I awoke up with a start as my body tilted out of horizontal and my ears caught the sound of tables sliding sideways across the deck above me. Holding my breath, I waited nervously for the ferry to start rolling back the way. It landed back on the waves with a thud and then shook violently as it hit the next approaching wave. Four hours out of Barcelona, on our overnight crossing to Porto Torres on the northwest coast of Sardinia we were in the teeth of a winter Mediterranean gale. My half asleep thought was that the ferry can’t often encounter gales or the tables would all have been screwed down. I dozed on for a few more hours stretched across two recliner seats. Jerry changed seats after the woman in front of him vomited on the floor. As daybreak came we started to look forward to arriving in the calm of the harbour, only to have our hopes dashed by a tanoy announcement that reported a delay of nine hours! Our twelve hour crossing had turned into a twenty one hour endurance ride. I am happy to report that neither of us were sick, but we did feel on the edge of queasy much of the way and spent the remainder of the voyage alternately staring at the horizon and lying on a falling apart lounge sofa seat, head to head with another passenger. When we finally made it to Sardinian dry land in the pitch black of a moonless night we were tired, dehydrated and decidedly crabby. We had spent the shortest day of the year on the longest ferry journey. A hotel night was needed to recover and to prepare ourselves for Italy.
I say ‘Italy’, but Sardinia is closer geographically to the French island of Corsica and to Tunisia than it is to mainland Italy or even Sicily. In medieval times, it was even ruled by the Aragonese crown from the equally distant Iberian peninsula and considered to be part of Catalonia. The province of Alghero still retains Catalan as one of its official languages. Sardinia, is however, very proud of its connection with Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the founding fathers of the united Italy formed at the end of the nineteenth century, who bought an island retreat here after his first wife, Anita, died. In Britain, Garibaldi means ‘squashed fly biscuits’, a sort of currant sandwich in which currants are squashed and baked between two thin, oblongs of biscuit dough. The biscuits were named in Garibaldi’s honour, as he was a renowned hero who was visiting Britain at the time of their creation by Huntley & Palmer in 1864.
Refreshed from our night in a stationary bed and an all you can eat breakfast, we set off on our cycle tour of the island. The hotel staff were mildly bemused at the idea of anyone wanting to cycle tour, after all it is winter time here and, in their opinion, cold. The maintenance man was wrapped up in a duvet jacket as he helped with filling our water bottles. We were in shorts and t-shirts. Quiet clearly we have adapted back from the 40+ degree heat of an Iberian summer to the Sardinian 14 degrees that equates to a cool Scottish summer day.
After purchasing an Italian sim with an insane amount of data to last three months, we headed out of town along the coast road heading east across the northern coast of the island. Two things struck us immediately, the scenery here is stunning and, every campsite we passed was closed until April.
We hadn’t thought at all about the campsite seasons before coming here. In Spain a few campsites along the coast stay open all year round and we usually passed an open one every couple of days. Here, in Sardinia, there is not the same demand from overwintering campervans so the owners and staff take the winter off. We started to realise that we would need to find spots to wild camp each night and the options for getting a shower or wash our clothes were severely restricted. The first night we found a spot in some dunes near the coast and listened to waves breaking loudly onto the beach some 100m away as we cooked up pasta and tomato sauce for supper. The next night we weren’t so lucky, and ended up four metres from a main road behind a thick hedge on a grass covered water tank. Sometimes you just have to take what you can get. At least, we didn’t need to worry about being quiet and the traffic lessened down between midnight and 6am.
As a Christmas treat, we booked ourselves an apartment for three nights on the Maddalena archipelago, a natural World Heritage site situated to the north east of the Sardinian mainland. We had enjoyable time stuffing our faces with Panettone (Italian Christmas cake), pancakes (we can’t cook them on the road) and fresh pasta. The latter is sold by the kilogramme at deli counters in the supermarkets and comes in so many shapes, colours and different fillings that choosing took a long time. With the leftover flour from the pancakes I made heaps of Chapattis that sustained us for three days after we left the islands. I missed British Christmas fare though, particularly mince pies and brandy-filled, iced and marzipan covered, rich fruit cake, both of which I bake back home.
On Christmas day we went for a walk to Caprera, Garibaldi’s island, bumping into wild goats and wild boar as we roamed around on the narrow waymarked paths through dense, low lying scrub. The local sandstone crags and cliffs, standing proud, were works of art sculpted by the wind into curves, hollows and ridges.
