Clarence Enters the Evil Nuraghi and Pays the Price: Cagliari, Sardinia

So when we last left our travelers they were having an amazing time in Sardinia, eating lobster and smug in the knowledge that they had succeeded in their careful planning of the trip and assuming that nothing could possibly go wrong. They were getting along famously, having cultivated a series of running dumb jokes and finally bested the first rounds of mosquito bites from Corsica. The day in question began innocently enough. The plan: leisurely drive through inland Sardinia, stop at Su Nuraxi (ostensibly the mother of all prehistoric sites on the island), and arrive in Cagliari in the early afternoon to drop off the rental car and spend one night before flying to Sicily.

I knew we were in trouble within the first hour of driving. Despite being a breathtakingly beautiful road, I realized that reaching tiny towns on the map was much, much slower than we had anticipated, thanks to mountainous terrain and perpetual switchbacks that made driving over 20 mph nearly impossible. My penchant for carsickness when I’m not driving kicked in after an hour, so we switched positions. Soon B was carsick as well, but nauseous and cranky, we drove on. And on. And on. A trip that we had anticipated taking three hours in total gradually consumed the whole day. We couldn’t find anywhere to eat lunch, and were forced to stop at a terrible hotel restaurant where we ate something so pitiful that I’ve blocked it out entirely. And then we kept driving, and driving.

One nice detour came in Ghilarza, the town that is best known as the childhood home of the political theorist Antonio Gramsci. The town now houses the Casa di Gramsci, a small museum and research center. As we are theory dorks of the first order, we stopped and marveled at the small collection, which included many of the books Gramsci’s personal library:

Here you can see his signature glasses:

We especially liked looking at his old report cards from school:

After taking corny photographs of ourselves next to Gramsci’s portrait (geek love!) and chatting up the lovely woman running the museum, we bought souvenir t-shirts and postcards, brushing aside of the irony of buying consumerist clutter to commemorate one of the most important communist thinkers of the twentieth century. Pish posh. Revived, we began driving again.

Another seven hundred nauseous hours later, we finally arrived at Su Nuraxi. Now, I’m sure my dear reader already knows this, but Sardinia is literally chock-a-block with these enormous piles of rocks called nuraghi that were actually the dwellings of pre-Roman Sardinians. The largest of pile of rocks is Su Nuraxi, a prehistoric military fortress that was also used by the Phoenicians and the Romans. Dating from 1500 BC, it’s a massive archeological find and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Now, let me just say that this kind of thing isn’t particularly my bag. But B had been incredibly patient about all of the aspects of our journey that were important to me, including pretending that “second lunch” is a legitimate meal. And we had been largely daunted in our attempts to see cool prehistoric things until now. In Corsica, we were unable to visit Cauria without a car and the Museum of the Prehistory (sic) was like watching paint dry. In Sardinia, we were perpetually thwarted in our attempts to visit sites of archeological interest: the Nuraghic village we had attempted to visit near Oliena was closed, Tharros was obscenely expensive to visit and my boyfriend is cheap (sorry, that one slipped out), and the dolmen we tried to find in a cornfield based on a shitty road map was, well, nonexistent. I felt like I owed B this damn nuraghi. But I was tired and terse, and the winding roads we were forced to take to visit Su Nuraxi had easily tripled the length of the drive to Cagliari. After driving around in circles in the town of Barùmini like idiots for a half hour or so, we finally found Su Nuraxi. We quickly discovered that you can’t just wander around the thing unattended, but are required to take a guided tour. When B started to balk at the ticket price and the idea of a guided tour, I hissed at him that I didn’t care if it cost a hundred dollars and our tourguide only spoke gibberish if that was what it took visit this damn nuraghi. So we forked over fourteen euro and waited semi-patiently for our tour guide. While we browsed the gift shop and contemplated buying a neon nuraghi-shaped ashtray, B got to listen to my conspiracy theories about the site, namely that it wasn’t actually a prehistoric fortress but instead a canny scam built by a bunch of unemployed Barùmini locals after World War II. Of course he tried to contradict my (flawless!) logic with his knowledge of fancy things like carbon dating, but I was feeling petty and continued to pretend I thought it was hoax to get his goat. It worked.

