A Travellerspoint blog

Italy

Mist and musings in La Serenissima

Does life begin at forty?

overcast 6 °C

I feel as though I already know Venice, despite never having been there. Like the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids, the city has been featured in so many magazines, documentaries, films, paintings, and books that it is more familiar to me than certain places that I have actually visited. I can picture St Mark's Square and the Rialto bridge without difficulty. I can imagine gondolas moving serenely down the Grand Canal, straight out of a Canaletto canvas. I can just about convince myself that Venetians go about their daily business in carnival masks. Though I have no idea of the actual geography of the city nor how its atmosphere changes over a 24 hour period, I'm certain that I already know the pieces that comprise this puzzle. My trip to Venice, in the middle of a cold January, will allow me to put those pieces together.

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The city sits in the Venetian Lagoon, connected to the mainland by a causeway. The day I arrive, a thick mist permeates the lagoon and the causeway appears to stretch away into nothingness. Mist and cloud will be almost constant companions during my stay, making photography challenging but lending an air of mystery to Venice's canals and alleys. Buildings coalesce out of the grey, ghosts of the city's illustrious past.

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I take a crowded vaporetto from the bus station to St Mark's, thrilled at the glimpses of churches and palazzi that loom out of the murky air as we head down the Grand Canal. The notion of a city built on water is hard to visualise but that is Venice's situation, supported by millions of wooden piles reaching down through the lagoon and marshy sediment to rest on clay. Venice is best seen from the canals, with many of its most striking frontages simply inaccessible by land. It's an absolute must to spend at least one day viewing the city from the water.

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Venice is divided into six sestieri with buildings numbered uniquely within each one. This address system is not helpful to newcomers, and the city is the first place I've ever visited where I regularly see people using their iPhones to navigate. It's easy to get lost, with frequent dead-end alleyways giving the option of either jumping in a canal or retracing one's steps, but it's difficult to get really lost - you're rarely far from one of the yellow-arrowed signs to St Mark's or the Rialto bridge or the station. Failing that, there are enough churches and museums to correlate with your map, and if the worst comes to the worst you know that the lagoon provides a natural barrier to just how far you can stray. It's a great city for aimless pottering, and perhaps more of Venice's real heart can be found in the further reaches of Dorsoduro or Castello than in the tourist-clogged arteries around St Mark's.

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However it's not so amenable for anyone in a wheelchair, as most of the bridges are equipped only with stairs - a fact that the many tradesmen must curse daily as they drag their handcarts up and down the steps.

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The room I have taken is on a quiet side-street mere minutes from St Mark's Square, and I make a morning pilgrimage to the basilica on each day of my stay. There's a thrill to seeing its Byzantine weirdness with my own eyes, even though the weather ensures it's never under the just-so lighting conditions that I've seen in photos and on TV. The styling is immeasurably warmer than the austerity of my own city's great cathedral, York Minster, from the uneven floor evoking the sea to the golden mosaics gleaming in the gloomy recesses of the ceiling (though the lights are switched on for a period around midday). It's a pleasure to walk through the square in the early morning, footsteps echoing, before the tour groups descend.

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There are umpteen museums and galleries given over specifically to the preservation and enjoyment of art and architecture, but the entire city is a showcase in its own right. I prefer my culture in small doses taken frequently, a preference that I can indulge by simply picking a different sestiere in which to ramble, but I also tick the boxes by visiting some of Venice's grandest landmarks.

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The Doge's Palace leaves me cold, but only literally. Apart from the first couple of rooms, it's absolutely perishing inside and I'm not inclined to linger. The opulence, though, is staggering, the sheer size and scale epitomised by Tintoretto's "Paradise", supposedly the largest oil painting in the world. Like in many of the places I am to visit, the lighting is sufficiently subdued as to make it hard to discern any detail. It may well be that the sunny days of summer are needed to provide enough natural light.

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I'm intrigued by the palace's bocche de leone, letterboxes in the shape of a lion's mouth through which, centuries ago, it was possible to post anonymous denunciations of crimes or misdeeds. The map room contains two globes of epic dimensions, one showing the earth and one the sky. A stroll through the armoury makes me consider that being shot is perhaps preferable to any of the slicings, choppings, and bludgeonings that were part and parcel of mediaeval combat.

