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Europe Part 18 – Sardinia and the Ferry from Hell

‘But are not the dreams of poets and the tales of travellers notoriously false?’ – H.P. Lovecraft

Beach, Sardinia, Canon 5D2, 16-35L

I had 7 days on Sardinia because the ferry only runs once a week to Sicily. Sardinia is a much larger island than Corsica (and is Italian rather than French) and so my plan was to spend 4 days in the North and then ride to the South and spend 3 nights there before taking the overnight ferry to Sicily.

The campsite in the North was only 10 miles from the ferry and within 2 hours of arriving from Corsica, I was unpacked, the tent was up and I was relaxing in the bar. The campsite was huge with capacity for up to 4000 people, swimming pools, restaurant and bar and an on site shop. Even though it had such a large capacity, there were only a dozen campers.  Still classed as early season despite the temperature in the high 20’s. If you’re planning to go to Italy and the South of France then May and early June is a great time – rates are cheap, plenty of space and the weather is plenty warm enough.

Home sweet home, Northern Sardinia, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Sardinia had supposedly become the playground of the rich with multiple resorts and developments on the Eastern Coast with hotels charging exorbitant rates. I spent quite some time chatting with the staff at the campsite and they talked about the decline in camping over the last decade and how people now looked down on camping as being for the ‘poor’. Their occupancy rates had fallen by 50% even in high season as people flocked to wi fi enabled rooms with a turn down of your duvet every night. Sitting with a beer, sun on my face and listening to the birds I was struggling to see the appeal of high rate hotels.

Sardinia is mainly for the beach lover. With numerous beaches and coves, sun worshippers could easily spend their entire life here and not see them all. The problem was that I am not a beach lover. I grab my sun cream, unpack my stuff on the beach, settle down, turn to the left, turn to the right, turn on my back, watch the sea for a bit, waft away sand flies, take a drink……and then i look at  the time and realise I’ve only been there for 14 minutes and am already bored. Sand flies….I spent a good 20 minutes one day throwing sand at them, waiting for them to land before attempting to bury them alive with my stealthy attempts at staying still and then quickly throwing a handful of sand. End result – I was covered in sand, flies were laughing.

Obligatory shot of sandals on beach, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

The beaches were deserted and I often had the whole beach to myself which is a thoroughly pleasant experience – how often does that happen ? Alternating between hunting sand flies, swigging water in the ferocious heat and paddling wiled away a few hours here and there. There are a lot of fish in the shallows as you would expect. I didn’t expect them to be quite so big though and as I paddled out they seemed to be getting ever bigger. Sharks maybe or at the very least something that would drag me into the deeps. Probably sardines though on reflection.

I like paddling and I don’t really know why.You spend several minutes carefully wading out, your feet sinking into the sand, swaying from the flow of the current with little stops to steady yourself and then you hit the point of no return. You know the point…..the cold water is lapping just below your nether regions – one more step and it’s sharp intake of breath time. So you stand there for several minutes, going up on tiptoes as the waves come in to stop the cold water hitting your bits. You prepare yourself before diving face first into the sea reasoning that its just better to get it over with. As you come back up from the water, spitting salt water out of your mouth and gasping for air because of the cold you remind yourself it’s fun. I won’t even mention that lovely feeling of drying in the sun and feeling the itch of dried salt…

Salt flats, note the single shoe much like we see on the streets of Britain atop a bus shelter, Northern Sardinia, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Salt flats, caused by trapped sea water evaporating, are present near the coast and in the South there are large flats at Bonifacio which is a haven for wildlife such as flamingoes. If you’re a salt fan then you will like them but they do have a harsh smell, be warned!

With beaches being the predominant feature of Sardinia, I figured I would resort to a few ride outs rather than laying there slowly roasting. There are some lovely stretches of coastline but it’s very difficult to get close to them apart from one stretch that runs about half a mile up from the sea on the South Eastern Coast which is an absolute blast to ride. However, the roads in Sardinia are subject to exceptionally rigorous speed restrictions. With 30mph zones in abundance and long stretches of country roads being 30mph too it was very difficult to make any progress anywhere. It really is not a place to ride or drive unless you fancy a bankruptcy level of fines to return home to. Also, when all the scenery is on the coast in the form of wonderful beaches, there isn’t much to ride to.

I am not putting Sardinia down, it just wasn’t for me and I am sure it will be paradise for others. There were a few outstanding places though – the high coast road I have already mentioned, the set of mountains on the Eastern Coast, the Valley of the Moon and the Grotte di Nettuno.

Grotte di Nettuno, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

The Grotto of Neptune is a few miles outside of Alghero on the Western Coast. I had ridden out there and it was a slow journey with speed limits for the entire journey. It was a scorching day, totally blue skies and a fierce sun. The temperature hit 30 for the first time.

