My knowledge of Sardinia had been minimal. I read something about the many centenarians who live there. Apparently the diet of wine and cheese and the lifestyle of chasing goats up and down the hills causes people to live longer. Sounded like an interesting place to visit. It is possible that I was aware of the Punic remains on the island and I’ve been interested in the Carthagians for a while. It bothers me that a whole civilization could be wiped out just like that and that we know so little about them.

I flew into Cagliari, which is the capital and largest city. Marco told me that I would have a much better time seeing the island if I had a car. But I found out that all the rental cars in Sardinia are manual transmission and I never learned to drive those. I did not have a plan but was hoping to maybe meet someone with a car or split the cost of a rental with another traveler. By the second day I was starting to think I was stuck in Cagliari. It would be possible to take a bus to some archaelogical sites nearby or a train to the northern end of the island. But I wanted closer contact with the nature.

I spent a day wandering around Cagliari. My first impression was not great. Everything seemed badly kept up. Paint was peeling off buildings. There was bad graffiti everywhere – mostly tags but anarchist slogans were quite common. But there’s a lot of history there. It was a Punic settlement, although hardly any traces are visible, and has been inhabited since. The old port neighborhood has a lot of restaurants and some old-timey charm. From there a very steep hill rises and on top of it rests the Castello – the fortified old town. The gate to the old town has an interesting feature, the top supports a big plaza with excellent views of the town. It’s hard to say where the walls end and the rocks begin.

The gate to the Castello. Notice the person leaning on the banister. There’s a big piaza right where he is.

View of Cagliari from the top of the gate to the Castello.

I visited the achaelogical museum in the Castello. Prior to the Carthaginians the island has a thriving civilization named Nuraghic after the nuraghi – massive towers of stone that dot the whole of Sardinia, there are around 3000 of them. There’s some speculation that these are the people referred to as the Sea People who brought down so many civilizations in the beginning of the Iron Age. In any case, they had the most advanced civilization in the Western Mediterranean from the Bronze Age until about 800 BC. The museum had a lot of artifacts from them. There was also a big exhibit of the remains of big human statues they left behind. Unfortunately the statues were smashed later on and now only fragments remain. But these predate Greek statutes by several centuries although they are not nearly as techincally accomplished. There are also Carthaginian and Roman artifacts in the museum but it seems to lose chronological organization after the first floor and becomes a bit of a jumble.

At the end of the first night another traveler in my hostel recommended I rent a scooter. I don’t know why I did not think of it myself. A few words about the hostel: it seemed to be the least atmospheric hostel of all I’ve been to so far. It was very spacious and clean and had a very good breakfast. But it was also completely empty of people in the daytime and it seemed impossible to meet anyone in the common area. It was also the only hostel in town and by far the cheapest accomodation although it wasn’t cheap even by European standards. Sardinia seems a popular destination with other Italians and Russians for its unparalleled beaches but it is expensive.

So without losing further time I went to the rental agency the next morning. After an introduction to the various controls, I was free to go wherever I pleased. The rent included 100 kilometers a day which isn’t very much but then the scooter had a speed governor set to a maximum of 45 km/h. The seat was big enough that I could easily rest the bottom of the backpack on the seat while wearing it.

My first destination was Pula, a beach town and the ruins of Nora a few miles away. Just as many other settlements Nora started off as Punic, then turned Roman (apparently peacefully. The Romans bought out the local Carthaginians) then saw some decline and was finally abandoned for a more inland settlement in early Modern times due to Saracen piracy – Sardinia is only 200 kilometers from North Africa. The Roman ruins were quite well preserved with several mosaics (partially restored), and a theater – now used again for performances. As in many other cases the building materials from the town were reused, here to build a tower watching the sea by the Aragon rulers in the late Middle Ages.

Nora. The ship in the background had red sails just like the Phoenician trading ships of old.

Forum in Nora. Medieval watchtower in the background.

Somewhere a few weeks before I got this idea that I wanted to spend a night on the beach. So I set off further south to find an appropriate place. But first I needed to get some gas, my meter was nearing empty. I found an automated gas station, there wasn’t even an attendant. Just a couple pumps and a snack machine. It turned out to be common in Sardinia. The machine would not take my credit card, I later learned foreign cards are not accepted. So I had to use cash to prepay. I only had a ten and wasn’t sure how much I needed and decided to use it. Turned out the scooter only had about a 2.5 L (that’s a little over half a gallon) tank. So that was less than three euro and of course there was no change. After a few more wasted euros I learned to use the gas stations in towns which had full service so I could get change back. Still I estimate the scooter was getting nearly 100 miles per gallon so even with the higher Italian gas prices my gasoline expenses were minimal.

At first I stayed away from the big public beaches and found a secluded rocky beach. There were a couple families there. I got in the water and then sat on the rocks, drying off. As it was nearing eight the families left. But after a while I could still hear voices just behind the bushes and there wasn’t really a comfortable place to sleep anyway so I took off for another beach. The bigger public beach at Chia was nearly empty at this point. By sunset I was the only person there. I took off my shoes and sat on the sand watching the surf waiting for darkness. But just after dark I saw some people with flashlights dragging some things around. I went over to say hello and it turned out they were here to fish and camp overnight. So I would have some company.