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The ticket to the palace also includes entry to the Correr Museum. I'm particularly taken by a woodcut from ~1500AD showing an "aerial" view of Venice, whose amazing detail is courtesy of a group of surveyors who drew perspectives of the city from designated high points. Their coordinator, Jacopo de' Barbari, then combined the best of them. I'm also amused by a pair of women's sandals with soles half a metre deep, designed to keep the wearer's feet out of the mud.

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My densest art fix takes place in the Accademia Galleries. I was expecting a vast collection requiring multiple days to take in, like the Louvre, but it's considerably more compact - a mere 29 rooms. The first room has a ceiling of cherub faces, giving me flashbacks to Debre Berhan Selassie in Gonder, Ethiopia - a similar idea but totally different execution. In amongst the paintings of Titian, Veronese, Carpaccio, and other Old Masters, I am drawn to the drama of Tintoretto's works - in particular, St Mark zooming into the frame of "The Miracle of the Slave" like some superhero. It's a bizarre anomaly that Canaletto, the painter who I think of first when I think of Venice, is represented so poorly in the city. Many of his paintings actually found their way to England, commissioned and bought by noblemen undertaking a Grand Tour.

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The Great Upper Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco deserves a mention for its art, despite being cold and dimly lit (if you buy postcards of any of the paintings, you'll see just how poor the lighting is for the naked eye). Its walls and ceiling are covered by enormous canvases depicting Biblical scenes, most from the paintbrush of Tintoretto. The effect borders on overwhelming.

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My mistiest day coincides unerringly with the Sunday when I have planned to cross the Giudecca Canal to visit the church of San Giorgio Maggiore (St George the Great), perched on its own island. I wait at the San Marco vaporetto stop, watching the moored gondolas slap and buck with each tidal surge. With the lack of visibility, and occasional toot from another vessel out there, somewhere, the journey across feels like it is in the middle of the ocean. On San Giorgio Maggiore island, duckboards are laid out between the vaporetto stop and the church entrance, a sign that the acqua alta (high water) has recently made its presence felt, but they aren't needed right now. I admire the floor in the chancel, which has been tiled in such a way as to give the illusion of climbing steps (I am to see this elsewhere in Venice). Unfortunately the Sunday-only Gregorian chant is accompanied by an organ, which takes away something of the purity of voice alone.

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Lured on by the feast of churches and stately homes listed in my guidebook, I cover a great deal of ground in my ten days. Though by the end I would not pretend to remember the precise order and location of everything I have seen, there are numerous impressions that crowd together in my memory - the OTT ornateness of Teatro La Fenice (Phoenix Theatre), St Catherine of Siena's shrivelled foot in the Basilica de Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Basilica of Sts John and Paul), the welcome sight of free toilets in Ca'Rezzonico, the trompe l'oeil ceiling in the Chiesa Sant'Alvise (Church of St Louis), the unexpected rash of shops on the Rialto bridge, the eerie tomb of Doge Pesaro in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the different chimney styles in Campo della Maddalena, the foot marks on the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) where fights between rival gangs were conducted, the Jewish area for which the word "ghetto" was first coined, the price of a new gondola (€25,000), the Ponte delle Tette (Bridge of Tits) where the Venetian state encouraged prostitutes to stand topless in order to combat an apparent rise in homosexuality, the discovery that Chiesa Santa Maria Formosa (Church of the Shapely St Mary) was named due to the Virgin appearing in a vision as a voluptuous woman, and many more.

