bar!
Now, if supermarkets in the UK had bars then I am absolutely certain that I would find shopping a whole lot more enjoyable. And it was cheap so before we did our shopping we found a table and had a beer, a Sardinian beer called Ichnusa which we had rather acquired a taste for over the last few days.
And so we left Alghero somewhat ahead of our carefully planned itinerary and drove east to the city of Sassari, the second largest in all of Sardinia where we would be staying overnight on our way back to Olbia.
We arrived at our hotel which turned out to be a sort of edge of city, functional but not too glamorous sort of place and after checking in and with nothing to excite us very much about the location we decided to bring forward the plan for tomorrow morning to visit Sassari city and do it this afternoon instead and so under leaden skies we drove to the centre.
The guide-book suggested some things to see but I should have consulted my friend Dai Woosnam on the matter because when he knew that I was in Sardinia he emailed me this – “We had an interesting time in Alghero about twelve years ago. Also recall being bored out of our skulls in the second city of Sassari.”
Dai is rarely wrong and he had hit the nail squarely on the head again this time. The guide-book said that it is possible to see the sights of Sassari in just a morning but having been there I reckon that you can do it in half an hour including time for a beer and a glass of wine. Sometimes when travelling it is possible to come across an unexpected gem, Bari in Puglia or Trujillo in Extremadura for example but sadly Sassari is not going to get a nomination from me to join that exclusive list.
To be fair the weather was awful, cold and wet and the streets were deserted, it may well be better on a warm sunny day but I have to say that I am most unlikely to ever test this out. Some places you vow to go back to, Sorrento for example, Sassari is sadly not one of them.
We had evening meal in the hotel and decided to abandon the itinerary altogether now and just leave early the next day and go directly back to Olbia.
Have you ever ended up somewhere desperately disappointing?
It was grey in the morning. Very grey. Very grey indeed. So there was no reason to stay long in Stintino and instead of hanging around for the day as we had originally planned we set off immediately on the next stage of our journey to Alghero.
In view of the weather there really wasn’t much point in going directly to Alghero either so we studied the map and identified a couple of places on route that might be worth taking a look at on the way.
Under steel grey skies, the colour of battleships, we drove south until we took the turn for the village of Argentiera and headed towards the coast and took a soaring, sweeping road that reached as high as the lowest cloud that finished at a dead-end at the abandoned works of an old silver mine because Argentiera is one of Italy’s estimated twenty thousand ghost towns and villages.
There are several reasons why Italy has so many abandoned villages, such as harsh living conditions often without modern amenities and services, natural calamities such as landslides, earthquakes and floods and massive emigration flows triggered by the appeal of a better life in larger cities or overseas. Argenteria became a ghost town when its mining industry collapsed and closed for good in 1963, now just a handful of people live there solely to run a couple of bars for the tourists that occasionally drop by.
From the hills we dropped down into the town and drove through the neglected and pot-holed village piazza with a solitary defiant palm tree in the centre, along damaged roads next to bricked up houses and through the rotting, crumbling corpse of the old mine works. In the fifty years since closure roofs have collapsed, timbers have split and splintered, windows have disappeared and metal has rusted and flaked away.
They say the village is haunted of course by all the miners who lost their lives in the harsh and dangerous conditions in which they worked tackling a seam of silver seventy metres beneath the ground and with shafts extending under the sea and the stories are embellished now by the creaking timbers and the cracking stones which contribute an eerie ambiance to the place.
The sky wasn’t grey any more, it was chalky white and the rain had slowed to a light drizzle so, living dangerously, we parked next to a collapsing cliff face and walked across the shingle beach to a small bar tucked in one sheltered corner and on a day such as this the young girl working there alone seemed pleased to see us and have some temporary company. It was a curious place and it felt almost surreal sitting under cloudy skies, on a beach, drinking coffee in a completely abandoned village.
We left shortly after that and made our way next to Capo Caccia a few miles further south. Capo Cacchia is an imposing limestone promontory about three hundred metres high and with good views in all directions. There are some underground caves to visit but on account of the weather almost everyone else in the area had abandoned the beaches for the day and were looking for alternative entertainment and had chosen to come here instead.
Parking was a nightmare and we were forced to leave the car in a precarious position on the bend of a narrow road under a crumbling limestone cliff which was clearly regularly shedding lumps of rock and I naturally worried about that. We might have visited the underground grotto but to get there meant negotiating six hundred and fifty slippery and crowded steps so we collectively decided against it.
