No Trains Today
Maybe I missed something here
I've been struggling to write this post. There's an expectation that every place on a trip will be (in fact, has to be) amazing. It's an assumption of the rich and privileged, that no matter where you go, all things will be as promised. However, despite all the wonderful things we'd heard about Sardinia, it didn't spin my wheels. I feel like a completely unappreciative prat for saying so.

It was indeed a beautiful place, with friendly people, rich history and a gorgeous coastline. There were also vintage trains there, which I love. Sardinia's original railway, called the Trenino Verde, literally the Little Green Train, is a narrow-gauge line winding through rugged mountains. It had been closed in the eighties, but since reopened as a tourist line.

In the end, I left Sardinia thinking it was a lovely place if you like lying on a beach, which I don't. The train seemed to have been cancelled due to lack of interest, which was disappointing. But maybe I should have gone with different expectations. The clearest personal indication was that all of my photos were uninspired and mostly just holiday snaps. Sorry about that.

Either way, here we were, in Sardinia.
We got into Cagliari late, driving all the way north the next day to stay in Tissi, close to the Parco Nazionale dell'Asinara, which looked a nice place to go and see. To our surprise, a NZ flag was flying over the AirBnB when we arrived. Good grief. We found that our host's brother had travelled to NZ many years ago, met and married a Kiwi, and settling there. We had a great welcome from him, including some home-made lavender biscotti from his quiet garden, enjoying that unexpected connection to home.

After a rest, we decided to see the Porto Conte peninsular and a cave called Grotta Di Nettuno before it got dark. We drove via a clothing bin in town, so A could donate some things, but then got very lost in some confusing one-way streets. We decided to press on despite the delay, but were soon stopped at a railway crossing with the barriers down. This was a main-line train, not the Trenino Verde, but I wasn't fussy. The only sign of movement at that point was from a curious dog. After waiting a while, we considered backing up but, by then, someone had stopped behind us. The dog went back to say hello. After a while a rail-car trundled past, the barriers came up and the dog wandered off, taking all the excitement with it.

Lavender Biscotti
An unusual taste, and quite delicious with it
Senses overloaded by all the action, I missed our next turning, only realising it twenty minutes afterwards. Group motivation had fallen to zero, so we turned back. Determined to salvage something from the day, we stopped see a local fountain, but it turned out to be a cracked concrete trough with some weeds floating on top.

Not the best start to Sardinia, but at least there'd been a train.
Come and see the local fountain
Subdued by our first day, we figured heading east quickly the next morning would give us more time to explore when we arrived. Our host gave us a lovely farewell gift, then we were off.

We'd been following a main road for a while when it suddenly ended in the middle of nowhere and diverted onto a secondary road. It was as though the construction crew had left for a long lunch and simply not come back. I checked the map to see if we were in the right place and saw, by chance, a railway marked not far away. We turned off and soon found it. I hadn't been able to find out about the Trenino Verde yet, but I now had concrete proof right under my feet, with rusted rails diving into a tunnel. Awesome.

My road navigation failed soon after, taking us in completely the wrong direction. We activated Google Maps for the bad news. Not for the last time. I seldom get lost, but this time I'd made a right mess of it. Sardinia doesn't often show road numbers at intersections, so it's easy to miss a turn. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

Our next bed that evening was some way from the shops, so we grabbed a bit of food, before driving down progressively narrower roads, to a gate that obstinately stayed shut, despite phoning our host. I ended up climbing the fence to get someone's attention. Our apartment had a decor of (badly) hand-painted murals but was cool and comfortable.

The nearest beach wasn't far and I drove for a change, so A could relax. She'd driven all through Sicily and now here, and she was fried. We jumped in the water, but had only been swimming for ten minutes before a jellyfish stung her. Poor thing, that ended the swim for her. She reacts badly to stings and this one became a huge, puffy blister that was itchy and sore.

A Giant’s Tomb
With a very small front door
We drove south the next day towards Arbatax, stopping to see a giant's tomb near Palau. Built about 1500BC, there wasn't much left. The majority of rocks had been removed in the 1900's by locals to make farm walls. All that remained were low borders, with a tall, central standing stone. That seems a pity from today's perspective but back then I guess, if you were building walls and an old pile of rocks was handy, you'd say thanks very much.

It was my turn to drive again. We'd already learned the limitations of iPad screenshots, so were using K's phone for navigation, full time. Unfortunately, it thought every road was up for grabs. After one wrong turn through a hillside town, we were re-directed to some steep, one-way streets and on to a donkey-width dirt track which was on the wrong side of interesting. Our friend R says the best four-wheel drive vehicle in the world is a rental, but not on that road and not in a Ford Fiesta. Getting back on the main road was a relief.
No Trains Today
“The situation at the station was not promising, with boarded-up windows, rusted rails, and saplings growing through the tracks."
We stayed the next two nights in Baunei, a small hillside town about twenty minutes north of Arbatax. Baunei looked as though it had originally been a good place to stop and rest to enjoy the view, and just grown from there. We had the downstairs level of a place that looked out over the valley. The weather was still hot but not too hazy, and we could see a long, long way.