I’d avoided taking the boat ride from Alghero out to the grotto, electing to ride up to the car park and then walk down. If you ever come to do this, think very very carefully about doing the walk and take lots of water. You have to descend almost vertically and it is a long walk. Feels even longer in the blistering heat and there is no cover. It took the best part of half an hour to descend with a few rest stops thrown in. When I reached sea level and looked back  at the steps climbing all the way back up the cliff, I did whimper slightly…

Taken at about the half way point of the descent, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

The grotto is stunning. It is very hard to convey just how big it is and how impressive the structures inside are. There is a 120m long lake, various high ceiling ‘rooms’ and structures that look like church organs, thrones and scenes that can only be described as Lovecraftian. I did wonder whether he got ideas for his books from places like this. A long series of photos below but I hope they give some sense of the scale and the amazing nature of the place.

Grotte di Nettuno, C’thulhu phthagn, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

The walk back up took me over an hour and it was hard going, steps after steps punctuated by the odd flat piece to fill your lungs with the scorching air and wipe another deluge of sweat from your brow. I was glad to get back to the bike but putting gear on when you’re drenched in sweat is neither easy or pleasant. This was the first time I started to hit the limitations of the gear in high temperatures. Another week and I would be way beyond the limits of the gear and collapsing from heat exhaustion in Sicily. More on that in the next post.

The other place of interest in Sardinia is the Valle della Luna (Valley of the Moon) which is on the Capo Testa peninsula in the North of the Island. Formed by seven valleys and impressive rock structures, it is a pleasant area to walk and relax.

Valley of the Moon, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

As I rode down to the campsite in the South, I passed through the single mountain range and more by luck than judgment found an off road trial. Lots of dirt bikes racing down the roads and then heading off on the tracks before re-appearing at a petrol station which I had pulled into. Lots of lorries, vans and support crews hastily fixing broken bikes. I can see why off-roading would be popular here given that the roads are so heavily controlled.

Braaap, iPhone

I spent a few days in the South, riding the high coast road a few times. It’s a good road but mainly I was riding because I was bored of beaches. In some ways this worked out well, I’d been on the bike for several weeks with no real rest and it gave me a chance to lay up and try and work out the knots in my back and shoulder. In that respect, Sardinia worked for me. As I approached the port at Cagliari to catch the ferry to Sicily, I felt fresh, rested and eager to get back on the road. Well, ferry but you get my drift.

The ferry was owned by the same company I had travelled with from Livorno. As they waved me forward, I was eagle eyed for water, oil and possibly anti tank mines on the boarding ramps. However, it was clean, boarding was easy and there were proper ratchet straps. I strapped the bike down, changed and left my gear on the bike seat, secured by a bungee. By this point, I just couldn’t be bothered to carry it all round with me. I’d booked a pullman chair for the overnight trip and collected my seat number from the customer area, headed for the restaurant/bar area and sat down.

What followed was quite probably the most bizarre 12 hours of my life.

Salt flats near Cagliari, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

So there I sat on the main deck, single bag on my lap, watching the hordes board. I can only describe the denizens of this particular voyage as dressing like a sports good company was having a closing down sale. Shellsuits, gold chains and bare chests everywhere. Oversized sunglasses added to the ensemble. As I looked around goggle eyed, I felt as though every extra from every gangster film had suddenly boarded. The restaurant opened and I deftly avoided the stampede, took my place and ordered a plate of lasagne reasoning that it was the least likely thing to give me food poisoning. Some of the fish dishes looked as though they had seen better days – as in, better days several days ago.

I munched my way through the lasagne, sipped on my water and watched Bonifacio fade into the distance. Standing up, I put my arms over my head and stretched my back. In front of me, a guy in a white shell suit, full oversized shades and a low cut tank top stared me in the eye and said something in a harsh tone. I’d already learnt by this time that it was probably nothing more than accent so I smiled and gave him a slight nod. He put his tray down, waved his arms and started raising his voice to me. I looked confused, people were turning to look, I opened my palms and held them up saying ‘inglaise’. To my left, a portly guy turned around, smiled and said to me ‘He thinks you are not going to move your tray from the table’. Given that I had only stood up one second (literally) before he pounced on the table I couldn’t work out how on earth he had expected me to clear the tray. A rational human being would chalk it up to maybe being hot, he is hungry and I should just accede to him , smile and pick up my tray. Thats what a rational human being should do. I didn’t. I sat back down and pushed a solitary lonesome potato around my plate for a good 5 minutes. Whatever nationality you are, basic manners should come into play.