It was two young men and their girlfriends. One of the women spoke some English, the rest hardly at all. But they welcomed me, asked me about where I was from and shared food and beer. Efizio and his girlfriend argued like an Italian couple from the movies, things were thrown. They caught a few fish too. At some point I retired to go to sleep. I had an emergency blanket with me. Let me tell you, sleeping on the beach is best left for emergencies especially if a blanket is all you have. It got pretty damn cold and the wind would pick up the blanket after I made the slightest movement. I barely slept at all. But at least I could say I did it.

Morning in Chia.

Efizio and Luca, my beach neighbors.

The same guy who recommended I get a scooter also told me there’s a music festival on another beach. So I set my sights there. Riding out of Cagliari was really stressful because my low speed meant that cars kept zooming past me. But past Chia and in the early morning not only were there no cars there but the scenery became really breahtaking. Curving around hills with each turn opening a new vista toward the coast below. At some point I had to let a herd of goats by. They were quite big, much bigger than their Moroccan cousins. On my way were the ruins at Sarai. This was another Punic site but unlike others it was never used after them. There was a very large burial site left including a Tophet, where childrens remains are buried. There’s a lot of controversy around those. Some think Carthaginians sacrificed their children while others, including those who wrote the explanatory panels at the site, think only those children who died before they could join the community were buried there. The underground tombs could be entered though they were empty and the Tophet was restored to something like its actual look with ceramic urns placed outside the temple. The town itself had several streets and the foundations were quite well preserved but I do not know if much else was found there. In any case it would be in the museum in Cagliari.

I tried to get some lunch in Carbonia. This was a town built in the 30’s as a coal mining town, the product of Fascist town planning. It is a little strange to have a 2500 old town next to one less than 100 years old. But even that new town already has a museum – a mining museum since no mining is done there anymore. Finding lunch was difficult. Turns out a lot of businesses close for lunch time which is something like 12 to 4. Some cafes were open but I do not understand how a person can be satisfied by coffee and a croissant. Luckily I found a kebab stand, possibly my only option in the entire town.

The drive from Bugarru, the town closests to the beach I was looking for, also featured some breathtaking views. During a steep ascent a sharp curve revealed the sandy town beach far below on one side and cliffs dropping into the green/blue sea on the other with a sharply rising rocks of an island just off the coast. I did not stop for a photo as I did not want to wait for the phone to turn on and wasn’t sure the majesty of the view could be captured. Even though it was very hot, riding felt good because the breeze kept me cool and dried off any sweat.

When I turned up at Portixeddu, the beach mentioned by the traveler, I was immediately disappointed. There were tons of tourists on this beach. There was no way it could be the site of a festival. Either the festival was over or it was somewhere else although I could not see what other beach nearby could possibly host it. I did see a few people in Bugarru in almost comically cliche hippie outfits (this was a “stoner rock” festival) but no one at Portixeddu. I tried half-heartedly to find a place to stay but there was nothing. So it looked like sleeping on the beach again.

This time I knew what I was getting into and made better preparations like tying a turban around my head. But this time there were new difficulties – insects and loud music that started up around 2am. So another night of barely any sleep. I did get a little shuteye after sunrise, ironically the best time to sleep. But I was definitely starting to hear voices.

I still had enough strength to visit another archaelogical site. This was the famous Nuraghic site at Barumini. It had the biggest tower of all, something that looked like a medieval keep but built 1000 years before the common era. Just big rocks stacked on other rocks, no cement. But what a complex layout – several floors, spiraling staircases inside the walls. There was also a large village just outside the fortress.

The inside of the nuraghi in Barumini.

I decided to scrap my plans of staying somewhere around there and kept going until Cagliari. That day it was cloudy and I even had a few drops of rain on me but avoided a downpour. But the rain released all sorts of smells which added yet another sensory element to the drive. Going past fields smelling fresh hay or manure or ripening crops or just that special smell of the first drops of rain on the road dust. I don’t think I would get that in a car. I could feel every breeze – cool from the sea, hot in the valleys. It was a great feeling of power to twist the handle and fly up a hill; the freedom to go anywhere. I could go right up to an entrance and leave my scooter there.

I passed many small towns. Even though Sardinia is the least densely populated region in Italy there were towns every ten kilometers or so. Maybe it is because Cagliari was close and there is much less settlement in the middle of the island. Some of the villages were medieval, some a little newer. Although not every road leads to Rome, every town had a Via Roma – the main street.

A philosophy student staying at the hostel in Cagliari, there for a metaphor conference told me that Rome is very interesting in that all the history coexists there in some kind of…and here he moved his hands as if around an imaginary ball. I think I understood. I said that the same is true of Sardinia – Roman ruins on top of Punic ruins, next to Spanish fortresses and so on – but the philosopher said that here you get the sense that nothing ever changes. But in Rome everything is in motion.

Once I got back to Cagliari I pretty much just vegged out. It was nice to take a shower. I still wanted to see flamingoes who come to nest on the salt plains just outside the city but I would have to be content with a glimpse I caught on the highway on my way to Pula. And though a secluded beach with caves came highly recommended I thought I had enough of beaches and just couldn’t be bothered to drive out there. Nor to check out some castle a few kilometers north of the old town. But I did lift myself up to go into the Castello once again and find a restaurant. I think I picked a good one. On the outside it seemed like a normal building. But once you got down the stairs you could see that it looked as if it was built into the old town wall or castle or something. The ceiling and back wall were all old stone and there was a small lounge in the back that looked like a cave or possibly suggested a nuraghi.

Elephant tower – one of two Pisan towers from the 13th century guarding the town. Can you spot the elephant?