A mysterious letter arrived last week, redirected from the Embassy of Italy in Canberra. An elaborate typeface on cream parchment, and with no return address. It is unusual to receive a letter at all these days and I read the contents with increasing puzzlement.
Dear Virtual Travellers,
Your mission, should you choose to accept it:
- Locate Rome on a map. Fortify yourselves with caffè latte and rosettes at an establishment of your choice (0.5 hours)
- Drive to the port of Civitavecchia (76km, 1.5 hours)
- Book a ferry passage across the Tyrrhenian Sea to Bonifacio, at the southern tip of Corsica (120 nautical miles, 15 hours)
- Do not be tempted to linger in the French territory. Instead, immediately take the ferry south to Santa Teresa di Gallura in the north of the beautiful Sardinia (10 nautical miles, 50-80 minutes)…
The detailed instructions continued. I handed the letter to Leroy who, only moments before, had been complaining about the dreary late winter weather we’d been experiencing. His eyes lit up. Let’s do it!
Which is how, only a few days later and with several amendments, we found ourselves at the guardrail of the ferry, leaning into the salty breeze as Corsica receded behind us. The weather was gorgeous and clear, with an expected top of 28° Celsius and a little on the humid side. Slathered with sunscreen, we attempted — unsuccessfully — to blend in with the immaculately groomed French and Italian tourists on board.
I had earlier vetoed the car trip and the 15 hour ferry trip from Rome (a perk of virtual travel that I have swiftly come to appreciate), and instead we arrived early in Bonifacio to try and beat the worst of the summer crowds. It seemed everyone had the same idea and we were lucky to make it on board for the first sailing of the day.
Several new acquaintances and a citron pressé later, we chugged through the heads of the long, narrow inlet at Santa Teresa di Gallura (‘Lungone’ in Sardinian) and docked at the Stazione Marittima. Scores of gleaming yachts bobbed and swayed on the gentle waves of the inlet ahead of us. One of them, I correctly guessed, would be our home for the next few days.
I debated whether to stave off any potential seasickness with pills, but decided the main associated downside (zombification) was too great a penalty to pay during the short time we had on the island. Leroy, of course, is immune to seasickness. Or so he claims.
It was with a degree of trepidation then that I shook the hand of Fitòriu, captain of the Grassianna and our host for the next day and a half. As he walked back with us to the yacht, he told us a little about Sardinia, imparting useful facts such as the ratio of sheep to residents (2:1) and the number of different cheeses produced by the island (over 30). He and Leroy hit it off immediately, having a similar deadpan sense of humour.
Sardinia’s complicated past
I know from my initial reading, conducted only the week before, that Sardinia has had a complex history. From the first Nuragic tribal civilisations established around 1500 BC, the number of people who have been preternaturally interested in the island is astonishing. Phoenician sailors and Carthaginian invaders to name a few, followed up by Roman annexation and then conquest by the Vandals.
For a while in the 6th century, Sardinia was part of the Byzantine Empire until raids by Moors and Berbers put an end to that. Enter the Spanish and four centuries of Aragonese rule, which saw the establishment of a parliament as well the introduction of a feudal system, at a time when they were being phased out in many other European countries.
Next, it was Austria’s brief turn at the wheelhouse before Sardinia was unwilling passed into the hands of the House of Savoy. Italy now had control of the island, introducing the Italian language and repelling a couple of French invasions in the interim. For a while the Savoyard royal family even lived in the capital Cagliari while the Napoleonic Wars played out in Italy.
The First and Second World Wars arrived and, as a strategic air and naval base and home to Italian and German troops, Sardinia was heavily bombed by the Allies. Beautiful Cagliari unfortunately received the worst of it. After the war Italy took a referendum and became a republic. Sardinia operates autonomously as part of its parent, but I’m a little hazy on the details of how it actually works.
The story, like most stories mixing geography and politics, doesn’t end there. During the 1970s, things got a little fraught as various factions vied for control. I can’t even begin to explain it, except to say that bandits, kidnappings and bombings were disturbingly frequent. It wasn’t until the 1990s that things settled down a little. Now, things are looking very rosy as the island expands its tourism infrastructure as well becoming known for its IT expertise as well as its food and wine.
Familiar screams of excitement met us as we approached the yacht. Lo and behold, it transpires that a sizeable portion of Leroy’s family had decided to lure us to Sardinia on the sly and surprise us. Now a veteran virtual traveller herself, his middle sister Solange had orchestrated the whole thing — including the mysterious letter. Leroy’s expression was priceless. I don’t think he knew whether to be furious or delighted.
His mother Laurène made urgent ‘come here’ gestures with both hands while Solange and her four kids grinned down us like gleeful maniacs. The captain wrested our duffel bags from us, hurling them with great strength onto the deck, while Leroy ran up the gangplank to be enveloped in a Laurène bear hug. I followed more cautiously as the yacht dipped and bobbed alarmingly.
Family reunion over at last, Fitòriu explained some of the rules of the yacht as well as what we could expect on the voyage down the northwest coast to Alghero. He then whipped out a bottle of mirto, a liqueur made from the macerated berries (and sometimes leaves) of a local myrtle, as well as pane carasau, a flat crispy bread, Sardinian sausage, olives and Pecorino Sardo, a cheese made with pasteurised Sardinian sheep’s milk using a method that dates back to 1700. He left us to devour it all while he made preparations for departure.
We will be spending a few days sailing to Porto Torres and on to Alghero, calling in to white sand beaches and exploring small villages and national parks along the way. It’s reported to be a far less busy route than the northeast coast, which is why Solange had chosen it. Providing I don’t get seasick, it should be fantastic.
Alghero just happens to be Fitòriu’s home town and he has insisted that we are all invited to dinner at his home; that his wife is delighted to cook for us and feed us Sardinian culinary specialties. We have no idea if this is true, but I don’t know how delighted I’d be to see eight strangers — none of them able to speak more than a few words of my language — arriving on my doorstep for a meal. I guess we’ll cross that ponte when we come to it.
From Alghero we’ll utilise one of the best perks of virtual travel and zip across the island to the east coast, bypassing completely the need for transport of any kind, and for the sole purpose of seeing the magnificently hued rocks of Arbatax. These rock formations are so striking that I’m adding an extra sentence just so I can include another image link to the Rocce Rosse. You’ll be glad I did.
The final part of the trip is one I’m especially looking forward to. From Arbatax we continue south to Cagliari. We might even hire cars or catch a bus for the 2-3 hour drive down the east coast. I’m looking forward to exploring the capital, with its cafés, tree-lined streets, public spaces and gorgeous old palazzi. I can almost hear the humming buzz of the noisy Vespas careening around the streets, smell the aroma of herbs and garlic and fish from the restaurants around the bustling seafront.