After about twenty minutes we were joined by our guide, a sharp young archeologist. The tour was actually pretty cool, as you get to climb into the nuraghi itself and explore the various towers.  Our guide patiently and adeptly answered all of our questions despite her shaky English and our pathetic Italian. The only moment of embarrassment came when B happened upon a giant slab of granite and asked “Is this where the sacrifices happened?” Our tour guide didn’t understand the question at first, and so B decided to pantomime human sacrifice by throwing me down on the slab and air-stabbing at me Psycho shower-scene style.  While I’m sure it was a nice release of tension for B, our tour guide seemed horrified at the implication that the Nuraghic people were human-sacrificing barbarians, which of course prompted a long rant from B later about the European archeological disavowal of sacrifice in its early cultures. I don’t know much about these things, but I can say that I’m happy to not be a Nuraghic person. As far as I could tell, all they really did was haul giant rocks around and fight neighboring tribes. I can’t imagine that life for women was anything other than nasty, brutish, and short, a sentiment that I demonstrated in a series of hi-larious photos in which I pretended to be a Nuraghic person. But seriously, not to sound too hippy-dippy about things, but there was something really off about the way that some of the spaces inside of Su Nuraxi felt.  One tower in a particular gave both B and I a terrible vibe.  I attribute this to the pack of killer mosquitoes that descended upon me and nearly ate me alive. B attributes it to a “palpable feeling of evil.” Guess which one of us knows more about tarot and astrology? Either way, it gave both of us the creeps and while we were pleased to have successfully visited the site, neither of us wanted to stick around too long.

Returning to the Panda, I realized I was now covered in inexplicably bloody mosquito bites and we both were completely sick of driving.  But it was only an hour or so to Cagliari.  Our plan was to drop off our bags at our hotel, drive to the nearby airport to drop off the rental car, take a bus back into town, and explore Cagliari for the evening.  And while I guess that is basically the series of events that ensued, each step was so comically thwarted and difficult that the evening damn near killed us.

As we reached the periphery of the city, B discovered that somehow we had managed to omit the address of our hotel on our meticulously typed itinerary.  Initially we assumed we would see signs for the hotel, but quickly discovered that Cagliari was a properly chaotic Italian city, full of angry drivers, poorly marked signage, and an impossibly difficult layout.  It took two hours in a paid parking spot (expensive!  listen for it…), a visit to the tourist office (worthless! keep listening…) and an internet café (more expensive! keep listening…), and three passes on the most bizarre one-way street I have ever encountered to find our goddamn hotel (… and there it is!  the sound of our brains exploding with frustration!).  At some point in this narrative I morphed into the most annoying backseat driver in the history of time (my mother): clutching the armrest, squealing in fear or gasping in frustration with every single thing B did as a driver, and providing a running narrative of everything going on outside the car (“Oh my god, there’s two people trying to cross the street!  Oh my god, there’s a car in the left lane!  Oh my god, this is a one-way street!”).  While I thought this was helpful, I slowly realized that B was on his last frayed nerve and I was strumming it like a banjo.

After we dropped our bags at the hotel, we hopped in the car and with a minor amount of yelling arrived at the airport.  Expecting to find a gas station directly next to the airport, we had waited to fill up the gas tank as we needed to return the car full.  I was especially panicked about being charged some ridiculous fill-up fee, so I insisted that we follow the letter of the law on this particular issue.  Except…there wasn’t a gas station near the airport. Or anywhere near the airport. Cut to us driving around in an industrial park for a half an hour searching for one until we decided to head back into Cagliari to get gas. I was about to cry with anxiety and frustration, and B’s knuckles were white as he clutched the steering wheel. We finally happened upon a self-serve Agip outside of town. No problem, we thought. Despite the fact that we had only encountered full-service gas stations thus far on our trip, we both assumed that we could properly fill up a car given that we have both been driving for more than a decade.

Wrong wrong wrong. As I sat in the car waiting for B to fill up, I heard him struggling near the fuel tank. I got out of the car to find him drenched in gasoline and cursing like a madman. The machine, which only accepted Italian credit cards and cash, had already eaten ten euros and B had failed to even get the nozzle into the fuel tank. Cocky, I snatched the nozzle from B and attempted to fill up the car by inserting yet another ten euro bill into the machine, only to discover that the nozzle really didn’t fit into the gas tank when the gasoline gushed out and covered me as well. At this point we both entered the climax phase of our frustration.  I began yelling obscenities about Italy. B shut down into a terrifyingly silent rage. A kind guy who was filling up his own car observed our meltdown and offered to help, showing us that we were actually trying to put diesel in the car, hence the mis-sized nozzle.  After depositing another ten euro bill and some effusive thanks to our good Samaritan, we were back on the road to the airport. At this point, we were barely speaking to one another, as of course the logical thing to do when the world fucks you over is to take it out on your partner. When the location of the entrance to the Eurocar parking lot was unclear, B declared with rumbling rage that he would abandon the car in a ditch before he left the airport again.  I snapped back that it was easy to talk about abandoning the rental car when it wasn’t his credit card that Eurocar had on file, wasn’t it? We were near total emotional collapse. We managed to find the lot and the check-in counter, and at first everything seemed to be fine. The car was in perfect shape, making me regret the extra insurance that I had insisted we purchase from superego-induced dread, nearly doubling the cost of the car. It was only when I demanded a receipt that we discovered (wait for it!) that due to our many detours and hang ups, we had missed the return deadline and were going to be charged for an additional day. With our absurd amount of collision and theft coverage, this would total over a hundred euros.  It wasn’t the money, exactly, but the aggregated frustration from our afternoon caused me to double over under the counter and begin weeping. B launched into a loud and elaborate defense of our heinous attempts to get gas in the car, culminating in him thrusting his gasoline-soaked hand in the face the rental car employee and demanding that she “SMELL MY HAND!” as proof of our struggle. She declined, politely, and said that there was nothing to be done. We were in Europe, after all, where the customer is decidedly not king and nobody gives a damn if you threaten to never patronize them again.  She wished us a good evening and we left, B shaking with rage and me crying into my gasoline-soaked sleeve.

