Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cagliari, Sardinia

Friends: It hasn't been bad at all to be marooned on Sardinia for an extra two or three days, other than it will cut into the time I'll have to bicycle Italy before I need to be in Monaco for the start of The Tour. The cycling on this largely rural island has been exceptional. I've had the roads almost to my self, other than for a brief foray on the four-lane super-highway that links the island's two largest cities, Cagliari (160,000) at the southern tip, to Sassori (125,000), 135 miles to the north.

The rolling countryside is dotted with small, quiet villages. About their only sign of life is grizzled, elderly men sitting on benches in the shade or on doorsteps with a pal or two looking out upon the world. They don't have much to see. Elsewhere in Italy such men would be out on their vintage racing bikes wearing uniforms of old getting some exercise, emulating their boy-hood heroes and giving me someone to draft. In six days on Sardinia I've only encountered five of the Lycra brotherhood and not many more just getting around in every day attire on ordinary bikes. Once I cross to the mainland, I expect to see that many per hour.

Of the five serious cyclists I've seen, four were in an early Sunday morning paceline. They passed me just as I was returning to the highway from my campsite off on a dirt road in a field filled with large rolls of hay, my favorite and frequent camping spot in France. The camping in Sardinia has almost been as easy as in France, quite a contrast to my previous experiences in Italy. I've camped in olive orchards and patches of woods and alongside brooks. One evening as I was leveling out my patch of ground I felt a rock under the matted vegetation. When I reached to extract it, I discovered the rock was a turtle.

It wasn't even a challenge to find camping not far from a couple of Sardinia's most noteworthy beaches--Arutas and Maria Emi. Rather than ordinary sand, their beaches are granules of shiny white quartz the size of teeny-tiny beads. They don't compact as solidly as sand, so it was a uniquely pleasurable experience to saunter through them, with the perfectly formed ovals squishing through my toes. It has taken thousands of centuries of battering waves to form them from the outlying quartz reefs. They are protected. It is illegal to make off with samples, though not so easily enforced.

Having a quartz beach experience was one of the bonuses of having an extended stay on Sardinia. I spent a day bicycling along a 20-mile stretch of very rough road, some of it single-track only suitable for mountain bikes, linking a series of beaches. I was also able to visit a few more nuraghi, those ancient fortresses, some that surprised me along the road in a farmer's field and some that I sought out.

They are all considered a World Heritage site, but there is one officially sanctioned above all others, Nuraghe Su Nuraxi, just outside the town of Barumini. It recently raised its entry free from four euros to ten, capitalizing on its designation. I had seen enough of them by then, never paying more than three euros, that I was reluctant to pay such an excessive amount. The adjoining gift shop had a 50-page booklet, mostly of photos, on the nuraghe. I paged through it to see if its interior had anything more to offer than than what I had previously seen. It did not, so I was spared that expense. This one distinguished itself from the others with the remnants of some 200 dwellings surrounding it. They could be perfectly seen from outside the fence and didn't need any closer examination. I learned from the booklet that this nuraghe wasn't discovered until 1950. It took five years to fully unearth it. It stands 60 feet high, but was covered with dirt and vegetation making it look as if it were part of the hill it was perched on. This one could get away with charging so much as it was less than 40 miles from Cagliaria, making it more accessible than most of the others for the tour buses. A load of Germans had arrived shortly before me.

My extra time on Sardinia has also allowed me to make a sizable dent in my 900-page Lonely Planet guide to Italy. I am reading it cover to cover searching out bicycle sites and oddities that I will try to include in my itinerary. Lonely Planet publishes a specific bicycling guide to Italy. Evidently it restricts all its bicycling mentions to that book, as this one doesn't even include the cycling chapel to the patron saint of cyclists, the Madonna de Ghisallo, overlooking Lake Como and its nearby bicycle museum. Nor does it mention the Giro, nor any of the monuments to Italy's champion of champions, Coppi, nor any of the legendary climbs in the Dolomites nor that San Remo on the Mediterranean is the conclusion to the first spring classic race, one of the Seven Monuments of cycling's one day races along with Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de Flanders and the Tour de Lombardy. The only bicycle mentions in the book are a bicycle-themed bar in Milan in a former bicycle warehouse and also that bike parts can be found in Rome's flea markets.

The book is full of movie references--the home town of Francis Ford Coppola's grandparents, the village where Mel Gibson filmed "The Passion of the Christ," George Clooney's villa, Fellini's hometown, a palace that George Lucas filmed some of "Stars Wars I" and that was featured in a Tom Cruise "Mission Impossible." There is a history of cinema museum in Turin that sounds very worthwhile.

As I sat reading in the plaza in front of Cagliari's town hall, an African plopped down on my bench. He asked if I was German. He was thrilled to learn I was American. "I have a brother who lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three sons," he said. "He's been trying to get me a permit to come live with them. He won the lottery for a visa eight years ago and loves it in America."

He said he was from Nigeria and had been living in Italy the past six months after gaining political asylum. He made it to Italy on an amazing journey that makes the efforts of Latin Americans to cross into the U.S. seem like a walk in the park. He spent three days walking across the Sahara into Libya with only the water he started out with. He was part of a group of 20. Five didn't make it. Those who couldn't keep up were left behind. One died in the middle of a cold cold night. He paid $1,000 for the final leg of his trip, a boat trip from Libya to a small Italian island west of Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean. He was part of a small group crammed onto a small Zodiac boat. Several fell overboard and died.

He was taken from the small Italian island to a refugee camp on the east coast of Italy, where he went before a judge and was granted asylum. He lived in Rome for a while but he said there were too many Africans there, making it hard to earn a living, so he came to Cagliari where there are few Africans. He said he sold sun glasses and things, but he made quite a few references to prostitution. He complained that there weren't cheap hotels here where one could rent out a room for an hour. One has to have sex in cars. He mentioned one road where at night there might be 50 cars lined up, all rocking to and fro.

As we talked several of his Nigerian friends came by, all speaking English as well. They were hoping to find a flat that could live in. One was a woman, who he said was a prostitute, though she wasn't dressed as one. She had flown into the country with a proper visa and had just stayed. She was living dangerously, as the cops here had started cracking down, rounding up illegal Senegalese. I kept waiting for him to ask for money, but in the end all he wanted was my email address so he could use me as a reference if need be. He was 40-years old with flecks of gray in his goatee, but still very determined to make it to America.

And tonight I'm off to Palermo on Sicily hoping to find a spot to lay down my sleeping pad for the night. The ferry departs at 7 p.m. and arrives at 9 a.m. It will be my last long ferry trip, as the ferry from Sicily to the mainland is just a few minutes. Its a short enough distance there have been proposals to build a bridge. One of the impediments is that it would funnel way too much money into the mafia shaking down all the contractors.

Later, George


Gillian said...

I'm so jealous you're in Italy now. Thats my dream destination.

Anonymous said...

Will you be able to catch up with Stephen?

Be safe,

the Brays