This is what it would have looked like…
Much like any other underground grotto then!
Secretly, I was glad about that decision and the opportunity to move the car and now we drove directly to Alghero and our seafront hotel where there was a lobby area full of damp and miserable people.
It wasn’t raining when we stepped out of the main door and began the one mile walk to the city centre but some people had been paying closer attention to the weather forecast than we had and all along the route we were pestered by lookie-lookie men who saw this as an opportunity to shift their stock of cheap umbrellas. At some point during the morning the weather warning had turned to red (very serious indeed) a full emergency, apparently Sardinia was due to be hit by a cyclone sometime later in the day.
Yes, that’s right, a cyclone, a holidaymakers nightmare but a bloggers dream!
To be honest it was really quite miserable and the temperature was steadily dropping and then as we sat at a street side bar it started to rain, only steadily at first but then it began to get heavier and we had to make a dash back to the hotel.
We were still unaware of the impending weather disaster when we went out for evening meal but luckily we only went across the road from the hotel because part way through the meal the storm out to the west hit land and brought with it howling gales, rain of truly biblical proportions and an electrical storm that created an entertaining light show over the hills of the interior.
The rain thrashed down, water flowed down the street and collected in puddles as big as glacial lakes, the angry sea thrashed itself into frothing foam like a good cappuccino and attacked the beach, the wind tugged at the plastic blinds of the restaurant and threatened to tear them permanently away from the metal frames, the lightning filled the sky and the thunder drowned out our conversation. Any thoughts of leaving the restaurant to go back to the hotel were pointless because we would have been soaked through in seconds.
We ordered more beer!
The restaurant staff told us that this was a Mediterranean cyclone and they are apparently quite rare as there have only been one hundred reported cyclones in seventy-five years. The bad weather was likely to last for a day or two and everyone was quite disappointed by that. I tried to cheer them up by suggesting that we were really very lucky because seeing a Mediterranean cyclone it seems is even rarer than seeing the Northern Lights and we had once travelled all the way to Iceland to see those.
My travelling companions however were not convinced.
Have you ever been caught in very, very bad weather?
Other Cave Stories:
“This land resembles no other place. Sardinia is something else. Enchanting spaces and distances to travel-nothing finished, nothing definitive. It is like freedom itself.” D H Lawrence – ‘Sea and Sardinia’
Having established lunch opening times we found that the weather had improved so much that we had time and could go to the beach so we changed into appropriate clothing and went for a stretch on the sand. For the third day in a row we went for a swim in the sea but today we decided against tackling the ambitious swim to the rocks.
In the morning I made my first mistake of the day when instead of doing it myself I let Kim do the first thing job of checking the weather. I kick myself now because I should have done it myself; leave an important task like that to someone else and what happens? It all goes wrong of course and this morning it was raining! I’m sure that it would have been sunny if I had only had the good sense to do the job myself and have it done properly.
We woke and I checked the weather. It was glorious once again and the sky was a never-ending blue stretching away into infinity. We had a very adequate breakfast and I made acquaintances with a young couple who gave me some advice on where to go and what to see. The informative taxi driver had told us about a street market that was in town every Wednesday so after breakfast we went to find it.
There was a little bar that overlooked the sea and we ordered Italian beer and some sandwiches that when they arrived we had to eat quickly because of the unwanted attention of hundreds of irritating flies that quickly became uninvited guests at our table. The waiter apologised and explained that this time of year is always bad for these little pests.
It was really warm and we were glad of the seafront location as we sat and watched the activity on the promontory overlooking the sea and we were envious of the unhurried pace of life that the local people seemed to enjoy. A bit of a walk, a bit of a chat, a bit of a walk, a bit of a chat, a bit of a walk, a bit of a chat and then turn around and do it all over again as they dawdle back in the opposite direction.
Following a widespread paranoia about aircraft being blown out of the sky after an attempt by some would be terrorists to smuggle explosives aboard in bottles of mineral water there were now some strict new rules to be observed.
At the check-in desk I had a small dispute with the Ryanair check-in clerk about whether we would have to pay for our bags to go into the hold on account of these new security measures and the ban on liquids in hand luggage. We maintained that as it wasn’t our fault that there were complicated new arrangements that the company should honour our original contract to take only no fee-paying hand luggage on board but the clerk firmly advised us that it wasn’t their fault either but the Government’s, so we would have to pay.