Arbatax station was one of the places that the Trenino Verde train departed from. I was keen to head down that afternoon and get some info because I couldn't find anything online, apart from posts by other frustrated travellers who had the same problem. The situation at the station was not promising, with boarded-up windows, rusted rails, and saplings growing through the tracks.

Since the train was off the menu, we were three again for the next day. K had been talking with some enthusiasm about beaches, so we went to an info booth selling day cruises. I asked about the train there too, but was told it hadn't run for some time. Ah well, boats it is. We compared prices and it was cheaper and more fun to hire our own boat, so we booked one.

The boat rental started from eight-thirty and the morning was cool, with a lightly overcast sky and no wind. We headed out on the calm waters at speed, with A at the helm. Much more fun than driving a car.

We cruised up the coast to swim at different places, before heading on to avoid the crowds as they spread slowly behind us. A lot of other boats were out, but not many of them too concerned about the wake they kicked up. Anchoring was also challenging. Only one boat achieved total dickhead status though, and drifted right into us. The pirate inside wanted to clear the bulwark, cutlass in my teeth, to show them what I thought. I'll never make it on the high seas. We just up-anchored and left.
Cruising back to Arbatax was fun, planing through some slight chop generated by the warm offshore breeze. Closer in, the wind heated up until it felt like an open kiln. We unlocked our car door to a blast of heat. While we'd been enjoying a cool day on the water, the land had reached a roasting forty-one degrees. Our apartment was still comfortable, but the heat cancelled all enthusiasm for dinner out. That was a pity, because Baunei was a lovely spot, as we found when we took a quick walk through the place the next morning. There were real estate challenges on offer, begging for someone to happen along and finish them. A bit of paint, a bit of mortar, and they'd be good. Not really...

Last on our list was to see the stone towers unique to Sardinia, called nuraghe. Dated around the seventeenth century BC, some of the best ones were in Barumini. These had been abandoned by the sixth century BC, then excavated in the 1950's.

On the way, we stopped at a solitary hilltop nuraghe near Goni. This one was a squat tower with only one doorway, patiently framing three thousand years of history.

A Small Project
Just a fixer-upper in Baunei. Not much to do, really.
Take it easy
“Maybe the two places flipped a coin and did alternate days?"

Hive of Industry
A horse-drawn olive press and mill
We stayed in the village of Villanovafranca, in an old house that was partly under renovation. It was our host’s family home, and dated from the seventeenth century. He'd lived in Milan for fifty-odd years before completely changing his life to come back and rebuild it. The part we stayed in was finished, with stonework picked out by new plaster and the original timber lintels still in place. He took us through to a courtyard, where an old, horse-powered olive mill squatted and empty rooms crumbled, awaiting his attention.

His garden was lovely too, with rich vegetables, vines and flowers cascading all over the stonework and climbing trellises in the sun.

Villanovafranca itself was shut for siesta. The town square was quiet, with the only sound a fountain splashing on stone. Roller doors on the buildings were all closed tight. A few men lounged in the shade and an old woman shuffled past. In a local park a kid sat in a playhouse, checking his phone. He told us the supermarket opened at five, but it was still shut at five-thirty. The pharmacy was open and we got some directions there for another shop that was open. Maybe the two places flipped a coin and did alternate days?
Seeing the nuraghe on our last day was the first time I think I truly understood Sardinia’s ancient history. Usually single stone towers with a military function, this nuraghe had expanded into a complex of towers and dwellings. On the outside, it just looked like a pile of rocks but, inside, rooms and spiral stairways connected ingenuously. The main tower was made from columnar basalt, hexagonal sections stacked closely on end. Apparently they shaped the stones by hitting them with harder rocks. The tops of the towers had originally been overhung, using cornice stones, but the upper third had collapsed long ago and only a small clay model found during excavation had given clues to their original form. In the main courtyard, I looked down into the original well, still reflecting the sky after three and a half thousand years.

We had some time left before returning the hire car, so drove north to Mandas, one of the stations on the elusive Trenino Verde railway. I hoped to get some information, or at least see something. The day before, I'd noticed the rails there were brightly polished, so something was running on them. At the station we found an actual live person, who said the train was in fact operating, but only between Macomer and Isili. I was pretty frustrated to hear that, considering how many times I’d been told the thing wasn’t running.

We thought about extending the car hire and coming back the next day. But I was too grumpy, and the section in operation was flat and boring, so I decided it wasn't worth it. Maybe if they bloody advertised, they'd get some passengers.
That evening, to cap it off, I finally got an emailed reply from the railway saying that their steam loco only operated in winter, and was off the rails for maintenance anyway. If you like trains and are going to Sardinia, expect to go to a station for a definitive answer and don't expect anything else!

We would be saying goodbye to K the next day but couldn't find an open restaurant to make an occasion of it. After dressing up in our good clothes to no avail, we settled for takeaway pizza from a local joint. They had a full stage production going that could have been a play, with joking between the locals, the scooter delivery crew, the cooks and the hangers-on who all seemed to use it as their social hub. It was great to see all that life around us and, in the end, the pizzas were absolutely worth the wait.
Villanovafranca Roses
In the morning K headed away on her next adventure in the UK and we left later that afternoon to France, for three weeks relaxing with some good friends in Brittany.

And that, was Sardinia ...
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