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I have one piece of sightseeing that's prompted more by the written word than any of the visual arts. While travelling through Africa in 2009, I read "Miss Garnet's Angel" by Salley Vickers, simply because it looked the most interesting item in an otherwise unpromising hostel library. The book is set in Venice and concerns the spiritual awakening of a recently-retired English spinster, Miss Garnet. The narrative is interwoven with a re-telling of the Book of Tobit from the Apocrypha, whose main characters are Tobias and the archangel Raphael. Miss Garnet's stay in Venice contains a number of connections to the Book of Tobit, with the most direct being her liking for the (real-life) Church of St Raphael, which sits off the tourist track in the heart of Dorsoduro. The comments book at the church contains many entries along the lines of: "So glad I read Miss Garnet's Angel and found this beautiful church." There are no references to Miss Garnet in any other language, so I can only assume the novel was either never translated or never found favour in non-English-speaking parts of the world.

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I re-read the book whilst in Venice, noting that Miss Garnet was also a graduate of Girton, as well as first visiting Venice in January. That's where the similarities end, though, as I'm rather younger than her, male, and considerably less repressed. However I find the theme of discarding the habits of a lifetime to be an appealing one, in particular the inevitable pain and disappointment that accompany lessons learned the hard way. There's an aching regret in the book that I can empathise with from my own experiences. If I was searching for a destination in which to start over again, to begin my life anew, Venice would be on the shortlist. With its history of creativity, even while transforming from a mercantile powerhouse to one of the world's most touristed sites, I'm sure it could not fail to provide an inspiring environment.

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Renewal. Birth. Birthday. Age. Getting older. Pondering what life is supposed to be about. These are subjects that have been uppermost in my mind recently, because I turned forty just days ago. In fact this whole trip is a fortieth birthday present to myself, a small extravagance for someone more used to low-key celebrations. I find myself something of an anomaly among my peer group, most of whom are married with children and in the rat race. I left the rat race several years ago and I don't really see a family in my future, so I have a question mark about what the (presumed) second half of my life will bring. But, frankly, many of those thoughts are now enveloped by the joy I feel at simply being in Venice, the excitement of seeing new things. Is there any need to worry about the future if, right now, I'm perfectly happy? I conclude that I can start worrying about my age when I no longer have that kind of joy in my life.

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Of course, Venice is not without its annoyances too. Encounters with dog excrement are all too frequent. (Another animal disappointment for me is that cats are a common theme on items in the tourist shops but I see only a handful of live ones during my stay.) There is an irrational urge experienced by too many tourists in St Mark's Square to scatter food on the ground, thus causing all pigeons and seagulls within 200 metres to converge on them in an aggressive low-flying flock. It's somewhat jarring to find the full range of global fast-food chains - all packed with customers - in a city where you can pick up bread, cheese and prosciutto, not to mention a bottle of prosecco, at any number of delis. There is little in the way of public seating, which can be a drag if you've been on your feet for a while. There is an almost total lack of any special illumination at night-time - with so many gorgeous buildings, that just seems like a missed opportunity (I'm guessing there must be some local ordinance preventing this).

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The low season has the great advantage that tourist numbers are at a minimum, though that still means thousands of visitors per day and I hear non-Italian voices throughout the city - Chinese, Japanese, American, Australian, and all kinds of European tongues. But I'm more surprised by the selection of nationalities working in the tourist industry. The restaurants I visit are staffed by Chinese, Indians, and Bangladeshis, a state of affairs that I've not seen anywhere else in Italy. In my global travels, I've been so used to English being the European language that non-Europeans know that it's weird to me to find non-Europeans whose only European language is Italian. That said, most people - of whatever nationality - still insist on responding to my laboured Italian with English.

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The flip side to the low season is the inclement weather. In addition, the maintenance cycle is at its peak, with every building in St Mark's Square at least partially obscured by scaffolding.

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Ten days is too short a period for any tourist ennui to set in, and I never tire of the novelty of the numerous shops selling carnival masks, Murano glassware, and marbled paper items. I've seen plenty of tat on my travels around the world, and it's a surprise to be spoiled for choice for mementos that I actually like. Luggage restrictions ensure that my purchases are all small and will fit into the gaps in my 25 litre rucksack, the one exception being a cute lithograph of a cat gazing at the city skyline, that I buy with birthday money from my sister.

