D.H. Lawrence's unlikely travel writing classic, Sea and Sardinia, was published a century ago, yet its title feels as relevant today: the island possesses some of the Mediterranean’s most beloved waters, while its interior remains a landscape apart.
As is common in D.H. Lawrence’s non-fiction, there comes amid the ill-temper — the prickly irritability — a moment of sheer and complete elation in his travel book Sea and Sardinia. It takes place along a quiet road outside the little upland town of Mandas, an early morning walk, winter-cold, with the sun rising. “Wonderful to go out on a frosted road, to see the grass in shadow bluish with hoar frost, to see the grass in the yellow winter-sunrise beams melting and going cold-twinkly,” he writes. And as the feeling swells, “…this bleakness and this touch of frost in the ringing morning goes to my soul like an intoxication. I am so glad, on this lonely naked road, I don’t know what to do with myself.” It is for these moments of surging expression that one reads Lawrence, and overcomes the unappealing attitudes that tainted his enduring prestige. It was for such expression, too, that I not only read but consumed Sea and Sardinia, and subsequently found myself on the road outside provincial Mandas, thrilled and breathing deep, rather than the crystal watered coves of northern Sardinia's increasingly popular Costa Smeralda.
Lawrence was my age, 36, when he visited Sardinia, exactly 100 years ago this year. He spent nine days following an interior south-north route between the larger cities of Cagliari and Olbia (then Terranova) with his wife Frieda, travelling simply, sleeping uncomfortably and generally encountering the island’s small towns, farming communities and rural cultures as they came. Unlike mainland Italy, Sardinia — the Mediterranean’s second largest island after Sicily, where Lawrence was living at the time — was then little known to tourism. Industrialisation and good roads arrived only in the second half of the 20th century; malaria was still prevalent up to the Second World War. In 1921, when the Lawrences arrived by boat from Palermo, Sardinia was perceived by many as impenetrably agrarian — a land of shepherds and goatherds, half-farmed and half-wild, unfamiliar in both language and traditions. But much like Evelyn Waugh in Egypt, Hemingway in northern Spain, for the early 20th century novelist this was the draw. Lawrence regarded Italy then as overtly humanised: ancient, marvellous and romantic, nonetheless irreversibly impressed-upon by man. Sardinia, by contrast, offered something spacious and primordial. “It is like liberty itself, after the peaky confinement of Sicily,” he writes, “— give me room for my spirit and you can have all the toppling crags of romance.” In a sense, it was the pursuit of his own rewilding that brought Lawrence to the island, seeking an antidote to what he considered the growing homogenisation of Europe after the Great War. It wasn’t an easy trip, but he returned renewed, having immersed in a region wholly anchored to the natural world.
I think it was somewhere in Paul Theroux’s recent book on Mexico, On the Plain of Snakes, that the veteran travel writer listed Sea and Sardinia as among the genre’s exemplars. This was my jumping in point. But I was further prompted to read it by the faint possibility of escaping to Sardinia this autumn myself. And then, at the start of September, Italy relaxed travel restrictions, and a visit suddenly seemed feasible. “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move,” opens Sea and Sardinia, and after a year and a half living under a pandemic, that line infiltrated my soul, and I made plans for my own Mediterranean renewal. I’d visited Sardinia with my in-laws a few years ago, to the popular and very beautiful North that is in equal measure a natural haven of sea and sand and a playground for the uber-rich. Now, with my own little family of three, I wanted to explore the other sides of Sardinia, and follow some of the intriguing route Lawrence first took through the middle.
Arriving into Olbia we turned quickly southeast for the old port town of Orosei. Positioned a third of the way down the island, it is something of a gateway town between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the steep ancient uplands of the Sardinian east. An unassuming collection of flat roofs leads down to the pleasant and tree-centred triangle of Piazza del Popolo, which is overlooked by the peach-white baroque facade of the Church of San Giacomo Maggiore. But it is only a facade, however imposing, going back just a few feet to project the illusion of grandeur to vessels out at sea. With this, Lawrence was unimpressed. In fact, his take on 1920s Orosei in general is not a fairytale affair: he finds the town unfriendly, “dilapidated” and “godforsaken.” But for the record, I have never in my adult life experienced a more enjoyable beginning to a holiday, even with a toddler in tow, than in Orosei. Here, that obligatory decompression period was not difficult to sidestep, staying in a rooftop apartment just off the piazza, the balcony terrace opening on to red roof tiles and muted church bells. Late the first night, within an hour of our arrival, we were drinking cold vermentino under a dark mulberry, locals dining casually at next door tables and cicadas singing out the waning season. And when we went down to them the following morning, the long, coarse-sand beaches were invitingly empty. We shared the mesmerising blue-green sea with only a handful of happy holidaying Italians.