As we waited for the bus back into town, we slowly recovered from the afternoon and our first real fight.  After airing all sorts of anxieties and worries and hurts that had nothing to do with killer mosquitoes, long drives, lost addresses, or rental cars, we recovered and decided that we would continue the trip. By the time we boarded the bus, we were nauseatingly lovey-dovey again.

Returning to Cagliari, we were famished and exhausted, if decidedly happier with one another and relieved that the mess was finally over.  We decided that the best remedy was gelato. We had read about the enormous Isola del Gelato (Piazza Yenne 35) with greedy anticipation and agreed that we needed ice cream before even contemplating finding a place for dinner.  Isola del Gelato is a seriously enormous place, with whole counters dedicated to fruit sorbet, soy and other dairy-alternative ice cream, sour frozen yogurt, and semi-freddo (logs of layered frozen mousse and cake).  Perhaps most impressive (if unappetizing) is their fantasy counter, where giant mounds of gelato are decorated to look like a children’s dreams of mountains of candy and ice cream, complete with bubblegum avalanches and tiny chocolate mountaineers. I have no idea what flavors we chose, but I remember enjoying the experience.

After our gelato-and-rally, we strolled through town to Il Fantasma (Via San Domenico 94), which our guidebook described as having the best pizza in town.  While it was quite a walk, we enjoyed wandering through the hustle of dirty Cagliari, which I can now say resembles Sicily more than it does Sardinia.  Il Fantasma was a homey place with perhaps the worst wall treatment I’ve ever seen in my life.  The pizza was fantastic, however, and staggeringly inexpensive to our Paris-acclimated eyes.  Two enormous pizzas and four pints of beer set us back only twenty euros, which helped alleviate the pain of  wounds still smarting from the gas station and rental car counter.  It’s a great little restaurant and our evening made me wish that we had a bit more time to explore Cagliari.

That is until we returned to our seemingly innocuous hotel room and discovered that the central air conditioning unit made a buzzing noise the likes of which I’d never encountered. It was perhaps the single most annoying noise ever produced by an air conditioning unit:  loud, erratic, grating, and impossible to turn off. We tossed and turned in frustration, neither of us sleeping a wink until our alarm sounded at four-thirty a.m. so we could catch our cab to the airport, the very airport we had left just eight hours earlier.  I can’t say we were unhappy to put that leg of our journey to bed.

Next up:  We head to Sicily!  Get ready, the grungy part of our vacation is beginning. Palermo is just as bad as you’ve heard, maybe worse!  Stay tuned!

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5 comments

  1. Hattie

    My favorite part was about going to the Gramsci museum. The other part is fraught with the kind of misadventures that happened to us in our younger days in our European travels. Add kids and my mother and you can get the picture. As with you, good food really helped.
    We never drive in Europe any more.

  2. Franco

    You are right about the nuraghe. Sardinia has been first a Roman colony and then a Spanish and Italian kingdom since 1295 until 1861. There are absolutely no ancient documents or old photos about them until the 1950s. Greetings!

      • metalbari

        Thank you for your answer, I’ve read all your blogs about Sardinia and they are really witty, and they capture the atmosphere and all meanings.
        Last month I found this site with an old foto of a Vue d’une noraghe, Macomer – 1854:
        http://www.europeana.eu/portal/record/03903/47280CAD0D2F9A1BAC3A687770559DB23FA4F441.html?start=10
        and that is:

        However this doesn’t change my doubt: if all these prehistoric buildings were present in Sardinia during Roman times or Middle Ages, someone would have written something about them, and the stones would have been re-used to build other edifices or bridges, or even to pave the streets.

      • lesbonsbonsdesraisons

        For what it’s worth, our tour guide at the nuraghi explained that the vast majority of nuraghic structures were buried underground, only to be excavated in the latter half of the 20th century. However, if I remember correctly there was some evidence that Su Nuraxi did undergo further construction under the Romans (but again, it was a while since I was there). I do remember the splendid photos from the 1950s of the local excavation crew displayed at the museum there (all with looks on their faces like “Huh, so that’s what was under that hill.”) Cheers!

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