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As the end of my stay draws near, I find that I've barely dented the full range of sights and experiences that Venice can provide. I've already started harbouring thoughts of a return visit, perhaps in the shoulder season when the trade-off between weather and tourist crush is at a sweet spot, and it's comforting to know that I'm not close to running out of "official" sightseeing activities, not to mention the infinite unplanned incidents that can arise from ditching the map and simply roaming.

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I leave Venice with a sense of satisfaction. This misty city has shown me that there is nothing to fear about the onset of my forties, that I will have no need to fret about the future as long as there are still places that can bring me happiness. And while that might not be the most that I want from life, it's certainly a pretty good minimum to fall back on.

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Dull but possibly useful info

i. The bus service from Treviso airport to Piazzale Roma costs €10 for a return, and is valid for 10 days. It takes about 40 mins. There are about 10 departures per day in each direction.

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ii. I stayed at Locanda Antica Venezia, close to St Mark's Square, paying €59 per night for an ensuite room including basic breakfast (which I only had once, as the window of 8:30-9:30AM was much too late for my schedule). There's free wifi, though you may have to be in the reception area to use it. The room was compact (a bit too warm for me, so I had the windows open all the time), and had a fridge (actually a minibar, but there was enough space to squeeze in cheese/prosciutto). Of the two reception staff I had dealings with, one was exceptionally helpful (and spoke great English), the other was friendly but completely clueless (and spoke little English and had difficulty with my poor but serviceable Italian). I would definitely stay here again - I think it's very good value for such a central location.

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iii. The Chorus pass costs €10, lasts for a year, and gives you entry to Museo di Santo Stefano and the churches of Santa Maria del Giglio, Santa Maria Formosa, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, San Giovanni Elemosinario, San Polo, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, San Giacomo dall'Orio, San Stae, Sant'Alvise, Madonna dell'Orto, San Pietro di Castello, Santissimo Redentore, Santa Maria del Rosario (Gesuati), San Sebastiano, San Giobbe, and San Vidal. This is good value if you're a church fiend, as individual tickets cost €3 each, i.e. visit just four of the places with the pass and you've already made your money back and more.

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iv. Entry to the Accademia Galleries is €6.50.

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v. Entry to the Musei di Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square Museums), i.e. Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace - opens at 8:30AM), Museo Correr (Correr Museum), Museo Archeologico (Archaeological Museum), and Sale Monumentali Bibliotheca Marciana, is €12. There is another ticket valid in high season that also includes one other museum of your choice (I can't remember the options, though one is definitely Ca'Rezzonico).

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vi. Entry to Ca'Rezzonico is €7.

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vii. Entry to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is €7.

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viii. Entry to Teatro La Fenice (Phoenix Theatre) is €8 and includes an audioguide (for which you need to leave ID as a deposit). It's open 9:30AM-6PM.

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ix. Entry to Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Basilica of Sts John and Paul) is €2.50.

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x. St Mark's Basilica opens at 9:45AM. Come around midday if you want to see the ceiling lit up.

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xi. Note that photography is banned outright in most churches, and the few that are less strict still ban flash. I resorted to buying postcards of anything that I was forbidden from photographing.

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xii. Ditto for the art galleries, though the only one I visited that allowed any photos at all was the Accademia Galleries, which did ban flash. You're not allowed to take photos in the Doge's Palace, though photography seemed to be tolerated in the interior courtyard.

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xiii. Individual vaporetto tickets are rather expensive, so it's best to try to squeeze your vaporetto usage into one or more 12 or 24 hour periods, for which there are better value tickets.

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xiv. Many (all?) of the vaporetti go in both directions, so make sure you're getting on one that's going your way!

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xv. There are Billa supermarkets on Strada Nova and the Zattere, and possibly elsewhere too. However if you're simply looking for some basics to make sandwiches then there are plenty of delis to choose from.

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xvi. There are pretty much no free public loos anywhere, though the toilets at Ca'Rezzonico are accessible without entering the site.

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xvii. You can find all my Venice photos here on Flickr.