From Orosei we followed backwards along Lawrence’s route, climbing into the high hills around Nuoro, first for coffee in the tiny, near-vertical town of Oliena, with its warren of slim streets and circles of middle-aged men taking their late morning wine; and then to Nuoro itself. The little city — Sardinia’s sixth most populous — was celebrating a literary anniversary itself when we arrived, marking the 150 year birthday of Nuoro-born novelist, Grazia Deledda. I hadn’t realised, and Deledda was my reason for visiting. She was the first and only Sardinian to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and only the second woman to win it, in 1926. At her family home, now a museum, you wander through rooms illustrative of the region’s agricultural past: hanging herbs and asphodel baskets, the open fire for smoking meat; a centuries-old and contemporary culinary custom leading to the pervading fragrance of woodsmoke in rural Sardinia. Near the top floor I found the wide hole in the staircase wall described nostalgically in Deledda’s semi-autobiographical and posthumous novel, Cosima — the hole through which Deledda as a child pictured mountains and streaming volcanoes. Cosima was my company on the journey over, a book charting the path that made a Nobel writer of unlikely beginnings. Outside, flags printed with Deledda book covers hung in the streets.
At a dressed-down trattoria we ate herby, rich sauce with fregula — the Sardinian staple of semolina rolled into little balls — and drank enough of the house red (the densely plummy cannonau wine produced across the island but too rarely exported outside Italy) to necessitate a walk and a strong coffee before moving on. Unlike Orosei, Lawrence was correct about Nuoro: there is nothing really to do but walk and enjoy the air of authenticity that produced artists, writers, woodworkers and shepherds alike, and made them content in their respective fields. Later that week, we returned to explore the nearby foothills of Mount Uddè to visit the clear limestone spring that disappears into immeasurable depths between the dark dolomite rock. Where the water surfaces you can follow a shaded path edged by blue chasteberry scrub and the drifting perfume of flowering water-mint.
Then south for Pula and Cagliari. First you must come down from Nuoro’s “high, humanness hills,” as Lawrence put it, “with wild, treeless moor-slopes.” The road is new but rises and falls and curves as it crosses the agricultural heartland of Sardinia, the patchwork pastures and wheat fields, sparsely vegetated between. For a long while we passed no one. Then appeared autumnal oaks and shimmering grey poplars, and soon after we were surrounded by prickly pear and runaway agave — North American interlopers introduced via 16th century European colonialism. The pears were prolific, so I pulled over to try one, wrapping an old T-shirt for a glove yet found needles still sharp in my palm. I ate the melon-jam and spat out the many pips, a little ashamed for having only now tasted a prickly pear. Delicious.The sweet pear might have contributed to my good feeling at Mandas a little way on, standing, as Lawrence had, on the quiet roadside, the rough flatlands sprawling ahead.
It was raining when we reached the capital, Cagliari, so we pushed quickly up through the quiet midweek streets for the shelter of a cafe. There is something decidedly Spanish about Cagliari’s architecture, more Pamplona than Pisa. Owing to its significance as a Mediterranean port town looking straight across to North Africa (Tunis, as the crow flies), heavy bombardment by allied forces necessitated much rebuilding after the Second World War. There is a middle-size botanic garden organised and run by Cagliari University, a little scrappy around the edges, but full of interesting cacti and succulent euphorbias. Its setting, positioned over the city and facing the grand university hospital, perched just above, is its strength.
Sunburst punctured the rainclouds as we left and quite magically lit the pink plumage of scattered flamingos stalking the flat salt marshes around Cagliari. Once migratory, the flamingos are predominantly year-round residents, and a first indication of a prevailing wildness just outside the city walls. Continue westwards beyond Pula and you’ll encounter the largest forest in the whole of the Mediterranean, more than 250 square miles of oak and pine. And there is a strong sense of nature having reclaimed the nearby ruin of Nora, one of only a few ancient city ruins on the island.
Though we stayed in a villa close to Pula, for the most part we avoided the town itself. So close to the capital city and the white beaches of Chia, tourism has made a Disney-like travesty of rustic little Pula, despite its cobbled streets and the odd down-to-earth restaurant. But it is within reach of exceptional beauty: the rock pools, sea daffodil-smattered sand and calm waters of Tuerredda Beach, and the crumbling hilly paths behind, spilled-over with red mastic and thorny burnet. Along river courses you find great swathes of the giant naturalised reed, Arundo donax, topped with rushy plumes but with tough, slender canes. Across the island these reeds are a windbreak for lowland fields but also structurally integral to the shade awnings of houses both old and new. So rarely is a natural material used so locally, profusely and purposefully.
The reeds are perhaps most abundant to the island’s multi-rivered west, around pretty Oristano, our last city visit before turning inland again for the road back to Olbia. We travelled back over the strange assemblage of dry, barren and then tilled Sardinian fields, gently upwards into Lawrence’s “unremarkable ridges of moor-like hills running away.” The feeling of space again, and of “nothing finished, nothing final,” as he so accurately describes. Then on through the mineral hills of Nuoro where they make astonishing wine and down to the first sights of yacht masts, planted palms, high-end hotels and the sense of reentering a world apart.
Words and photographs by Matt Collins.