Sunset, Northern Sardinia, canon 5d2, 16-35L

Out on to the deck, watching the sun go down and relaxing – yet another beautiful ferry trip, calm seas and a golden sun. I avoided the main cabin, it was just push and shove and people jumping into spare seats so that they had somewhere to sleep overnight. It was approaching 10pm when I wandered into the pullman area – a small room with a TV on the wall and about 60 reclining seats. Finding my number, I see it is a set of two seats. In one of them is a very sweaty, very big guy with approximately 48 tonnes of luggage piled on him, around him and under him. In the seat next to him is a pile of luggage and atop that is a dog cage with a pug type dog in it. I look at the dog, the dog looks at me. Mexican standoff. ‘Scuse, scuse’ I say to the fellow in the seat, holding my ticket towards him. He groans, sighs and then picks up luggage, walks over to the opposing row of seats and starts to move his belonging piece by piece. I’m stood there watching, the dog is watching me. Finally he moves all his gear and I settle down into the seat.

The T.V. is showing the World Cup and apparently it was England’s first game so I had high hopes of being able to get to sleep quickly. I close my eyes, start to drift away and then I hear the argument. My eyes open, I turn my head to the right and its dog man who is being moved yet again from his seat. All the luggage gets moved, he’s not happy. As I sit there watching this herculean effort to move luggage, I look down and see the dog in the cage. The dog looks at me. The facial expression of the dog is one of despair and three words would sum it up. Two of them are ‘for’ and ‘sake’. You can insert the third word wherever you wish.

The game has kicked off now, I close my eyes again to the sounds of snoring, heavy breathing and shuffling. I can’t get comfy, the chairs are too restrictive. My hands are going numb, my legs can’t stretch and its stuffy and hot. A glug of water, half watching the game through blurry eyes. I really need to sleep. A young guy sits down by me, nods and smiles and then puts the chair back and is asleep in seconds. Damn, I can’t get out now without disturbing him. Close my eyes again, I think someone just scored but I can’t be bothered to open my eyes. I drift off into a state of semi-consciousness.

Camping in the South, canon 5d2, 16-35L

My eyes open again, some noise from outside. The TV has been turned off and the lights are on low, its boiling in here. Whats that noise? It takes me a few moments to realise its a fruit machine – coins bouncing off the metal tray, the warble that accompanies a win or a loss and then the sound of coins dropping back into the machine as the gambler feeds the beast. On and on. Warble, chink chink chink, wopp wopp, too too dee dah. Chink chink. I’m getting annoyed, I look at my phone and its 2.30am. I move slowly, turning my head and looking back over the seat. Several other people are awake and equally annoyed. I sigh, close my eyes and try, unsuccessfully, to blank it out. My legs are numb from cramp. The sounds stop and then there are footsteps into the room. I hear someone sit down and then it goes quiet, thank goodness. Moments later…chink, chink, chink. My eyes half open, what the hell now. Coins are being dropped onto the floor and stacked into piles. This goes on for several minutes. I turn around but I can’t see anything. I kneel on the chair, moving slowly to avoid disturbing the guy next to me. As I peer down, there is a woman sat in the aisle, surrounded by piles of coins and avidly counting them. Its 2.55am. I consider saying something but realise that she’s probably unhinged and settle back into my seat. The noise stops and I drift back to sleep.

The first blow hit me just under the chin, sending my head backwards and snapping me from deep sleep. My arms rapidly went outwards but not fast enough to stop the second blow hitting me in the chest. Suddenly wide awake I push backwards against the guy in the chair next to me, forcing his arms backwards. His eyes go wide open and he throws his arms up saying ‘scuse, scuse, scuse’ over and over. I pause for a second with my hands still in front of me trying to work out exactly what the hell is going on. He has obviously had a nightmare, his head goes backwards onto the seat and I sit there, boiling hot, my chin hurts and I’m wide awake. Its 4.20am. I pick up my bag, clamber over my assailant and head out on to deck.

The sea is calm and the air is cool. I wrap my bag around my foot, take a sip of water and put my head back onto the metal of the ship. It’s not comfy but at least I stand a chance of surviving until morning. I’m just drifting off when I hear footsteps. My eyes half open and at the end of the deck is a white figure. It moves slowly towards me and I tighten my eyes, peering to try and make out what it is. There are no legs, no form, just a  white shape. It looks like a ghost. I sit bolt upright, wide awake again. This thing is close now, its a white sheet moving down the deck but its not being carried by the wind. I’m staring at it unsure of what the hell to do. An arm comes out and pulls back the sheet to reveal a big coloured guy with a huge toothless smile. He grins at me, puts the sheet back over his head and floats past me. Its 4.45am and I finally gave up on any hope of sleep.

We docked at 06.45. With bloodshot eyes and an achey body I rode off the ferry into Sicily and into the centre of Palermo.

Bert the Chicken, annoying chap, likes defecating near tent flaps, iPhone

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