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Posted by mohn 01:31 Archived in Italy Tagged venice italy europe venezia veneto Comments (0)

Looking beyond the beaches

A week on an island that's famous for the wrong reasons

semi-overcast 23 °C

As I stand at the back of what appears to be a queue of two hundred people at the easyJet check-in at Gatwick, I ponder just what I know about my intended destination - Sardinia. It's an island (the second largest in the Med) that's an autonomous region of Italy, and has given its name to a fish - though these fish are no longer present in the numbers that earned them their name in the first place. Part of its coastline is the Costa Smeralda, a playground for the rich and famous. Sardinia is also where England's football team was placed for its group matches in the 1990 World Cup Finals, in order that any trouble caused by the hooligan element of the supporters would be easy to contain. These meagre facts are hardly a platform on which to base a week's holiday.

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Fortunately knowledge of the island will be the least of my concerns, as someone else - namely, my sister C - will be worrying about that for me. She has been working in a hotel in the sleepy coastal town of Golfo Aranci for the summer season and this experience, coupled with previous stints on the island as an English teacher and a tour guide, means she has enough local knowledge for us both. My hire car will mean we can even visit some places she has never been to.

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I somehow negotiate easyJet's chaotic check-in system in time to board the plane, and arrive into the sunny but windy climes of Olbia airport a couple of hours later. The short drive to Golfo Aranci gives me time to reacquaint myself with the quirks of Italian roads - the erratic signposting (often right next to an exit so you have only a split second to decide whether you need to turn off), the speed limits that seem to function as minimums rather than maximums, the racing line that locals like to follow, etc. But when I allow my eyes to drift to the scenery, there's a mountainous interior to the island that looks impressive.

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Golfo Aranci has a population of barely a couple of thousand, most of whom seem to have disappeared off for an afternoon kip, so I'm able to drive slowly along the main street without any traffic harassment. I find the turn-off for the hotel, park, and wander into the reception. C is on duty, sporting a sun tan that speaks of a summer on the beach. It's great to see her, and she immediately wangles a short break so that we can have a coffee together on the terrace. Unfortunately the mistral is blowing a gale and we soon retreat to a more sheltered area.

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The main news from her is that the hotel wants her to work for an extra week, meaning that she won't have as much time off with me as she'd originally intended. (This actually turns out to be a good thing for me, as the reduced sightseeing that we do still leaves me knackered, though not so good for her, as her morning shifts start at 7AM). Apart from that, she's looking forward to showing me around the north of the island and introducing me to some of the characters who've been part of her seven months here. I speak no Italian, so can predict much nodding and smiling in my near future, but you never know where you might find a cat-loving female chocolate addict with a liking for Italo disco.

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The majority of the accommodation that I've stayed in over the last few years has been either hostels or guesthouses, so the facilities offered in a 4 star hotel room comfortably exceed my requirements. The stack of towels and shelf of complimentary toiletries seem as grotesquely luxurious as the balcony with a view over a bay of turquoise water. There's no kettle, apparently because the hotel's wiring can't cope with the demands of large groups of English pensioners all fancying a cuppa at the same time - and large groups of English pensioners constitute a good chunk of the current guests. As a relative of a member of staff, the rate I'm getting for this room is very good value indeed, especially as breakfast and dinner are thrown in. It's not how I normally travel, but I can force myself to suck up a week of it.

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C is working mornings for the next couple of days, making it difficult for us to do much as she doesn't finish each day until 3PM. I take the opportunity to amble around Golfo Aranci, which I find to be pleasantly low-key. The town sits under the rocky headland of Capo Figari, with the rounded hump of Figarolo island just offshore. Beyond that lies the limestone massif of Tavolara island. In the late afternoon, the sun brings a flush of pink to the grey faces of all the rocks.

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I supplement my knowledge of the island by reading a guidebook. Sardinia's history has been characterised by repeated invasions, explaining why even now the "real" Sardinia can only be found in the mountainous interior - a region the Romans called Barbaria (now Barbagia) as a backhanded compliment because they were never able to subdue it. Barbagia is the cultural heart of Sardinia and even now is something of a law unto itself (up until the 1960s it was famed for its bandits and kidnappings). With the mountains being the dwelling place of choice for the locals, wild boar, pigs and sheep became the mainstays of Sardinian cuisine, meaning that - strangely for an island - fishing has never been a major source of food here.

