The next morning, the night after the cyclone, 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…
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“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’
Cheap flight tickets are top of a long list of good reasons to travel and when we spotted some reasonably priced return flights to Sardinia it didn’t take long to make a decision to visit the second biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea (just slightly smaller than Sicily).
There were three alternative routes from Sassari to Olbia but we held off making a decision about which one to choose until we could properly assess the morning weather.
It wasn’t good! It was bad so that immediately ruled out the preferred coast road and a stop at a beach and no one was very keen on the country route either because sightseeing is never very thrilling in the rain and using a mountain road Kim and Margaret would be certain to continually criticise my driving again so that left the direct main road route which was estimated to take just a couple of hours.
So, after an excellent breakfast we left Sassari in a fine drizzle and headed east. It was a long straight road but it was besieged by road works and this meant a tedious journey across the interior of the island towards our destination. Our itinerary was in tatters now, we were at least twenty-four hours ahead of the original plans and arriving in Olbia at lunch time meant even more rearranging of our carefully made plans.
We were so used to the rain now that we had barely noticed that it had cleared away and the sun was shining all of a sudden and this was a nice if unexpected welcome back. We checked in and made for the centre where local people were also glad of the sun because they were using it to dry out their shops and restaurants and the boxes of stock that had been flooded and drenched in the previous days storms.
I suppose that you would have to say that Olbia is an unremarkable place, a transit city with an airport and a seaport for transporting people quickly in and out and it doesn’t get many pages allocated to it in the guidebooks but we now had an afternoon spare to explore it.
We started at the marina where expensive yachts were moored overlooking the ferry port on the other side and then turning our back on the coast turned inland and roamed through the small city centre with its long main street of shops and restaurants and crooked back streets leading off.
You wouldn’t accuse Olbia of being attractive or even particularly interesting but on a lazy Friday afternoon we discovered that it has a certain indifferent charm and the longer we walked around and the more bars we stopped in along the way the more we liked it.
In the evening we dined at a simple pizzeria and before going to bed we rearranged our bags ready for the flight home tomorrow. If the weather didn’t improve there was the prospect of a very long and tedious day ahead because our flight wasn’t until the evening.
Hip Hip Hooray!
The weather did improve and in the morning there was a big blue sky and if we hadn’t been there we would never have guessed that there had been a cyclone and devastating floods all across the island.
It was a chance at last to visit one of Sardinia’s famous beaches so we asked the hotel clerk for a recommendation and shortly after breakfast headed off towards the coast. The beach that he suggested required leaving the main highway and driving down an unmade road for about a mile to a dusty car park. This wasn’t easy because the floods had washed the top surface away and it was deeply pitted with flood gulleys and littered with stones and rocks that had been washed down from the surrounding hills but we persevered and eventually made it thankfully without damaging the car.
The recommendation was a good one and nearby was a caramel sand beach caressing the sea in a sweeping crescent shape like a Saracen’s sword. The sea sparkled in the sunlight and this was the perfect place to enjoy a peaceful hour or so at one with nature. Except for one thing. The hotel clerk had said that he thought this to be the best beach in the region and it was clear that most of Olbia agreed with him because, this being Saturday, the beach was crowded and we were lucky to find a vacant plot of sand on which to lay our towels. But we weren’t complaining and we enjoyed an hour or so swimming, walking, politely declining the attentions of the lookie-lookie men and just simply being thankful for last day sunshine.
Eventually we had to think about getting our timings right for a final meal. Most restaurants close at three o’clock so if we were to eat before flying home then we had to make sure that we beat the unavoidable siesta shut down. Time was ticking by as we searched for somewhere until we came across a place that we considered suitable and we made it with just a few minutes to spare.
Lunch over and the staff eager to close up and go home for the afternoon we now had a couple of hours spare before going to the airport so we drove slowly and took regular diversions down to the sea but this was an afternoon of filling in time and eventually there was no other diversion to keep us away from the airport. We returned the car and I was relieved when the clerk inspected the car, declared everything to be satisfactory and invited me to ‘close the contract’. Phew!
There was a bit of a wait now so we sat in the bar and reflected on our week. It had been good, the rain was a bit of a nuisance but we had finished with a gloriously sunny day, a fine meal and in excellent company. Simple, unspoilt Sardinia gets a big thumbs up from me that’s for sure!
Have you ever come across anywhere unexpectedly good?
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?