When I first went to Sardinia in 1962 I was immediately impressed by the glorious scenery. Eventually I would take advantage of the wide beaches near Castelsardo and Isola Rossa in the north; of those close to Cagliari in the south; of the famous Costa Smeralda in the northeast, where the Aga Khan had just started creating a resort. There were fantastic seascapes, such as the Grotto di Nettuno (Neptune Grotto) near Alghero. Then there were the rugged mountains and villages of the interior and, all over the island, over 8000 nuraghi: stone towers whose purpose is still not entirely clear, the remains of the bronze-age “nuraghic” civilization.
Look Sardinia up on line and—besides information about accommodation, food and wine—you will find many websites with glowing praise for all of these. And yet…
I can’t help feeling that today’s tourists are missing a great deal of what I experienced there in 1962. What impressed me most were the ordinary people and the way they lived, with the influence of the Catholic Church, for example, with its processions during Lent and Easter, and other festivals such as Sassari’s Cavalcata Sarda, when villagers from all over the island assembled in their local costumes with dancing and horse-riding displays.
It was in Sassari, an inland town rarely visited by tourists even today, that I worked. I had come to teach English at a Berlitz school, finding accommodation in a shabby pensione in the old town. Living there were some university students, as well as a tempestuous maid, who became the basis for Teresa in my recently published novel, Sardinian Silver. Our evening dinners became a marvellous way to improve my Italian, which I as yet hardly spoke.
It was all so different from what I was used to. Two of the students, Andrea and Lillina Cossu, were from Orgosolo, high in the mountains of the interior. Later Orgosolo would became famous for its painted murals, but at the time it was known as the “bandit village,” so dangerous that buses from the provincial capital of Nuoro arrived with a motorcycle escort of carabinieri, the national police. (An award-winning film, Vittorio De Seta’s Banditi a Orgosolo, was made in 1960: showing how a local peasant was forced to become a bandit.) Murders resulting from vendetta were common: the two students’ mother had been murdered and the father was in prison.
When they went home for the holidays, they invited me to visit with some other friends. With roads far worse than today, it was a long and difficult journey. It was one of the most memorable days of my life—and now for readings from my novel I always choose the Orgosolo chapter. We were indeed received in style, with two piglets slaughtered for the occasion. As outsiders, with a garrison of carabinieri nearby, we felt quite safe. (A few years later two Englishmen were killed there—a case of mistaken identity.) When I returned to a much-sanitized Orgosolo in 2004, I asked after the Cossu family. Andrea had died, but his sister had married and moved away.
Other characters too went into the book: heavily fictionalized, so it’s hardly an autobiography—and indeed I used a fictitious hotel in the resort town of Alghero rather than Sassari for my central character’s main location. With no car, for travel we had to rely on occasionally borrowing a friend’s, or renting one, but more often we would use local bus and train services, far better than today’s. We even tried hitchhiking—which the locals weren’t used to, although with the usual Sard hospitality they always picked us up.
It was pleasantly easy to make friends with males (whom unfortunately I’ve been unable to contact again). With them I would stroll on the Piazza in Sassari for the passeggiata, the major entertainment of the day, where the locals—arms linked—would promenade up and down before the evening meal. In 2004 this no longer took place.
With women it was different, which, for a young man seeking a local girl friend, was a problem. Unless engaged or married they were strictly chaperoned and never allowed to go anywhere alone. “Continental” (and English) freedoms were considered immoral. The stock cry was “Here we’re more honest than on the continent, if we go out with a girl we marry her”—sometimes with a brother or father in church with a shotgun to make sure. As the secretary of our school said with pride: “I’m not one of your modern girls.” The men normally went with prostitutes: there was even a brothel set up in an abandoned monastery outside the town, which friends invited me just to go and see, only at that time, alas, I was too squeamish. When I returned to Sassari in 2004, I was actually shocked to see a boy and a girl kissing on the street, which would have been impossible in 1962.
The tourist industry, of course, was only in its infancy. I had arrived by sea in Porto Torres where, unlike today’s busy port, there was only one pier with its waiting train for the once-a-day ship from Genoa. Returning in 2004 I had difficulty figuring out where the pier had been! It was the same in Olbia, with Sardinia’s other sea link to the “continent.” Even in Cagliari, the capital, there was only one daily passenger ship, to Sicily.
And alas I missed my one opportunity in life to make money. Anywhere on the Costa Smeralda farmers would offer to sell land at prices that for them were enormous but by European standards were ridiculously low. With little money and not much interest, I always turned them down: otherwise I might today be rich!
All this forms the background to my novel, Sardinian Silver. The title is symbolic and comes from a pair of wines at the time, which strangely had an English name, the other being Sardinian Gold. Both were made from the famous Sardinian Vernaccia grape. Unfortunately they too no longer exist.