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The original settlers of Sardinia lived in tribes, with interspersed periods of cooperation and squabbling. From about 1000BC, though, outsiders began to visit the island on a regular basis - sometimes for trade, sometimes for settlement, but increasingly to conquer. Over the next three millenia, the island was partly governed by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Pisans, Genoans, Aragonese, Austrians, the House of Savoy, and the Piedmontese, before finally becoming part of a united Italy in the mid-19th century. There are plenty of reminders of these disparate occupiers in Sardinia today, from Phoenician ruins to the use of Catalan in Alghero. It's interesting that Sardinia's flag depicts the heads of four Moors, the Moors having merely raided the island rather than tried to subdue it.

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When C has a run of days off, we begin our explorations in earnest. Though Sardinia is by no means enormous, the winding roads and regular delays by chugging lorries mean that distances take longer to travel than you might expect, so the furthest point south that we reach is only a third of the way to the southern coast. A few more quirks of Italian driving appear. The law here requires you to drive with your lights on all the time, though empirical evidence suggests this is obeyed by only about half of drivers. In towns, there seems to be a crosswalk every twenty metres or so, but it's a foolhardy pedestrian who thinks the traffic will actually stop to let them cross. On the plus side - and possibly as a result of it being the shoulder season - we find free parking everywhere we go, often in large carparks. I also discover that size 11 hiking boots are too big for the space above the clutch pedal in a Renault Twingo, leading to several situations where we can't move off because I can't let the clutch out fully.

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Our first foray is into the Barbagia region, its rugged countryside and traditional outdoor lifestyle perfect for creating the kind of people able to stand up to the Roman Empire. Just outside of the town of Orgosolo, a road sign has been peppered with shotgun bullets - a reminder that this is an area over which the carabinieri have only a tenuous hold. Regardless, the landscape is a picture of rolling green and brown, punctuated by sharp rocky ridges under a blue sky smeared with wispy clouds.

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Apart from its bandit history, Orgosolo is most famous for its collection of murals, dozens of which can be found around the town. First appearing back in the 1970s, the murals depict political events, initially from Italy but later expanding to cover stories from the entire globe. The variety of styles and colours is accompanied by a disapproving tone that gives the town an anti-establishment air entirely in keeping with its bandit past. Comments about American nuclear waste on the island, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Bosnian conflict, world poverty, 9/11, and the Iraq War have all found their expression here in paint. An excerpt from Pablo Neruda's "Ode to the Cat" warns us against trying to overreach ourselves.

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We lunch at an atmospheric restaurant a couple of kilometres outside of Orgosolo. Given the warmth of the day, it's surprisingly cold inside, with even the waitress wearing a tracksuit top. The dining room is centred on a stone fireplace whose chimney is hung with hams, though sadly the fire remains unlit. The room's walls are one framed painting after another.

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There's no menu, simply a fixed-price set of courses taken from traditional Sardinian cuisine, including brain (tempura-style, but I've no idea what animal the brain was from), wild boar, suckling pig, pane frattau (an odd mix of thin bread, cheese, tomato sauce, and egg), and seada (a cheese-stuffed fritter covered in honey). Vegetables are few and far between. By the end, we're both grateful that the waitress had suggested we get one between two, as we're stuffed. (Later in the trip, I'll also try the ravioli-esque culurgiones and gnocchi-like malloreddus.)

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Not far from Orgosolo is another small town, Mamoiada. Mamoiada is home to the Museum of Mediterranean Masks, a small but highly intriguing introduction to the masks and costumes to be found in Sardinia and further afield in the Mediterranean, associated with carnival or pagan festivals from the distant past. The stars of the town's own carnival are the mamuthones, men wearing sheepskins and ugly black wooden masks, and carrying 30kg of bronze bells with bone clappers on their backs. They are guarded by the lasso-wielding issohadores dressed in red and white, who capture any nearby young women who take their fancy. Theories of the origin of these figures include them representing the Sardinians (issohadores) victorious over the Moors (mamuthones) and, more popularly, the triumph of spring (issohadores) over winter (mamuthones). Whatever you choose to believe, the masks and costumes native to Mamoiada and other European countries are fantastic in both senses of the word, and not a little eerie.