Later in the day, we scrambled down a rocky path to a small cove and sandy beach only to find it covered in rubbish – broken glass, plastic water bottles, wet wipes, toilet paper etc. It put me off swimming and I went for a short paddle in the crystal clear waters carefully avoiding the transparent green ‘pebbles’ spread across the golden, sandy bottom. Rubbish, left or dumped around the countryside, and the back of the beach toilet spots were to become a recurring theme of our Sardinian tour, and not a pleasant one.
Boxing day dawned bright and sunny, so with a picnic lunch on board we set out on light bikes to explore the main island. The rocky coastline rose and fell revealing small, sandy coves and harbours. Climbing up into the hilly, centre of the island we were treated to expansive views to other islands in the archipelago and over to nearby Corsica, with snow glistening on its mountain peaks. Dropping back to the coast, we found an empty, warm, sandy beach and I plucked up the courage to swim. The water was surprisingly cold and after a few refreshing minutes I hauled myself back onto dry land to warm up and dry out in the sun. A local resident had a similar idea, a beautiful blue and green lizard.
Two days later, and back on the road again, we had company of a different kind. We were cycling south down the Costa Smeralda, a place where the rich and famous apparently hang out in the summer, and came across the holiday town of Porto Cervo. It was completely deserted, houses fully shuttered, shops closed with all the products removed, café tables and chairs neatly stacked and chained. It felt like a film set or a theme park with no visitors. All very creepy. We sat down in the empty giant harbour car park for lunch and were immediately joined by the only winter residents – fifteen cats all eager to share some ricotta cheese or salami. A security company car came and took a tour of the area before heading back up through the empty winding lanes. By April, I suspect, this will be a bustling place again.
Our bikes have had a pretty good run over the year with few breakdown issues. However, since the stormy ferry voyage my rear derailleur changer had been playing up. Changing the cable made no difference and I was reduced to about four gears. It brought back memories of teenage cycle trips on a bike with three speed Sturmey Archer gears. My cadence varied from super fast to a hard, slow push. Jerry followed along behind me with great patience. We needed a bike shop fast, before we hit the inland hills and craggy west coast of Sardinia and one with skilled mechanics. An internet search revealed just what we were looking for in the city of Olbia, Fancello Cicli Sport. Run by cyclists for cyclists, they have their own race team and a great enthusiasm for the sport. With my pigeon Italian, their pigeon English and a smattering of Spanish, I managed to communicate the problem. The mechanic put my bike up on his stand and started working away, dismantling the gear lever. Something inside was broken, but we couldn’t work out what. The only solution was to replace the lever and luckily there was a right hand 8 speed lever in stock. Unluckily, the matching lefthand lever for the chain wheel gears by the pedals was only a 2 speed, and I have a 3 speed, so now I have an assymetric bike with different gear levers on each side. It’s taken me a while to adapt and I still occasionally change gears the wrong way. A bit like when in a car you change from third to second instead of fourth. A loud whining noise is emitted.
A settled period of weather enabled us to head back across the island to the west coast through the mountains without freezing and we had a delightful camp in a cork oak woodland.
The ground was covered in wild boar hoof prints but we didn’t hear one in the night. The next morning we awoke to bird song and a blackbird alarming. They have been the one bird that has been with us throughout our Europe tour.
There are some cycle routes that have just left us speechless with awe at their beauty, ruggedness and ability to constantly surprise. The west coast of Sardinia is one of these. It’s a challenging ride with a lot of ascent and descent and sinuous roads that cling to the hillsides. The ride along it took us ten days. Each day was different to the last, hills, cliffs, sand dunes, farmland, olive groves, small hilltop towns, beach side holiday developments, renaissance lookout towers, abandoned zinc mines, salt pans, roman towns, ancient civilisations, the list goes on. We watched the sunset each evening and camped under star filled skies. Out of tourist season, the roads were quiet right until we reached the outskirts of Cagliari, the island’s capital in the south. We only had one cold night, the one where mainland Italy was hit with massive snow falls, but we got off lightly and only had to put on leggings and a warmer long sleeved top inside our summer sleeping bags. This is a route I am putting on my list of classics from our tour. To give you a flavour and encourage you to come and explore this little piece of paradise, here are a few of our photos:
For an island that’s about the size of Wales, it is rather surprising that we have cycled 1000km (600 miles) here. We’ve now completed nearly 17,000km on the whole tour, about 10,500 miles. It’s amazing how far a bicycle can take you when you just set out and keep turning the pedals.
So now we’re off to Sicily and I might finally get to deliver on my promise of taking Jerry lemon picking there. Watch this space…