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Our longest day of travel takes in a loop hitting the west coast in two places. The first stop of the trip is at the Basilica of the Holy Trinity of Saccargia, the high point of Romanesque architecture on the island. It's built of black basalt and white limestone and all the more striking for being situated on a plain. The name "Saccargia" comes from the Sardinian for "spotted cow", with legend saying that this cow used to kneel down whenever it was prayer time - the cow is remembered in four carvings on one of the columns in the porch. Apart from the stunning exterior, inside can be found some well-preserved mediaeval frescos.

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The church was originally built in the 12th century and has been substantially modified since then, but we go back even further in time when we visit the nuraghe of Santu Antine. A nuraghe is a beehive-shaped stone building, of which there are thousands around the island. They date from a Bronze Age civilisation that was eventually wiped out by the Romans. The nuraghe at Santu Antine is the tallest on Sardinia, and its consignment to history can be keenly felt due to the presence of a wind farm on a nearby ridge - the crumbling nuraghe built with nothing more than stone, versus the hi-tech sleekness of the slowly whirring giant turbines.

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We hit the coast at the pretty town of Bosa, whose pastel buildings sit behind a riverside array of palm trees redolent of the French Riviera. Leading away from the river is a maze of cobbled backstreets, affording occasional glimpses of old women making lace in a doorway. Black markings on various houses are a reminder of the massive campaign waged against malaria shortly after the end of World War II. The island's mosquito population was the victim of the largest DDT-based assault ever seen, the outcome of which may have been the elimination of malaria (though not of mosquitos, as my ankles have already told me after a couple of evenings dining al fresco) but with currently unquantifiable environmental effects - to either nature or humans.

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The town is overlooked by a castle that we don't have time to visit, but we do pop in to the rather OTT cathedral and are overwhelmed (not necessarily in a good way) by its late Baroque Piedmontese decor.

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We take the coast road north out of Bosa, stopping several times to admire the scenic coastline's rock formations. C also spots some griffon vultures, of which there are few in Sardinia (though the species is not in danger on a global scale). We reach Alghero late afternoon, a pleasant town whose shops conjure up a surprisingly touristy vibe. The street signs are in both Catalan and Italian, and a minority of the inhabitants speak a variety of Catalan - a legacy of Alghero's long period of Aragonese occupation. We potter along the city walls, buy some ice-cream, and watch a reddening sunset over the jutting promontory of Capo Caccia. It's a long drive home, and back in Golfo Aranci we can barely down a bottle of prosecco before we're both too tired to stay awake.

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C's work schedule is the afternoon shift for the next couple of days, so we only have until lunchtime to play with. The first day, we trundle through the Costa Smeralda, perhaps the most famous part of Sardinia. Before the 1960s, this stretch of coast was wild and uninhabited bar shepherds, but then the Aga Khan assembled a consortium to turn it into a luxurious tourist destination. It's now a string of soulless beachside towns all constructed to specific architectural styles and standards. In season, it's swarming with the kind of money that can afford to blow thousands of dollars per night on a hotel room, and the marinas are veritable showrooms of the best that the luxury yacht industry can provide. However now, out of season, the Cartier stores are shut and none of the remaining yachts look as though they'd be big enough for Roman Abramovich. We pass the Cala di Volpe hotel, off which Diana and Dodi's yacht was moored the day before their life-ending accident in Paris, and the Hotel Romazzino - I can't say that either of them look particularly stunning from the outside. However I'm sure that the rationale behind these places isn't that they are the absolute best of the best, more that they're simply so expensive that the gawpers and rubberneckers are kept out.

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Having said that, the heart of Costa Smeralda - Porto Cervo - has some great examples of the Mediterranean style of architecture. In particular the Church of the Star of the Sea is simple but impressive, its whitewashed exterior shown off by red roof tiles and, in particular, the one blue-tiled cupola. Fittingly for a church in such an opulent area, it houses an El Greco painting - he usually sells for at least six figures at auction.

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Before we head back, C wants one last stop at Baja Sardinia due to the limpid blue of the bay's waters, but unfortunately we reach it at about lunchtime, and the angle of the sun does us no favours.

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The following day sees us heading to Porto Rotondo, another haunt of the rich. Along the way, we make a detour to a small church on a ridge overlooking the road. An old man sits outside making charms - the first person I've seen doing this, yet in the most out-of-the-way church I've yet been to. Inside are depictions of the Madonna and child, including some with African and Japanese features.

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Porto Rotondo is even emptier than Porto Cervo had been, and the owner of one of the few open cafes says that the season is only three months long. Nearby is a beach named after Shirley Bassey, who supposedly was one of its first sunbathers - we find the stretch of sand matching the map, but there's no sign to indicate any association with a Welsh female singer.

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Back in Golfo Aranci, C suggests that we lunch at La Cortice, a restaurant run by a government body (Ittiturismo) that aims to help fishermen with diversifying their income. She knows the staff there (who bizarrely all seem to have karate black belts) as well as the fishermen whose catch is served up on the menu. I have a massive dish of squid linguini, in which the squid actually looks like squid rather than the weird rings that tend to be served in the UK. It tastes excellent, only spoiled by the thought running through my mind that the (very) low carb diet I follow at home is being torn asunder.

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In fact, overall on this holiday I do a reasonable job of enjoying Sardinian food without completely stuffing myself. Similarly, the drunken benders that I normally associate with family meet-ups are absent - there's only one night of what I would call substantial drinking, but even that totals barely a bottle of prosecco each and finishes at only 2:30AM. There's the added bonus that we see a family of wild boar rummaging in the garbage as we're walking home through the deserted streets.

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Our last full day of sightseeing takes place in the best weather we've had all week. The Maddalena archipelago is our destination, just off the northeast tip of Sardinia. We take a car ferry from Palau, and C points out a rock formation called The Bear on a hill above the town as we leave harbour.

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We disembark at La Maddalena town on La Maddalena island in the Maddalena archipelago - no scope for confusion there. We immediately leave via a causeway to the island of Caprera, to visit the Garibaldi museum. The museum is in the house that Garibaldi retired to after he had played his part in unifying Italy. I must confess to knowing little about the man before this trip, apart from his famous army of Redshirts and the biscuit that inherited his name, and the tour that the museum obliges you to take is only available in Italian. Fortunately C translates for me and throws in some facts of her own. Besides his role in the unification of Italy, he had also previously dabbled in various conflicts in South America. He left one of his wives before they'd even exited their wedding chapel, when she confessed that she was pregnant with another man's child - quite a harsh judgement from someone who was something of a philanderer himself. And apparently the source for his army's red shirts was Aysgarth woollen mill in Wensleydale.

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We return to La Maddalena island and complete a circuit of its many bays and viewpoints. Rock formations keep watch over a sea that, if not quite up to tropical paradise standard (at least not at this time of day/year), is invitingly clear, its blues and greens pulsating gently in the rippling water. The beaches are all most appealing, even to a non-beachy person like myself, though I suspect some of that is because there just aren't that many people around to spoil the landscape. From the northern end of the island, it's easy to see the white cliffs of Bonifacio in Corsica, maybe a dozen kilometres away in a different country. We watch sailing boats slapping by, the afternoon sun giving them a sea of sparkles on which to float.

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Sadly that's the last piece of sightseeing we have time for, as the day is drawing to a close and my flight to London leaves the next morning. Sardinia has been a big surprise to me, offering considerably more than the top-end beach holidays that it's famous for. I found most enjoyment in the island's traditional culture, in particular the murals and scary costumes of the Barbagia region, but was also taken by the black and white Basilica of the Holy Trinity of Saccargia. I could imagine many more lazy days succumbing to the colourful charms of Bosa. Frankly, the Costa Smeralda is an anomaly in Sardinia.

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With the majority of the island unvisited on this trip, I can see myself coming back for more.

Posted by mohn 09:26 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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